Strong Stepfathers, Strong Stepfamilies: Ron Deal and Gil Stuart
Being a stepfather can feel like bathing cats with your hair on fire—but your thoughtful navigation of the dynamics in your home can make a difference that lasts for decades. Author Gil Stuart offers tips on stepfathering thoughtfully, and shaping the kind of family you all long for.
We are the one with the influence. Are we going to use it for good or for evil? I mean, when you think about what the Scripture says: “The power of the tongue is for life or for death.” So, what are we saying? Is it going to bring life, or is it going to bring death to the stepfamily environment? What a place for a hero to step up! - Gil Stuart
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Author Gil Stuart offers tips on being a thoughtful, intentional stepfather–and shaping the kind of family you all long for.
Strong Stepfathers, Strong Stepfamilies: Ron Deal and Gil Stuart
Gil: We are the one with the influence. Are we going to use it for good or for evil? I mean, when you think about what the Scripture says: “The power of the tongue is for life or for death.” So, what are we saying? Is it going to bring life, or is it going to bring death to the stepfamily environment? What a place for a hero to step up!
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Dave: This is FamilyLife Today!
You know, I would say one of the best parts of FamilyLife—do you know what I’m going to say?
Ann: So many!
Dave: There are so many, but today we get to talk a little bit about FamilyLife Blended®.I grew up in a stepfamily, and there are people listening who’d say, “My life, my marriage, my family is totally different than the nuclear family. Please speak to what I’m living through.” And that’s why I think it’s critical to have what we have in FamilyLife Blended.
Ann: Me, too, and I think our listeners are going to like today, because we started talking yesterday about stepfamily parents, and our next Summit on Stepfamily Ministry is coming up Thursday, October 12th. We’re going to hear more from the FamilyLife Blended podcast in a moment, but first, we’re joined by Ron Deal.
Dave: We’ve got him here! Ron Deal, the Director of Blended.
Dave: You can tell us all about Blended and the Summit coming up. Welcome, Ron.
Ron: Hey, guys! Thank you. It’s always good to be with you. I love what we’re doing here at FamilyLife. We are helping single parents who are dating and thinking about another family in the future; we’re helping blended families go the distance. You guys interact with a lot of couples who have questions, and maybe they didn’t find those answers very easily within their church.
That’s part of what the Summit on Stepfamily Ministries is all about: helping equip leaders, whether those be lay couples in the congregation, senior pastors, elders; whoever it might be; anybody who is concerned and thinking about children and students and adults in blended families. We’re going to help you think through how your church can do the simple thing and minster to a child, for example, in your regular children’s program.
You don’t have to create a brand-new, entire ministry with new leadership. I think that’s exhausting to a lot of pastors to even consider.
Ron: We’re going to help you, this year at The Summit, understand the little things that you can do to tweak what you’re already doing and have it become more relevant to blended families.
Dave: It’s October 12th, but it’s virtual, right? So, we don’t have to go to a place; we can just tune in.
Ron: Exactly. It’s going to be virtual this year. So, as an individual, you can sit at home and be part of the entire day, or we’re really recommending that leadership think about attending together. You can gather. There’s a church organization registration, where you can have 3, 5, or 10 people in the room together, going through the day, talking at breaks, trying to figure out how you can apply the principles you’re learning to your church situation. We really recommend that option.
Dave: Talk about what we’re going to hear today: a conversation you had, and it’s Part Two.
Ron: Yes, we’re visiting with my good friend, Gil Stuart. He and his wife, Brenda, are stepfamily educators. They’ve spoken at our Summit before. They’ve spoken at our Blended & Blessed® livestream event. They’re really high-quality people. Gil came out with a video curriculum for stepfathers specifically. It’s called Unsung Heroes. We started yesterday with Part One (If people didn’t get to hear that, we’d love to have you go back and listen).
We’re going to hear a little bit more from Gil today about that material, and what he’s trying to do to encourage and equip stepfathers. Now, let me just set up the clip that we’re going to hear. He and I were talking about some of the challenges, and he wanted to talk about the rock and the hard place that, sometimes, stepfathers find themselves in. It looks like this: “I love my kids, and I love my wife. Sometimes, those relationships seem to compete with one another, and I feel stuck in the middle, like I can’t win for losing. Somebody’s always disappointed.”
That’s a tough spot to be in. What’s a stepdad to do? That’s what Gil is talking about today.
Ron: Okay, “Rock and a Hard Place.” We’ve kind of hinted around that one a little bit. That’s another topic—
Gil: Yes, that particular segment was probably my favorite because “Rock and a Hard Place”—we shot it at a little place called “Depot Bay,” which is on the Oregon coast. It had a lot of nostalgia for me. We set it up because this little cove called “Depot Bay” is the world’s smallest harbor. These fishing boats go out of the channel that’s really tumultuous in stormy weather.
On one side is a concrete wall that’s been there for [about] 100 years, and then, literally, a sheer cliff that juts out into the water kind of like an iceberg. If you don’t know where it is, you’re going to get stuck between a rock and a hard place, and it will sink your boat. Well, the metaphor here was, as fathers, we can get stuck between a rock and a hard place. With no undue respect to our wives or to our children, sometimes our wife can be the hard place, and our children can be the rock.
I am going to get tested between the allegiance to my wife and the bond to my children. That is a rock and a hard place, and that happens so many times, where here’s the new family forming and the new marriage forming, or years go by, and “Hey, we’re supposed to go to such and such an event.” Who are you, as a father, going to side with?
Now, I’m in the place where I’m [between] a rock and a hard place, and ultimately, the place to go is sometimes our kids will put the pressure on us to say, “Well, Dad! You’re supposed to do this with us!” Because of history and the bond. Therefore, I am now in a vice. I am between a rock and a hard place, you know?
In each one of the segments, I set it up with, “Here’s the circumstance; here’s the problem; here are some guys that I kind of interviewed” (other stepfathers). I’m not shooting all this off the top of my head. I interviewed a lot of other stepfathers who have gone before me, and some that are behind me. I got their feedback, and then, we’d come up with some solutions.
In this situation, the solution was, “God first, family and marriage second, and then the children,” because the children, whether it be a biological family or a stepfamily, are trying to wedge in between me and my wife.
Gil: In a stepfamily, that becomes even more intense—
Gil: —because of that bond. And that’s why “The Rock and the Hard Place” is so significant. I think women can get in this situation as moms and stepmoms as well, but as dads, I think it’s a little different and a little more significant for us.
Ron: Yes. Now, I want to push this a little bit, because I know we’ve got some ladies listening. Going back to what we were talking about earlier, if she doesn’t fully understand that rock and hard place experience for him, she could be making what she feels to be a simple request of time or energy from her husband into their marriage, but it could be really costing him, also, that time and energy invested in his kids.
If she can join him in this experience and be his partner in that, they can find solutions together; find a balance together. But if she doesn’t even realize that it feels like a simple request on her part, but it really is coming at a great cost for him, I think that can create some resentment.
Gil: Very easily, because if you tie that specifically to the rock and the hard place and reverse betrayal, this guy is now in a no-win situation.
Ron: That’s right.
Gil: And that will really be harmful to the marriage, which is really the strongest bond for the whole system of that family. So, yes, if she’s not aware of him being in this predicament, then she may not have any empathy for what he’s experiencing, and then, therefore, it will harm their relationship, and she may not know why. If he doesn’t know how to put this into words, he may not know why.
Ron: Alright, let’s merge this conversation with our next subject. Number six that you talk about in the series is, don’t shoot your emotions off; [that] was sort of the takeaway that I had. [Laughter] When you’re trying to work toward emotional safety in relationships, you’ve got to be in charge of your own emotions, so they don’t inadvertently become volatile.
Gil: Well, it’s the segment that I call “Creating an Emotional Safety Zone.” I’m actually out, shooting a 44 Magnum gun.
Ron: I want to know what you were shooting at, by the way! I couldn’t see exactly where all the bullets were going.
Gil: Well, they were going up into a canyon. There’s nothing—I was down in Central Oregon with one of my sons who has a few things to shoot off. [Laughter] But basically, it’s kind of like the idea that, when we are frustrated, and our emotions get the best of us, and we truly are in that environment of our own pain, our own confusion; we inadvertently can flip our lid, then shoot off our mouth, and do way more damage than we actually may be realizing.
So, who is responsible? Me. The only person who can regulate my emotions is me. I have to be self-aware of what’s going on there. So, in that case, I have to be the adult. Again, I’m the one being the hero here. I can’t expect that kid to do it. You know, as they grow, then, yes, the expectations grow, for sure. But in the place of, rather than shooting my mouth off with what’s going on, what would it look like if I stopped and, maybe, confessed my own emotions?
That takes vulnerability; plus validate what that other person is feeling. In the moment, those two things are the most powerful things that can happen: confession and validation. And that helps me control my mouth. Is it easy? Absolutely not! Because it’s much easier to pull the trigger and say something harmful and do damage that, you know, may take, again, days, months, years, or may never be repaired, and then the opportunity is lost.
So, it is creating an emotional safety zone because we are the ones with the influence. Are we going to use it for good or for evil? I mean, when you think about what the Scripture says: “The power of the tongue is for life or for death” . . .
Gil: So, what are we saying? Is it going to bring life, or is it going to bring death to the stepfamily environment? What a place for a hero to step up!
Ann: You’re listening to FamilyLife Today, and we’re listening to a portion of a FamilyLife Blended podcast with Ron Deal and his guest today, Gil Stuart.
Dave: Yes, talk about heroes. I tell you what! That last little part about the tongue; that applies to all—
Dave: —at all times, but especially in the family. Let’s go back and listen.
Ron: I want to come back to this idea of not really knowing what’s going on with me. I have a great deal of compassion for men around this, because I, too, had the same experience. Quick little story: when I was in graduate school, studying Marriage and Family Therapy, I did really well with the book studies, [and] everything that led up to it; the concepts and putting it all together; and being able to articulate that.
Then, we went into our clinical supervision experience, and the first thing we had to do was practice, you know, with another co-student, repeating back emotions; listening skills; and working [through] all of that stuff. We had to do it on video, bring it into our class session, play the video in front of everybody including the professor and all the other students, and we would help each other. You know, “How well did you do?”
I was horrible! [Laughter] I was absolutely horrible at this! It was sort of like I knew words in my head, but I could not identify the feelings and emotions that another person was laying out for me. And I also couldn’t do it for myself! We men, we’re really good at anger. We’re really good at passion. Everything else in-between is a mystery to us.
I had to work super, super hard not only at being a clinician, but this directly impacted my marriage, right? My ability to just listen to my wife and hear what she was really saying. Not what the words are, but “what is the heart of thing?” I had to work! That was a discipline, Gil, that I did not know I was going to have to have when I got married. I had no idea I was going to have to figure that out, and gain a vocabulary, and learn how to attune to my wife, my children, or what other people were saying.
It does take work! If you’re one of those guys listening to us right now saying, “Man! I know that’s me. I’ve just got to work at this!” Do you have a suggestion or two about how guys can start down this path?
Gil: A couple things there: John Gottman—one of his one-liners is that “the masters of the disasters of relationships practice a couple things.” One of them is [to] become a master at listening; but it’s also interesting, another researcher behind it was a fellow by the name of Dan Wyle, who passed away a couple of years ago. Dan made an interesting statement: “It is impossible to listen until you feel heard.”
Gil: If both people are not able to feel heard, they can’t listen. That is a stand-off! With the couples that I work with, it’s like, in the moment, and even in my relationship with my wife, if I’m not feeling heard, I’m having a really hard time listening, not just with my ears, but with my heart. The way through that, again, is confession. I have to humble myself. There is an aspect of humility because humility is power under control!
Gil: You know, you think about the ability to really listen until somebody feels heard. That is a gift! That is a treasure. So, for me to be on purpose humbling myself until that other person feels heard could be a game-changer! Well, somebody’s got to start that process, and it should be you.
Ron: So much emotional maturity! The net result here is creating a safer place for the exchange to take place. You can get farther together rather than it escalating into something that pushes you apart.
Gil: Right. One of the things I recall often is, we can go faster by ourselves, but we can go farther together. When we are together, we’re going to get further, because we have one another’s back. It’s kind of that concept from Scripture: one can turn a thousand, but two? Two can turn 10,000! [Laughter] In the stepfamily environment, you might feel like it’s you and your wife against these throngs! Brenda and I lovingly refer to our children as “those people.”
Ron: “Those people.” [Laughter]
Gil: But in that case, when somebody creates that emotional safety zone, it’s through listening and validating: “Is this what you’re saying? Are you saying that? Let me make sure. Did I hear that right?” No commentary, no criticism; just shut-up and listen. And then give it back to them as a paraphrase; not parroting, because that’s disrespectful.
Ron: [Laughing] “Paraphrase, not parroting.” I like that! That’s good.
Okay, in the last session you’ve got in this series, you’re doing some reflecting. You’re helping people reflect on where they’ve been in their journey, maybe thinking through pitfalls to avoid. What would you share with us about that session?
Gil: That session is kind of the wrap-up of telling you what I told you in all of the segments. We set this one up at a place called Beacon Rock, on a trail. There are all these switchbacks. The concept here is that, you know, we’re talking about a summary of what has been accomplished, what we are putting in practice; but there’s this one-liner toward the end of the segment where I basically say, “The mountain, she’s a cheat.” [Laughter]
This means—and it comes from a story of a buddy and I who did a hike years ago in Yosemite National Park. We thought we were summiting, and every time we got to another summit, there was another summit. It was like, “Ugh! The mountain, she’s cheating me!” [Laughter] And my friend is a writer, so it just came out of him, and I thought how much that really is true! You can be moving forward and thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to achieve!” but “No, there’s another summit! I feel cheated! I worked so hard as a dad to get to this point. Yet, there’s another summit? Ugh!”
“The mountain, she’s a cheat.” Don’t give up! That’s really the message in that last segment, because you could be so close to summiting, and if you stop, you won’t ever know.
Ron: Yes, that’s good. You won’t know how close you were, and you won’t get there.
Gil: You won’t know how close you were. And being in a stepfamily and a stepdad now for 19 years, 2 months, so many days, there are times when I feel like, “Well, did I accomplish anything?” And then I think of my youngest stepson; he and I got off on the wrong foot, and now, there’s genuinely love there, but that’s taken 19 years.
Ron: Yes, yes; a lot of work.
Gil: It’s good work; it’s not impossible work. And I think that’s the summary of the point. Anyway, that was kind of the gist of that session, just a word of learning, but also a word of encouragement to say, “If you’re doing the right thing, keep doing it, because you might be closer to summiting and achieving that pinnacle.”
There will be another one. [Laughter] Just to be realistic, there will be another one!
Dave: We’ve been listening to a portion of our FamilyLife Blended podcast with Ron Deal and Gil Stuart. Ron, you know, as you think about what Gil just said there at the close, what thoughts come to your mind?
Ron: Well, let me just tell you the rest of the story, if you will. We recorded this with Gil some time ago. Since then, we’ve actually recorded another podcast with him and his wife, Brenda. They just celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary, and get this, guys. At their wedding, a number of their children—seven kids between the two of them, and a number of their kids—“no-showed” their wedding.
Ron: You want to talk about painful, and discouraging, and disillusioning, “Oh, my goodness, this is not a good way to start a blended family.” Okay, fast forward 20 years. They just had, not a recommitment ceremony, but more of a celebration of their marriage and their family ceremony, where everybody came together.
Now the adult children, who love one another (step-siblings) dearly, love and respect Gil and Brenda as parents and stepparents. They had a big, huge family celebration. We interviewed them about that, and they were just overflowing with joy about what God had done in their marriage and in their family. Now, listen to this: he was just talking in that last clip about detours when you think you’ve gotten there, but you’re not there; but “keep going,” because there’s joy in the journey.
I just witnessed in their own life that very thing come to fruition. I tell you, it’s just really, really a great principle for people to hold onto. We’re all struggling with something today; something in our life is not as we would have it. What do we do? We’ve got to trust God. We’ve got to keep going. We’ve got to keep doing the next right thing and trusting that, somehow, what seems maybe not making much progress is in fact making progress with God’s blessing.
Dave: Yes, that’s what I, Ron—as I heard the close of what Gil said there, my first thought was, “Don’t quit.” It might be right there. I’m not a mountain climber, but I did climb once. I was with my son this weekend, and he reminded me that he was ten years old, and we went into the Colorado mountains. Our guide said, “There’s a lake at the top of this mountain.” We kept going and going—I’m not kidding—for hours.
I finally sat down and said, “You’re wrong. This is the wrong mountain. There’s no lake up there!” And I quit. He said, “I’m telling you, it’s about 500 yards away!” And I said, “I don’t believe you.” And he walked 500 yards, and I heard him yell, “There it is!” So, we found the lake. And I thought, there’s so often that we don’t realize we could be that close. We give up on our marriage; we give up on our blended family; we give up on our child. I would say, “Don’t quit! Keep walking.”
Ann: Well, isn’t that what happened to all of us? For us, when each of our children got married, we said, “There it is!”
Dave: “We’re done!”
Ann: “We’re at the top!” Then, “Oh, wait!” [Laughter] “We aren’t done.”
Ron: “We aren’t done.” Yes. All of us, as parents, felt the same way. “Okay, I got my kid to 18; now out.” [Laughter] “Now going through school; now they’ve got jobs; now they’ve got a life. Whew! Okay, I’m finished.” Parenting adult children is, you know, a challenge! You have to learn a whole new set of boundaries and principles.
Whether you’re stepparenting, or whether you’re parenting your own biological children, there’s always another little portion of the climb that is in front of us, and I don’t know about you guys, but I’m just trying to trust God and take the next step.
Ann: I think my prayer life has gotten better since my kids have become adults. I remember a friend saying, as our kids got older, “Say less, pray more.” That has kind of become my motto of continually praying at all times, as Paul would say. That’s been really helpful, because it’s stressful, man!
Ron: It is.
Dave: Yes. And if there’s a life principle—and I know we’ve all heard it before: “It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.” Ron, when you said his kids “no-showed” the wedding, a lot of people just give up.
Dave: “This is never going to get better.” And there they [Gil and Brenda] are 20 years later, because they did the work. It’s how you end that matters; not how you start. God can show up and do a miracle.
Ron: You know, Gil and Brenda are a really good example of coming, and learning some of the principles of stepfamily ministry, and then applying them in their own context, with the opportunities God has given them. That’s what we do in our Summit on Stepfamily Ministry every year. Our next one’s coming up Thursday, October 12th. This one’s virtual.
We’re going to help student ministry leaders, senior pastors, and adult education leaders to understand basic, simple principles that you can integrate into what you’re already doing. You don’t have to build a whole new ministry with whole new leadership. We’re just going to help you think about how you expand what you’re already doing. It’s pretty simple to get involved with this being a virtual event. Look us up: SummitonStepfamilies.com. We’d love to have someone from your local congregation be part of it.
Shelby: I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to a FamilyLife Blended episode with Gil Stuart on FamilyLife Today.Now, if you want to find the full episode, you can search for “Episode 83” on the FamilyLife Blended podcast, and you can find that wherever you get your podcasts; or you can get the link in the show notes at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Again, what Ron was talking about is the Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. It’s a virtual event happening on October 12th. You can find more details about that event at SummitonStepfamilies.com.
Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are going to be joined by Mark Gregston and Larry Fowler to talk about a grandparent’s role in their grandchildren’s lives; the importance of grandparents shifting their focus from themselves to their grandchildren. That’s coming up tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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