Learning to Love in a Stepfamily
About the Guest
: Ron Deal's sand presentation ceremony from the Blended & Blessed® conference, a one-day live event and livestream for stepfamily couples, single parents, dating couples with kids, and those who care about blended families.
Blended & Blessed®
Robbie and Sabrina McDonaldRobbie and Sabrina McDonald were both widowed when they married and blended their families in 2013. Together they have three children at home and a grown son and daughter-in-law. Robbie is a full-time non-commissioned officer for the Army National Guard, a deacon, and a member of The Gideons International. Sabrina is a stay-at-home mom and author of two books, "Open the Widows of Heaven," a devotional for women, and "The Blessings of Loneliness."
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
Ron Deal joins Robbie and Sabrina McDonald to talk about their blended family three years after saying “I Do.”
Learning to Love in a Stepfamily
Bob: The delicate dance between a stepparent and a stepson or stepdaughter is one that is perfected over time with a lot of attention to how the kids are feeling. That’s what Sabrina McDonald has experienced as her husband, Robbie, has been learning how to deal with her son, Benjamin.
Sabrina: Benjamin’s really sensitive. He’s one of these kids that just—he’s got his sensors out all the time, so he’s listening to every little word Robbie says. If it has any tone of disapproval in it, whatsoever, he’s disturbed. Robbie has gotten to where he knows that’s going to happen; and he’ll say: “I’m not upset with you. I love you. I just want you to know such-and-such and such-and-such.” He’s recognized that pattern on his own and trying to figure out that balance of “How do I be a disciplinarian but also let him know that I still love him?” That requires a lot of communication.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, June 28th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. How can parents in a blended family help one another learn to better relate to their non-biological children? We’re going to explore that and more today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition. We’re here for the—what is this?—the three-year/36,000-mile tune-up. Isn’t that what we’re doing today?
Dennis: —wheel alignment.
Dennis: —oil change.
Dennis: Yes; you’ve got to check in with folks after they’ve got some mileage under their belts.
We brought Ron Deal in—who is the master mechanic.
Bob: He is the mechanic. [Laughter]
Dennis: —master mechanic. You wanted to make sure our listeners had the context for what we’re going to do today. Rather than me foul it up, [Laughter] pull out your wrench and bring our listeners into the context of what we’re doing today.
Ron: Thank you. Instead of you fouling it up, you’re going to let me foul it up. [Laughter] It’s good to be back with you guys. I always enjoy being on FamilyLife Today.
Today, yes; we are joined by some good friends. Robbie and Sabrina McDonald have been on this broadcast before—Sabrina, a number of times—but specifically, for our conversation today: Sabrina, we interviewed you about six years ago when you were a single mom. We talked about dating and the single parent and your experience being a woman dating and getting your head around that.
Dennis: Did I say a widow?
Ron: A widow; that’s right. By the way, welcome back, Sabrina, to the broadcast.
Sabrina: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Ron: And then, a couple of years later, we brought on you and your new husband—that’s Robbie. Robbie, welcome back.
Robbie: Thank you.
Ron: We spent some time talking with the two of you. You were two years into your blended family at that time. Here we are now—another three years beyond that—so about five years into your blended family experience.
We’re checking in with you, again, on today’s broadcast. Looking forward to some conversation.
Bob: I remember, Ron, a statement that—I think it was Dr. Norman Wright, who said, years ago—he said, “When you start a first marriage, it takes three to five years for the adjustments to occur.” Then he said, “If it’s a blended marriage,”—there’s a second marriage—“you can take that and just about double it.” It’s about an eight- to ten-year process of making those adjustments; because you’re, not just adjusting to one another, but you’re adjusting away from patterns of the past that are just kind of a default to you. You’ve been in this before; you did it that way before—it’s what you’re used to. Now, you’re with somebody new; you’ve got to make those adjustments. This is a part of the trickiness that goes with first marriages, but it’s intensified in a blended marriage; isn’t it?
Ron: Yes; that’s exactly right.
I think anybody, who is married, understands you make adjustments as life moves you through time—and your family grows, and changes over time, and kids change in age—yes; we’re always making adjustments—there’s transition to the next phase. Same things are true for blended families.
One of the reasons we’re tracking with Robbie and Sabrina—I really want our listeners to understand this, because I want to encourage people to go back and listen to those previous broadcasts—is because we can only deal with life when it hits us; right? We don’t know what tomorrow holds. What we’re doing here, intentionally, is seeing how things have grown, how things have changed, how things—how your family is evolving over time—because I think that gives people a lot of perspective, in a blended family, as to what may be going on with their home.
Bob: And in your blended family, Robbie and Sabrina, there are four children; right?
Robbie and Sabrina: Yes.
Bob: Two from your marriage, previously, Robbie and two that you brought into marriage, Sabrina—so “two yours and two mine” is how you—that’s how you verbalize that; isn’t it?
Robbie: That’s right.
Bob: “Yours and mine kids.”
Robbie: “Yours and mine family”; right.
Dennis: I want to just cut to the chase, Robbie. You work for the Army National Guard; right?—
Robbie: That’s correct.
Dennis: —non-commissioned officer.
You’re now five years into this relationship. What would you say has been the biggest adjustment?
Robbie: I think the biggest adjustment is learning how to love people or the family, because everybody wants to receive love differently and receive parenting differently than what I was used to for my children.
Ron: Three years ago, when we interviewed you guys, Robbie, you actually said that you and Benjamin—Sabrina’s son: her oldest, who is now nine, by the way—that you guys were kind of having it out. There were some power struggles in the home. He had been the man of the house, even as a very small boy, because his father had passed away.
Here you came, onto the scene, and you kind of had some expectations about obedience and parenting. Your style was a little bit different than Sabrina’s, as I recall. You guys were trying to figure how to merge those things and those expectations.
Robbie, do you mind just commenting: “How’s that relationship, specifically with Ben, going? What have been some of the hills and the valleys, and the good points, and things that you’re learning in the process?”
Robbie: The relationship with Ben has actually gotten a lot better over the past few months, but it took a lot of time of us both learning each other. I had to take my time and let all that play out instead of just jumping in and becoming Dad. I had to work at becoming Dad.
Dennis: I want to go back to just the major umbrella that you put all this under—learning how to love. I think that’s a beautiful summary of what happens to any two imperfect human beings when they enter this relationship called marriage.
Bob: And Ron, I’ve heard you say that, in a blended family, the thing that the non-bio parent has to do is—they have to recognize that Job One is to build that relationship before you try to do anything from a parenting perspective. That doesn’t mean that the son doesn’t need to show respect to the adult in the house, but there’s a difference between showing respect and being a mom or being a dad. You just need to back off and let that develop; right?
Ron: Yes; what I love about what he said is that it was patience in his process of learning how to love / learning how to connect and that you had to rethink—be flexible, learn, adjust along the way—but patience is so important. If you just step in there with a high degree of demand: “Hey, I’m your new dad. Let’s get on with it. No questions asked,”—that sort of climate just backfires, generally speaking.
Dennis: Robbie, can you give us an illustration, practically, of how that might work its way out between a stepfather and a son?
Robbie: Well, I just know it was so much easier for me to connect with my daughter, Katherine, than it was for me to connect with Benjamin. She was willing, and she was searching for that—she was wanting that connection also.
Benjamin—it seemed like he didn’t really—he’s a loner—he didn’t really need the connection as much as Katherine did. I had to think of different ways that I could get him involved or be involved with what he does. I had to go out of my way to make sure that I praised him for the things that he did and he wanted to do.
Ron: Sounds like it was easier with Katherine—she was more open. It was just more challenging to connect to Ben.
Robbie: Yes; definitely.
Bob: I’ve talked with bio dads about this, and I’ve been a bio dad. You have to learn: “What are the things that your kids get excited about?”
Then, if you want to enter their world, you enter through those pathways.
Bob: I had one dad—who was on our Art of Parenting™ video series—and he said: “You know, with one of our kids, if I said, ‘Hey, do you want to go throw the football around in the backyard?’ ‘Yes!’ He was all over that. Another kid: ‘You want to go throw the football?’ ‘No.’ But if I said, ‘You want to go to Best Buy®?’ ‘Yes!’ He wanted to go to Best Buy anytime I was going to Best Buy. I had to learn: ‘What are the things that caused their eyes to light up?’ and ‘How can I enter their world on their journey, and come alongside them, and help enable that and make that possible?’ This kid couldn’t go to Best Buy on his own. He needed me to drive him there; so, all of a sudden, I’m a good guy; because I’m taking him to Best Buy.”
Dennis: And he needed your credit card. [Laughter]
Bob: That too; right?
Ron: Okay; so—
Ron: That’s right; you’re thinking the same thing I’m thinking.
Dennis: I am; go for it!
Ron: Yes; you’re watching this process of your husband and your son, and they’re trying to figure stuff out. How does that affect you, as mom? What do you say? What do you not say? Any lessons learned there?
Sabrina: Oh yes. I was just going to say Robbie has done such a good job of finding out the ways he could connect; because the first year that we were married, I desperately wanted a father for my son, who needed one—very strong-willed, very hard to discipline, very rebellious, single-minded—he wanted to do what he wanted to do. I knew that, if he had a father in the home, he would be a much better person. He has so much potential—so much wonderful things about him.
When Robbie first got there, I said: “Okay; I’ve got my Army man. I want him to come in and straighten out my son,”—so I was encouraging him. [Laughter]
Dennis: “Put on your armor and let’s go.”
Sabrina: Yes; “Let’s battle!” [Laughter] I wanted him to be the disciplinarian of the home—I thought: “This is the way God set it up. This is the way it should be. The man is the head of the home.” I had to realize, for stepfamilies—that is a position that has to be earned—it’s not inherent.
When they’re born into a biological family, they inherently have this respect for “This is Dad,” and they’re kind of brought up this way.
Well, this was a new person coming to our home—I mean, a basic stranger. So that whole first year, we had a major setback; because I had created it. I had sort of forced Robbie / encouraged him to be this disciplinarian, and that was not received well. That put us backwards. I was very upset for the first couple of years; and I thought, “They’re never going to get along.”
But now, Robbie has been so willing to step outside of his box. He’s not naturally a talker / he’s not naturally a praiser—he doesn’t, you know, say: “Oh, great job. Wonderful.” But that’s something that really feeds into Benjamin—Benjamin really understands that kind of language. He likes to feel—he’s the firstborn of my family, and he likes to feel that acceptance/—
Bob: —words of affirmation.
Bob: That’s one of the five love languages; right?
Sabrina: Yes; and that’s not Robbie’s strength, but he has worked so hard.
Benjamin’s really sensitive. He’s one of these kids that just—he’s got his sensors out all the time, so he’s listening to every little word Robbie says. If it has any tone of disapproval in it, whatsoever, he’s disturbed. Robbie has gotten to where he knows that’s going to happen; and he’ll say: “I’m not upset with you. I love you. I’m not upset with you. I just want you to know such-and-such and such-and-such.” He’s recognized that pattern on his own.
I’ve been really proud of the way that he’s [Robbie’s] interacted with him [Benjamin]; because that’s been a really rough relationship—you know, trying to figure out that balance of: “How do I be a disciplinarian but also let him know that I still love him?” That requires a lot of communication with Benjamin, which is not a strength of Robbie’s. He’s worked so hard to reach out to Ben.
It’s been amazing to watch Benjamin go to school and brag about his dad and tell the kids about: “Oh, my dad’s been in war.
“My dad’s been to Iraq. My dad can do this and that.” I hear him talking a lot more now about “his dad,” “his dad,” “his dad.” It’s gone from one extreme to the other.
Dennis: Sabrina, I’m just sitting back, listening to you. I love the way you describe something that isn’t a strength—you didn’t call it a weakness. [Laughter] Really!
And you didn’t see it—obviously, as a listener—but Robbie just reached over and patted her hand; I love the way you’re looking at your husband—and how he has fought through some major battles, probably more difficult than what you faced in going to a foreign country.
Robbie: To a point; yes. [Laughter]
Dennis: And to win the boy over, and to keep on keeping on, and to keep on loving—that’s the love of the Scriptures—it’s not that you do it perfectly, but that you don’t quit.
Ron: Yes; and that’s what I was feeling too—was the accommodation of Robbie to find a way to build that connection.
Three years ago, when we sat here and we talked to you guys, Sabrina, you articulated a little bit of regret over the pace of how quickly you guys—you dated for six months / married—and part of it was you were now realizing / at that point, you were realizing that you felt like Ben needed a dad. Here you are, again, saying, “Yes; I kind of pushed all of that, and then it backfired.” So, three years ago, you were feeling some regret over that.
Now, I want the listener to hear that, even though there’s tension—there’s some awkwardness / there’s some adjustments—here you are; fast-forward three years—things are better. Now, Ben’s bragging on his dad at school. What a shift! What a change! That, Bob, is the kind of reward stuff that we talk about at FamilyLife Blended®—that often the rewards come a little bit further down the road than you’d like for them to come; but if you persist and keep finding a way—and as Robbie did—find that way to build a connection.
And by the way, words of affirmation may not come easily to you; but saying to him, “Hey, listen, I’m not mad at you; but I love you,”—[those are] words of affirmation. You found your voice with Ben—that’s the key.
Bob: And to your point, Ron, somebody has said, “We’re able to do less in a year than we think we’re going to be able to do, but we’re able to do more in five years than we think we’re going to be able to do.” In the dailyness of it, we can sometimes feel like, “I don’t know if we’re making any progress on this thing at all,”—but you come back in for your three-year/36,000-mile check-up—and you go: “We are in a different place. We have made progress. We didn’t feel it in the moment; but now, we can look and go, ‘Okay; there’s some good stuff that’s happened here.’”
Dennis: And Sabrina, there has to be a mom or a dad, who are in a blended family, who haven’t seen: “Hey—that was my dad. He did this, and he did that; and I’m proud of him.” They’re still waiting to hear those words, and it may be longer than five years.
What would you say to both that dad and that mom in that situation if it was similar to yours?
Bob: —still getting stiff-armed by stepson or a stepdaughter.
Sabrina: I think I would say to the biological parent to—you know, we’re the ones that can see in our children, where they are struggling. The stepparent is still more of the outsider—you don’t know exactly what’s going on. It takes a lot of support from the biological parent, and having that communication with their spouse, and saying: “Look, here’s where my child is struggling. This is what he or she needs from you.”
We have a lot of those conversations, because Robbie’s not a words-of-affirmation person—I am. And I’m a lot like my son in the way that we need to be loved. I would have to interpret for him; and I would say: “This is why he’s upset by your tone,” or “…you’re saying things in this way or that way.” To you, that just sounds like a normal command. Your kids are used to it, but my son is not.
“He hears that; and to him, that means you’re angry.” We had to have a lot of those—almost like a mediator or interpretation—conversations
Dennis: Yes; kind of like a foreign language.
Sabrina: Yes; it really is. I’m telling him: “This is how our family views that, and here’s what you’re saying to him when you do that.”
Robbie, to his credit, has been such an awesome listener. He listens to what I’m saying; he considers it—he doesn’t just stiff-arm me and say: “Oh, no, no, no. That’s not the way it’s going to be around here.” He really listens and wants there to be peace in the family. He tries really hard to emulate what it is that I’m suggesting.
Ron: Okay; so let’s check in on the other side. Three years ago, Sabrina, you have two stepchildren—Robbie has two kids. By the way, I think we should mention your first marriage, Robbie, came to an end when your wife, Kari, passed away of cancer. Is that correct?
Robbie: That’s correct.
Ron: And you now have William, who is 28 and married, and Seth, who’s now 18, in your home. What’s your journey like with them?
Sabrina: Well, three years ago, with Seth, we had a really good relationship.
Now, he’s left and gone off to college. The struggle for me has been trying to figure out if the way he’s reacting to me is a result of his going off to college and being independent or “Is he trying to get away from me because now he can?” [Laughter] I really don’t know! I’m not sure. I don’t know if he’s sure, but I’m still reaching out to him. I’m still—I made a mistake of getting into kind of a heated battle with him, where I was just kind of—I was yelling at him and saying, you know: “I’m not made of money! You’re just treating me like an ATM machine!”
Dennis: Hold it; hold it! I just want you to know something—we sent six to college. [Laughter] They all treat moms and dads like ATM machines; and when they happen to be of the male species, if you hear from them, in the first semester, a couple of times—
Bob: —count that a victory.
Dennis: That’s right—a big victory; okay? I don’t know your situation, obviously; but I just remember both Barbara and I went through, “Well, we do have a son.”
Ron: Yes: “We think.”
Dennis: “We think he’s up there,”—but they just didn’t call. [Laughter]That’s not how they were wired.
Ron: I think the message here is: “Sometimes, it really is hard to know whether that’s just a kid thing—a developmental child / developmental moment with parents—or if it’s more stepfamily related.” Honestly, I don’t know that we’ll always know the difference. But what I hear you saying is: “There’s a transition taking place. You’re at a season of your life, where you’re trying to figure that relationship out.”
Sabrina: Yes; I think all of us are still trying to figure it out, because he was a teenager when we got married. It was a very—we were—at that point, he was really talking to me. He was at that stage, where he was just trying to figure out who he was and everything. Now, he kind of knows who he is; so I don’t know that he needs that kind of feedback.
But it does—when you’re a stepparent, you keep telling yourself: “This is because he’s this age. It’s because he is this age—
—“that’s what it is.” But on the—you know, you have the angel and the devil on your shoulders. One is telling you, “It’s his age,” and the other one is saying: “No; he doesn’t like you. That’s the reason why he’s out of here, because he’s never coming back.” You have just this insecurity about: “What did I do?” and “What can I do?” and “How can I make him feel like he wants to be here?” and “I want this to be his home”; you know? So, there is some anxiety there.
Dennis: What I’d say here is—you need to realize that a good bit of the teenage years are just tough; they just aren’t very lovable. They won’t let you know that they’re listening, even though they really are. They need parents, whether you’re a stepparent or a bio parent, to step in, keep loving / keep believing. Don’t give up, and certainly don’t let your teenager push you out and invite his peers in—that’s the last thing he needs.
Bob: Yes; a stepparent’s got to be shrewd how you do that dance, because you can’t press in as much as the bio parent can.
And you may—Sabrina, as the mom here—need to go to Robbie and say: “I think something’s up here. You may need to get a little closer to your son, because you’ve got to be aware of the dynamic.”
But I think your point, Dennis—moms and dads—they get these ques from their teenage kids, whether you’re a bio parent or a stepparent—you get these ques, like: “Back off.” You’ve got to say: “No; I’m right here. I’m staying right with you.”
Dennis: “I’m coming after you; because you need a parent in your life right now, who loves you and who believes in you.”
Bob: I think the books, Ron, that you’ve written for stepmoms and stepdads will be so helpful here. The books, The Smart Stepmom and The Smart Stepdad—you just give good practical sound counsel on how to deal with these challenges that stepfamilies often face. We’ve got, of course, these books in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order them from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order.
Once again, let me remind folks: “If you want to listen to or view the content from our recent Blended and Blessed® one-day event for stepfamilies, we have the all-access pass available that will give you access to all of that content. You can use that with a small group or just view it on your own—listen to these messages. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about the all-access pass or about Ron’s books, The Smart Stepmom and The Smart Stepdad.
Now, we have had a lot of folks who, over the last few weeks, have been downloading the Growing Together devotional series that we’ve created to provide families with some content that you can engage around during the summer—some things that will, hopefully, stimulate some good spiritual conversation in your home. There’s still time to download that series.
We’d love for you to use this content as you and your family, maybe, go on vacation this summer or when you have family meals together. You can find it on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com.
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Tomorrow, we’ll continue talking about the challenges that one real stepfamily is facing as they try to navigate what can be sometimes choppy waters. Robbie and Sabrina McDonald will be back again with us tomorrow, along with Ron Deal. We hope you can be back with us 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 back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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