A Conversation with Ron Deal

Newly Married

Ron Deal, M.MFT. is the author and presenter of the “Building A Successful Stepfamily” seminar and the author of The Smart Stepfamily from Bethany House Publishers.

How prevalent are stepfamilies today in this generation?

Currently in the United States, one out of three Americans has a step-relationship of some kind. Either they are a stepparent, a stepchild, a stepsibling; but they have a step-relationship of one sort or another. Approximately one half of us will have a step-relationship at some point in our life time, if the predictions hold true. So stepfamilies are very, very prevalent in our society.

I noticed in your book, the “Smart Stepfamily”, that you refer to them as “stepfamilies”, not “blended families”. Is there a real difference there?

There is a real difference. To be honest, most stepfamilies don’t blend. And the joke we like to tell is if they do blend, somebody gets creamed in the process. The idea is that there is a step-relationship, meaning there is something different about the relationship between at least two people in the home — they’re not a blood relative to one another. So they’re a step removed from that. Blended families carry the idea that everybody in the family has blended, that all the relationships are equal or the same. And that really isn’t the truth. It really becomes more of a fantasy.

You talk about this concept of “Crock Pot Stepfamilies.” Can you explain that for us?

The idea is, how do you cook a stepfamily? If you were in the kitchen and you started to blend some ingredients, you might put them all in a bowl and start whipping them together until they combine thoroughly and completely. We’ve established that families just don’t come together to that degree. But we have to employ some sort of style in order to bring the ingredients of this family together, and the blender doesn’t work.

The microwave method is that we’re gonna instantly fall in love with one another; we could just put it in for a few seconds and pop it out and everybody will be cooked and comfortable with each other. Some of the other approaches that I find stepfamilies using are things like the pressure cooker method, where pressuring messages are given to the children and to the adults of love and acceptance of one another. Again, sometimes that just doesn’t happen and it certainly doesn’t happen as quickly in the pressure cooker tins.

The crock pot method is the prescription that we want stepfamilies to utilize in trying to bring together the ingredients of their home — that is, their family members. This is the idea that you take the lid off the pot, you throw in all the ingredients, you put the lid on, turn it on low and you walk away. Two things happen, time and low heat combine in order to bring the ingredients together. Time refers to this idea that it takes the average stepfamily somewhere between five and seven years to really come together, to feel and to function like a family.

Low heat is the idea that the family is going to be intentional in allowing them to develop over time. That’s what a crock pot does when it cooks ingredients. Families who have a crock pot mentality do a couple of things. First of all, they relax. And they understand that today we’re not blended, we haven’t combined and we’re not done cooking; that we have lots of time to work on this and so today, we’re going to accept where we are and we’re gonna try to enjoy what we have and then we’re gonna keep being intentional to move us ahead into the future. We’re also not going to panic, because things haven’t come together just quite yet. That’s what a crock pot stepfamily looks like.

Ron, how important is it that siblings love and accept each other or love and accept the stepparent prior to the marriage?

I don’t know that it’s necessary. Again, the crock pot is gonna cook the different ingredients over time. It’s helpful if the adults take the dating process slowly and give the children plenty of time to get used to the idea that they’re going to be living in a stepfamily situation. When people rush into a remarriage they are ready for the remarriage, but their children generally are not and that brings with it more resistance from the children once the marriage has taken place.

Does that mean that the parents don’t necessarily need to get “approval” from the stepchildren before getting married?

No, parents do not need their children’s approval. However, the smart parent understands that leaving their children behind and entering a marriage that the children are not ready for simply is going to lead to stress and distress for the new stepfamily.

You mention that stepparents cannot afford to be insecure. What do you mean by that?

I mean they have to have tough skin. It’s difficult to be a stepparent. One of the reasons for that is you’re an outsider to the biological insiders who are related to one another and who love one another deeply. So the outsiders become the easy targets for stress and frustration.

One of the things stepparents have to do is depersonalize the darts that are thrown at them. I call it “letting the bullet bounce”. It’s certainly gonna hurt when your stepson ignores you when you walk in the room. Instead of letting that bullet penetrate all the way to your heart where it can do a great amount of damage to your self esteem and your sense of worth to the family, you have to let that bullet bounce at the skin. It will leave a bruise; it will perhaps leave a scar. But you’re putting on some thick skin and reminding yourself that the comments are not necessarily about you.

They are more about the child’s loss, they’re about this transition in the home, they are about missing somebody else who’s not in the home. And so you have to remember that you’re valuable, and that God loves you, and that you have a worth that goes beyond getting the people in your home to fully accept you.

In regard to those bio-relationships, how critical is the unity factor to the success of the stepfamily?

A stepparent who is not fully supported by the biological parent really has no place in the family at all. They have no ability to discipline; they have no authority, because their authority is going to come from the biological parent. So the unity factor is critical to establishing the husband and the wife as the leaders of the home. They are the supreme command, if you will, and they cannot manage, direct, or be in charge of the home if they do not support one another. So a husband and wife need to negotiate the rules together, they need to make decisions together and they need to stick to their decisions and support each other in front of the kids. Sometimes making those changes as parents is the most difficult part of parenting. It requires some sacrifice on both the adults’ part. But the unity is what will give the ability to lead the family.

Your research has produced some awesome observances about forgiveness in the stepfamily relationship itself. Can you elaborate on some of those?

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In general, forgiveness is the thing that mends the hurts in our misguided attempts on love. In the end, it’s really all we have to cover up our humanness. The fact is that we fail one another from time to time and so the forgiveness that God has granted us is the same thing that we are in turn to grant to one another. Specifically, I have found the forgiveness that needs to occur between ex-spouses is very critical to the success of a stepfamily home. They have to continue a relationship of shared parenting as the children move back and forth between homes. Too many times, ex-spouses end a marriage, move into a new marriage and still have not let go of the hurt and the pain from the previous relationship. It really sabotages the new stepfamily relationships.

What practical advice do you have for the stepparents who feel out of control and want to get back on track?

First and foremost, lower your expectations for the kind of relationship that you’re developing with your stepchildren. I think stepparents expect too much of themselves. They want to have a good relationship with their stepchildren and that desire is very, very positive. However, if they work too hard at that and the children are not receiving of the stepparent’s efforts, then it’s very easy to get discouraged and feel like you’re failing.

But it really has more to do with whether or not the children are open to receiving you. So in lowering your expectations, we tell stepparents to remember the golden rule about developing a relationship with a stepchild and that is this: Let your stepchildren set the pace for their relationship with you. They need to be the ones who say when they’re ready for affection. They need to be the ones who in effect let you know that your authority matters to them and that they welcome you being in charge of their life. It doesn’t mean that you can’t give some direction as a stepparent. In fact, I think one of the things stepparents can do is when they discover that they’ve worked too hard is to simply step back, let the biological parent begin to step up to the plate and deal with the child a little bit more.

How does scripture address, apply or even support individuals in stepfamilies?

Obviously we believe scripture applies to all cultures, all races of people and all family structures. But we don’t have any specific scripture that seems to address the specific relationships in a stepfamily home. So the question then becomes, “How does it apply?” For example, Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” I would suggest that that passage applies to stepfathers just like it applies to biological fathers. However, the application process is going to be different for a stepfather. The stepfather can exacerbate their stepchildren much more easily than can a biological father.

One of the attributes of a blood relationship is that we tend to give that person the benefit of the doubt. And so children will naturally, for example, attribute that their father is trying to be good to them even when handing down discipline. They may not like the discipline, they may disagree with it, but they know where his heart is. But a child who is building a relationship with his stepfather doesn’t know that man well enough to know where he’s coming from, doesn’t know whether they can trust him with his intentions, so it’s easier for that child to assume something negative about that stepfather. The stepfather has to first build trust and build relationship with the child.

Ron, can you explain how a stepfamily couple could use this book to their benefit the best way?

I think first and foremost it’s going to teach them what’s normal. Unfortunately, the Brady Bunch lied to America. They taught America that you can take the biological family mold, pick it up, transport it and lay it down on top of a stepfamily and it will function the same; just like those in a biological home. The truth is they’ll be different. And so stepfamilies need to learn what’s normal and what’s expected of the relationships within their home. I think number two is that they will learn the developmental journey that all stepfamilies go through on their way to an integration, on their way to cooking in a crock pot, how the ingredients come together. It will give them a map of what’s ahead and how to help their children heal from the past and cope with what’s happening now.

I think, thirdly and probably most importantly, it will help stepfamilies to work smarter instead of harder. The reason we named the book, “The Smart Step Family” is because I found that most stepfamilies were working very hard at being successful, but they were working hard in the wrong directions and their attempts were inadvertently creating resistance to the new relationship.

We’re teaching them how to work smarter, not harder, in the right directions; smarter in “cooking style”, smarter in building their marriage and coming to a parenting system that really will work for their family.

In closing is there anything else you’d like to say to our Growthtrac viewers?

To those who are haunted by guilt from the past; shame over events in their life that have led them to their stepfamily situation that they cannot change or control, I would want to remind them that God loves and forgives the imperfect people in stepfamilies just like He loves and forgives the imperfect people in biological families.

The quality of the relationships in your home, thankfully, is not a condition of God’s grace. He is longing for a relationship with you and if you have been out of touch with Him, He desperately wants to get to know you again. You have the opportunity to renew that relationship through Jesus Christ.

I want to say to the church, in general, that we must continue to provide a message of hope for stepfamilies and we also have to provide some practical education and support for them because there is so much that can be done to keep stepfamilies and remarried couples from divorcing. So we have to prepare ourselves in order to equip them.

I would suggest to everyone that the church is more like a stepfamily than a biological family. The church is a collection of people from different backgrounds, different cultures, different races, different living styles, different socio-economic status, and yet we come together around a common theme: the idea that we can love one another and put aside our differences for the glory of God. Stepfamilies, at their core, have that same task. So, if the church is like stepfamilies in that way, I think it definitely has to be part of our agenda to love and support them and encourage them in their relationship with the Lord.

Copyright © 2003 Growthtrac. All rights reserved.

Ron is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a Certified Family Life Educator, a Certified Family Wellness instructor, and a member of the Stepfamily Association of America’s Advisory Council.

Ron’s media appearances to address the needs of stepfamilies include radio programs such as “FamilyLife Today” with Dennis Rainey, “Life Talk” with AACC president Dr. Tim Clinton, and the national TV program “Time for Hope.” He writes feature family and ministry articles for a number of publications and online magazines.

Ron has spoken at the National Conference on Stepfamilies and both the Utah and Arkansas Governors’ conferences on the family. In addition, Ron is featured as a family life specialist on a weekly TV news segment entitled the “Home Builder Series.” He and his wife, Nan, have three boys.

For more information on Ron’s materials, speaking schedule, ministry training, or hosting a live seminar, email Ron at rdeal@swfamily.org

Read more from Ron at Successful Stepfamilies.

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