Syndicated Column, Dec. 11, 2004 by Michael J. McManus
Do you know someone in a stepfamily, or who is considering entering one, or who is in church ministry? If so, I think the perfect Christmas gift would be "The Smart Stepfamily" by Ron Deal. It is by far, the best book ever written on how to make this family form succeed.
The need for it is acute. Thirty percent of all marriages in America involve adults who will be stepparents. And at least 70 percent* of those remarriages will fail. If America is to cut the divorce rate, we must learn how to help these families avoid a second or third divorce.
Fortunately, this book offers answers on how to save four out of five remarriages.
"Remarriage and stepfamily life can be filled with many blessings, but the journey probably won't start out that way," Deal writes. Or, as he stated in an interview, "There is a honeymoon for remarried couples, but it comes at the end of the journey, after 7-9 years."
Why is it so difficult?
"God's plan that two single people leave their families of origin and cleave solely to each other doesn't occur in stepfamilies. The marriage begins with children who dramatically impact the marriage. Biological families, when they experience upheaval, can survive riding on the back of the marital relationship because it preceded the children and hopefully has remained strong through the transition into parenthood. In stepfamilies, the parent-child bond predates the couple's relationship, often making marriage the weakest relationship in the home," he writes.
Integrating two different families "involves combining two unique family styles, various personalities and preferences, differing traditions, pasts, loyalties. Yet most people make the decision to bring two families together without consulting the instructions (God's Word.)"
Deal recalls how Moses lead the Israelites out of slavery. Imagine their initial joy as the Pharaoh allowed them to walk away. "Yet the joy of being set free was soon quenched when the Israelites found themselves hemmed in by the Red Sea on one side" and the Egyptian army on the other side.
"Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die," they asked Moses.
"Freedom from slavery was what the Israelites pleaded for, and yet oppression and bondage actually became attractive to them as soon as the journey became difficult."
Most divorces (75 percent) end in remarriage that begin with joy. The stepchildren soon make life miserable for the stepparent. And stepfamilies will be more complex if they involve "yours, mine, and ours" children, two or more ex-spouses. The temptation to flee is high.
Deal offers seven stepping stones out of the Wilderness. Most are Biblical.
1. Christlikeness: "Rid yourselves of...anger, rage, malice, slander...Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience...Forgive..." Colossians 3
2. Listening: James writes, "Be quick to listen and slow to become angry." Proverbs reminds us, "he who answers before listening that is his folly and his shame."
3. Understanding: Put yourself in the shoes of another. Make a list of the losses children experienced, to understand their fear of bonding with a stepparent who may also leave.
4. Perseverance: Exodus describes the "Lord who heals you." The implication: if people listen toGod's voice and do what is right in his eyes, he will heal the situation.
5. Commitment: The bedrock commitment is a dedication to your spouse, to the vows "for richer, for poorer; for better, for worse; in sickness and in health." If either spouse fails to live those vows every day, the stepfamily will not survive the Wilderness.
6. Humor. A cartoon depicts a little girl pointing a figure at the boy, reminding him, "You dad cannot beat up my dad because your dad is now MY dad, remember?"
7. Patience: Research indicates it takes an average stepfamily SEVEN years to integrate. "How to you cook a stepfamily?" Deal asks. "You can't do it in a blender. Most stepfamilies don't blend, or someone gets creamed in the process. Nor can it be done in a microwave that is quick. Relationships in a stepfamily are more like a crock pot, which is slow, but eventually the ingredients come together so there is something good to taste."
The last chapter is aimed at the church which is "not serious about stepfamily enrichment or divorce prevention." Neglect must be replaced by help into the Promised Land.
How? I urge churches to create "Stepfamily Support Groups" that begin by slowly reading this book, and discussing the questions at the end of each chapter.
* According to Mavis Heatherington, PhD, personal communication, Dec 10, 2004.