ERP 313: How To Become A Successful Blended Family — An Interview With Ron Deal

By Posted in - Podcast March 29th, 2022 0 Comments

Are you one of the three Americans who have a step relationship today? Demographers expect that one out of every two Americans will be in a step relationship at some point in their lives.

It’s not easy being a part of a blended family. There are way too many factors to take into account. In fact, external step-family-related variables generate a high divorce rate in the US.

It might be a lengthy and difficult process, but it is not impossible to succeed with the right mindset, guidance, and resources. And that’s exactly what Ron Deal discusses in this episode. We’ll go over what to expect, what activities you can do, resources, and advice for raising a healthy blended family.

Ron 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 of books including the bestselling Building Love Together in Blended Families: The 5 Love Languages® and Becoming Stepfamily Smart (with Dr. Gary Chapman), The Smart Stepfamily: 7 Steps to a Healthy Family, and Preparing to Blend.

Ron is a licensed marriage and family therapist, popular conference speaker, and host of the FamilyLife Blended podcast.

In this Episode

7:38 Ron’s motivation for a career in marriage and family therapy.

13:00 What you need to know about blended families.

19:55 A visual map to help you navigate the blended family territory.

36:06 Some growth activities that you can try.

45:04 How to get smart and guide your family forward in the right direction.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Try to seek a balance between loving and caring for your kids and forming a new relationship.
  • Preserve your role as a parent who is emotionally connected and engaged with your children.
  • Give everyone enough time and space to figure out love on their own.
  • Treat everybody with kindness.
  • It takes 5 to 7 years to find the relational fit and begin to settle the sense of family identity. Be patient and trust the process.

Mentioned

Preparing to Blend: The Couple’s Guide to Becoming a Smart Stepfamily (*Amazon affiliate link) (book)

Building Love Together in Blended Families: The 5 Love Languages and Becoming Stepfamily Smart (*Amazon affiliate link) (book)

FamilyLife Blended® Podcast

Connect with Ron Deal

Website: familylife.com/familylifeblended/blended-families

Facebook: facebook.com/familylifeministry

Twitter: twitter.com/familylifetoday

YouTube: youtube.com/channel/UC7WmdqnETL3gCmWruBF0tpQ

Instagram: instagram.com/familylifeinsta

Pinterest: pinterest.com/familylifeministry

Website: smartstepfamilies.com

Facebook: facebook.com/SmartStepfamilies

Twitter: twitter.com/RonLDeal

YouTube: youtube.com/user/FamilyLifeBlended

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Ron, thank you for joining us today.

Oh man, it’s a privilege to be with you. I appreciate you inviting me.

I’m super grateful that we’re going to be diving into this topic, and that you have done so much to provide people with such guidance in the realm of blended family, how to support marriage and the family, and what that terrain is about. I’m curious if you’re open to sharing what got you interested in this particular space?

Yeah, it’s interesting. A lot of times people are motivated for a passion in their life around something that’s very personal for them. This did not start out personal for me; it started out as a professional interest for me. I got my start working with teenagers, doing youth ministry in a local church, and I worked with kids who came from very complex family backgrounds. I figured out real fast that I didn’t know enough about their life, their family, and the dynamics in which they live, for me to be really useful and helpful. So I went back to school, got a degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, and became a family therapist. In the process, I fell in love with the good training that I had that exposed me to help me understand complex family situations. So I just started my professional world at that point, beginning to be mindful of blended families, single-parent families, and trying to work with them both from a proactive preventative enrichment standpoint, as well as a therapeutic standpoint. 

So take that little story and add 30 years. Here I am today, running the largest blended family educational program in North America, and likely the world, as far as we know. It’s sort of like I didn’t really intend to get here, but life just brought me in this direction. My wife jokingly says that I’m the male obstetrician of the stepfamily world. If you think about that for a minute, you’ll know what I mean by that. We’ve had three children, and they were all with male obstetricians, who of course have never been pregnant themselves, who have never delivered a baby or had to figure out how to manage that pain. Yet, they know something about the process. 

Really, Jessica, that’s what I do is I help people understand the process of becoming a blended family; how you merge well, how you bond well? There are lots of other people out there who have a great message, and they’re teaching from the inside out. I’m sort of teaching from the outside in.

Yes. As we’re talking, I just want to acknowledge that listeners might not all be in this exact situation where they’re having a second marriage, blending family, or having the constellation being unique and complex. As we started talking just before we started recording, I myself come from what I think then would be described as like a divorced family. It was kind of complex in the blending, in the sense that I have a brother that’s a half-brother. All that to say, I’ve been impacted by the unique, not the nuclear family experience. Then my husband, he did come from a blended family. So as we were talking, many people, whether or not they have their own blended family, are impacted by it; whether it’s a sibling or an extended family member. That the consciousness around this blending and the complex systems that we’re negotiating are incredibly important to consider.

Yes, they are. Here’s the thing. Just as you said, if you’re listening right now and you’re not in a blended family situation, you probably know and love somebody who is. 

“One out of three Americans has a step relationship today; meaning they have a step-parent, a step-sibling, or a step-child. The prediction from the demographers is that one out of two Americans will have a step relationship at some point in their lifetime.”

My brother-in-law became a stepson at age 51. He’s married to my sister, his father passed away. His mom and dad, are wonderful, married, a lifetime couple. He passed away, and two years later, his mom married a guy. They’re later in life, all the kids are adults, my brother-in-law is 51. But now guess what? He has a different place to go on Christmas. He walks in at Thanksgiving with people that are his step-dad’s family. It’s weird even saying that; he didn’t even really like to use that term, it didn’t feel right. But his step-dad’s children and grandchildren are now part of his mom’s life on a daily basis, and his life, whenever they get together for family events. It’s going to touch our lives one way or another. So what we’re talking about today is relevant to everyone listening.

Yes. I’ll just say, I was sharing with you also that in reading your book, that even if you’re not immediately at the moment experiencing the step or blended family situation, the practices and exercises are still extremely helpful for anyone.

Yes. The book we’re talking about, particularly today, I think, is Preparing to Blend. We’ve actually written nine books in the series, called The Smart Stepfamily series. But this latest one is all about engagement and preparing in the early year of becoming a blended family. But you’re right, there are principles that are rooted in that, that will have some broad application to other family relationships as well.

Okay, we’re going to dive into this. But before we do, I just want to back up a moment. You answered the call because you saw the need and then you got interested and curious, and you were able to support and help guide people in the process that you’re offering, having developed it yourself in your training to be able to assist people. So you’re recognizing that people – I’m assuming, and I would love to hear your thoughts on this – when they enter into perhaps a second marriage or even a third marriage and are preparing to blend family, that their awareness around what to expect or what they’re predicting, perhaps you’re wanting them to know some things. Is that right?

Yeah, that’s exactly right. As I said earlier, I have three children. Anybody who’s a parent who’s listening, if they had really explained to us what was required of us as parents, we might not have done it. Or we would have thought it through and maybe prepared more something. Like, we all love our kids to death, absolutely! It’s such a massive part of our life. Yet, I think most of us walk through life going: “Okay, did I do the right thing? What do I do next time when this comes up? How do we work together: husband, wife, parent, stepparent, whatever that dynamic is?” It’s work! It’s like an ongoing journey where we explore and figure it out as we go. 

I think the same thing is true of stepfamily living. You come in with some expectations. You have some sense of maybe the challenge that will be in front of you, but also the blessing that you’re looking for and the hopefulness that you have about building a family where people feel loved and safe. Then of course, like most things, you get into it and discover: “Well, there’s more here than we realize. There’s this dynamic, there’s that thing, never saw this one coming.” 

That’s really what we do is we help people see what they can’t see, number one, and number two, make sense of it. I’m convinced, Jessica, that the reason the divorce rate is higher in blended family marriages is because of all of these external stepfamily related dynamics that people don’t know are coming, they don’t know what to do about them, and then they feel taken hostage by those things. It ultimately erodes the couple’s relationship. 

So if we helped you see what’s stressful, understand what’s going on and what you can do about it, my goodness! I mean, it’s a huge investment in your business as a couple, but even more so in the business of your new family. You stay the course. You get to ride out those little storms in life, and you find your way through, and the blessing on the other side is what’s so amazing. So many people could just quit before they ever get to the good reward, and we help people stay the course and know how to do that so that they can get to the benefits.

Oh, my goodness! Ron, as you’re describing this, it almost feels like you’re normalizing that marriage, partnership, and family, and parenting is demanding and is requiring a lot. That if we’re now in a situation that we’re having to perhaps split from X and start a blended family with someone new, I think, unfortunately, some people might have the thought that like: “Oh, that wasn’t a good fit. Or my ex, that wasn’t a good partnership.” It’s about the partnering that really is the difference-maker. 

I think one of the things you’re really helping people see and illuminate is the complexity. If I use the weightlifting analogy, by having the complexities of all these relationships when we’re blending a family of the unique – I know you talk about the genogram, and I want to get towards that in a minute – but the visual of how many relationships are happening, it’s almost like in the weightlifting, we’ve just added a tonne of weight to what was already challenging. So to really give credit, not to overwhelm and scare anybody. But just the recognition around what’s happening and what is at play, and then getting the support to stay the process and trust the process so that you can get to that reward.

One of the illustrations I give in the book, Preparing to Blend, is about stepfamily math, as I like to call it. Simple little illustration here that gets to an important point. A couple in a biological family, where mom and dad are raising the two kids or three kids that they’ve had together, means there are two parents and four grandparents. That’s six. Now in a blended family, you have parent and stepparent, now you have a former spouse, and perhaps they both have a former spouse, perhaps there are new stepparents in each of those other households. All of a sudden, we have six parents and seven to ten sets of grandparents. So we’re up to 20–25 people, many of whom don’t like each other, let alone want to cooperate with each other. The math is just exceedingly different in how you parent. You have kids moving between three households, six adults. 

In the FamilyLife Blended® Podcast that I do, I interviewed a couple not too long ago. Their first spouses both died of a similar disease, a brain tumor, and these two people find each other after losing their spouses. They get married. On the day they walk down the aisle, there are 22 grandparents connected to their children. I said to them, how in the world do you manage Christmas and all the demands that people have on wanting to be with kids over time? They said” “You know what, we decided it was easier to move to rural Tennessee and get away from everybody, rather than have to actually try to figure that stuff out.” It’s complicated. 

Here’s the point about the complications of the numbers and people and types of relationships, and the level of motivation between those different people. Some people are highly motivated towards finding togetherness in your new family. Some children are very motivated, and some children are not motivated at all. Some adults or grandparents, they’re not motivated. Most times you think of grandparents as being motivated, but sometimes they’re not. In an extended family, all of that complexity adds up to the stress that the couple has to carry. When I say “carry,” they have to bear the load of that stress and manage it: for their children, for themselves, for their parenting process, and for their co-parent with their former spouse in the other home. They have to carry it all. 

So if you’re not prepared, it can just pull you under, and that’s the unfortunate thing. But the beautiful thing and the hopeful message here is, when you have a map to help you navigate this territory, you’re going to be okay. But you’ve got to get the map. 

Yes, no kidding! Are you willing to talk about this digital map a little bit? Because I think you’re giving some key indicators, and I would love for you to talk a little bit more.

Yeah. My guess is you’re very familiar with genograms, being a therapist yourself. Lots of people who are clinicians have been using what we call genograms for 60–70 years that it has been around, as a tool to help clinicians map a family, multi-generational family. To look at the relational dynamics going on between individuals, within groups of individuals, really get a sense of the territory, if you will, and then how to work with the family to try to bring some healing. 

Well, I’ve got some friends, they got innovative; we put our heads together. They created an online digital map specifically designed for blended families. Now, anybody can use this, but it’s really designed for blended families, and that’s the cool thing. So Chapter Two of my book, Preparing to Blend, invites couples to go online, gives them a discount code, the whole bit. It’s relatively inexpensive, not hard to do. 

But within a matter of about 30 minutes, you’re going to have this vision of what your family is becoming, what you’re trying to create, and what it is right now. Now, what I mean by “what it is now” is, you’re going to answer a few questions that will help you put a temperature on the relationships you have in your home. The temperature between you and your kids, the temperature between you and your stepchildren, the temperature between the step-siblings, the temperature between new step-grandparents and step-grandchildren, and so on.

Then when you see it on paper in black and white, it is really refreshing, and at the same time, sometimes challenging for some people. To see that “Oh, that’s the complication in our family. Look how many households. Look how many adults are trying to parent. Look how many step-grandparents. Look at their relationships. This child has three really healthy connections with this person, that person, and this person. But they have a really stressful relationship with this one and that one, what are we going to do about that?” 

It helps you get intentional about the details of your family. It’s sort of like it’s going to break through whatever fog that love has got you in right now. So we’re going to break through that a little bit and give you a little dose of reality so that you can be intentional to press into that and move your family forward.

Just the clarity! It sounds as though having this explicit tool that you can visually look at, and perhaps even identify and start to work with and manipulate – not in the sense of manipulating psychologically, but work with externally rather than this internal feeling of all the stress and the chaos and the complexities, where it’s not really clearly named and identified so it’s more difficult to organize and work with – this tool really helps get that out and really visually look at it. As you’re saying, it can validate, like: “Oh, right! This makes perfect sense that we’re feeling so much stress over a holiday.”

That’s exactly what happens. I mean, you nailed it, that’s what happens for people. The lights go on, and you start making those connections. Look, a lot of people don’t realize this, and this is sort of a dangerous thing to say. If I were to ask the average couple getting married – let’s say she has brought two children, he’s got two kids; she’s been divorced, he was widowed – if I just said to them: “So you’re planning to get married, or maybe you’re already married and listening right now, tell me about your family.” It’s a simple question. But what most people do is they tell you who’s in their house. Well, it’s me and my husband and our four kids. I would say, so there’s six in your house? Yes, there are six of us. 

The truth is, no, that’s not true. You have a former spouse, that’s seven. Your kids move over there, he’s living with somebody right now, that’s eight. There’s a whole new set of relationships going on in that sphere of the children’s lives, as well as the sphere of your home in their lives. Your husband has a former wife who died, but she lives on in the heart and mind and soul of her kids, so she’s still alive. There’s nine. She has parents, there’s 11. He has parents, we’re up to 13. Are you with me? 

“The truth is, it’s far more than just the people in the walls of your home. Your home is probably multi-household, especially from the child’s point of view.”

If you don’t embrace that, people keep beating their heads against the wall, and they can’t figure out why they can’t make a relationship get stronger than it is. Until you begin to go: “Well, wait a minute, there’s a dynamic going on here. There’s something in the other home that’s influencing who they are with you.” All of a sudden, the lights go on, you begin to make those connections, and you go: “Okay, now I know what we can do about this.” That’s so helpful to families.

Oh, my goodness! I love the advocate in you for the children, I could see that. I actually worked with a lot of youth, and just the importance and the priority of the environment and the health and well-being. So I just really appreciate that I can hear that in you. 

Also, I can empathize with a new couple, and you talked about the potential love fog. The hope perhaps, or even the expectation, that like: “We’re going to create this beautiful little bubble around us, and we’re going to really do this right.” Just all the intention that’s there, but perhaps that could be such a setup. Because like you’re saying, we’re almost attempting to win a battle that we’re set up to fail to begin with. Because we’re not taking that real honest look around all the different layers and all the different impacts that are happening. We can’t extricate that, and nor would we want to, for the children.

Exactly. Speaking of children, I want to just sort of flip this on its head. Because I have a feeling somebody’s listening to us right now, and they are 30+ or something, and their mom or dad is dating and/or recently remarried. As an adult, you just feel weird about it. I mean, you’re like, “This is so weird, I don’t know how to go back and call mom anymore. Because half the time now, she’s with him or his kids, and she’s unavailable. I have kids, and mom used to be a great grandmother, but now we get her about a fourth amount of the time that we used to.” You’re happy for your mom, but you’re not so happy for you or the rest of your family. So you’re going, I’m not sure I want this thing to blend. 

See, that’s just the truth. Your level of motivation towards family unity is far less than your mom’s motivation, likely. Now, what do you do with that? I mean, I think the thing to say is: “Okay, so I have this more complex family that I never asked for. It’s sort of being thrown on me, even though it wasn’t what my desire was for our home. So how do I open myself to the possibility that there’s something there for me? How do I at least put on kindness and some decency towards these people that I don’t really know, and I’m not sure I want to get to know? How do I at least just step in a little?” Not necessarily hook, line, and sinker; nobody’s asking you to make it artificial. But could you just step in a little, just wait it out, and see if there’s something here that’s of benefit for you and your family. 

I think that’s the openness, whether it’s in the older generation – the middle generation, as we call it, those adult children – or if it’s with younger kids. That’s the same request we’re making of everybody. If everybody allows a little of that, eventually, you move your family forward.

Thank you for naming that. Ron, as you’re even describing this encouragement that you’re offering people to open up to, I can imagine it’s so much easier when the ties and the relationships are honored, and there’s reverence and appreciation for the history and the different complexities. It’s like nobody’s trying to ignore that or make that go away, and we’re really respecting and honoring the different ties here.

Absolutely, I’m so glad you brought that up. Because I do think societal wise, we do forget about children when it comes to marriage and divorce, and I always want to encourage parents. 

So let’s just create a little scenario. Let’s say a guy’s listening, and he’s divorced, and he’s being a good dad as best he can. He’s keeping his visitation time, doing his thing. His ex-wife is doing the same, and maybe she’s already remarried or something. He’s now dating a woman, and they’re getting serious, and they’re thinking about marriage. He feels a little that stress of: “How do I spend time with my kids like I used to, give them everything I want to give them, and at the same time, now invest in this new marriage? I think the temptation in society is: “Hey, you just be happy. Chase your happiness as an adult, your kids will be fine.” Well, no, not really. 

“You can try to seek a balance in loving and caring for your kids and forming a new relationship. But it is not just ‘find your happiness and your kids will find theirs.’ That’s actually not the way it works.”

Here’s what we tell people all the time. Even as you’re developing a new romantic relationship – moving toward this new woman, for example – you also need to be moving toward your kids with great intentionality. Well, of course, I spend time with my kids. No, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is, if your kids lose you to this new romantic relationship, why in the world would they ever embrace your new marriage? Why in the world would they ever be drawn to a relationship with their stepmother? She stole you away from them. Like, that doesn’t even make sense. 

So if you’re going to have any integrity as a family unit, you have to preserve your role as father; connected, emotionally attached, engaged with your children. That’s true if they’re five, or they’re 15, or they’re 35, you have to continue to be dads. So that at the same time, you can be investing in this new romantic relationship. It’s a both-and, it is never one or the other.

It’s more complex, as you’re saying. But as people can feel reassured of their bond and feel supported – that that’s not to be threatened or it won’t be threatened – then I think that’s where we can feel safe to be more open and turn towards that encouragement. Like, can we open up to this a little bit, and what can get created? I’m sure, as you mentioned, there’s so much beauty and benefit that can come from this. But this isn’t easy work.

Right. I mean, people just sort of cringe when I say this, but let’s talk reality. The average blended family needs somewhere between five and seven years to find their relational fit and begin to settle their sense of family identity. Like, who are we to one another? How are we going to get along? How are you my stepdad, and what does that mean for me as a stepson? How do we connect to step-siblings? It takes five to seven years; this is not an overnight journey. This is not like you go on a honeymoon and come home to a harmonious family unit, that’s not happening. It is a journey that you must be committed to, helping each family member in their own way in their own time joining in the process. 

In fact, there’s an analogy that I use in a lot of the teaching that I’ve done, and a number of the books that I’ve written, but it’s in Preparing to Blend as well. The analogy is: how do you cook a stepfamily? Now, a lot of people hear that and they just sort of go, what are you talking about? Well, you can have different cooking methods that a lot of people apply. 

“Most people apply a cooking method to the ingredients of their blended family that’s quick, fast, and heavy heat so that you can get the cooking done quickly.”

It’s a microwave approach. It’s a food-processor approach. It’s an instant pot approach. We want a happy family quickly. Nobody wants to work. Nobody wants their kids to go: “Mom, I just don’t feel comfortable hanging around my stepdad. I don’t want him around.” No, that’s not what a mom wants to hear. She wants to hear that my kid likes him and loves him, and feels safe with him, and is glad he’s here. That’s what she wants. So, of course, you try to instanpot this thing by saying things to your daughter like: “Well, I love him. Don’t you love him, what’s wrong with him? Are you saying you don’t want me married to him?” That’s pressuring! It’s mom’s need to get her kid or 14-year-old to like and love her new husband. That’s mom’s need; that’s not the 14-year-old’s need. 

So how do you cook a stepfamily if it’s none of those other approaches? I recommend a crockpot approach. Crockpots take hours to cook things, and how do they go about it? Well, there is heat, but it’s low heat. It’s not pressured, it’s not forcing; we’re not demanding love, we’re going to let you have space enough to figure out love on your own in your own time. It creates over time a simmering of the ingredients, where they warm up, soften, and combine. Now that is the blended family journey, and your job as a parent or stepparent is to try to facilitate that as best you can. 

You’ve got to have some heat. One example of that is: “Hey, we’re going to treat everybody with kindness in this house. You don’t have to love each other, but you will be kind.” See, that’s just climate-setting. We’re just adding a little bit of heat, but we’re not demanding love. It’s a very important distinction. Multiply that over years, and ingredients, in general, do warm-up, they do soften, and they do combine. 

There’s always one ingredient that’s slow. Sometimes, Jessica, you have an ingredient in a blended family who hops out of your pot every other weekend and goes to another cooking pot. They just sort of fit there more than they fit here. Or maybe they’re 20 when you get married, and they’re going away to college and starting their own life and career, and they’re really not interested in coming back to your crockpot. They’re sort of out on their own in their own space. Okay, that’s going to change the cooking timing for that ingredient. 

But most everybody else with time is going to warm up, soften, and combine. Then it’s authentic, then you feel the harmony, then you feel the familiness, which is a word I like to use, and it’s good. You just can’t force it!

That cannot be emphasized enough, I’m sure. I just love that you’re giving this analogy. Even the softening, the warming, and the coming together, that’s just very honoring. Like, it just helps that attachment system when we can feel safe, when we can feel like we can let our guard down, and feel at home. The time that that takes us, five to seven years, to feel comfortable to soften and let the guard down, and what can get created out of that. But that can’t be forced.

Yeah, that’s exactly it. It’s really helpful when you understand it and can hold on to it, and sort of rest into the cooking process. You know you’re not there yet; you’re frustrated today. But that’s the cool thing about crockpots. You turn them on, you go to work, you come home, and you’ve got dinner. So with time, things get better. Now that’s not a guarantee, I can’t guarantee everybody listening is going to have that experience in their life. But more often than not, that’s the case. It’s really helpful when you understand the process.

Yes. Ron, you’re talking about the intentionality, and I know we don’t have a tonne of time with you, but you also offer a lot of growth activities. I’m curious. I know what we’ve been talking about is in that umbrella, but is there anything you want to speak about to listeners today around growth activities?

Yeah, let me give you two that I think are really relevant before marriage, and one of them’s relevant after people get married. So when I started writing this book, I first jotted down an outline and I thought, let’s talk about the wedding at the end of the book. Because I kind of figured everybody’s planning their wedding from the moment they get engaged, so you really don’t even really have to bring that up. Then I dug into the research, and what I found is that weddings can be a positive turning point for building familiness among blended families, but you have to do it with intentionality. 

See, let me tell you a quick story. Some friends of mine were like, we’re going to get married. She’s got three kids and divorced, he’s never been married before. They were going to elope, leave the kids with grandparents, and go to Hawaii. Get married, and come back. They read an early version of the manuscript and they said: “Oh my gosh, we’re completely leaving the kids out of this thing. We’re expecting them to be part of the family, the end product, but we’re not allowing them any say in the wedding or how we get married, or if they have a role in it.” 

So they completely scrapped the elope idea. They decided to have a small wedding, invite friends and family. They asked the kids: “Hey, do you want to be involved? How much does this matter to you, what you wear? Do you just want to sit in the row and watch?” Well, it turns out that two of her boys wanted to walk her down the aisle; they walked their mother down the aisle. Imagine how precious it was when the officiant said who gives this woman to this man, and her oldest son said my brother and I. 

Now we’re talking about building a family connection, and they are actively part of this new union. That’s a part of building a family, not just two people getting married. Her daughter stood and held the flowers, and stood up front with mom. The whole family got to participate in a creative art project at the end of the wedding, where they all painted their hands and stuck it onto this poster board, and that hangs in their living room in their house. Everybody has put their fingerprints on this new family. It’s a statement!

Does that mean they’ve completely cooked in their crockpot? No, they’ve still got years ahead of them to work out the details of that. But at least they have a marker, a milestone moment, where everybody got to participate in the way that they were comfortable with. That’s the kind of intentionality that helps a family speed up the cooking process and makes it four years or three years instead of seven. That’s a wonderful thing that happens on the front end. 

“Here’s something a lot of blended families have never done even though they’re already married; you can do this before or after. It’s the conversation around terminology and names: what we’re going to call each other. I don’t mean are you going to call me by my first name? It’s sort of about, what does the term mean to you?”

Here’s a quick illustration. I have a mother-in-law. My wife and I’ve been married for 36 years. I sometimes call my mother-in-law mom, but most of the time I don’t. She’s not my mom. Now I know some people whose mother-in-law is mom to them, and that’s not an offensive thing to their biological mother. It’s just a term of endearment because they have built a relationship. I know other people who will never call their mother-in-law mom because of who she is and they don’t like her. See, the term is representative of the relationship. 

Blended families need to have a conversation where you open up the door and you say: “Kids, alright, I’m your step-parent. I know that, and you know that. What do you want to call me, like in public? If I’m walking you into school and your friend is standing there and you’re going to introduce me, what are you going to call me? What’s comfortable for you?” Well, I think I’d really like to call you Ron. “Okay, great. You’re going to call me Ron. You’re going to introduce me as Ron, you’re going to say this is my mom’s husband. That’s good with me.” 

So we’ve just negotiated, I call it co-creating familiness. Now you know what to say about me, and you don’t have to worry about making me mad or hurting my feelings, and I know what to expect from you. Oh, by the way, this is a two-way street. “What do you want me to call you when I’m introducing you to my friends at work? Would you be okay with me saying this is my son or my stepson? Would that be okay with you?” 

Now, some people go: “Well, I want to call him my son, because I don’t ever want that child to think that I don’t love them.” I get it, love that! But here’s the thing. Sometimes children are offended that you call them your son. Because in their mind, they’re going: “Wait a minute, I’ve got a dad, I’m his son. You just tried to replace my dad.” That’s offensive to some children. So you’ve got to ask. You’ve got to talk it through and find what works for both of you. That’s just where it starts. The terms will change tomorrow, and the next day and the next day perhaps, based upon the depth of your relationship over time. You see, Jessica, this is what we’re saying. 

“You’re not just born a family when you get married. You have to create the family identity, that’s what takes time and some intentionality.”

When you begin to get out ahead of it with little conversations like this, all of a sudden, your cooking time reduces, the depth of those relationships increases, and you make space for love.

Ron, thank you so much for laying these out. I really appreciate it and I feel the power of them, including the children in the marriage ceremony and their ability to feel seen and heard and really valued, and also a part of the process. As well as just really the conscious intention and co-creating as you’re talking about; how we honor and refer to each other, and how this supports our day-to-day living. Really, creating a narrative where the external world knows how to take that cue. You’re setting the tone for what we want to hold a light to, as far as what we’re intending here. That you’re really speaking to the fact that this can also be reevaluated and renegotiated, that we can be in-process and this isn’t static or never-ending. I love this, and I just appreciate it. 

As you’re talking, the thing that’s coming up for me is that these are such great practices that help family members be in this co-creating. The communication and the dialogue, are incredibly powerful. If anything, they’re getting almost an advanced training in some of these relational skills that perhaps a biological family wouldn’t necessarily have to do as much explicit workaround. It’s beautiful, there’s nothing bad that’s going to come from that. It’s challenging in the learning curve, for sure. But what gets created, it’s like those are tools that we don’t always consciously create in a family that’s so nuclear. 

That is exactly right. We’ve often said that nuclear biological families just are. You’re just kind of born with the family, and it’s sort of like everybody’s connected through DNA and just the natural history of being related to one another. 

“Blended families have to be intentional and communicate far more than biological families do because there are question marks everywhere.”

The average step-parent listening right now is going to really understand what I’m about to say. What’s your role as a stepparent? “Well, I came into this thing, and I had an idea of what my role was as being their stepmother, for example. My husband definitely had an idea of what he wanted me to be as a stepmother to his children. But then I found out my stepkids had an opinion of what I should be and what I should not be. Then the biological mother living in the other home, she definitely has an opinion of who I’m supposed to be and not be to her kids.” All of a sudden, we have four or five opinions. So the stepmother is going: “Well, who am I supposed to be? I don’t know what to do. Do I step in? Do I step out? Do I say something? Do I not say something?” That ambiguity is crazy-making. 

So again, if you get intentional and communicate and try to get to some sense where we now have a shared understanding of your role, then it’s going to be smoother waters at that point. 

Beautiful. Well, Ron, this has been so rich. I can just tell how experienced you are and how much work you’ve done to be able to provide such clear guidance. Is there anything you want to say before we turn towards how people can get in touch with you?

Well, the good news is this. Yes, most blended families have to do some work on the front end; you’ve got to learn how to crockpot well. But it can taste really good when you get to the end of that seven or eight hours, and that’s the beautiful thing you’ve got to hold on to. Familiness really has tremendous rewards. We know from long-term research about stepfamilies, healthy blended families have kids who grow up with greater healthy attitudes about relationships and about their own well-being. It’s a blessing to everyone involved when the blended family is healthy. 

But here’s the caution. Stepfamilies done poorly, if I could say it that way, add more angst and heartache and brokenness and sadness to adults’ and childrens’ lives. You don’t want that. So it’s about getting smart and moving your family forward in the right direction. My website is called SmartStepfamilies.com. That’s what makes the difference for the outcome that you want.

Beautiful. I just hear the challenge that is at play, and also the possibility and how beautiful it is, and also just what can come when we perhaps aren’t equipped or don’t have the tools or don’t do the practices. The challenge does have potential risks, but that’s with anything. 

Well, SmartStepfamilies.com, here they can find your book and the workshops. Or what will they find?

Everything. I do live events, and I do virtual events. We do virtual training for couples planning to get married. I do therapy training for therapists who want to be better educated to work with stepfamilies. I do live events around the country. I have a podcast called the FamilyLife Blended® Podcast, you’ll get connected to that. All my social media channels. As well as dozens of articles, there are probably 200 articles on my website that are freely available to people. As well as it’ll tie you into the products and video series and things that people can access. I will tell your audience, I come from a faith-based perspective in a lot of the work that I do, but there are a number of our resources that go across and connect across faith lines. 

So two good places to start, if you really want to do a deep dive. If you’re engaged and planning to get married, it’s the book we’ve talked about today: Preparing to Blend. If you’re already married, I would recommend a book I wrote with Dr. Gary Chapman, the creator of The Five Love Languages, and it’s called Building Love Together in Blended Families. So start small, just take a step in, and you can then go from there and find other resources that will be helpful.

Yes. It sounds like you’re providing so much in either the live workshops or the books and all the materials and the articles, as well as your podcast. It sounds like a plethora! Ron, thank you so much for joining us today.

Thank you for having me, it’s been an honor. 

Likewise!

Signing Off

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching