Ron L. Deal
Have you ever gotten the feeling that your marriage is doing a number on you? That’s because it is. In His infinite wisdom and care God has orchestrated the challenges of marriage to grow us up, to shape us more into the image of Jesus. Marriage is but one of his tools (parenting, sexuality, friendships, and tragedy are others), but it’s a good one. For example, most of us have a few bruises from our past and a few behavioral ruts that are unhealthy for our relationships—and it is in marriage that we are invited to grow beyond them.
Blended family couples have two common ruts and bruises. The first has to do with the ghost of marriage past. For example, persons who experience divorce commonly have fears of another relationship betrayal, rejection, or breakup while widows can fear losing another love to the darkness of death. Each of these fears is rooted in the pain of the past and sets us up to be guarded or quick to judge the other.
In one example Jonathan and Sondra called for therapy just one month after their wedding. They both had two children from previous marriages. Jonathan and Sondra had very differing parenting styles, which can be difficult to overcome in and of itself, but these disagreements aggravated a specific bruise on Sondra’s heart. Her first husband repeatedly told her she meant nothing to him. For years her thoughts and opinions were discounted as he selfishly went about doing what he wanted. She was constantly fighting to matter in the marriage and find her voice as a mother. So, every time Jonathan gave her a look of disagreement, she overreacted and immediately retreated with the belief that she again did not matter. The intensity of her fear brought about a flood of emotions (bruises) and over reactions (behavioral ruts) that made connecting with Jonathan even more difficult.
A second common source of ruts and bruises is our family of origin. Early stressful family experiences can create coping mechanisms in children that become behavioral ruts in adulthood. One woman, for example, named Taylor grew up with a highly anxious mother who coped with her fears by controlling everything and everyone in her world. She kept a thumb on Taylor’s and her sister’s activities, friends, whereabouts, and even tried to control their attitudes. She attempted to manage the girl’s behavior through criticism and passive-aggressive manipulation of their choices and surroundings. If the girls disappointed her, she was more than willing to let them know it through silence, anger, or emotional sadness. Taylor frequently felt blamed, ashamed, and a disappointment to her mother. In their younger years both she and her sister tried to be perfect—which meant meeting mom’s every expectation—but of course could not. In adolescence, however, Taylor’s sister gave up on finding acceptance and through herself into riotous living and addiction. Taylor held fast to her strategy to meet the expectations of her mother, and now others, in order to find approval. Her first teenage boyfriend took advantage of this willingness and used her for sex throughout high school. It was only after the relationship turned dangerous that she was finally able to break free, but even then felt guilty for having failed him. Because this emotional bruise and behavioral rut was so ingrained in her life, it is no surprise that Taylor continued the same coping strategy when she and her first husband had conflict? She would cater to his desires, deny her own feelings and preferences to the point of becoming voiceless in the marriage, and allow him to engage in perverse behavior that was not honoring to the marriage. After their divorce Taylor sought help in counseling. What she discovered was that her need for acceptance at all costs was understandable given her childhood mother-daughter relationship, but was detrimental to adult romantic relationships. If she would ever experience a successful blended family, she would have to change this emotional and behavioral response set or the odds were that she would again find herself in a similarly one-sided relationship.
Skipping Out of a Rut
It’s fun to ask people how many ruts there are on a 12-inch record album (assuming they are old enough to remember albums). Usually they guess in the thousands. The answer, I tell them, is one. There’s only one. It’s just one long continuous rut.
Much of our life is like that. One long rut. God wants to help us break free of our ruts. Listen to what your marriage and blended family is requiring of you, find courage to face your past, and skip out of your ruts.
Ron L. Deal is president of Smart Stepfamilies™, director of blended family ministries for FamilyLife®, a popular conference speaker on marriage and family matters, and author/coauthor of a series of DVD’s and books for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepmom, The Smart Stepdad, and Dating and the Single Parent. Learn more at www.smartstepfamilies.com.