Engaged and Blending
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Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
Are you engaged or just beginning a blended family? Ron Deal, Director of FamilyLife Blended, discusses how couples can prepare their families to blend with intentionality and joy.
Engaged and Blending
Ann: Okay, tell me your thoughts on these stats. Are you ready?
Dave: I like stats.
Dave: I threw for 18 touchdowns in my junior year.
Ann: Uh, not these stats.
Dave: Oh, okay.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Non-traditional families are the new traditional family. In the US, Canada, most European countries, Australia and New Zealand, single-parent families, single-adult households, cohabitating couples, and blended families now outnumber traditional families. And approximately one-third of all weddings in America today are forming stepfamilies.
Dave: My first thought is: “That’s not true.”
Dave: I mean, I’m not saying it isn’t.
Dave: I know it is true. It’s shocking; I’m astounded. I would not believe—if you said that wasn’t statistical—I would say, “No, prove it”; and now, you just did with the data. That’s—that is amazing.
Ann: Here’s my thought/as I read those stats, I thought, “Oh man, this is so important.” Yet, I feel like we aren’t addressing this and talking about it enough in the church from the pulpit. Even for our ministry of what we’re doing, like, “Oh, we need to address this, and really recognize and help families, as they’re dealing with blending.”
Dave: One of the first/I think it might have been the first phone call I ever got from
Mr. Ron Deal—I don’t know if you remember this—Ron’s in the studio with us today, and we are glad to have you back.
Ann: Ron, yes; welcome. We love being with you.
Ron: Thank you. I love being here.
Dave: I don’t know if you remember this, but I did a message—boy, it had to be ten or fifteen years ago at our church—and I sort of apologized to the blended families.
Ron: Oh, I remember.
Dave: You do. Because you found it or heard it; and I get this call, or email, or text—I can’t remember—and it was basically: “I can’t believe a pastor’s apologizing for this.” But it was really the same feeling I had when you read those stats: is I was naïve, and I felt bad. All the couples in our church that sit there every week—and I don’t realize how they’re hearing what I’m saying; I’m talking to nuclear families, with one husband and one wife—and I didn’t even grow up in that family—
Dave: —yet, that’s who I predominantly talk to. There they are [blended families], sitting—and they’re not just a minority; they’re not even half; they’re the majority—you know, it’s just crazy that this is the world we live in.
It’s so good to have you here. I mean, many of our FamilyLife listeners know you’re the director of Blended Family, here, at FamilyLife. You’ve written/spoken. Here’s the thing—we’re going to talk about your new book—but how many books have you written?
Ann: Yes, let’s talk about that, Ron.
Ron: Wow, okay; so this is book nine. I actually tell people it’s nine-and-a-half; because one of them I did a revised edition of at one point, and it became fifty percent new—so I’m going to add that in there: nine-and-a-half books—and probably close to/we have about fifteen or sixteen resources if you add video curriculum, and small group studies, and different things.
Ann: Are they all on blended?
Ron: They’re all on blended families, yes.
Dave: Obviously, the first question would be: “Okay; do we need another one?”
Ron: Yes; and I’m so glad you asked. You guys, I’m so excited about this book, Preparing to Blend, in part because—guys, there’s a gap—there is a gap in what we offer in the local church to couples getting married when one or both of them is bringing children to the relationship.
Ann: Ron, you’re saying it’s different; because there’s a lot of premarital material out there.
Ann: But for the blended family, is there anything out there in terms of pre-marriage?
Ron: You know, there’s a few things that are hard to put your hands on. But what there is not—and I’m excited to share this with our listeners—what there is not is any sort of standard of how you go about doing premarital counseling.
Let me just back up for our listeners. This book is a do-it-yourself guide for couples. They can just pick it up, and on their own, go through it and give themselves premarital counseling, if you will.
Dave: They don’t need a mentor.
Ron: They don’t need; but what is—
Dave: Should they though?
Ron: Yes, absolutely. What is better—and what I strongly encourage, right in the Introduction, is—“Connect with a pastor, a mentor, a lay couple, somebody who will walk you through this premarital process.” And we have a leader’s guide that is a free pdf download for leaders, who want to know how to structure their counselling sessions, utilizing the book.
It’s this whole program, if you will, on how to do pre-blended family counseling. But notice my language: “Pre-blended family counselling.” It’s not premarital counseling.
Ann: Oh, that’s different; isn’t it?
Ron: Here’s the difference: premarital counseling traditionally is focused on the couple.
Ron: Because really it’s sort of like, if you’re thinking traditional family—you’re thinking first marriage: couple getting married; it’s just the two of them—they haven’t started life yet. Premarital counseling is couple-centric, if I could say it that way.
But when you’re trying to prepare a couple to lead a family—kids are involved; and sometimes, the kids are five; sometimes, they’re fifteen; sometimes, they’re thirty-five—right? Kids are adults and on their own, and later in life, somebody’s getting married. There’s all sorts of scenarios, and there’s more people involved—so you’re not just preparing them for couple-ness, as I like to say—you’re preparing them for family-ness.
As it turns out, we know—we’ve talked about this so much on FamilyLife Today—couples get married and form a blended family, because they’ve fallen in love with a person. But they divorce, because they don’t know how to be a family. That’s where the rubber meets the road.
If premarital counseling only talks to them about their husband/wife relationship, and does not talk to them about parenting—about step-parenting, about working with a co-parent in another home, about managing loss or finances or—those are the things that cause stress and, ultimately, deconstruct the couple’s relationship and tear them apart.
Ann: It’s so interesting that you say that; because I have friends that have entered into a blended family, whether it be through a death or a divorce, and every one of those friends that I’ve talked to before the wedding—they’re not thinking so much about the wedding as their kids—because they feel like their kids have been through trauma, and they’re worried about them. For you to address the whole family is pivotal to me.
Ron: It is; I mean, it really is. We’ve got to, not just help the couple think about being a couple—we’ve got to help them strengthen their couple-ness, yes—and also engage their children around the realities that are coming, and try to prepare the children, and begin to create identity.
I know I’m talking fast here; but fundamentally, what a blended family has to develop in order to be successful, long-term, is a family identity, meaning: “What is our last name?”—it’s sort of like that’s a really good metaphor—“Well, you have one last name, and we have a different last name. Guess what? That doesn’t mean we’re not family. But it does mean we come from different places, and we’re not naturally family. We have to figure out a way to bond—to create ritual and identity—within our home and within our relationships. We have to bring definition to those relationships.”
That is a journey. If we can help families—adults and kids—start that journey intelligently/intentionally, even before the wedding takes place, it gives them momentum for life after the wedding.
Ann: As a couple and a family does this, is the whole family involved, reading the book? You’ve got stepkids interacting.
Ron: Great question. Here’s the way it’s structured—the book is for the couple—you can imagine a mentor, somebody like yourselves, doing premarital counselling in a local church, walking through the book with this couple. They’re going to read a chapter. Each chapter talks about an important concept related to blended family living. Then it’s going to give them, what I call, a growing activity. It’s going to give them something to do to actually put that into practice/to implement the principles.
Sometimes, that includes the children—some of the chapters, ten working/growing activities—sometimes, it’s just the couple working on it together. Sometimes they engage their children; sometimes, it’s one child at a time. Sometimes, it’s a family group.
In the leader’s guide, we actually invite leaders: “Hey, if you’re comfortable inviting kids to come in with the couple, and have sort of a family session, you can do some of this in your presence.” But you can also have the family do it between the sessions—and then come to you; and sit down with you; and process, out loud, as a couple—“Here’s what we heard from our children…” “Here’s what we think it means…” You can offer some guidance along the way.
Dave: Do you find that couples, that are merging into a blended situation, are they more motivated? Because sometimes, when I’ve done premarital with a young couple—and maybe even an older couple, but they’ve never been married—
Dave: —part of the time, you’re sitting there, as the leader, going, “They’re not listening; they think it’s easy.” We thought the same thing.
Dave: You’re like, “Okay, I’ll talk to them in six months; then they’re going to be like, ‘Oh my goodness, we need help.’” But I’m guessing—a blended situation—they know better.
Ron: It kind of depends on the backstory.
Ron: There’s a thing we call idealistic distortion—Prepare/EnrichProfile—you can give a couple the profile. It actually measures how unrealistic they are about the future and their relationship. That distortion/idealism skews their views about the strength of their relationship; you can measure that.
Couples forming blended families have lower idealistic distortion. They have already learned something in life about relationships and family. Not everybody entering a blended family—you can imagine a future stepparent, who’s never had any kids, and never been married before—they don’t have the same experience as their partner does. But somebody has been through a death, or a divorce, or a serious break-up of a relationship that had children connected to it. So somebody’s got some life experience.
Many times, these couples are in their mid-fifties/early sixties—definitely life experience—no, they’re not naïve; but even though they are less idealistic, they’re still naïve about the process of becoming a family. The assumption is: “I know more about marriage; I’ve learned what not to do,”—right?—“Know from the last relationship what not to do. I’ve learned a few things; it’s going to be different,” or “Had a great first marriage; ended in the death of my spouse. I definitely want more of that. I have an idea of what marriage looks like, and what it requires of me,” but their only thinking and focused on couple-ness.
To your point, Ann, they may be mindful of their children; but they really don’t know how to include them in the process to dialog with them. Maybe they kind of say: “What are you guys thinking? How are you feeling about this?” The kids give a little something back. Sometimes, the adults hear it better than the kids are really saying it; so they discount: “Oh yes, that will be fine once we’re all living in the same house. Then it will all be…”
There’s still this minimization of the process and the journey of becoming a family together. They can’t live in that space; because if they do, then it’s sort of like they get blindsided quickly after the wedding, and they’re like, “What happened?” If there’s one email I’ve gotten through the years, more than anything, it’s: “Why didn’t anybody tell us that some of these challenges were coming?”
It’s sort of like: “Yes, let’s tell them; let’s talk about it. Let’s prepare for that, and let’s take the sting out of it; so that when it happens, you go, ‘Dave and Ann told us about that. Now, I know what that is; and we know what to do about it.’” That’s a totally different experience.
Dave: Yes; and it is, in some ways, it’s surprising; because you’re thinking, “Well, they’ve been through this once, or twice, or more; there’s no way they’re going to be naïve.” But it’s still going to happen a little bit like you were saying.
I was thinking, our two sons that have kids, before they had kids, we were trying to tell them, “You have no idea; wait.” They’re like, “Oh, it can’t be that…”; and then they have them, and they’re like, “We had no idea.”
Dave: With a blended couple getting married, you’re thinking, “They know!” But you’re saying they still don’t know completely; so here’s the question: “What do they need to know? What are the things that they’re still blind to?”
Ron: First of all, let me just say, this gap that I talked about/this premarital gap—first of all, statistically, almost half of all couples get some sort of premarital education—I don’t know if you knew that; it’s a/that’s a high number, I think.
Ron: Most of them get that premarital education from some religious institution, a church or a synagogue or something. But it’s about 25 percent, or less, of pre-blended family couples get any sort of premarital counseling.
Number one, it’s a huge gap just in terms of what they get. Number two, those who do go to their local church and pastor—and say, “Hey, can we have premarital counseling?”—they probably get the same thing, most of them, that the 25- and 26-year-old first-time married couple, without children, are getting. It’s couple-centric, and it’s filled with good stuff. They’re learning skills on how to manage conflict, and manage money, and some elementary things like that; but they are not learning anything about the blended family dynamic and the stressors that they’re going to have to face once reality comes.
Dave: Obviously, you don’t want to give them the same thing; because it’s a different dynamic.
Dave: What are the kind of things they have to have their eyes open to?
Ron: Okay, so let me just run through some of the chapters for example.
Chapter 1: I’m going to have them go online and create a digital genogram of their family, which is a map. There’s a new tool that’s available; I’ve partnered with the organization, and so people can go and do that online for very cheap. They’re going to get a picture of their family: the children, the other households, all the adults. And they’re going to get a sense of the relationship temperatures, if we could put it that way, going on between those relationships: between children and dad in the other home; and children and future stepdad, dating mom.
Ann: It’s this digital map.
Ron: It is; it prints out, and it gives them the snap shot. One of the first things that—
Dave: I mean, I want to do that.
Ann: I know; me too!
Ron: Doesn’t it sound like fun?
Ron: I’ve been doing genograms with families for years, and years, and years; and now, you can do it online. Here’s the thing: a lot of people look at that, and they go: “Oh, wow! There’s four households connected to our family,” “Look at all these adults,” “Look at all these children,” “Look at all these/the movement between homes,” “Oh, look; my daughter has great relationships with those three people, and really tough ones with these two people. I wonder what that’s like for her.”
It forces all these things to the surface, where you begin to ask new questions, and you begin to ponder, and you can think together: “How do we help plan?” “How do we prepare, not just for us, but for my daughter?”
We talk about expectations. We talk about planning your wedding, which I’d love to come back to a little bit. We talk about deciding what to call each other, like terms and names—
Ron: —like: “Are you my stepmom?” “Are you my bonus mom?”
Ann: “Do I call you…”
Ron: “How do I refer to you as that? By the way, I’d kind of like to call you ‘Mom’; but if I do, I think my mom will throw a fit; so I better not call you ‘Mom.’”
That whole conversation needs to happen at some point. Don’t just assume those labels are going to be easy for people to figure out. I say, “Have a conversation and co-create something everybody is okay with/can live with. That gives you a foundation to begin building your relationships.”
That’s the kind of stuff we’re going to do in this book. We talk about parenting; we talk about grief and how weddings resurrect grief.
Ann: Oh, yes.
Ron: We talk about anticipating change and what will change—having a conversation with kids about—“You’re going to be going to a new school. We’re going to be living in a different house. It’s going to take us 25 minutes longer to get you to school in the morning. That means you’re going to have to get up earlier.”
Those are the little things that are the truth about merging homes. The reason that’s important is because—if you, as a kid, in particular, have had a series of unwanted changes in your life and then, all of a sudden, somebody says, “You’ve got to get up
45 minutes earlier than you used to get up,” that’ll just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for some kids—if they didn’t see that coming, then they can’t speak into it.
But if we get out in front—and we help anticipate; and we make it a family discussion: “How are we going to deal with these realities together?”—all of a sudden, kids have a little bit of power that they didn’t have otherwise. That makes a big difference in how the family moves forward.
Dave: What difference does premarital mentoring/counselling have on a marriage?—and obviously, what difference is it going to make in a blended family?
Ron: I’m so glad you asked, because we know premarital counselling works. Couples who go through premarital counselling show a 30 percent increase in the quality of their overall relationship, immediately. Couples who went through premarital counseling have a 31 percent decreased chance of getting a divorce, year over year, from couples who never had premarital counselling. Couples who go through premarital counselling do better on 80 percent of the measures of relationship satisfaction and quality than couples who don’t go through premarital; its works!
Ann: Why, Ron? Those statistics are pretty important. Why does it work? What helps us?
Ron: It works for the same reason FamilyLife exists. We help people get intentional with their walk with the Lord, and how they walk it out in their most intimate relationships: “Pursuing the things that matter most,”—right?—isn’t that what we say? That’s what we want to help people do. We do that with intentionality, so we’re building emotional and spiritual intelligence into people and how they love one another.
That’s essentially what premarital counselling does, and it makes a difference.
Dave: This isn’t—part of me is like/I want to say—“Blended families, go get it [the book].” But it isn’t just blended families; because if I want to help—
Dave: —someone, I want to go get it as well, and have a resource literally in my hand to be able to—I mean, what a great tool.
As you said, it’s a companion tool to our own Preparing for Marriage, here, at FamilyLife. Talk about that real quick.
Ron: Yes; so Preparing for Marriage is a book that’s been around for a long time. FamilyLife has really put a lot into that book. It, too, is kind of a do-it-yourself guide for couples; but leaders have a guide [that] allows them to walk a couple through that whole process.
This book, Preparing to Blend, is a sister book to that; they’re co-companions if you want to say it that. They’re just designed for a different audience.
Dave: They’re a blended family.
Ron: That’s right; it’s a blended family of books. [Laughter]
If you’re a pastor or a leader right now, you can have a tool for every couple that walks in the door, whether it’s a first marriage situation or a blended family.
By the way, I just said, “first marriage”; and it reminded me [of] another stat. Did you guys know 15 percent of all first marriages give birth to a blended family? That is a new stat, and I’m sharing it with everybody I can. Because I think we have this narrative in our heads about divorce and remarriage—yes, sometimes, it’s somebody who’s widowed—but increasingly in our culture, first marriages are giving birth to blended families; because one of the adults has a child. If one of the two adults is over the age of 30—or 30 or above—it jumps to 25 percent of first marriages form blended families.
This is going to be increasingly something that churches have an opportunity to step in and make a difference in somebody’s life. If premarital counselling, in general, works, imagine targeted, designed-for-blended-family premarital education for this couple, who’s walking in, who just doesn’t know what they don’t know. You gently lead them into this space and help them to be intentional in ways that they never would have anticipated. Next thing you know, they’re off and running. The momentum has started even before the wedding has occurred.
Bob: If our goal is to help couples thrive in marriage, and if premarital preparation is part of how you accomplish that, increasingly, as Ron Deal has just said, we have got to know about the unique challenges facing couples, who are forming a blended family, whether it’s the kind of first marriage he was talking about, or couples who have been previously married, coming together to form a new family.
Ron has a book that addresses this subject called Preparing to Blend. It’s brand-new. We’ve got copies of it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go online to get your copy, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY.
There’s also an event coming up in two weeks. People from all over the country are going to be gathering in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, for a two-day conference called The Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. The theme this year is “Prepare,” helping couples prepare for forming a blended family. That’s where the focus will be. If you’re involved in a family ministry in a local church—if you have somebody at your church, who heads up family ministry—let them know about this event. If you’ve got a heart for couples and want to be used by God in their lives, doing premarital preparation for couples, who are forming blended families, plan to attend yourself.
All the details are available online at FamilyLifeToday.com. You can go there for more information. The dates are October 14 and 15; that’s a Thursday and a Friday. Again, it’s in the Atlanta area; but there are going to be people coming from all across the country for this two-day event. Again, find out more at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY if you have any questions.
Use that same information if you’d like to get a copy of Ron Deal’s new book, Preparing to Blend: call 1-800-FL-TODAY, or go online at FamilyLifeToday.com.
You know, this subject and this upcoming event really is tied directly to what we’re all about at FamilyLife. Our mission is that every home would become a godly home. Whatever the circumstances that are bringing you together, as husband and wife, as you’re raising your kids, our goal is that your family would continually be pointed back toward Jesus and the gospel, what the Bible has to say about building strong relationships and strong families.
Those of you who are, not just FamilyLife Today listeners, but who help support this ministry, you make all of this possible through your financial support and your prayers for us, here, at FamilyLife Today. Thank you to those of you have given in the past.
If you’re a regular listener, and you’ve never made a donation, let me invite you to join the team and help make FamilyLife Today possible going into the future/help pay it forward. You can donate today online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. We just want to say, “Thanks,” in advance, for supporting this mission. On behalf of the hundreds of thousands of couples, who are helped every day here at FamilyLife, thank you for making it all possible.
We hope you can join us, again, tomorrow. Ron Deal will be here again. We’re going to continue looking at the issues that couples, who are forming blended families, need to be thinking about before they say, “I do.” We hope you can be here for that.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. See you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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