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.
the Revised & Expanded edition of The
Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family by Ron L. Deal on Amazon today.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
Sharing feelings, dreams,
Support when anxious or in times
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
Currently I believe
our marriage has a ratio of ________ positive behaviors for every ________
are some things I can do in the next week to serve my
are some things I can begin to do that will increase our positives and decrease
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