The Step-Parent’s Role
About the Guest
We vowed to love our spouse forever, but the marriage ended in divorce. Marriage and family therapist Ron Deal talks about the covenant of marriage and how that applies to remarried men and women.
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
We vowed to love our spouse forever, but the marriage ended in divorce.
The Step-Parent’s Role
Bob: In a stepfamily, your children want your attention and your affection; and so does your new mate. Who wins in that kind of a tug-of-war? Here is Ron Deal.
Ron: Just recently, I was talking with a couple. They haven't gone on a date, yet, in five years of marriage. It really goes back to that notion of, "Well, wait a minute. If we don't take the kids with us, won't they feel left out?" Well, yes, they will; but your marriage needs some nurturing. You need to spend time with your new spouse, and you've got to make that relationship a priority.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, April 25th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. It is not unusual for children to try to undermine a marriage covenant in a blended family. We’ll talk more about that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition. Back last spring, Dennis, I was speaking in a local church on the subject of marriage and talking about marriage as a covenant relationship. There was a time for questions and answers, following my presentation. The first question was from a man who wanted to know, “How does the concept of covenant in marriage apply when you're in the middle of a second marriage?” When there has already been the dissolution of one covenant, is it possible to establish a covenant marriage if you're with your second spouse?
Dennis: And, of course, you are wanting me to answer that question.
Bob: That's why I brought it up.
Dennis: Right here on the broadcast.
Bob: I said, "I will ask Dennis Rainey that when we get back to the studio. You keep listening, sir; and I'm sure he'll have a wise biblical answer for you." So?
Dennis: How did you answer, Bob? Actually, I received a letter from a pastor in the Bay Area after we did I Still Do™ in central California. He was politely taking us to task at our marriage covenant celebration event in an arena where we did not talk enough about stepfamilies and their responsibility to keep their marriage covenant.
Bob, I believe, here on the broadcast, we've needed to address the whole issue of stepfamilies for a number of years. That's why we're talking about it all this week. There is a tremendous need for couples, who are in stepfamilies, to keep their pledge and their promise. You forged a new covenant. You can't look back at the old, other than to make sure that you've dealt with all the issues in the past. You need to look ahead to what God has before you right now, which is keeping your present covenant.
Some time ago, a man shared a letter, publicly, that I asked permission to read. I think it will soon become evident why I want to share it on the broadcast today, as we talk about stepfamilies:
“Many of you know my story, but some of you don't. I have been divorced once and almost twice. Linda and I were married 12-and-a-half years ago, after merely two years of dating. Having both been left in our previous marriages and feeling fairly pious and faultless, we knew we could make it. She had a boy and a girl; I had two girls. There was the honeymoon, which was great! Then there was the reality of a ready-made family.
“But then blended families are great; right? Right. They broaden your horizons; give you a view of the world and family life that would normally go unnoticed. It's akin to a visit to a local dairy bar—getting an ice cream cone with two flavors—a swirl, I think, they call it. It kind of adds a little pizzazz to your life.
“We took my wife's daughter and son, poured them into our new house, added me and my children on some weekends and holidays, and turned the blender on high. I burned up the blender motor in the overdrive unit and tripped the main circuit breaker."
This guy is an electrician, Bob, so it's coming out here in this.
"When the smoke cleared, oil and water had already separated. Our children had already suffered through the scars of a divorce, and then we all suffered again through the battle of the blender blades. No one had higher hopes and dreams for our children and our marriage than we did.
“I was mildly dictatorial in my approach to being a husband, and a stepfather, and, yes, even a daddy. There were fractures on every facet of the diamond God had given us as a second chance. Then there was a separation. It lasted two years. That is when God began to teach me about forgiveness."
That picture that is painted there—I remember when I heard it the first time. I was riveted because—I'm not in a blended or a stepfamily. I couldn't begin to identify with what he was feeling—but by the time he finished reading the letter—and, by the way, I didn't read it all—every man that was in the room was on the edge of their seats, wanting to know what my friend had learned about forgiveness.
As we focus on building a successful stepfamily, today, we're going to focus on the very core of that stepfamily, which is the marriage. With us, in the studio, to help us do that, is a gentleman who, over the last couple of days, has convinced us he knows his stuff about stepfamilies, Ron Deal. Ron, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Ron: Thank you. It's great to be here.
Dennis: Ron is a minister. He's a family therapist. He does seminars, all across the country, called “Building a Successful Stepfamily”. He, and his wife, and three sons live in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Ron, you talk in your seminars about building a healthy marriage. What's really keeping stepfamilies—what are the barriers to establishing a healthy marriage?
Ron: The first one that comes to mind is—the parent/child relationship is stronger and more bonded than is the new couple's relationship. Think about it.
Dennis: It's got more of a history to it.
Ron: They've got more history. I mean, this parent has been with their children for a number of years. Whether there was a death, or whether there was a divorce, now they've been through the single-parent years. One of the things we know about single-parent families is that the parents and the children really bond together. They've got to stick together in order to make it.
Well, now, there's a stepfather in the picture, or there's a stepmother in the picture. These children now have to learn how to share their parent with another adult. The biological parent is also saying, "But my kids are so very important to me. You don't understand," you know, to their new spouse, "You don't understand. These kids mean everything to me. They've been through enough as it is. I've seen them suffer enough. I don't want them to suffer anymore.” There is this really strong temptation for the biological parent to favor their time and their energy towards the children.
The story that comes to mind is the guy who—he and his wife came to see me. They actually got on a plane and flew from where they lived in Florida to come and see me to talk about this. They were nine years into their stepfamily experience. About the third or fourth month into the marriage, he made a statement to his new wife about his children. He said, "Don't ever come between me and my kids. They can't get another father, but you can always get another husband."
Now, right then and there, he let her know what his priorities were. His priorities were his kids. Now, we want to kind of jump at that; and we want to say, "What an awful guy!" Well, you've got to pull back, and you've got to stop, and think for a minute. This is a man who has seen his kids go through some tough times. He knows that, emotionally, they need him. He is committed to them. Those are all qualities that we want any dad to have.
But his fear that his new wife, somehow, is going to intrude on that, or that she is going to bring pain or hardship to his children is putting him in a position where he feels like he's got to chose. All of a sudden, the marriage has taken a huge hit.
Dennis: I remember counseling a couple in a situation where the loyalties to the children far exceeded any commitment of covenant to the new husband or the new wife. I remember talking about Genesis, Chapter 2, where it talks about leaving, cleaving, and becoming one.
I think we usually talk about leaving in terms of leaving our parents. We certainly don't leave our children, in a stepfamily, in the sense of abandoning them; but we need to understand that our children have to know that we are committed to this new relationship, above all else. That's where the security can come from, the second time around, in a stepfamily; can't it?
Ron: It can. Initially, the children will be—they will feel abandoned.
Dennis: They'll compete; won't they?
Ron: They will compete. They will be afraid. It makes sense, Dennis. They've been through a lot. They’ve already lost contact with one parent, who lives in another household; and they may see him every other weekend. It’s not like they’re with that parent all the time. They’ve been through a lot of losses, and because of that, they don't want to have any more losses. Now, they are having to share this biological parent. It makes sense that they would compete.
But biological parents—and right now, there are some people listening to us, going, "Okay, wait a minute. You're telling me I have to choose my spouse over my kids?" My answer to that is, “No, we're not saying it's one or the other. It is a both/and.” I mean, I don't care if you live in a biological home with your children. Couples are, all the time, making sacrifices about what they need for their children.
Well, biological parents in stepfamilies have to do the same thing. We make lots of sacrifices for our kids, whether you're in a biological home or a stepfamily home; but there has to be a priority given to the relationship.
Bob: You know, there are three words that most of us said in our wedding vows that often get overlooked. Those three words are, "forsaking all others." I don't know how many times I've talked at a FamilyLife marriage conference to couples in a second marriage, wrestling with issues of a second marriage. I look at a mom and a dad. I say, "Is the pledge of allegiance here to the person you are with or is it stronger with your children?"
If you would say—when it gets to thick or thin—“I'm going to side with the kids,” you're in dangerous territory. The kids are going to sense that. They're going to capitalize on that. They're going to work to drive the two of you apart because they're inherently selfish. They want your attention, and they want your allegiance to them.
Ron: Bob, do you mean to tell me that kids would take advantage of divided adults?
Bob: It's hard to imagine; isn't it?
Ron: I can't believe that would happen.
Dennis: You know, my children have plotted and connived together in a corner to try to divide Barbara and me. I want to tell you—the situation Bob is describing—I have had happen at the end of messages at a FamilyLife Marriage Conference. The chaos that is created by a husband and wife who are more committed to the children than they are to their spouse. Well, it's a guaranteed failure of that family to ever begin to become all that God intended, even as a stepfamily.
Ron: Now, let's turn this over for a second because there's another side to this equation. That is the stepparent's role in this new marriage. Stepparents need to understand a parent/child bond is a special thing. They should never, ever challenge their new spouse, the children's biological parent. They should never say, "Hey, it's me or them."
Stepparents need to step out of the picture, every once in a while. Let biological parents spend time with their children because the children need that. It's a gift to the children for the stepparent to say, "You need exclusive time on a regular basis. You date your kids. You spend time with them. I'll get out of the picture because that just makes it a little uneasy for the kids."
At the same time, couples need to be spending exclusive time with each other, without the kids. So, again, it's that delicate balance of, “We're going to do both/and. I'm going to continue my relationship with my kids because they need that from me. They need that security from me. At the same time, I am going to dedicate and give good time and energy to this new marriage. Otherwise, we're not going to be able to flourish.”
Dennis: It's a little bit like we were talking about on the broadcast yesterday. It takes time to grow love so that it's a mature, committed love that can look beyond our faults. It's back to 1 Peter 4:8, where it says, "Love covers a multitude of sins." If this isn't the number-one conflict between a husband and a wife in a stepfamily; what is?
Ron: Actually, I think this is it because it ties in with the stepparent and the stepchild relationship. It's that triangle that takes place. People feel like there's only so much love to go around. I always tell stepfamilies, "Look, you've got an endless supply of love points in Jesus Christ. It's not like, “You give your kids 50. Your spouse is only going to end up with 25," or, “You give all of them to one person, and there's nothing left for anybody else.”
Now, we do have a limited supply of energy points. You know, we can invest so much time in our kids that we have no energy for a spouse; and that is very true. Again, there's a balance there. I'm going to give time to my kids and to my spouse. Over time, as we come together and learn how to love each other more, and more, and more deeply, then I can give even more and more priority to the spouse relationship.
If there's anything—this seems backwards—but, again, stepfamilies are different. In the beginning, biological parents probably need to favor their energy points—in giving them to the children. Behind closed doors, whenever they can steal a moment, the couple needs to be spending time together. They do need to do special things and date one another; but, in the beginning, the children need the reinforcement that comes from mom's energy.
Dennis: The thing I hear you repeating over and over again—you said it on Monday. You repeated it on Tuesday—the word just pops out over and over again today—time. It takes time for a stepfamily to begin to emerge into a cohesive unit.
Bob: You know, I would think there is another relationship that threatens the new marriage. It's not just the parent/child relationship, but it's the previous relationships. There's everything from comparing how your new spouse cleans the dishes to comparing how the two of you come together in sexual intimacy. That's got to be a phantom that haunts the new marriage.
Ron: Let's say a gentleman by the name of Dave—in his first marriage, his wife couldn't handle the checkbook. She'd forget to put checks in there and write the amounts. Every other week, they were getting a notice from the bank. Eventually, financial troubles were a great part of their conflict and distress. They almost went into bankruptcy—a highly sensitive issue for him.
He gets into a remarriage situation. Six months into the marriage, his new wife forgets, one time, to write a check in the ledger book. All of a sudden, in his mind, "Here we go again. All women cannot be trusted. This is an issue I've got to take control of so I can prevent it from turning into the kind of situation it was before." He demands the checkbooks. “If you want a certain amount of money, I'll give it to you. You're not getting any more money unless you show me why you need it.”
All of a sudden, he's responding to her as if she is his ex-wife. I call it "the ghost of marriage past". It's very easy for people to be haunted by those memories, by those pains, by those losses. They bring them, if they're not careful, right into this new marriage relationship.
Dennis: You know, resolving conflict is important in any marriage; but it would seem, that in a stepfamily situation, that careful attention would need to be paid toward really keeping the slate clean—over-communicating, keeping that trust in place—that Bob’s talking about—and doing everything possible to be at peace with your spouse.
Now, I'm not talking about supporting them in sin—but I am talking about dealing with issues of disappointment, miscommunication, hurt feelings, unmet expectations, as they occur; because if you don't, it's just as you said. I would think they'd begin to build up, and then that ghost begins to really haunt them.
Ron: All the things that people learn at your FamilyLife marriage conference apply to remarried couples—all of them. They just have to deal with more complexity—on top of that—but learning communication skills, learning how to resolve conflict—is extra important to stepfamily couples.
They've got to learn how to do all those things. I always advise couples, “Once a year, you need to go away and go to the FamilyLife marriage conference. You need to read a good book. You need to get involved with a Bible class because you've got to learn all those skills that everybody else has got to know—plus, you've got to know how to deal with your stepchildren.”
Bob: I would think there are some issues here—you know, we talked about how you can adjust in the parent/child relationship—but some of these phantom issues from the past—there are going to be days when it's just going to hit you. You're going to be confronted with the fact that you're disappointed. It begins to play little mind games with you.
Bob: How do you get past that?
Ron: Well, again, I think one of the things you have to do is you have to have an openness. You have to be willing to say, "Okay, when my spouse looks at me and says, 'I am not her,' maybe I am projecting onto you some things. Maybe I am haunted by some hurts that I really haven't resolved."
Dennis: Ron, the ghost of marriage past may not be in the grave. It may be a real person who is still there taunting, creating pain, making a mess of your life.
Ron: Forever—you're going to be dealing with that person, if you've shared children.
Dennis: That’s right. Are there any coaching tips you would give couples who are in stepfamilies as they're hammering out their marriage in how they deal with a former spouse?
Ron: The first rule is—like we've said—forgiveness. Again, most people have not done that, Dennis. They have not really done the serious hard work of forgiving an ex-spouse and the situations that occurred there. They are still carrying that pain. As soon as you forgive it, as soon as you let go of it, and turn it over to God and say, "This is past. I am moving on," then you unhook yourself. You release yourself from that prison, and you can begin to try to deal with this new person in this relationship.
Bob: You know, lots of times, Dennis, couples get blindsided by these issues. They get blindsided by the bond between parent and child or blindsided by the ghost of marriage past. Ideally, people in a single-parent family, who are considering establishing a stepfamily—they're thinking about marrying somebody and walking into this. Ideally, they've had a chance to think about these things ahead of time—to be prepared for them—to be proactive.
You know, Ron wrote an article that you read that deals with some of the issues you need to consider if you're thinking about establishing a stepfamily. It's an article that we've put on our website at FamilyLife.com that I think those folks, in single-parent households, if they're thinking about establishing a stepfamily—this would be very helpful for them to read.
Dennis: It would because I think we underestimate what it means for these two different nations to come together—two different people from two different backgrounds, bringing all kinds of ancestors, and family members into the forging of another new nation. This article that Ron has written—I think, will be helpful.
Bob: And for couples who have already joined together those two nations and formed a stepfamily, Ron has a book called The Smart Stepfamily that we have available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. There is also a small group version of that book—a DVD series, called The Smart Stepfamily. There is information about both of those resources on our website.
Again, FamilyLifeToday.com is the website; FamilyLifeToday.com. Ron has also written The Smart Stepdad; he co-wrote The Smart Stepmom. He has a lot of resources and articles. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about all that is available to help you in this situation.
We should mention Ron is now a part of the FamilyLife Today team. He has joined us, here at our headquarters. We’re trying to do all we can, as a ministry, to provide the most effective resources available to help couples strengthen their relationship and strengthen their stepfamily. We’re glad to have Ron on the team. In the months ahead, you’re going to be hearing more about some of our initiatives and some new resources that we’re working to develop. So, keep in touch with us. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information; or call us toll-free at 1-800 “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”.
Now, we are grateful for those listeners, who from time to time, will get in touch with us and let us know how God is using this program in your marriage, in your family. In fact, just recently, we had an all-staff meeting. Dennis, you shared a letter that we’d gotten from a listener who was talking about just how significant FamilyLife Today has been in her marriage and as she’s raising her children.
Those notes are always a source of encouragement for us. “Thanks,” to those of you who take time to write us an email or drop us a letter and let us know how God is using the ministry in your life. We also appreciate those of you, who from time to time, help support this ministry by making a donation. We are listener-supported. Whether it’s an occasional $10, or $20, or $50, or $100 or more, your donations are what make this ministry possible. We appreciate your support.
This week, if you can make a donation, we’d love to send you Dennis Rainey’s brand-new book called Aggressive Girls, Clueless Boys. Along with that book, we’ll send you a copy of Dennis’ book, Interviewing Your Daughter’s Date. Both of these books are designed to help you as your sons and daughters move through the teen years in what has become an increasingly sexually-charged culture.
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Again, thanks for your support. We appreciate your partnership with us here at FamilyLife Today. And we hope you can be back with us tomorrow. We’re going to talk about the ex-factor—not the TV show—but how an ex-spouse can have an impact on a healthy stepfamily. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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