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Ron L. Deal

For dating single parents, couple harmony during the dating process makes the stepfamily road ahead appear clear and safe, but once you top the hill of marriage you’ll likely find some hidden road hazardous.

Paul and Brenda know exactly what I’m talking about. Paul is senior pastor of a large metropolitan church in the Midwest. He had a wonderful 27-year marriage to his first wife, Karen, who tragically died of cancer. About a year before Karen passed away, one of his best friends, Terry, died of cancer as well. Terry’s wife of 25 years, Brenda, had cared for him until he died. Six months after Karen death and 18 months after Terry’s death, Paul and Brenda began dating. Paul had four children ranging from their early teens to mid-twenties and Brenda had three children in their late teens and mid-twenties. After dating for less than a year, Paul and Brenda got married.

Five years later Paul asked me to present a stepfamily conference at his church. The weekend gave me the opportunity to hear more of their story and meet their friends, Pamela and Allen who were dating (both with children from previous marriages).

What fascinated me was the advice and coaching Paul and Brenda had given their friends Pamela and Allen. Before I share their advice, please understand that both Paul and Brenda are very high functioning people and parents. They both had high quality first marriages, both are highly educated professionals, and both had had success and joy before the death of their spouses in raising their children. In addition, since becoming widowed, they were quite intentional in grieving well and helping their children move through the loss of their parent. To top it off, since marrying and becoming a blended family Paul and Brenda had led a stepfamily enrichment group at their church for a few years.

Despite all that, five years into their marriage their blended family experience continued to be stressful and difficult. The end result? They were coaching their friends to proceed with caution. One night over dinner I was honored to listen in as Paul and Brenda candidly shared with Pamela and Allen, “We love each other dearly, but if we had it to do all over again, we might not have gotten married at all.” Paul and Brenda had by experience come face to face with the truth that coupleness does not equal familyness and their 20/20 hind-sight advice to their friends was direct and straightforward: Don’t rush into marriage, make sure you are ready to marry the entire package that comes along with the person you have fallen in love with or don’t marry—and even if you are ready, keep in mind that there’s no guarantee that doing so is best, convenient, or a blessing for your kids. In other words, their advice was to step very carefully into a stepfamily because the love felt between the couple before the wedding does not predict family harmony after the wedding.

I can hear someone shouting as they read this: But can’t blended family living bring blessings to children and couples? Can’t everyone receive love and experience family harmony? Absolutely! Without question stepfamilies can be redemptive mechanisms for everyone involved. I’ve been blessed over the years to hear from thousands of readers who have implemented the strategies put forth in our Smart Stepfamily series of books about the joy and rewards they have experienced—and I praise God for all of it. But I’ve also heard from those, the Paul and Brenda’s of the world, who have tried and struggled to successfully move from coupleness to familyness—from those who wish someone had brought wisdom to their dating and marriage decision. (The sidebar offers a few.)

This brings me back to Pamela and Allen. They took their friends advice to heart and had delayed a wedding for well over a year so they could be more sensitive to the needs of their children and more adequately deepen their couple relationship before deciding for sure whether to marry. A few months after having dinner with this couple I caught up with Pamela and asked her to reflect on their journey; here’s what she shared:

“Allen and I both affirm that waiting has enriched our relationship and allowed time for valuable relationship bridges to be built with our kids. This has also given our kids time to get used to the idea of our families eventually merging. Another hidden blessing of all this is that by the time we do marry, we will nearly be empty-nest (only one teenager left at home.) Even so, I have concerns about what holidays will look like for our families.

“I must say, the waiting time has allowed us to move beyond the euphoric infatuation stage into the nitty-gritty hard places of loving one another. Facing those things before marriage is certainly healthier, enabling us to move forward without rose-colored glasses (to whatever degree that is possible). As I always tell my clients [Pamela is a licensed counselor herself], ‘Rose-colored glasses make red flags look pink!’”

Now that’s dating wisdom.

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.