Smart Step Three: Two-STEP (Marriage)
Ron L. Deal
This is a deleted section from the first trade paper edition of The Smart Stepfamily by Ron L. Deal (Bethany House Publishers, 2006). Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Get the Revised & Expanded edition of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family by Ron L. Deal on Amazon today.
EACH PARTNER’S RELATIONSHIP TO GOD
At the core of Christian marriage are two people who fully submit themselves to the lordship of Jesus Christ. The challenge of discipleship—to deny self will, take up our cross, and follow Christ (Mark 8:34–35)—is a daily decision for the Christian. But making this daily decision helps us to take on and live out, with the Spirit’s power and guidance, the heart of Christ within our families. Without question, your marriage and family will be stronger when you do so. No matter what the role you are in—husband, wife, father, mother, stepdad, stepmom—you will be more of blessing to your family when you are living and loving as Christ lived and loved. You also gain an identity that transcends whatever role you are playing in your home.
Your relationship with the heavenly Father forms an identity in you and, therefore, provides a worth to you that is unlike anything you can obtain on earth. Listen to the words of Titus 3:4–7:
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
Did you hear that? Despite our sinfulness we have been reborn and made new in Jesus Christ. More than that, we have become heirs of the King. Therein lies our identity—I am an heir of God, a person of surpassing value. Through Jesus I have a worth that doesn’t have to be earned, but is simply a by-product of God’s saving grace.
As a therapist, I understand the importance of self-esteem and the significance it plays in people’s lives. But I believe that even more important is “God-esteem.” This comes about when persons realize and accept their worth in God, not because of what they’ve done to obtain his approval, but because of what Jesus did for them on the cross. God-esteem is humbling because it can’t be earned. Yet it is liberating to those who are disciples of Christ because it frees us to offer our lives to God, not out of obligation or payment, but in loving response to his gift of grace.
Furthermore, accepting the truth of God-esteem is a gift to your marriage. Let me explain.
Centuries ago Bernard of Clairvaux described four levels of love. The first two levels we can hardly call love from any biblical standpoint, but unfortunately describe many of the relationships of those in our world today. The first level is “to love myself solely.” Self-love or narcissism is the goal here and is not interested in the needs of the other person. The second form of love is not much better: “to love you for my sake.” This form of love is rooted in selfishness as one person uses the other for personal gain. The third form of love is a huge jump in quality from the previous two: “to love you for your sake.” This form of love respects the value of the other person and wants good things for him or her. It looks out for another’s interests. For most, this form of love sounds like the best there is—a mutually respectful relationship, where each serves the needs of the other. But Bernard of Clairvaux thought there to be one form of love higher than this.
“To love myself for your sake” is a self-respecting love that offers its best to the other. It is rooted in the awareness of my God-esteem. When you accept your worth in Jesus Christ, you can honor your spouse, cope with struggles, and even disagree about your family life, without fear of personal rejection, because your identity is secure. You are not dependent on your family for your sense of self, but on your God.
Incidentally, this last form of love sounds much like Jesus’ statement to “love your neighbor as yourself”. Apparently a healthy self-respect, rooted in God-esteem, makes loving another more possible.
So how is accepting my identity in Christ a gift to my marriage? When my worth as a person comes from God, I don’t have to get it from you. It’s great when marriage affirms us and makes us feel valued, but having God-esteem means it isn’t devastating to our worth when a marriage doesn’t affirm us or makes us feel good. With God-esteem I can stand firm in the face of rejection because my spouse’s momentary distance doesn’t crush my worth.
It is my observation that this is critical in stepfamilies because rejection and unstable relationships are so common. If you are a stepparent, for example, you need to know your identity is in God when your spouse is confused about your needs and is more attentive to his children than to you. You need to know you have a worth that cannot be taken away when a stepchild repeatedly ignores your attempts to join the family or refuses to even acknowledge your presence in the room. And a biological parent needs a healthy dose of God-esteem when her adolescent children choose to live in the other household. Without question such a transition will bring tremendous loss and sadness. But it doesn’t define your identity or your worth—God does. People in stepfamilies need to know the source of their worth. It makes enduring the journey so much easier.
PARTNERS’ RELATIONSHIP TO ONE ANOTHER
Building a marriage that can thrive in the stepfamily home requires two solidly committed disciples of Christ and a healthy couple relationship. It is imperative that stepfamily couples learn all they can about healthy marital relationships and give constant attention and energy to strengthening their marriage because stepfamily couples have more than the average share of stressors that erode couple relationships. If building and solidifying the marriage is not a priority to both partners, it will undoubtedly suffer the consequence of mediocrity. I recommend that couples attend a marriage enrichment weekend at least once each year, as well as take advantage of marriage classes offered in your local congregation, read books, and listen to Christian radio programs on the family. You need every tip you can get.
Beyond the spiritual aspects already discussed, stepfamily couples must learn to set goals for their marriage, develop trust and a sense of companionship, establish commitment, cultivate a satisfying sexual relationship, and build communication and conflict resolution skills. It is beyond the scope of this book to address all the areas of a healthy marriage (I recommend The Remarriage Checkup by David H. Olson and myself for a comprehensive look at marriage based on the largest survey of stepcouples ever conducted). However, let’s briefly review a few of the qualities that are most pertinent to stepfamily marriages before turning our attention to two specific barriers stepfamily couples face.Establishing a Commitment to Go the Distance
One key to lasting love is single-mindedness and dedication—even in the face of more attractive alternatives. When what you hoped for in this marriage is not what you see coming at you, it will be dedication that helps you stay the course and make the right choices. Nearly every stepfamily couple faces a time when they feel trapped between the Sea of Opposition and their past. At those moments, what appears to be much more attractive is returning to single life. But maintaining a single-mindedness to fulfill the commitment you have made and reach the Promised Land will empower you to make difficult but right choices that will see you through the Sea of Opposition. Your stepfamily can’t survive without it.
And there’s something else. If your stepfamily or some aspect of it is not what you had hoped for, remaining dedicated in your marriage can make a difference in helping to straighten out the path for the family. My friends Bob and Vicki Maday, a stepfamily couple who married late in life after both of their spouses died, point out that a healthy marriage is like gravity—it pulls all things toward it. Do you have a stepchild who is rejecting the stepparent or an ex-spouse that is manipulating the children away from your home? Perhaps you have a prodigal teenager who is causing stress in the home and division between the two of you over what to do about it. In those situations any one individual may not have much influence to “fix” the situation, but a healthy marriage over time creates a positive force that gracefully changes attitudes, invites people to move toward its safety, and softly confronts lies told about the home. For example, many times through the years I have seen resistant, doubtful stepchildren “come around” to acceptance of the marriage and their stepparent simply because they could not deny that the marriage was nurturing to their biological parent. “I love what my stepmom does for my dad,” one 28 year-old told me. “At first I thought she was just after his money, but now I see that I misjudged her. Dad is happy.”Communication Skills and Resolving Conflict
Commitment is the attitude that keeps you investing in your marriage. Good communication skills and the ability to resolve conflict takes you through the Sea of Opposition. You can never learn enough about how to communicate with your spouse—or your ex-spouse, children, and mate’s ex-in-laws, for that matter.
Communication is the life-blood of your relationship. A number of years ago a Castrol commercial showed how draining their synthetic oil from a car engine wouldn’t stop the engine. Engines drained of standard oils soon locked up. They simply couldn’t function without something reducing the friction. Effective communication reduces friction in your marriage.
Stepfamilies experience higher levels of conflict during the first few years, a time when the couple is trying to bond their relationship. If couples are unable to talk, argue, and negotiate decisions constructively, they can easily experience marital “lock up.” But couples that competently handle conflict will discover a deepening of their mutual trust and confidence in their marriage. Don’t underestimate the importance of communication and conflict skill training for the success of your marriage.
THE MARITAL LOVE BANK
Dr. Tom Milholland, one of my graduate professors, made a statement about marriage I’ll never forget: “Couples who don’t invest in their marriage will always find it in decline. Marriage is like the grandfather clock in your dining room; if you don’t wind it up every now and then, it stops working.”
Sheryl and Tom’s story was familiar to me. They arrived at their first therapy session with resentment in their eyes and distance evident in their physical posture. “It’s like he switched after we got married,” she began to explain. “Before we married he took me places, sent me nice gifts, and said nice things about my children. It’s like he was on the hunt, and I was his reward. And I loved it. But now all we do is talk about the kids’ schedules, his ex-wife’s latest boyfriend, or what’s happening at work. He hasn’t shown an interest in me in months.”
It is very common for an emotional shift to occur after the wedding. Couples stop focusing on winning the heart of the other and turn to the concerns of their instant family. Understandably and predictably there will be a decline in energy put into the relationship. However, couples must remember to invest in their love account from time to time or they will wake up one day to discover the account is bankrupt. Consider the marital love bank.
Every person and every relationship has an emotional love bank. Marital accounts, for instance, are either in the red or in the black. Sometimes accounts are bankrupt and sometimes they’re paying significant dividends on the investments made.
The account works just like a bank account. You keep your marital account in good standing by making sure the balance is always on the plus side. This requires, at a minimum, more deposits than withdrawals and the deposits must be of greater cumulative value than the withdrawals. Deposits are anything positive that you contribute to your relationship; withdrawals are any negatives that take away from the marriage or hurt the relationship.
To keep their accounts in the black, couples make two kinds of deposits: occasional large sums and regular small investments. Occasional large sums include things like a weekend getaway, a cruise, or giving an expensive gift. These significant deposits can boost a relationship for months, but are usually expensive and, therefore, can’t be contributed very often. Besides, the regular small investment is more productive over the long haul. These investments come in the form of simple, small, daily behaviors that affirm the relationship as well as each individual and build solidarity in the marriage.
There is even a formula that tells you how you’re doing. John Gottman, a marital researcher, has concluded that couples who remain in long-term committed relationships maintain a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative behavioral exchanges. In other words, they make five deposits for every withdrawal. “You mean, in order to take inventory of our marital love bank, we could examine how many deposits (and the value of each) we make compared to how many withdrawals?” That’s exactly right. For instance, for every act of selfishness, there needs to be:
- One act of kindness: politeness or basic consideration of the other’s needs.
- One act of sacrifice: doing something on behalf of the other, putting your spouse first.
- Considerate conversation: you have to talk in ways that build up the other person and listen to his or her wants, needs, and desires. Also, the way you deal with conflict should bring you together instead of tearing you apart.
- One shared prayer, scripture, or Christ-centered conversation to orient you in the same direction.
- Romantic expressions of affection and/or sexuality: holding hands, a card when it’s not Valentine’s Day, a neck or foot massage, cooking a favorite meal, creative sexuality.
- One deed of friendship:
- Loyalty to your spouse before others
- Sharing feelings, dreams, frustrations
- Support when anxious or in times of crisis
- Showing honor toward your spouse
Putting the above into action is a vital investment in keeping the magical five-to-one ratio. But realize, no one is restricted to a five-to-one ratio. To have a terrific marriage, you can strive for ten-to-one!
Remember, no one but you puts money in your bank account, and if you don’t invest you’ll have nothing for the future. The same is true for your marriage. Besides, the dividends for you and your children are well worth the investment.
So what should couples do if their account is in the red or bankrupt? I have three suggestions to get you started. First, start slowly to make deposits. Stop focusing on how dry your account is and start making deposits even though you don’t feel like it. This is reflective of John’s commendation in Revelation 2:4–5 to the church at Ephesus. They had forgotten their first love for Christ and were told to “repent and do the things you did at first.” Individuals who, for whatever reason, find themselves distant from their spouse should first of all repent, that is, renew their commitment and their attitude toward their marital first love. Then they should begin doing the things that brought them together in the first place. Knowing how to love someone is sometimes only as far away as our recent past. During courtship we easily display a selfless, sacrificial love, but frequently lose touch with our own efforts. Start making those same deposits again and reenergize your relationship.
Second, if you find yourself bankrupt with your spouse, start making deposits but realize they will probably be discounted at first. Resentment and hurt make it difficult to give a receipt of recognition for a deposit. Don’t let that keep you from reaching for them. And when the other reaches for you and your hurt keeps you from wanting to receive it, confront the part of you that wants to remain closed to them; open yourself to their movement toward you.
And third, if the hurt you feel is too large to push through, find a qualified marriage and family therapist to help you address rebuilding the relationship. Not all counselors are created equal, so make sure it’s someone who is trained in marital therapy and has special training in stepfamily dynamics (visit smartstepfamilies.com for information about marriage therapy intensives for couples in crisis). Above all, don’t give up and don’t file Chapter 13.
What’s your current ratio of positive to negative behaviors? Take a minute to reflect and record your answers to this and the following exercise in a journal or your day planner.
- Currently I believe our marriage has a ratio of ________ positive behaviors for every ________ negative behaviors.
- Here are some things I can do in the next week to serve my spouse:
- Here are some things I can begin to do that will increase our positives and decrease our negative interaction:
This may be a sobering and depressing exercise for you, or it may affirm your current efforts. Either way, approach your spouse (or dating partner) and share your thoughts about this aspect of your relationship. Do so openly, without defensiveness, so you can empathize with the other’s perspective and renew your investment in each other. Remember, the dividends are well worth the investment.
 Carroll D. Osburn, The Peaceable Kingdom: Essays Favoring Non-Sectarian Christianity (Abilene, Tex.: Restoration Perspectives, 1993), 127–28
 John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994)