Ron L. Deal
One of the unique barriers of blended family living that keeps couples from staying close to one another has to do with their concerns, frustrations, and struggles with what I like to call third party thorns. These prickly blended family realities include things such as a tenuous stepparent-stepchild relationship, an antagonizing ex-spouse, leftover debt that preceded the marriage, the memory of a wonderful marriage that ended in death, and even an ex-mother-in-law. But despite these thorns, healthy couples find a way to stay close.
Matt has a very high need for closeness. His father and mother divorced when he was very young, so he grew up without a great deal of family stability. He mainly lived with his mother and can recall feeling to blame that his father wasn’t around much. His grandfather served as a surrogate father for a few years, but then died an untimely death when Matt was just 10 years old. Because closeness in his childhood family relationships was not something he experienced, he longs for it in his marriage.
Matt’s wife, Sherry, grew up in a hard-working middle-class family. While they loved one another deeply, the demands of earning a living kept parents and children going in multiple directions. As a result, Sherry learned quickly how to remain emotionally and financially independent from loved ones. She prided herself on working her way through technical school after having a child in high school. A later marriage added another child, but the marriage didn’t last. Sherry found herself divorced and the single parent of two. This series of fragmented romantic relationships fueled her emotional independence as a parent and woman.
When Matt and Sherry met, they quickly became romantically and sexually involved. Matt was enthralled with the amount of attention he received from Sherry. She seemed to be a dedicated mom, but went out of her way to make time for him. Sherry saw in Matt the kind of stability she wanted her children to experience so she pursued him with passion. Her physical and sexual availability and his need for closeness quickly fused their emotional connection, but substance was lacking and they were fooled into thinking sexual passion equaled a healthy future. After a rushed courtship and wedding, things changed considerably. Sherry didn’t feel the need to pursue Matt as much as before and he felt it; the significant drop in time together produced a great deal of anxiety in Matt. He complained to a friend, “Now that we’re married, Sherry is much more worried about being a mom than she is a wife. I feel like I’ve lost her.”
Neither Matt nor Sherry carries all the blame for their increasing distance. Yet each is responsible to fight through the thorns and stay close.
The Doing and Feeling of Closeness
The largest study conducted on the strengths of healthy blended family couples reveals that strong couples feel close to one another, but they also know what to do to make that happen. In The Remarriage Checkup: Tools to Help Your Marriage Last a Lifetime Dr. David Olson and myself reported that 94% of happy couples have hobbies and interests that bring them together and they find it easy to think of things to do together (compared to 62% or less of discouraged couples). In addition, a full 94% said togetherness was a top priority for them, revealing strong couples’ intentional effort to invest in their relationship. Doing things that facilitate closeness certainly contributes to feeling close.
Healthy closeness involves balance. Every healthy relationship has a balance of time spent together and time apart. Couples have both a desire to be together and a respect for the individual interests, pursuits, and freedoms of their partner. In strong relationships, individuals place emphasis on the “self” as well as the “we.”And there’s something else.
Healthy blended family couples, also, strive for an appropriate amount of sharing, loyalty, intimacy, and independence within the larger family dynamic. This dance of intimacy is not easily achieved in blended families and demands attention and good communication since couples are continually pulled apart by stressful thorns.
Matt and Sherry found balance and a loving heart by doing a number of things. First, both had to calm their fears. Matt had to remember that it was good and right for Sherry to spend focused time with her children and that he really wasn’t in competition with them. Sherry had to recognize that maintaining her independence and emotional distance from Matt was in part an attempt to protect herself from depending on someone she couldn’t guarantee would always be there for her. If she was ever to move closer to him, Sherry had to risk trusting Matt. Second, both Matt and Sherry became more intentional in carving out time to be together to enjoy a leisurely activity. For them, playing golf on occasion helped them to laugh and connect. But, of course, saying “yes” to golf meant saying “no” to other activities and time with children so they communicated often about finding the appropriate balance.
With patience and persistence, Matt and Sherry removed their thorns and stayed close.
Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.