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Ron L. Deal

Recently I had a conversation with a man that I hope to never have with you. Dave scheduled a counseling appointment to process how his marriage had come to an end. He had just read The Remarriage Checkup, a book I had coauthored with Dr. David Olson about what predicts healthy remarriage relationships. “It sure made a lot of sense to me,” he said, “I just read it too late to do us any good.”

Dave talked for a good 30 minutes about all the mistakes he and Jana had made and the dynamics that worked against them. Dave had been married once before and had one daughter. Because she was in her early twenties when he met Jana he didn’t think she would be much of a factor in their marriage. Jana was a beautiful and talented woman that immediately caught Dave’s eye. The more he learned about her, the more he liked the idea of being with her. She had a college degree, a good career, and a strong relationship with her family. She had been through a difficult first marriage and divorce, but it was obvious from the stories she told him that her ex was a royal jerk and there wasn’t much she could have done to save the marriage. Jana had one son, Jeremy (age 10), whom she loved with all her heart. She had spent seven years as a single mother and was more than ready to date when Dave asked her to lunch.

“We had a quick romance over the summer and got married even more quickly,” he said. “I think it was six months from first date to the wedding. Her son was at his father’s most of the summer so when Jana and I fell in love, he wasn’t around much. Boy did things change when he came home and we got married.” I jump in, “That’s when you realized that it’s much harder to be a family than it is to be a couple.” Dave starred at me for a second as he processed this simple, yet profound truth. “Exactly! We just couldn’t make the transition from a dating couple to a married family.” He paused, “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that before we got married?”

Unfortunately it was the demise of Dave’s family that clearly reminded him that kids are part of the marital package when it comes to stepfamilies. For others, the holiday season is what reminds them of that. The stress that comes with scheduling visitation, drop-off, and pick-up reminds stepparents that they are powerless over many things. Likewise, the sentiments of the season resurrect loss and sadness over people who are missing from the family portrait and activate loyalty conflicts that may be kept under the surface the rest of the year. These and other stressors bring with them reminders:

  • Still merging. Adults are reminded that the family is still merging and not yet “finished cooking.” For many this brings both hope for what might be and sadness over relationships that have not yet bonded.
  • Set backs are common. Just when you think things are getting better in the home, stressors knock you back a couple steps and you’re reminded how long the road can be.
  • Meet the kids where they are. When children close-off or sharpen their tongue stepparents are reminded that their place in a child’s heart is tentative and easily impacted by loss and loyalty. They are reminded to take a step back and again meet the child emotionally where they are—and where they will allow you to be.
  • Plan to be flexible. Managing holiday between-home schedules demands that you plan, plan, plan, and then be flexible with the execution. Attitudes, relational dynamics, and schedules can change on a dime making the best laid plans… well, useless. High structure parents are often brought to their knees during this time of year and must learn to let go or they drive themselves and everyone around them crazy.

Thankfully, though, the Christmas season also brings additional reminders that help families transcend these momentary stressors.

  • God has come to his people. This brings hope to the hopeless and the awareness that what is seen is constantly being reshaped by what is unseen.
  • There is power for today. The Holy Spirit offers counsel, strength, and wisdom for God’s people. The mercy of Christ, for example, can be the exact tool needed by stepfamily members. Mercy toward those difficult to love fosters openness, decency, and sometimes even repentance.
  • Nothing is impossible with God. Humble beginnings, impractical circumstances, and unworkable scenarios are not too much for the Almighty. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now.

Stepfamily realities, meet Christmas miracles.

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.