Building Your Future
About the Guest
Elizabeth Oates reminds us that the family we grew up in marks us, but it doesn't have to define us. Oates, a child of divorce, and Ron Deal, stepfamily expert and director of FamilyLife Blended, talk about establishing new relational patterns in marriage rather than repeating what was modeled for you growing up.
Elizabeth OatesElizabeth Oates is cofounder and vice president of Project Restoration Ministry. She and her husband are raising their five children (three biological, one adopted through foster care, and one they are currently fostering) in Waco, Texas, where she blogs and mentors women who’ve experienced brokenness in their family trees.
Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
Elizabeth Oates reminds us that the family we grew up in marks us, but it doesn’t have to define us. Oates and Ron Deal talk about establishing new relational patterns in marriage.
Building Your Future
Bob: What do we do when our relationship with our adult parents becomes problematic for our family? That’s what Elizabeth Oates and her husband experienced in their relationship with her mom. They recognized they needed to put some boundaries in place that would guard their family from unhealthy relationships.
Elizabeth: As we were starting to set boundaries, he just broke down, crying during a conversation. He says he always regretted that he allowed that to happen—he said: “You know, I should have defended you. I should have stood up for you.” It was very eye-opening for me; because I thought, “Oh, should you have?” No one had ever stood up for me before. No one had ever defended me before. I didn’t even know that was an option.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, June 6th. Our host is Dennis Rainey; I’m Bob Lepine. What can we do in marriage to protect one another from what can be difficult, or even toxic, relationships with our adult parents?
We’ll spend time talking about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’re spending some time this week just recognizing that the family we grew up in marks us; but it doesn’t define us—to be able to understand that, to be able to correctly evaluate the patterns of the past and what we grew up with, and see how that affects our relationships and our thinking and, then, to recalibrate and redirect our thinking around the truth—that’s an important part of what God has designed for us; isn’t it?
Dennis: I think it’s an absolute part of what He’s designed, Bob. If we don’t deal with it, it’s going to deal with us; and we’re going to carry those seeds all the way to our grave.
Bob: Speaking of deal, we’ve got our friend, Ron Deal. I just thought—[Laughter]
Dennis: I was going to introduce him last.
I’ve introduced him first. I was going to introduce our guest, Elizabeth Oates. Welcome back, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth: Oh, thank you.
Dennis: We’re glad to have you back, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Dennis: Ron’s another matter. [Laughter] No; Ron Deal joins us as well. He heads up FamilyLife’s blended initiative. Welcome back, Ron. You know I’m kidding?
Ron: Yes; I do. Thank you.
Ron: It’s good to be here.
Bob: Ron, we wanted you to be in on this conversation because you work with couples, all the time, who are dealing with issues from the past as they try to form a healthy relationship. Unless you go back and address some of those issues from the past, you will find them starting to filter through. It’s just like little fumes that come through the air duct. Unless you know the source of that, you’re going to have some toxic fumes in the air; aren’t you?
Ron: Yes; you know, we all have some dysfunction in our lives, no matter what your family story is. The beautiful thing about the topic today is—we’re talking about how God helps to redeem our lives in spite of what we’ve grown up with.
Dennis: Yes; that’s the title of the book, Mending Broken Branches: When God Reclaims Your Dysfunctional Family Tree.
Lest anybody out there, folds their arms and smugly says: “Not my family tree. We’re all perfect.” [Laughter]
Bob: I remember my mom used to watch afternoon TV talk shows. She would say, “All these people talking about dysfunctional families,”—she said—“They’re all dysfunctional families!”—right?
Ron: That’s right; that’s right.
Dennis: Well, Elizabeth, you start early in your book talking about a visit that you and your husband Brandon made to your mother and her third husband.
Dennis: We’re giving our audience a bit of a tip-off here of the family tree that you came from. You ran into some problems in that visit, as an engaged couple, with your peacemaker husband; and it completely took you off guard.
Elizabeth: Yes; my mom had been married for about four or five years at the time. We were—Brandon and I were engaged, and we were all getting ready to go to a family event. It was a pretty tense situation.
Their marriage was just tense in general. There was always a lot of fighting, and that was just the environment that I had grown up in; so I was used to it.
I was used to a lot of anger being taken out on me, just in general—whether or not I was the reason for the anger or not. I was used to being treated a certain way. I also knew that, if I spoke up or defended myself, that there were consequences; so I had learned to just take it and just very dutifully be quiet and not say anything.
My husband is very laidback, which is what I love about him. He is very—like you said, he’s a peacemaker—and he does not like to insert conflict where there doesn’t need to be, which is ironic because he is an attorney. [Laughter] I tell him he needs to be a mediator, not an attorney.
When he saw this all unfolding—he saw my mom and stepdad fighting—
—and he saw me becoming the target of some of their anger—he was almost a deer in the headlights—look of: “What is happening here?” He had never seen this; there was never arguing in his home. He didn’t know how to respond—he didn’t know if he should defend me; he didn’t know if we should leave; he didn’t know if he should pull me aside. He said that he truly didn’t know how to respond. He’d never come across a situation like this. He says, “I didn’t even know married couples treated each other this way.” He said, “I’d never seen this!” so he did nothing.
Bob: Let me step in here and just say, “That’s the same thing Adam did in the Garden—
Bob: —“when there was conflict between Eve and the snake.
Bob: “He just sat there and said nothing.”
Bob: Brandon comes by this honestly; right?
Bob: There’s a genetic predisposition here. [Laughter]
Elizabeth: That’s right! So he did nothing. I, out of years of doing nothing, continued to do nothing. It wasn’t until much later—later meaning years—
—that we reflected on this—it was as we were starting to set boundaries in our marriage that he just broke down, crying during a conversation. He says he always regretted that he allowed that to happen—he said: “You know, I should have defended you. I should have stood up for you.”
I thought, “Oh, should you have?” No one had ever stood up for me before. No one had ever defended me before, so I didn’t even know that was an option. I didn’t even know to think: “Why isn’t he defending me? Why isn’t he standing up for me? Why is nobody interjecting for me?” Then, it was eye-opening for him that he didn’t stand up. I think he felt very regretful.
Dennis: He had a responsibility there.
Dennis: If we could turn this into a chat with wives, who really want their husbands to protect them—
Dennis: —and step up and be their advocate / not their adversary—in a situation like this, what does a husband need to know?—and what’s the best way to approach him around this subject of how your past has impacted you, as a wife?
Elizabeth: I think I alluded to it a moment ago—but I almost didn’t know that I had certain rights or that I had a voice. Like I said—I didn’t even know that standing up for myself was an option. I didn’t know that I should want someone to stand up for me or defend me, because this is all I had known—was people taking their anger out on me. I thought that was normal; I thought that was acceptable.
Yes; I would have loved, more than anything, for him to stand up for me/protect me. I think, in the moment, it would have scared me; because I would have been afraid of the consequences; but in hindsight, that is what needed to happen. I think it would have saved us a lot of heartache, in the long run, as far as having to set boundaries that we had to set later on—because we did have to set some hard boundaries later on. Then, once we did, their reaction was: “Wait!
“Where are these coming from, because you’ve never had a problem with how we’ve treated ya’ll before?”
So, yes; I think any wife or woman would love for their husband, like you said, to be their protector, to be their defender, to stand up for them, to give them a voice. Yes, we do have our own voice; but when we come from a place of brokenness / a place of dysfunction, sometimes, our voice has been so squelched for so long—
Elizabeth: —that we are almost mute, if not, just hoarse.
Dennis: I think a passage of Scripture that every husband ought to be taught is 1 John, Chapter 4—it’s very simple: “Perfect love casts out all fear.”
Dennis: Lest a husband miss this: “Your wife, as a human being, has had things happen to her that has created fear in her life.” Whether she looks secure or not, there are those cracks or holes in her heart, where she’s been betrayed; and she doesn’t want that to happen again.
The beginning point for this is to, first of all, have a conversation of: “Tell me how this impacts you when we go back home. How do you process what’s being said to you?”
Dennis: “How does that affect you?”
Dennis: Talk it through, as a couple—not to barbeque your in-laws or to somehow put them down—but just to begin to understand how you, as a husband, can begin to truly be an advocate for your wife.
Elizabeth: I am glad you said that—how your wife might look secure / she might look strong—because I am a very confident person—very strong personality and very independent. I think that probably threw him off too—was: “Well, she’s not saying anything; so I guess I shouldn’t say anything,”—because in every other situation—in every other group dynamic / in every other experience—he’s always seen me take charge / take the lead—you know, always be in control.
This was probably the first time where he had seen me a little more timid / a little more meek and mild, which is just not my normal personality. It’s not normally how I handle situations. Like you said, it’s the one situation where I was a little bit—I don’t want to say, maybe, in fear—but maybe, a little bit uncomfortable and reacting how I don’t normally react.
Bob: So, the heads up for us, as husbands and wives here, is that we see the surface; but we ought to be smart enough to know there is stuff under the surface—
Bob: —that we can’t see and may be a mystery to us; but it is there.
Bob: It affects how we think. I’m just thinking—I just had an exchange with my wife today about something that we’ve been talking about / something that matters way too much to her. I said” “Why does this matter so much to you? Why do you think this matters?” She was able to pull back and go: “I think there was this about my past. I think this happened back when I was a teenager.”
I mean, she’s going way back; but she’s starting to put pieces together to say, “I think this way and act this way—I react to circumstances, because I see these things in my past.”
I wouldn’t see that on the surface; but being able to have those kinds of conversations is healthy for both of us,—
Bob: —because it helps me recognize how I can love her better—
Bob: —and it helps her understand things about herself more clearly.
Bob: It’s an ongoing part of the process.
Ron: It is.
Dennis: It really is.
Ron: It is.
Bob: You’ve had these same kind of conversations after 40-plus years; right?
Ron: The principle, I think, here is be inquisitive with and on behalf of one another.
Ron: Sometimes, it’s—I’m curious about myself, and I’m inviting my spouse into that journey: “Can you help me get a little perspective? What are you seeing in me?” By the way, that is an act of humility; right? You really have to put on some courage and trust God in the moment to invite your spouse into that. That’s an intimate moment when you do that.
And sometimes, it’s what you did, Bob—it’s you going, “Huh?”
I’ve learned, in my own marriage, when I’m confused about something about my wife, as it relates to how we’re interacting or what’s going on with her—I’ve learned that’s an opportunity for me to get inquisitive and curious in a way that helps her and me discover what’s under the surface.
Ron: It’s like I used to get frustrated, in my confusion, and get angry at her. Now, that was my issue; right? Now, I’ve learned: “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. There’s something here. Let me just go soft, and slow, and low, and just go: ‘Huh? I wonder what that’s about.’ Then, pause.” Oftentimes, it kind of bubbles up: “Oh, maybe, it’s this,” “Maybe, it’s that”; and we discover something that helps us grow.
Bob: We’ve got to be careful here; because you can go probing some of these past areas, and you’ll get toward sore spots. All of a sudden, inflammation pops up; and your spouse goes: “Don’t go near that! Don’t touch that!”
Ron: What you don’t want to do is go: “Bob, you’re my friend. Let me tell you—you need to see something in yourself; right there—you need...”
That is the probing that is aggressive; right? [Laughter]
Ron: But the soft, gentle—“Huh? I wonder what that’s about.”—that’s an invitation. That says, “You’re safe in my arms right now.”
Dennis: Not to belabor this point, but to seek out a biblical counselor—it may be that a third party needs to sit down with the two of you and help a husband unpack what he can’t unpack for his wife.
Dennis: I have to tell myself: “Wait a second, I can’t fix this. This is not mine for the fixing. God has called me to love.”
Ron: You mean you’re not Barbara’s Holy Spirit?
Dennis: I’ve tried to be. [Laughter]
Dennis: Doesn’t work; doesn’t work.
Bob: I want to ask you a question about how you have talked about your past with your children.
Elizabeth: That’s a good question.
Bob: They have a grandmother, who is still alive—
Bob: —that—and a painful part of your past—her story; a grandfather who is now deceased that, I’m guessing, they didn’t really have any relationship with.
Bob: They are curious about how Mom grew up. How have you dealt with that in a way that is honest without being condemnatory; you know?
Elizabeth: Yes; we kind of tackle it little by little. We answer questions as they come. They have a great relationship with my mom. She lives about three hours away, so she’s not a day-to-day grandmother.
When it comes to questions, things do come out. I remember saying to my husband one time—I think I was just fed up with the whole entitlement mentality that our kids have, which is just—it’s normal kid stuff. I made the comment of, “If my kids knew half of what I’ve dealt with!”—you know—and made some comment. My husband said, “Elizabeth, do you really want them to know?—because, if they knew, that means they would have to live through what you lived through.” You know, I took a deep breath—I said, “Thanks for that reality check; okay.”
I don’t share a lot with them because I don’t want to shape their view.
You know, I would never say I had a horrible childhood—I don’t feel like I did—but I do see God’s protective hand. I think that’s what I want them to realize—is how much God protected me throughout my life. I want them to realize the people God put in my life, who poured into me.
When this book came out, they, of course, asked me what it’s about. I have to tell them just in terms that they understand: “Well, you know, Mommy’s parents were divorced; but God has done beautiful things in my life. This is a book for people, whose parents were divorced, that they want to create a healthy family. That’s what this book is about,”—so just trying to explain it in those terms.
They will ask me where my dad is; and I’ll say, “Well, remember Mommy’s parents got divorced when I was little bitty?—and my dad was just never in my life.” They’ll say, “Why?” I’ll say: “You know, sometimes, daddies just don’t make good decisions; and sometimes, mommies don’t make good decisions. My daddy just didn’t make a good decision.
“He chose not to be in my life, but you know what? I have a God, and God is my heavenly Father—He will never leave me.” So always trying to point them back to positive things, or point them back to Scripture, or point them back to God.
Bob: Ron, comment on how Elizabeth dealt with that with her kids and how you help couples deal with painful past situations.
Ron: I think it’s a delicate line, and she’s articulated it well. On the one hand, I don’t think you want to lie about your past. I don’t think we want to deceive our children and say, “It was fine,” when it wasn’t. At the same time, you don’t want to paint an awful, horrible picture.
By the way, I suspect—even though you didn’t say it—I thought I heard, in what you were saying, how forgiveness has softened you toward your parents/stepparents and how that makes a difference then in how you tell the story to your kids. When you have found some understanding and some empathy for what was going on with your parent—that softens your heart.
When you forgive them—that softens your heart. You can tell the truth—but in a way that is not harsh, or overly negative, or judgmental—but in a way that is more factual, but it’s laced with compassion.
Elizabeth: Right. Yes; I think that’s a great point to make. If we can understand where our parents come from—just take a look back in history—understand a little bit about their own childhoods / understanding what makes them who they are and why they made some of the choices that they made—even if you have some conflict with a sibling, trying to understand your sibling’s point of view—that’s what’s going to help you reach empathy. I think that is what leads to forgiveness.
Yes; I’ve done a lot of work, again, to reach forgiveness. I tell people, “I never could have written this book if I had not reached a point of forgiveness.” If I had written this book without forgiveness—
Elizabeth: —it would have been a tell-all, splatter the family secrets across—
—it would have been a completely different book and a book full of resentment. That’s not what it is at all. It’s a book full of hope and healing and a book to help people reach redemption and restoration—at least, I hope that’s what comes across—but yes; I hold no bitterness or resentment at all.
Ron: That has to make a difference in how you tell your children your personal story.
Elizabeth: Right; yes.
Ron: It has to.
Ron: I am so grateful to Elizabeth, not just for writing this book, but for living it. I mean, think about the narrative here—it’s a story of a family that had some very difficult times. It was a fractured family—she and her brother having to do a lot of things on their own; grows up / stepdad in her life—he’s harsh, angry; another divorce; another stepdad; a lot of loneliness in her teenage years. She didn’t carry that forward another generation. She, with God, did the hard work—mended the branches. Now, she’s got a family—
—it’s a very different story.
People need to hear that: “Your family story can be redeemed in one generation. You can be the turning point. That’s what God does.”
Dennis: You know, as you are talking, Ron, I couldn’t help but think of the Ten Commandments. The first four have to do with our relationship with God. The fifth commandment is the relationship we have with our parents; and it says this: “Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”
I honestly believe, if you want to be a great parent, you’ve got to first go home with honor to your mom and dad. I’m not talking about honoring evil, sin, dysfunction; but I am encouraging a listener to say, “Why don’t you revisit where they came from?”—as Elizabeth writes in her book—and to think about how you can take honor back home.
To do that, you’re going to have to work through forgiveness; because you can’t honor somebody and hate them at the same time.
It could be—I think; in fact, I believe it is true—one of the benefits of the fifth commandment is it forces us to do business with Almighty God around what’s in our heart toward our parents. Elizabeth has done that—to your point, Ron—you said she’s modeled, really, what the Scriptures call us to model as well.
Elizabeth, I’m grateful to God for you and Brandon and your ministry to young married couples. Thanks for being on the broadcast. I hope you’ll come back again and join us again someday.
Elizabeth: Thank you for having me.
Bob: I just want to go back to—Ron, what you talked about. Your marriage/your family can be the first in a new line. You can put a stake in the ground and say, “We’re going to stop the patterns that have been a part of this family line, and we’re going forward with some new patterns in our marriage.”
If you’re going to do that and do it effectively, you’re going to need some help. That’s where Elizabeth’s book, Mending Broken Branches, can be a part of that journey for you. I think this book with help you dig in and understand some of those unhealthy patterns and habits of the past and how you can begin to point your family in a new direction.
I’m thinking, too, Dennis, about the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway and how it has been a course corrector for a lot of couples, who needed a new direction for their marriage. You can find out more about Elizabeth’s book, Mending Broken Branches, and about the Weekend to Remember marriage getaways that we host when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com. You can order the book online. You can get information about upcoming getaways or even register for them online. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. You can also call if you have any questions. Our number is 1-800-358-6329—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, I got an email this morning from a listener—this was so sweet. She wrote and said, “Your broadcasts, in general, are so helpful—such a blessing in my life as the first follower of Christ in my family of origin. I’m now 36 years old.” She said, “I don’t have the wisdom and discipling opportunity of a family, and I’m very sensitive to and careful about the information I receive that it be biblically-based but also loving.” She went on to talk about how she appreciates our tone, here, on FamilyLife Today as we seek to speak the truth in love—full of kindness and compassion but also not wavering from what the Scriptures teach.
Our goal, here, on FamilyLife Today is to provide practical biblical help and hope for your marriage and your family. And I want to thank those of you who make this ministry possible—those of you who are helping us reach more people, more regularly—
—effectively developing godly marriages and families.
If you can help us with a donation this month, we would love to hear from you. The start of summer is always a time when we have to look around and say, “Okay; what can we move forward with, and what do we need to put on hold?” because during these months we often see a decline in donations. We would very much appreciate hearing from you today. You can donate, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to donate at 1-800-FL-TODAY.
When you get in touch with us, let us know that you’d like to receive a copy of Barbara Rainey’s book, Letters to My Daughters. We’re offering this book, this month, as a way to say, “Thank you,” to those of you who can help with a donation. The book is great to have to pass along to somebody who is getting married or, maybe, to your adult daughters. This is Barbara sharing her wisdom on being a wife and a mom with her own daughters, first, and now with all of us through the book, Letters to My Daughters.
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Be sure to be back with us again tomorrow when we’re going to talk about living fit. We’ll talk about living with healthy bodies but also with healthy souls, healthy emotions, healthy relationships, healthy finances—all of it. Our guest, Pastor Ronnie Floyd, will be with us tomorrow. I hope you can be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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