107: Blending a Family: Strategies that Don’t Work
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Gayla GraceGayla Grace serves on staff with FamilyLife Blended, a division of FamilyLife, and is passionate about equipping blended families as a writer and a speaker. She is author of Stepparenting with Grace: A Devotional for Blended Families and co-author of Quiet Moments for the Stepmom Soul. Gayla holds a master’s degree in Psychology and Counseling. She and her husband, Randy, have been married since 1995 in a “his, hers, and ours” family. She is the mom to three and stepmom t...more
Blending isn’t the goal for stepfamilies; it suggests the family becomes one relationally, which rarely occurs. Other common cooking strategies don’t work either. Then what does? Listen to Ron Deal and Gayla Grace discuss how crockpot cooking is the key.
107: Blending a Family: Strategies that Don’t Work
Ron: Welcome to the FamilyLife Blended podcast. I'm Ron Deal. We help blended families, and those who love them, pursue the relationships that matter most. Gayla Grace is with me again in the studio.
Gayla: Hey Ron. How are you?
Ron: How are you?
Gayla: I'm good.
Ron: I can't say the word studio; isn't that interesting? [Laughter] That was sort of funny how that came out of my mouth.
I'm good. Are you good?
Gayla: I'm good.
Ron: That's great. I'm looking forward to our conversation today.
Gayla: I am too. It's a great one; good topic.
Ron: It really is. To the listener, we've been working our way through some themes out of my book The Smart Stepfamily. Now, some people credit that book with sort of catapulting the blended family ministry movement into what it is today. It certainly put stepfamily education on the map within the Christian community, and it's led to opportunities like this for us to do a podcast and talk.
Gayla: Yes, and Ron, I have my book with me. I wish that our listeners could see it because it's got highlights and underlines.
Ron: Is that right?
Ron: I can see some of those.
Gayla: Yes, from our early years. Randy and I really—this book was helpful.
Ron: Well, I appreciate that, and I certainly hope it's been helpful to some people listening. And if you don't have a copy, boy, we'd love to encourage you to pick one of those up. Small groups use it. It's connected to the Smart Stepfamily video series that we have that's available for people through RightNow Media. If you want to learn about the resource or about the video series, take a look in the show notes. That will tell you how you can watch that.
And by the way, watch the video series for free, right?
Ron: We've made that available for free.
Ron: Today we're going to talk about a little section in the book that talks about cooking strategies— [Laughter] —ways to bring your family together and ways that don't work; that will backfire on people.
Ron: So that's where we're headed today. But before we do that, let me just remind you that Blended and Blessed® is coming up in just one month, Saturday, April 29th, 2023. We're so looking forward to being with our live audience in Melbourne, Florida, and Gayla is going to be there.
Gayla: I am. You're going to be there. We've got some great speakers lined up, Ron.
Ron: We do. It's a good topic this year and looking forward to it. If you're not familiar with Blended and Blessed, it's a livestream—think, marriage enrichment seminar—one-day event just for you. Themes change every year so it's always new content.
Gayla: It's in a great place this year; come to Florida with your spouse and have a little beach time.
Ron: And if you can't do that, you can watch it on your phone, your tablet, your smart TV; get a group together in your church and watch it with some other couples and build some community that way. It's a great event. We're glad to have it.
Okay, so those of you who don't know who this other voice is, Gayla Grace serves on the FamilyLife Blended® team. She's a writer and speaker and is a regular person on this podcast. You talked about your book having some underlines.
Ron: I see a highlighting, at least one. [Laughter] Do you remember the first time that you heard the concept: cooking a stepfamily in a crockpot and not in a blender?
Gayla: I do, and you know what I remember about that? It was actually, Randy and I were early in our stepfamily marriage, trying to figure it out, floundering. [Laughter] I remember thinking about “I'm a cook, so I know what happens in a crockpot.”
Some things stay hard longer than others—and I think you've talked about this too—that the family members, some of them are just slower to want to integrate, so it's like in a crockpot. Some of those vegetables, they're going to cook quickly, but some of them are going to take a lot longer.
And so, there was some realness to that for me because I could sit there and think, “Okay, here's where this child is and here's where this stepchild is and here's where my spouse is.” I could name them and make them equivalent to what might be in that crockpot. [Laughter] I'm not going to share all that cause it might not be helpful, but just to say there's some real relevance to it, in my opinion, to stepfamily life.
Ron: Well, somebody listening right now is going, “What's this whole crockpot thing?” Okay, let's just clarify the metaphor for people. What we're really talking about here is the actions that you take as a parent or stepparent toward trying to bring the ingredients of your family together into becoming a family.
Ron: There's a lot of ways that don't work. That's going to be a focus of our conversation today. What does work is having a crockpot mentality, as you alluded—different ingredients, different people, different personalities. Some ingredients cook faster, at a faster pace, than other ingredients.
Ron: But the whole process is described as slow. I mean, some people call crockpots slow cookers. It sort of captures, “Yes, nothing happens fast. This is not microwaving; this is not instant pot.
Ron: This is crockpot. We're talking hours, not minutes, and you've got to slow down your heart.
In the typical blended family experience, and there's some exceptions to this, but the typical blended family experience is going to be years not months, not days, not one year. We're talking many years. Just like in a crockpot and within that cooking experience, some ingredients are more motivated towards softening and joining with other ingredients. Other ingredients are just taking their time. They don't want to be here. They got their arms crossed. They've curled up in the corner, [Laughter] and they're not combining with anybody.
Gayla: Yes, and so I think that you have to change your expectations. If you think about cooking in a crockpot, you've got to know “I got to put that thing on in the morning, turn it on, and know that it needs to cook all day.” Those are your expectations of what's going to happen in that crockpot. It's the same thing in your family. If you change your expectations of “This isn't going to happen fast. These relationships are going to take time,” then everything goes smoother. If I expect that food in the crockpot to be done in two hours, I'm in trouble. It's the same thing with stepfamily relationships.
Ron: And really what we're going to point out today, the cooking strategies that don't work, are the actions that parents take when they get impatient, just as you said. You nailed it—expectations. “I really think you ought to be cooking faster than you are, so I'm now going to make you cook faster.”
Ron: And so now we start doing things as parents and putting things/putting pressure on children. All of that's going to backfire. What we just laid out for you, the crockpot metaphor—crockpot strategy, I should say—is really the best way to go about approaching the blend within your family. But now we want to take some time and talk about the strategies that don't work; that people get easily wrapped into.
The blender. [Laughter] Now, the blended family obviously carries the notion of a blender and people think, “Yes, that's what we want is a smoothie.”
Ron: And we want it to taste good. We want it to—it's going to be healthy, of course, because smoothies are healthy.
Gayla: That's right.
Ron: This is going to be a healthy family for all the ingredients. What we just need to do is get them in there, turn that sucker on, let the blade do its work, and in about 30 seconds, everything has become one fluid, cohesive family mixture.
Gayla: Right; yes.
Ron: What a setup, right?
Gayla: Yes, and especially, Ron, I think about if you have teenagers in the mix; that we're expecting them to arrive at the same place that maybe younger kids are and it's okay for our family to have individuals who are in different places—and even have different levels of relationship with you and with their siblings and stepsiblings. It's not like in a blender where everything blends all together and it looks pretty, and it tastes great. It just doesn't happen that way. [Laughter]
Ron: You know it's that cohesiveness, I think, when you think about a smoothie. It's fluid. It's wonderful. It's—you know you can drink it sometimes depending on how thick it is. It's just flows, and everything has come together. And that is—we have to say this—that is an amazing fantasy—
Ron: —that people naturally have for their family. Again, I say this all the time—you and your goodwill and good heart towards your children, towards your spouse's children, or whatever the case may be, you would never try to put them in a situation that is awkward or challenging or difficult or that they might not feel safe or seen or secure.
And so, of course, you go into the family believing and trusting that the work that's going to happen here—the emotional, relational, development here—is going to lead to smoothie. Of course, you think that because that's your hope and desire, not only for yourself, but for everybody. If you buy into that a little too much, then you're constantly pushing on people to smoothie up.
Gayla: Exactly. [Laughter] That's an interesting term.
Ron: And so, what we're saying is that creates a pressure on people.
Ron: Couple of assumptions within this blender mentality I think are important to point out. One of them is we can all be forward thinking now, no more living in the past. Here's what I see in parents with that.
Okay, so the old is gone; the new is coming. We just went scriptural, right?
Ron: So, whatever that pain was in the past—death, divorce, heartbreak, families coming apart, fracturing, broken relationships, all that pain—well hope, new marriage, that's all about the future. We can leave all that behind and we can start/be forward thinking. If we're in a car, it would be we're in drive; we're going forward. We're not going reverse anymore. Let's not spend any time back there.
Well, that's really easy for parent and stepparent, for the adults, because you're—you've been forward thinking, which has led to falling in love with somebody that's led to this vision for a new family.
Gayla: Right; Mm-hmm.
Ron: Of course, you're in drive, but your kids sometimes are in drive and reverse at the exact same time.
Gayla: Oh yes. Mm-hmm, yes.
Ron: And that doesn't really produce smoothie like behavior.
Gayla: No. [Laughter] And also, it's normal to go to reverse and then go back to drive and just kind of have that process that happens repeatedly. It's normal.
Ron: It is normal. You’ve got to embrace that. Like along with the sweet, comes a little bitter over what's happened in the past. [Laughter] Those always travel together, and you can't just get rid of them.
Another little assumption that goes along with this is that bonding is what everybody wants, and they want it equally and in the same amounts.
Ron: That gets back to what you were saying about some ingredients. They're not going to soften in the crockpot as quickly as other ingredients are just by the nature of how they're wired/they're made.
Gayla: Also, the teenagers that I was talking about, they're in a different place. They're looking to leave the home. That's a natural developmental phase.
Ron: That's right.
Gayla: And we don't accept that as reality sometimes.
Ron: Yes, so in other words, they’re moving up and out in their life rather than—and blending is all about moving in.
Ron: And “Hey, I'm 19 and I'm doing college and I got a future and a vision for my life, and you want me to come back and spend time with my stepsiblings”—
Gayla: —"and bond with these people”—
Ron: —"that I don't really know very well,” or “No, I got to/I'm moving out.” There's another reason why that ingredient is not going to blend as quickly.
Ron: And so, again, to the listener, what we're trying to paint for you is this picture of: you end up making people mad and they get upset.
Gayla: Yes, and it's okay to still have that goal, Ron.
Gayla: I mean, we do want our family to blend. We just need to be realistic about our expectations.
Let's move to the next one: the food processor. One of the things that happens so often that can relate to the food processor has to do with wanting your stepkids to call you Mom or Dad. I think we forget that the term Mom or Dad is a term of endearment.
Gayla: They just aren't going to feel that, at least in the early years for sure. And if we put pressure on them to call us Mom or Dad, it's just going to backfire.
Ron: Similar to a blender, food processors generally have a big old blade in there and so when you say, “Call me Mom,” what you're sort of saying, and the explicit message is, “Hey, I want to be your mom. I want us to have a great relationship.” The implicit message is, “I'm replacing your mom.”
Gayla: Right, yes.
Ron: “I just cut her up and spin/spun her out and now I'm the replacement,” and that just, oh, that hardens a child, their heart, not softens, and so it backfires. It just isn't helpful.
Another good example of this is combining holiday traditions.
Gayla: Oh yes.
Ron: Just sort of the assumption that, “Okay, you guys did ham, and we did turkey, and we do this other food over here;” that when I married my wife, I'd never in my life heard of oyster stuffing.
Gayla: Oh my. I've never heard of that.
Ron: I know. What's your reaction? I could see it on your face. [Laughter] You know what, my mother-in-law and father-in-law, both from West Virginia, so they came from the East coast and oyster stuffing was a mainstay for them—
Gayla: Oh my goodness.
Ron: —big dinners like that and I had the face that you had. [Laughter] “What? Oysters, oh.” By the way, I love it. It is fantastic.
Ron: Yes, but so I didn't have any idea that I was going to enjoy that or like that. So this notion that your traditions/our traditions, well, we just put them all together and everybody's going to be happy with that, no, sometimes you get that face that says, “I don't want any part of this.”
But if you're a food processor in that moment, you're going to come down hard. You're going to be upset. You're going to be, “What's wrong with that? What? Are you saying our tradition's not the right”—you know, all of a sudden, you're angry because your food processor mentality is driving you to make it all fit.
Ron: Let it go, relax. You just don't need to do that.
This brings me to the microwave strategy. I hear this one, Gayla, in people who say, “Ron, we are not a stepfamily.”
Gayla: I hear it too; I know.
Ron: “I refuse to use that term. We want—nobody's a step in this household.” I go, “Look, I get it. I understand your desire there. Your heart is for everybody to feel loved and be loved and love other people equally.”
Ron: I get that's what you want. That's a good goal. However, forcing that mentality on other people sometimes really creates this notion of—I mean, again, it's sort of like the “I'm your mom” thing or “I'm your dad.” “No, you're not.” “You're my stepchild and I'm not your stepmom. Call me mom.”
Gayla: Right. Well, and don't you think that underlying that is a fear that they're just afraid if we're referring to us as a stepfamily or “I'm a stepmom,” then I'm never going to be a full-fledged parent—
Ron: Mm-hmm. Good point.
Gayla: —in this family.
Ron: Good point.
Gayla: And you can be, but you are not a biological mom. When you're a stepmom, you're never going to be the same in/on equal standing, but that's okay.
Gayla: You can play your own unique role as a stepparent.
Ron: I think you just hit on something—we should just pause for a second—because fear is really underlying a lot of these—
Ron: —cooking strategies that don't work. It's the, “Oh my goodness, this is a little harder than I thought. We’ve got to push. We’ve got to make it happen.”
Ron: “Oh no, I don't want anybody to feel uncomfortable. I'm not going to use the word step. I would never do that. I don't want them to feel like I don't love them or embrace them like my own and so I'm not going to use that term.” But they're using that term about you when they're talking to their friends at school about—they're definitely talking about their stepparent. Like kids know who is and who is not their parent.
Gayla: Yes. [Laughter]
Ron: It's very clear to them and they don't have any problems—you know saying—it's usually the adults who have that fear; that says, “Oh, I got to somehow fix all this.”
Gayla: And want it to be different than what it is.
Ron: And it's okay, relax. It's going to get better. You're on a journey. That's the whole crockpot mentality. It takes time. The more you try to fix, the more often you probably make it a little worse.
Gayla: Right; and it leads us into the next one: the pressure cooker. Because when we're trying to fix, we're putting pressure on people, and that's what a pressure cooker does. There's a whole lot of pressure in there but when we have these expectations and we put pressure on people, the lid blows. Like what happens with a pressure cooker?
Ron: That's right.
Gayla: And it's not a good thing.
Ron: Hey, I hear this pressure cooker mentality coming out of dating single parents. They've introduced the person that they're dating to their kids and, you know, say, “What do you think, Susie? What do you think of this guy that I'm dating?” and daughter's like, “You know, yes”—you know, even if she just hem haws—anything less than, “Oh, Mom, he's wonderful.”
Gayla: Right. [Laughter]
Ron: Anything less than that, then mom sort of feels like, “Ooh, I need to sell him to my kid” and here comes the pressure, right? “Oh, just give him a chance. He's a great guy. I know you're really going to love him.” Okay, that's fear driven. Mom needs her daughter to be okay with this guy. Mom needs there to be cohesiveness in/among the family members and to have a sense “I love him. I'm kind of sold out on this guy and a future for us. I want my daughter to feel the same way.” It makes sense that you would add pressure at that point; but as you said, that often just blows the lid and now the kid feels unsafe.
Now, I really want parents to hear this because it happens not only in the dating experience, but later after the wedding has occurred. Anytime you're adding pressure, you're sort of sending this message to your child, “I need you to be okay with this—to be happy with it, not just okay, happy with this—”
Gayla: Right, right.
Ron: —"so that we all have peace. And so, it's a guilt message, and it is a “Do this for me” message and a child just feels lost in that.
Gayla: Yes, and I think that we forget our kids are not in the same place emotionally that we are.
Ron: There it is.
Gayla: They're still dealing with this grief of, “Oh, my biological family has split up,” if it's been a divorce. Well, as a person who's been through divorce, we're glad for that person to be in the background but our kids aren't. That's still their biological parent.
Ron: That's right.
Gayla: And yet we're expecting that they're going to be in the same place emotionally that we are and that's doing them a disservice.
Ron: For families that are listening and there's some stress and tension in your home, that's another point in time where I feel/I see the pressure going up within a home.
Gayla: Right; yes.
Ron: It's sort of like, “Okay, things are not going well for us. We're having some conflict,” and so the adults sort of resort back to that pressure cooker mentality to sort of try to make things better for everyone.
Ron: Instead of trying to convince your kids, “Hey, it's really fine. It's going to work out. These people are really nicer than you think they are,” whatever that little pressure message is, instead of doing that, pull back and go into listening mode. “Alright, I need to understand what's going on for you more than I do. Tell me what it feels like when you're in the room and stepsibling walks in and gives you that look. What does that feel like for you? What's happening? Tell me what it's like when you're hanging around your stepparent.” Now, it's really hard for the biological parent to give their child some space to say, I don't know. I just feel kind of uncomfortable.
Ron: And you want to come back and fix that, but you can't. You have to give the child some safety to articulate that, and you absorb it and hug him and hold it for a minute and just say, “Alright, I don't know what, I don't know exactly what to do about this, but we're just going to keep working at this.
Gayla: And we're going to accept it. That it's okay that this is where we're at right now. It doesn't mean we have to stay stuck here, but we can accept that there's disharmony; there's awkwardness; there's a lot of uncomfortable feelings, especially in those early years, and it's okay. Doesn't mean we're doing anything wrong, it's just we're trying to figure out how to bring these two families together.
Ron: When I was a kid, my mom asked me to toss a salad. I actually loved doing that.
Ron: Because I could fly it, you know what I mean? [Laughter]
Gayla: Do you like to eat salad too?
Ron: I do.
Ron: I do. I was a little athlete, so for me, you know I juggle a little bit, so I was sort of like tossing, doing games and making, and just trying to hit the bowl, you know? [Laughter]
Gayla: Oh gosh.
Ron: —not make a big mess. Actually, still enjoy doing that. Toss salad method of cooking a stepfamily sort of happens when children are moving between homes.
Ron: And “Oh, glad we get the weekend off.” We just toss them to the other home. [Laughter] Now, I'm not saying there's: yes, you did get a break and yes, take advantage of the break—go on a date with your spouse, for example, have a little rest—because they will come home, and you'll be back into the parenting mode again.
Gayla: [Laughter] Right.
Ron: But I'm talking here about that attitude of “We're rid of them.” I think that's a dangerous posture.
Gayla: It is dangerous, yes, because those are your—you're festering some unhealthy feelings.
Ron: There you go.
Gayla: And as a result of that, your mindset's going to change, even if it's just for a couple of days. Then when they come back, it's/your home is not going to feel warm, and kids pick up on that. Our interpersonal stuff says so much to people. We just need to be careful.
So, boy, those are a bunch of cooking strategies. By the way, there's a couple, kind of more modern strategies that I've noticed in our world today that weren't/that are not in the book.
Ron: I’ve got a couple of new ones.
Ron: Okay, the first one is living apart together.
Gayla: Now what do you mean by that? What's that mean, Ron?
Ron: Exactly. It's so confusing, is it not? [Laughter] It's this modern phenomenon where—I mean, it sort of has different expressions—but with blended families, what we see is she and her kids live in one place and he and his kids live in another place. The couple gets married, but they don't combine their homes. She keeps living in her apartment. He keeps living in his house. They just sort of have conjugal visits.
Ron: They bring the family together on Saturday and they have pizza for dinner and then people go home. Now, I’ve got to tell you, if this is a temporary strategy as you're just starting your family, or in some cases I've worked with some families that are really into high distress and a lot of conflict, it sort of makes sense to have a little space.
I don't want people to do that forever because that just leads to: “You know, it is more peaceful without you guys.” And so over time, that actually hurts a family.
Gayla: It does. It does.
Ron: I'm not a big advocate for that, but what I'm saying is temporary, I get it. If this is your strategy for doing life, I don't. I think it's a mistake.
Gayla: Yes. There's no way that relationships are going to come together and bond when they're seeing each other once a week. I mean, you can try to be intentional maybe with FaceTime calls or something during the week, but it's still not the same as being in the room together, seeing the expressions on their face, hearing the angst in their voice. It's just not the same.
Ron: You can really hear the fear in this. “Why would we do this? We're just not so sure it's going to work.”
Ron: So, “We get our marriage and cake and eat it too, but you guys just sort of, no, we're not going to expect anything.” I just, there's no real depth to that cooking strategy—not a good idea.
Gayla: Not if it's long term. I mean, I think you hit it. If somebody's in a senior year of high school—
Ron: There you go.
Gayla: —and then they're fixing to go to college, that's a different scenario. So, you know, none of this is black and white. There’re always situations that could be different.
Ron: Yes. If it's a strategy for a given season of life, okay, I can see you using that and applying it.
Ron: But if this is sort of, “Yes, this is the way we're moving forward and we don't see an end to this,” wow, I just don't think it's a good idea.
Gayla: Yes, you know another one, Ron, is kind of this thinking that they're not my kids and I'm just going to have a completely hands off approach to stepparenting. I really struggle with that one because early on as a stepmom, I so felt like God had given me a calling to be a stepmom with my stepkids. And if He placed me in their lives, then I have a responsibility, even when it's hard, to participate in their life and to engage with them and to be the best stepmom I can be.
Now, that's not to say that I didn't need breaks at time and that I didn't leave the house and say, “I'm done for today.” [Laughter]
Gayla: Because I did that.
Ron: Everybody needs a break every once in a while.
Gayla: Right. But just to say, “This is too hard. I'm out. This is your responsibility. This is your biological kid. You take care of him.”
Ron: I worked with a family one time where the wife came, the mom came to therapy, and we spent a little of time together and I said, “So will your husband come with you?” “No, he won't. He won't come.” Well, we worked and worked, and she gave me permission. I actually reached out to him, and he agreed to come in and sit down and visit with me, and here was his posture. “I married this woman. I did not marry her kids.”
Gayla: Oh my goodness.
Ron: “I'm playing golf.”
Gayla: Oh, wow.
Ron: And that's what he did. And you know, I really, I tried to help him see that even though that's the way he went into the marriage, that there was an opportunity here and he could have influence.
Ron: And he said, “Yes, you know I raised my kids. They're on their own now. I’m just really not interested in giving more as a parental figure.” I think that's a sad, sad story.
Gayla: It is. And it's hard for that mom to realize that her husband doesn't want to have a part because that's going to affect the marriage, Ron.
Ron: It is.
Gayla: There's no way that it won't. And he may not realize that but those are discussions that really need to be had in the dating phase. Because would she have married him if she had known that?
Ron: Yes, who knows?
Ron: I—you know it's difficult. Sometimes people just are a little idealistic about what will change after the wedding. “I think he'll soften up,” and then he doesn't and here you are.
Somebody may be listening to us right now, and they're in that situation where they're just feeling like—you know, they're the biological parent and their spouse is taking that hands off approach and just not interested in investing. It’s so difficult. You can't fix that in them. You can, I think, bring up it from time to time. “Could we revisit this?” Maybe orchestrate opportunities for the stepparent to be engaged in things that the stepparent is highly invested in. “Hey, I love playing video games.” So do my kids; let's do that.
Ron: But at the end of the day, there has to be a heart change so I would say pray, pray, pray, pray, pray for that heart change to come about.
Gayla: I think you can also encourage the stepparent for the value that they add. And what I mean by that is a stepparent is not emotionally entangled with their child/with a child in the same way that a biological parent is so they can see some things that a biological parent can't. This happened in our home with one of my daughters who we discovered later had an anxiety disorder. Well, Randy saw, “Gayla, there is something going on here that is just not normal.” He brought a perspective that I couldn't see because I was too invested emotionally. There's some real value that a stepparent can bring to the parenting role if they will accept it.
Ron: It's good.
Okay, I want to put all these together—these cooking strategies that don't work. I just want to tell one story that sort of encapsulates all of them if I can do that.
Ron: What all these little strategies have in common—by the way, the microwave, the blender, the food processor, the pressure cooker, the toss salad method, the hands-off method—they're quick, fast and easy.
Ron: Those are cooking strategies—quick, fast, and easy, bring this blended family together—you know, done, moving on sort of mentality. And what we're saying is, well, in reality, if you really want depth to the relationships and authenticity, it's going to be a crockpot. It's going to take time. Every ingredient is going to cook at its own pace.
Ron: I was doing a seminar one time, years and years ago. Some have heard me tell this story, but it always comes back to mind at this point because it's so, to me, just represents the bind you put yourself in when you use these cooking strategies. I was doing a seminar; we were talking about crockpotting, and a woman raised her hand and said, “I’ve got a dilemma. Help me know how to crockpot in this scenario.”
I said, “Okay, what's going on?”
She says, “I'm married to a man. I've got a 14-year-old son and my husband loves my son. He really tries hard to connect with him, but my son sort of keeps him at a distance.” She says, “For example, the other night, my son walks out; my husband and I are watching TV. My son walks out of his room, says, ‘Mom, I got a math test tomorrow and I need some help. Would you help me study?’ She turns to her son, and she says, ‘Hey, Tim's right here.’—stepdad—'he's so much better at math than I am. Why don't you ever ask him instead of asking me?’”
I paused her right there, and I said, “Alright, let's stop for a minute. Let me ask you a couple questions because I just want to understand to this point in the story, what's going on for you.”
Ron: I said, “Let's fast forward a minute. On the day when your son walks out of his room and he asks Tim for help, instead of asking you for help with something going on in his life,” I said, “what will you have then that you don't have now?”
Gayla: Oh, hmm.
Ron: And she, without skipping a beat, said, “Oh, that's easy. I'll know we've become a family.”
Gayla: Oh, wow.
Ron: Now Gayla, let's just pause for a second. There's more to the story but recognize now the fear in her statement.
Ron: We are not a family yet; therefore, we are a failure. We are a disappointment. We are—I don't know what words she would use, but whatever it is, it's not good.
Ron: And so, in her mind, she's got to add pressure to speed up the process—to get my son to like and love and trust his stepdad as much as he does me.
Gayla: Exactly; right.
Ron: And so, in her mind, “We’ve got to get to family, and right now is my moment to make it happen.”
I asked her a second question. I said, “And on that day, when your son asks him for help instead of asking you, how will you feel differently?” The reason I asked this question is because I wanted to get her doing some reflection on “What's going on in me that's driving me to react so sharply toward my son?” She says, “Oh, that's easy too. I won't feel guilty anymore.”
Gayla: Oh gosh, the guilt.
Ron: Now, what do you think—what do you think her guilt might be about?
Gayla: Well, just that—probably her past. Is there a divorce back there? Is there something that has influenced her son in why he won't respond to her new husband the way she wants him to? All of that. We feel bad about what we put our kids through.
Ron: That's right. And maybe it's not any decision she made. Maybe dad, biological dad, left the family and created some hardship on the young man and mom, of course, as a loving mother, carries some of that weight. Even though it wasn't her decision, she still feels bad for her son. What she wants is good stuff for him, and right now he doesn't obviously feel safe enough with his stepdad to ask for help on the math test; therefore, my son is in more pain and so what I need to do is—
So then, I ask her the third question: “So what do you do in these moments when your son asks you for help instead of him?” She says, “Oh, I get mad at him.”
Gayla: Oh, gosh.
Ron: “And I tell him, ‘Look, he's here. Why don't you ask him?’ and ‘Oh, by the way, I'm not sure I'm going to help you because really Tim should be the one that should be helping you.’”
I said, “Alright,” next question, “what does your son do?” And I knew the answer, [Laughter] but I wanted her to say it out loud. “What does your son do when you get upset with him for not trusting Tim as much as you think he ought to trust him?” For having that pressure cooker mentality, she says, “Oh, he gets mad at me. We argue for a minute and then he stomped off to his room and slammed the door.”
Gayla: And think about how awkward that is for that stepdad who's watching this.
Gayla: I mean, that doesn't help in relationship building.
Ron: Exactly. He's sitting there going, “Oh great. Now it's going to be harder for me, at this point, to connect with him because he's pushing back in so many ways.”
Alright, so again, let's slow down. What I want our listener to hear is pressure cooker, microwave, blender mentality: “I need to make my son—pressure him—to ask him for help in ways, to trust him, to feel safe with Tim in ways that he feels safe and confident with me.” “No, you don't.” [Laughter]
She says, “So how do I crockpot that scenario?” And I said, “Your son comes out and he asks you for help, you get up and go help him with the math test.”
Gayla: Right; right.
Ron: You are the person he feels more safe with, most confident in. He is the—you are the person he has an established relationship with. He knows what he's going to get when he asks for help; that safety is so important. Don't betray it. Go in there and help him with the math test.
Now, that's today. Somewhere off in the distance in a crockpot world, you might sit at the kitchen table and help him with his math and have Tim sit there too. You're there and Tim's there and it is sort of the middle ground between—maybe they can develop a little more open communication around, “Hey, Tim is sort of good at math,” and help your son have that experience. But you probably should still be in the mix because it's just too intense to expect your son to just feel comfortable with him.
Gayla: Yes, and we're always going off the cues of our child or our stepchild. We read their emotion or their verbal expression so that we know how to approach them. Maybe there is a point that she could say to him in private, not when her husband's there, “Hey, do you think you would ever feel comfortable asking Tim to help you with your math?
Because you know what? Math really isn't my thing. I feel like he could really help you.” But to have that conversation outside of the ears of Tim is going to be a whole lot better. And then get a feel for where he's at.
Ron: And I love what you said about cues from the child. Like you see some softening in some ways, and then you approach the math thing again. Like you take it with how you think the child can receive it. If you're forcing, that's pressure cooking; that's blendering, and it's just going to backfire on you. You make things worse, not better.
But when you crockpot, and you accept that “Today, he's not going to ask him for help. I've got to get up and do it again.” Because mom, you've been doing it for years, all by yourself, and that's hard, but you got to do it again and trust that the crockpot with time will naturally change the way that dynamic works within your child.
Now, sometimes it doesn't. I think, Gayla, it's important we say to people listening, as you said earlier, sometimes a child is on their way out. They're 19 and asking for help with math. They're probably not ever going to turn and ask that stepparent for help because that's an investment back into a new home that they're not really going to be living in, in their mind, they're moving away from that.
Ron: And so, it is what it is. What that adds up to in the crockpot is that you look at your family landscape and you go, “Wow, three kids have a great relationship with their stepparent—my spouse—and I got one kid who just doesn't and probably never will, and that's okay. Maybe as an adult they'll come to an adult-like appreciation.”
Gayla: That's what I was going to say. I think we can always continue to pray for their heart and know that even once they leave the home, relationships can continue to grow.
Ron: Absolutely. It's just never parent-child.
Ron: It's more adult-adult.
Ron: But that's still okay in the crockpot world.
Gayla: And Ron, you have adult kids.
Ron: I do.
Gayla: Adult relationships with our kids are wonderful.
Ron: They're fun, and at the same time you still feel that angst as a parent. “Do I speak into this thing?”
Gayla: Right. [Laughter]
Ron: Do I not? You know there's a whole dynamic there. But it is so fun to see them on their own, making decisions, and to sort of experience them as adults. I think a lot of stepchildren-stepparent relationships that are hard and challenging will have a transformation as that child becomes an adult.
Gayla: I think so too.
Ron: You just got to give it a chance. If you don't have a crockpot mentality, then you won't wait for that. You won't hold out for that. You'll just go, “No, it didn't work. I'm done.”
Gayla: Well, and we might clarify you need to continue to invest in that relationship though if you want that healthy adult relationship. You don't just check out.
Ron: That's right.
Gayla: Because it's not just going to magically appear unless you continue to invest in those years when it's hard.
Ron: I'm just sitting here reflecting on our conversation and I'm thinking somebody's listening to this right now and they're going, “Oh man, I wish my spouse were listening to this.” [Laughter] “Because I can see the wisdom of the crockpot, but boy, my husband or wife, they want to blender. Every day they're trying to blender.”
Ron: Okay, share the podcast.
Ron: Which means right now the other spouse is listening to me and you now know why your spouse shared it with you. [Laughter] It's okay. It's okay. We're trying to get you guys on the same page because when you're on the same page, as husband and wife, my goodness, you make these crockpot shifts in your attitudes and mentality and you lower—shifting your expectations, not lowering them. You're still holding out for good things but shifting them. My goodness, when you're on the same page, the progress happens.
Gayla: It does; and it improves the marriage relationship too. It makes such a difference when you feel like you're united in what you're doing as a parenting team.
Ron: I guess we had a question from a listener sort of related to this subject. Is that what came in?
Gayla: I think so, and so the listener said, “How do we continue the blending process after the children grow up and move away? Two have moved across the country and one remained here. We find our relationship with our son who has stayed locally much stronger than our daughter that moved away.”
Ron: Okay, so here's my reaction to that question. You are experiencing the realities of the crockpot. One ingredient has sort of jumped out of your pot.
Gayla: [Laughter] Right.
Ron: And they're living life on their own, in their own way. And so, the question is framed as if something is wrong.
Gayla: Right. But we can also continue to be intentional, and this is what I would say to this listener, is maybe it's FaceTime calls once a week. Maybe there's a vacation trip that you go, and you visit, and you have time in their home. Still continue to do your part in being intentional to build relationships.
Ron: You invest in ways that you can't. You know what I did yesterday? I had lunch with my younger son.
Gayla: Oh, cool.
Ron: He lives right here in Little Rock and every Wednesday we go to lunch whenever we can.
Gayla: That's great.
Ron: What I didn't do yesterday is have lunch with my oldest son because he lives in Los Angeles, and I just can't do it. We have to find other ways to make those connections happen. So it is, again, it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with your family.
This brings up a sort of a related question that we hear from adult stepfamilies where they got started and most of the kids were young adults or you know, well into their twenties or thirties, and they're like, “Well, I guess, you know I've got two stepchildren and they live three states away from me and I don't even know them because we've never had any time together.” Hey, that—yes, that's your crockpot scenario and guess what? You're going to cook on Christmas and Thanksgiving, and when you do that one family getaway where everybody shows up for three days, that's really where the cooking's going to be. And then you're going to stop cooking. I mean, not stop, you can use technology.
Gayla: —kind of put on simmer.
Ron: Exactly. It's—the temperature in the crockpot got turned down a little bit just because of the physical distance. So, take advantage of the opportunities you have and recognize that it may take a really long time to move into a type of relationship that you would consider really healthy and something you value.
Ron: That doesn't mean you're in a bad place as a family at all. It just means that it is what it is, so embrace that. Be okay with that. Make the most of what you can and try not to walk around disappointed all the time.
Gayla: Right, and gosh, there's seasons of life and some seasons are different than others; that they can all be good still.
Ron: Well, thank you for being here with me today. It's always great to have you in here.
Gayla: It's a great discussion on this topic.
Ron: Yes. If you want to know more about this subject and many, many more subjects, pick up a copy of The Smart Stepfamily and dive in. If you've already got one, let me just encourage you to share that with somebody you know and care about.
All this year, we are wanting to hear your stories of success—what we call promised land moments—when things go well for your family or you're feeling a little joy in a particular moment. You can email us at email@example.com. Blended@familylife.com. You can actually call, leave a voice message; look in the show notes.
We heard from one stepdad recently. Gayla, you're going to love this. He said this, “Thank you, Ron. My wife and I get a lot from your guidance and experience with blended families over the last few years. As the outsider I was, have slowly been put in the front seat, long after fights and arguing. He's feeling the crockpot making progress, right?
Ron: He says, “I even get to drive some of the time, lol. It's been a long road,” he says, “and things have moved slowly but they've changed for the better.”
Gayla: That's awesome.
Ron: That is a crockpot experience; that's a promised land story. We love hearing those. We'd love for you to share yours with us.
Hey, if this podcast or the FamilyLife Blended ministry is serving your family, let me just ask you to do one of two things. Would you share a resource with a friend so that they can benefit like you did? And would you think about making a donation to FamilyLife Blended so we can reach someone else? It doesn't have to be a lot. Everything matters. Everything is helpful. We appreciate your generosity.
And don't forget, Blended and Blessed is just one month away. If you want to register or learn more about it, maybe how you can host it at your church, go to the show notes; it'll tell you how.
Okay, next time I'm going to interview Dr. Patricia Papernow on this podcast. Her academic work has greatly influenced me over the years and helped me understanding research about stepfamilies. She and I are going to be talking about how couples can preserve their marriage in the midst of the blended family dynamics that pull them apart.
That's next time on FamilyLife Blended.
I'm Ron Deal. I appreciate you listening.
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