Practical Advice for Stepdads
About the Guest
Looking for practical answers to stepparenting issues? Look no further! Family counselor Ron Deal answers some of your most perplexing questions about being a stepfather, such as, "When do you know you've won the turf? How do you build healthy relationships with your stepkids?" and "How do you foster a winning marriage, despite the ex?"
Ron Deal answers some of your most perplexing questions about being a stepfather.
Practical Advice for Stepdads
Bob: When a husband and wife come together to form a blended family, there are some extended family members that they have to take into consideration. Here is Ron Deal.
Ron: If you’re the stepdad; and your wife has an ex-husband, then he is your ex-husband-in-law, which means he is a part of your life / he is a part of your family. He is an extended family member, whether you like it or not. If he is an open, loving, good-hearted man, then you’re going to reap the blessings of that; but it will also go to the other extreme. When that ex-husband-in-law is an addict, or unreasonable, or whatever that case may be, you’re going to, unfortunately, pay the price for that as well.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, July 14th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey. I’m Bob Lepine. Blending a family / becoming an effective stepfather—it’s challenging. There are obstacles you’ll face, but it’s also possible. We’ll talk about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Friday edition. Do you have GPS built into your car, or do you use your iPhone®? What do you do?
Dennis: You know, my GPS system broke. It was about—I don’t know—ten years old.
Bob: It broke? What did it do?
Dennis: The lady lost her voice. She became falsetto / ultra-falsetto—[Laughter]—[high falsetto voice] “Turn left.” [Laughter]
Bob: I’ve never had GPS. I’ve had the—you can do some stuff with Google Maps on your iPhone—
Dennis: Right. It’s really bad when you have a falsetto GPS woman, who has a British accent—it just doesn’t work for me. [Laughter]
Bob: But it is nice if you’re in a town that you’ve never been in and you need to go somewhere you’ve never been—
Dennis: Oh, Seattle. Let me tell you—I’ve been lost in Seattle. The GPS system—I’m convinced I could have gotten there in ten minutes, but it took me through so many turns. I was lost so many times. [Laughter]
Bob: Well, it’s nice for somebody to give you directions rather than you just trying to take a stab in the dark.
Dennis: Not in this case! [Laughter] We do have someone here with us who is the authority—
Bob: —the human GPS!
Dennis: —the human GPS for stepfamilies. Ron Deal joins us on FamilyLife Today. Have you ever been introduced like that, Ron? [Laughter]
Dennis: I’m glad you’re here with us. Ron has just finished a book called The Smart Stepdad, and it really does contain the great advice for really guiding a stepdad and a wife through some detours. I just want to start by asking, “What are some best practices here for stepdads and wives as they experience a blended family?”
Bob: Yes; if the place you want to get is: “Happy family—we’re all getting along okay. It’s functioning”—
Dennis: Happy family?
Dennis: This sounds like a fortune cookie. [Laughter]
Bob: The place you want to get—functional family, or no war going on, or something—[Laughter] —
—just the kind of family, where: “You know what? We’re getting along, and life is good,”—if that’s where you want to get, is there a map to get you there?
Ron: It is a great question. Actually, for this book, I assembled a group of stepdads who served as a sounding board to me. Some of the best practices that we all agreed upon are some things like this: “Let the children set the pace for their relationship with you.” As a man, that can be difficult—especially if you’re a go-getter / kind of CEO type of person. You see the prize—you go after it, and you go and you get it.
When it comes to building a relationship with stepchildren, the pace at which that relationship is going to be developed is going to be determined by the kids, not by you. You can do the right things. You can say the right things. You can make yourself available in terms of time, and energy, and investing in things their interested in; but if they don’t want you around, it’s really hard to break in. So, really, the best practice is let the children set the pace—listen to what they’re saying / try to work and come along beside them where they are.
Along with that is the best practice of just knowing the limits of your role. In other words, you may want to be the hero; but if they don’t let you be the hero, you can’t be the hero.
Ron: It is okay that you just say: “I’m going to take what they give me / what they open themselves up to, and I’m going to work with that. We’re going to keep growing and developing this relationship.” It doesn’t have to happen in a day.
Bob: Talk about the relationship between stepdads and daughters because that can get a little awkward.
Ron: Yes; some of the men were really honest in my focus group. I’ve heard so many men in counseling situations talk all the way around this. You hear everything from—“Wow! That’s never an issue for me. I don’t know what you’re talking about,”—to guys, who say: “She was four when I came into her life. Everything was great. She hopped up in my lap all the time. Then, when she started developing—hit puberty and became a young woman—all of a sudden, I was uncomfortable. I didn’t really know—I didn’t ever want her to think that I was looking at her body or had any thoughts…”
Because there is all that stuff going on out there—it happens. When it happens, we hear about it on the news; because it is quite controversial. You hear about abusive stepdads all the time. They make movies about this sort of stuff. So, there’s this kind of awareness that: “Boy, I don’t ever want her to feel uncomfortable around me.” That’s just being honest. I appreciate a guy who acknowledges that. At the same time, I think the temptation for some men, when those girls hit adolescence, is to back off.
Dennis: Yes; withdraw.
Ron: You don’t want to go too far; because—
Dennis: Right; right.
Ron: —then, she might perceive that as rejection and withholding. You don’t want that either. So, it is a delicate balance. One of the things I say to guys is: “Hey; don’t try to figure this balance out on your own—talk to your wife.” “Well, Ron, I can’t do that! She’s not going to understand.”
Right now, I’m talking to the women out there—I’m saying: “Look; he needs to be able to talk to you about this, and you not blow a gasket. He needs you to partner with him on this and finding appropriate ways of touching, and hugging, and expressing affection for her—
—and you not say, ‘Oh, that means you’re a pervert.’ It does not mean that. He is being responsible. That is why he is bringing this to you. So, partner with him on it.”
Bob: She can be his ally in the relationship with those kids. We’ve already talked a little bit about that this week, but she plays a critical role in helping him be set up to be the stepdad that God wants him to be.
Ron: She elevates—mom has to elevate the status of the stepdad in the children’s eyes, initially. Over time, he is going to grow his own relationship with them and stand on his own two feet; but in the beginning, he is really dependent upon her to let the kids know, “Hey, he’s in charge too.” She has to pass power—we say—to him, as the stepdad.
There’s another side to this; okay? That’s: “Don’t be quick, mom—don’t be quick to blame him for things that seem to go wrong.”
I mean, he may be trying to, as we just said, go with the kids’ pace in terms of how open they are to him—how much time they want to spend with him / how much affection they want to share with him. He may be trying to gauge that and move along with them; but it may not be fast enough for mom. She may be critical of him. Well, that’s a double bind; right? I mean, he’s trying to work with the kid; but mom’s going: “Gosh! Why aren’t you in there? Why aren’t you spending more time? Why aren’t you doing this?”
Okay, mom; you have a high need for your husband and your kids—I really understand this—you have a high need for them to get along and love each other deeply. That’s your need. Don’t let that need cause you to be over-critical of him. That will discourage your husband. That will lead him to a place where he feels he can’t win for losing. Then, he’s really going to withdraw from you and the kids.
Dennis: I’ve got a friend—his name is Tommy. He tells the story of how he fell in love with a woman who’d been divorced.
As he pursued her, it became clear he was going to marry her. He connected with the ex-husband; and that relationship didn’t go well, at all. Tommy hung in there, loving this guy / pursuing this guy at the same time he’d married his former wife.
Finally, the end of the story is—Tommy says, “Now, on Christmas morning, all the stockings are hung. Our three children’s stockings are hung there—my wife, mine, and there’s the ex-husband’s stocking.” He celebrates Christmas. Now, that has to be—
Dennis: —an incredible story, right there, of the love of Christ overcoming enormous obstacles. That, generally, is not the way this whole thing works out. It seems to me the whole blended family situation is set up to be a catastrophe in terms of the ex.
Bob: I never saw the movie, but there was a movie that came out years ago called
Bob: —that was all about that; wasn’t it?
Ron: Yes; exactly; it is very common. In fact, in the book, The Smart Stepdad, we talk about how—if you’re the stepdad, and your wife has an ex-husband, then he is your ex-husband-in-law, which means he is a part of your life / he is a part of your family. He is an extended family member, whether you like it or not.
So, you, forever, are going to live in this shadow of who that man is. That goes from one extreme or the other. If he is an open, loving, Christian, good-hearted man, then, you’re going to reap the blessing of that; because he is going to be telling your stepchildren, “Hey, you need to listen to your stepdad; because he is in charge when you are over at his house.” But it will also go to the other extreme of—when that ex-husband-in-law is an addict, or unreasonable, or mentally ill, or whatever that case may be, you’re going to, unfortunately, pay the price for that as well. So, that is a hard, hard reality sometimes.
Again, for some men, it’s harder than others—especially a dad who, maybe, has raised his children.
Maybe, he’s a little later in life; and he knows what it is to be in charge of his home—and be able to set rules and have structures and they be followed. But then, he finds himself in a situation with an ex-husband-in-law, whose erratic behavior is causing chaos rippling into his life—that’s really, really tough.
Dennis: It seems to me to be a setup for one guy to want to be the hero—the stepfather stepping in—kind of: “I’m here to win the day.” You could kind of end up putting the other guy down—
Dennis: —pointing out his flaws, and weaknesses / bad habits while trying to make yourself look good.
Ron: One pitfall is turning to his wife and saying: “Listen, I don’t know why you let him get away with that,” “No; don’t let him talk to you that way. That’s your ex-husband,” “No; don’t let him change the custody or visitation plans this weekend. You can’t allow that. You’ve got to stand up to him.” Well, she’s been dealing with her ex-husband for years. I’m not saying she’s dealing with it in a correct way. What I am saying is:
“If you become overly critical of your wife and how she is dealing with her ex-husband, and not working with her and trying to come beside her and understand what that relationship is all about, then, all of a sudden, she is going to turn on you as the stepdad. She’s going to say, “What are you saying?’ Now, you are going to be pushed and marginalized to the side.”
There are a lot of pitfalls in this. That is why I always caution couples: “No matter who we’re dealing with here—if it is a child, if it’s a former mother-in-law, if it’s the ex-husband-in-law—you, as a couple, really work very hard to guard and protect your marriage and not let that external stress become internal stress.”
Bob: Guys are naturally competitive in the first place. It would seem like the dynamic between husband one and husband two is just going to have this natural kind of “Who’s the better guy? / Who is the better husband?” built into it.
Ron: There’s actually a phenomenon where ex-husbands—fathers who have maybe dropped out of their kids’ lives, maybe, after the divorce—about 15 percent of dads just disappear after a divorce.
We call them the vanishing fathers. Well, many of them are reactivated when their ex-wife remarries. So, now, all of a sudden, the stepdad is in the picture; and he becomes what we call a remarried-activated dad. Now, bio-dad is involved with the kids. Now, he wants to see them on visitation weekends. He hadn’t seen them in a couple of years; and, now, he is insisting on it. Now, he’s saying things about “…going back to court if you don’t follow through with the custody agreement that we had,” that he hasn’t followed himself.
All kinds of weird things begin to happen; because there’s a stepdad in the picture, and this bio-dad is threatened. He feels like: “Wait a minute! He’s coming in, and he’s going to have more time with my kids than I’m going to have with my kids.” For whatever reason, that competition—it’s on. And boy, that stepdad may be hit with that out of the blue—especially, if this guy has been uninvolved in his kids’ lives the whole time he was dating this woman—he wasn’t even a factor.
Ron: Now, all of a sudden, he is a factor.
Ron: That’s one of those complexities. That’s why we wrote this book—is to try to give some guidance, not only to the stepdad, but to the mom as well; because it is as much for the mom as it is for the stepdad.
Dennis: I could see a situation where a child—a stepson or stepdaughter—just in their hurt or being wounded by the absence of their biological father would just be sad.
Ron: Yes; absolutely.
Dennis: The conversation occurs between them and the stepfather. The natural tendency of a stepfather, at that point, again, would be to make himself look good—
Dennis: —and kind of make the other guy look bad. Yet, what I hear you saying—in those moments, it would be wise to not put the other guy down—
Dennis: —but to say: “You know, I got to believe he loves you. There may be things going on his life, perhaps, that prevent him, right now, from being able to come see you,” because he may show up again someday.
Ron: Yes; at that point, the stepdad is a grief counselor.
He is ministering to this child’s heart—who is sad over their father not really being engaged actively in their lives. So, yes; he is doing a couple things. He is ministering to the child’s heart. He is acknowledging their sadness and grief. He’s refraining from putting down the biological dad—because a kid will turn on him in a hurry, because this child is going to have a deep loyalty to their father.
The other thing I would want that stepfather to do in that scenario is to leave the door open. I mean, I am not saying you can’t ever set boundaries with a really dysfunctional biological dad—sometimes, you do—but if that bio-dad would come and bring his heart back towards his children and want to reconnect, a stepdad should not be in the way of that. You don’t have to be afraid that he’s going to come in, and they’re going to push you out. Sometimes, there are complexities that go along with that; but whenever a child can be restored to their parent, it is in the child’s best interest for that to happen.
Bob: Ron, I’ve just got to talk about the elephant that is, I think, in the room for some of our listeners. They’ve heard us talking this week about stepfamilies and making the most of a stepfamily situation. They’re thinking, “Gee, it almost sounds like you’re saying that if a first marriage doesn’t work out, maybe, the second one will work out better.” We can almost sound like we’re undervaluing the marriage covenant in all of this.
And we’ve told couples, for years, at our Weekends to Remember®—or wherever we’re ministering—the marriage that God wants you to honor / the covenant He wants you to honor—is the one that you’re in right now. Whatever got you there—we’re not here to try to dissect that and figure out, “Well, what about this?” / “What about that?” If you’re in a marriage relationship right now, that is the covenant God wants you to honor, and live out, and live it as godly as you can.
I know there are some folks who hear this whole comment about stepparenting and they think: “Why are you even giving advice? They shouldn’t even go near stepparenting.
“They should go back to their first spouse and get that all right.” What do you say to those folks?
Ron: I think there are really two questions at the heart of this. One is: “If you’re not yet married, I think you do need to take a good, hard look at your situation. What about reconciliation of the first marriage? What about that? What are my obligations to the Lord?”
“If you are, however, already married, the ‘Woulda, coulda, should haves” have kind of gone by the wayside. There is a new covenant and a promise that needs to be kept; and I would want that couple to keep that promise and do as best of a job as they can to honor that before God.
Bob: Well, we do have some illustrations in Scripture where we see blended situations with God’s blessing on them. I don’t know that you’d call David’s relationship with Mephibosheth a blended family, because we don’t know anything about what David’s relationship with Jonathan’s wife would have been; but here’s—
—it’s almost a stepparenting relationship, where he says, “The blessings of my house are going to be yours.” Are there other illustrations that come to mind for you?
Ron: Nearly all of the Old Testament families are blended families of one shape or another, not necessarily because of divorce and remarriage, because of multiple marriages.
Bob: Polygamy; yes.
Ron: Nevertheless, they have dynamics that mirror modern-day stepfamilies. Then, there is this situation of Jesus—I think it is an interesting question—to say, “Did Jesus have a stepfather?” I’m always quick to point out to people—I think it is pretty significant that there was a moment, when Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, that he almost walked. I mean, think about that.
In the book, we talk about how attachments are different for biological dads than they are for stepdads. You just don’t feel the same heart connect. Well, right there, in Scripture, we see Joseph walking away from this situation; but the Spirit of God says, “No; come back.
“There is something bigger going on here.” He does, and he submits to that process. I think it is really significant that he, then, chooses to father Jesus, which I find very profound—that the God of the universe, who chooses to leave heaven and come here to love and serve us the way we needed to be loved and served, is immediately chosen to be loved and served by a stepdad—if we can call him that. Joseph does a great job. I mean, we don’t know much about Joseph—and how he parented and who he was—but he seemed to be pretty significant to the story.
I want to encourage stepdads / I want to encourage moms who are out there who are married to a man who is a stepdad to their children—you can have an incredible role in the life of a child. You can, in effect, be the redemptive work of God in the life of that child—bringing, perhaps, out of sadness and loss, something that is stable and secure and loving—
—being, if you will, the stand-in person, who points them to God. That’s an amazing process. When a man chooses that, he is to be honored for it.
Dennis: I worked with a man for a number of years whose father deserted him when he was a boy. A stepfather ended up stepping into his life—
Dennis: —and his heart has totally been given to his stepdad. I mean, he said: “He’s my dad. He raised me. He was there during those adolescent years when my biological father was not.” You know, I am sure it wasn’t a perfect situation; but what we’ve been talking about here all this week is how God, in His supernatural power, takes broken people—and He takes His Word—and He calls us to obedience; He calls us to love; He calls us to forgive.
Ron, I just appreciate you and your ministry to stepfamilies because—
—Bob, as you know, at our conferences—our Weekend to Remember marriage getaways—all across the country, this is a growing segment of those who attend the Weekend to Remember marriage getaway.
Bob: Oftentimes, they wonder if we have special material for couples who have been remarried. Actually, we have projects that we’ve designed for remarried couples; but the core material stays the same, whether it is a first marriage, or a second marriage, or a third marriage—because the foundation of a marriage relationship / the principles are the same wherever you are in your covenant relationship.
Dennis: I think all marriages need to go to a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway; but stepfamilies, absolutely, because you’re juggling some serious issues there as you raise children and hammer out your own marriage. Quite honestly, you need voices, like Ron Deal, coming alongside you—coaching, and encouraging, and, as we mentioned earlier on our broadcast, being a GPS system to kind of who you the way and how you can arrive at the destination.
Ron, I just appreciate you. I hope you’ll come back and join us again.
Ron: Thank you.
Bob: Yes; and I hope a lot of our listeners will either get for themselves or get for a stepdad they know or a stepdad-to-be—get them a copy of your book, The Smart Stepdad. I think this is the kind of book that gives practical, helpful insight and information—coaching—to a dad who wants to be a good stepdad. He just needs the benefit of the wisdom that you offer in the book.
Of course, we’ve got copies of The Smart Stepdad in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com to request your copy; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY, and we’ll send one to you. Again, the website: FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order at 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
And if you are interested in helping strengthen stepfamilies in your community / in your local church—stepmoms and stepdads—if you’d like to know how you can do that more effectively, I want to encourage you to join Ron Deal, and me, and others. We’re going to be in Nashville on October 26th and 27th for the 2017 Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. We had about 400 people join us last year out in Colorado Springs—had a great event. And we’re expecting hundreds more to be with us this fall in Nashville. You can find out more, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. There is currently early-bird pricing available. So, get in touch with us now and plan to be with us at the Summit on Stepfamily Ministry in Nashville in October.
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And with that, we hope you have a great weekend. I hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend.
Then, tune in on Monday. We’re going to explore what exactly it is that God calls wives to do in a marriage relationship—what’s the unique responsibility that a wife has? We’re going to hear from many of the people who have been guests on FamilyLife Today over the last quarter century—some of the best wisdom we’ve heard in those two-and-a-half decades. Hope you can tune in for that on Monday.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine, hoping you have a great weekend. Join us back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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