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Ron L. Deal

As a writer and family educator I’ve gotten used to people reacting differently to my material. Most, I’m grateful to say, really value and appreciate what I have to say—and report later that it dramatically helped their life. Others reject it outright. I used to wonder how Biblically-based, research informed material (what I endeavor to offer people) could illicit such differing reactions. And then, I realized at least one factor: it depends on their perspective.

For years dating couples with children from previous relationships and married couples in blended families have had a polar opposite reaction to my books. Dating couples moan, “Gee Ron, are you trying to scare us out of getting married?” and married stepfamily couples would celebrate and marvel, “You are describing our life exactly! Have you been peeking in our windows?” The dating couple feels like I’m being negative; the married couple relieved someone finally told them they are normal. And when I would track with one couple from dating to marriage their response would transform from, “We just thought you were being a pessimist,” to “We wish we would have listened to you better.” (By the way, this is exactly why after writing four books on remarriage and stepfamily living I backed up and wrote a prequel called Dating and the Single Parent!)

How could their perspective make such a huge difference? Premarital couples have high hopes, are consumed by the fog of love, and expect positive things to happen; it’s the nature of being in love. Married couples are living the realities of being a stepfamily and, therefore, cannot gloss over the challenges. It’s the difference between expectation and reality. Incidentally, research would later help explain and validate this perspective shift. David Olson and I found that couple satisfaction during dating is highly correlated with the couple’s relationship, but that marital satisfaction (i.e., once the couple is living in a stepfamily) is increasingly correlated with stepfamily and stepparenting dynamics that surround the couple’s relationship . As the context of their relationship changes, so does their satisfaction—and their perspective.

From Where I Stand

There are plenty of other perspective differences in blended families. Children and adults often find themselves disagreeing based on where they stand, that is, how they see it. For example, adults sometimes objective to labels like “stepfamily” or “stepparent” because it makes them feel second class or evil while kids use these exact terms quite freely to describe what seems obvious to them. “This is a stepfamily and he is my stepparent,” one twelve-year old said to me. That’s not hard to figure out.”

In addition, biological parents have an insider’s perspective on the home while stepparent’s feel like outsiders. As one stepmom put it, “My husband is connected to his children and to me—he loves all of us and feels like he’s a part of us. But I am only connected to him, not his kids. It’s almost as if I live in stepfamily, but he doesn’t.” I couldn’t have said it better.

And what about holiday step-stress? For many adult stepchildren going to your parent’s house with their remarried partner and their children, grandchildren, and extended family just doesn’t feel like going home for the holidays. It feels like going someplace strange. Or maybe it’s just you—after all, everyone else seems to be okay with it.

The point is this: stepfamilies are made up of people with different family histories, varying life narratives, and therefore, different perspectives about what is happening in their shared home. It can be quite frustrating. And it keeps people who are trying to deepen their bonds disconnected.

Build a Bridge and Get Over It

So what can you do? You must actively build bridges of understanding in your home and cross them in order to connect to the other person’s heart. All too often, however, what people end up doing is criticizing the other perspective, judging it, or deciding not to trust it—all of which keeps people alienated from each other.

Listen. One key to building bridges is listening. No, I don’t just mean hearing, I mean listening. Go beneath their words to understanding the meaning of their perspective and what it is telling you about their point of view. And then accept that since they have a different past than you, they can have a completely different opinion that doesn’t make sense to you. Resist the urge to talk them out of their opinion—listen and absorb.

Empathize. Listening lets you take in the other person, empathy adds compassion and appreciation for what it’s like to be them. And more to the point, empathy communicates a deep acceptance and concern for the other person which facilitates bonding and trust. And that’s when a tiny miracle happens: two hearts, with two different perspectives, and two varying realities, connect.

Most stepfamilies could use a lot more of that.

Tip: Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

I frequently encourage parents and stepparents to actively imagine what it is like to be their children and stepchildren. As parents we tend to get locked into our view of family relationships. This week imagine what it must be like for your kids to:

  • Go between two homes with different rules, expectations, and parenting styles
  • Grieve a missing parent and ponder why God let them go and how life would be different if they were present
  • Receive criticism from a stepparent
  • Feel guilty for liking a stepparent
  • Wrestle with hurts from the past
  • Have family longings that cannot be fulfilled

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.