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Archive for the ‘Blended Family’ Category

The Role of a Stepgrandparent

SOURCE:  Ron Deal/FamilyLife Ministry

You can be an important and influential role in the family with a little grace and wisdom.

It’s a question I’m hearing more these days. “Ron, just what exactly is my role as a grandparent to my stepgrandchildren? I’m used to being ‘Grandma,’ and love being so, but I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to do when it comes to my stepgrandchildren.”

Nearly 40 percent of families currently in the U.S. have a stepgrandparent, and by 2030 Americans will have one stepgrandchild for every 1.7 biological grandchildren. But despite this prevalence, very little has been done in society or the church to clarify the role of stepgrandparents.

Not all situations are the same. The challenges stepgrandparents experience will vary depending on how the person became a stepgrandparent. For example, if someone in later life made a clear and prayerful decision to marry into a family with adult children and grandchildren, their entrance into stepgrandparenting likely comes with a higher degree of motivation than someone whose adult child marries and becomes a stepparent, forcing them into the role of stepgrandparent.

No matter how you got to this place, however, there are going to be awkward situations. Knowing how to bond with stepgrandchildren can be challenging. You’re probably asking some difficult questions: What type of authority are you in their life and to what degree? How do you go about giving physical affection? And while you’re figuring one another out in the beginning, how do you not show favoritism toward biological grandchildren that already adore you?

Finding common ground

With stepgrandparenting, bonding is a process. It won’t come naturally like it does with biological grandchildren. In the beginning awkwardness might be high, but don’t let that keep you from taking initiative. Like all relationships, it will take time and intentional effort in order for your stepgrandparent connection to grow.

One easy step that stepgrandparents can do is to take notice of the child’s interests and find opportunities to share your talents and abilities that are interesting to the child. These natural connecting points are windows into the child’s heart and start the process of bonding.

In addition, let the child set the pace for terms of endearment, physical affection, and their degree of openness to hearing you speak into their lives. Respecting their level of openness communicates your willingness to meet them where they are and grow from there. That makes bonding less intimidating for both of you.

Certainly, don’t put pressure or standards on the amount of time it takes to form a bond or the way the children respond to you. Each child is different and will interact in various ways. It often takes a “two steps forward, one step back” pattern, in which it may appear that the child is growing closer and then suddenly pushes you away. But that’s a normal reaction. Just be patient and don’t overreact.

The loyalty conflict

Just as getting connected with a stepgrandchild can be awkward, so can staying connected with biological grandchildren who primarily live with the ex-spouse. This is especially true when the divorce was difficult, and the grandparent feels stuck between two people who don’t like each other. It creates an internal conflict for grandparents who want to support their adult child. This can tempt some grandparents to avoid spending time with their biological grandchildren in order to escape the awkward encounter with the ex-spouse.

But siding with an adult child comes at the expense of staying connected with your grandchildren, and this loss creates a hole in the grandparent’s heart. This can often cause guilt when you spend time with new stepgrandchildren.

Other grandparents experience an issue on the other side of the coin. Their strong desire to stay connected with all grandchildren (and stepgrandchildren) may move them to keep the door open to their ex-son/daughter-in-law to the dismay of their biological son/daughter.

No matter what, either disconnecting or staying connected comes at a price. So, what is a grandparent to do?

Grace-filled grandparenting

Develop and maintain the relationships in your life by applying a grace-filled heart to your one-on-one connections with each family member, new or old, even if others struggle to join you. A key principle to apply, whether trying to stay connected with grandchildren or get connected with stepgrandchildren, is this: possessiveness divides, but grace connects. Having an inclusive, grace-filled heart that is open to new relationships and keeping old ones fosters bonding and love.

On the other hand, trying to hold on to what you feel you’re entitled to or orchestrate relationships according to your needs only divides family members because it exudes animosity and encourages grudges.

Grace-filled grandparents refuse to be cornered or controlled by the standards and agendas of others, even if a son or daughter tries to manipulate the way you relate with children or an ex-spouse. You actually have the ability over time to connect the generations of a stepfamily through your efforts of love and acceptance. And that is a beautiful thing.

But let me offer this word of caution: Being a grace-filled grandparent can initially come at a cost. People might resent your openness to others or relationships they find threatening. Adult children and grandchildren, who are often wounded by the past and caught in their own loyalty conflicts, sometimes find it difficult to give permission to new and old relationships.

The stepgrandparent that can struggle through the initial storm of loyalty wars, however, can actually have a positive impact on family. When you demonstrate an open heart and find the ability to love each person, biological or step, in ways appropriate to their established or developing relationship, you have a unique ability to influence the entire family system toward grace. I have witnessed this dynamic with many families.

For example, grandparents who refuse to show favoritism to biological grandchildren and include stepgrandchildren help stepsiblings accept one another. And grandparents who gently refuse to withdraw from an ex-son/daughter-in-law despite the tension, quietly but powerfully remind family members to extend forgiveness and welcome the outsider in.

Being a stepgrandparent can be an important and influential role if you remain levelheaded and have patience. And thankfully, you are not alone in this task. God is a God of unity, and He longs for all members of your family—step, ex, biological, or adopted—to love and respect each other. So don’t forget that you have the power to pray. Pray for your own wisdom in the matter, but pray that others will see your grace and follow your lead.

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Dealing with a Difficult Ex-Spouse: 10 Tips to Help You Cope

SOURCE:  Ron Deal, LMFT, LPC

Wouldn’t it be nice if adults could remember that parenting is not about them, and that it is about the children?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the pain of the broken personal relationships of the past could be kept separate from the practical parental concerns of the present.  Wouldn’t it be nice…

Yes, it would.  But sometimes people aren’t nice.

Dealing with a difficult ex-spouse can be very discouraging and defeating.  Yet, we are called to continue trying to pursue good, to “turn the other cheek”, and “walk the extra mile.”  Hopefully, the following tips can aid you in your efforts to cope—because it’s all about the children.

 

1.      Be sure to notice your own part of the ongoing conflict.  Christian ex-spouses, for example, often feel justified in their anger toward their irresponsible ex-spouse.  It’s easy, then, to also feel justified in your efforts to change them in whatever ways you feel are morally or practically necessary.  Unfortunately, this sense of “rightness” often blinds good-hearted Christians from seeing just how their own behavior contributes to the ongoing cycle of conflict.  Any time you try to change a difficult ex-spouse—even if for understandable moral reasons—you inadvertently invite hostility or a lack of cooperation in return.  Learn to let go of what you can’t change so you don’t unknowingly keep the between home power struggles alive.

2.      Stepparents should communicate a “non-threatening posture” to the same-gender ex-spouse.  An ex-wife, for example, may continue negativity because she is threatened by the presence of the new stepmother.  It is helpful if the stepmother will communicate the following either by phone or email: “I just want you to know that I value your role with your children and I will never try to replace you.  You are their mother and I’m not.  I will support your decisions with the children, have them to your house on time, and never talk badly about you to the children.  You have my word on that.”  This helps to alleviate the need of the biological mother to bad-mouth the stepparent or the new marriage in order to keep her children’s loyalties.

3.      Keep your “business meetings” impersonal to avoid excessive conflict.  Face-to-face interaction has the most potential for conflict.  Use the phone when possible or even talk to their answering machine if personal communication erupts into arguments.  Use email or faxes when possible.  Keep children from being exposed to negative interaction when it’s within your power.

4.      Use a script to help you through negotiations.  This strategy has helped thousands of parents.  Before making a phone call, take the time to write out your thoughts including what you’ll say and not say.  Also, anticipate what the other might say that will hurt or anger you.  Stick to the business at hand and don’t get hooked into old arguments that won’t be solved with another fight.  (For more on how to do this, see the “Be Prepared by Borrowing a Script and Sticking to It” section of the free Common Steps for Co-Parents e-booklet.)

5.      Whenever possible, agree with some aspect of what you ex-spouse is suggesting.  This good business principle applies in parenting as well.  Even if you disagree with the main point, find some common ground.

6.      Manage conversations by staying on matters of parenting.  It is common for the conversations of “angry associate” co-parents to gravitate back toward negative personal matters of the past.  Actively work to keep conversations focused on the children.  If the conversation digresses to “old marital junk,” say something like, “I’d rather we discuss the schedule for this weekend.  Where would you like to meet?”   If the other continues to shift the conversation back to hurtful matters assertively say, “I’m sorry.  I’m not interested in discussing us again.  Let’s try this again later when we can focus on the weekend schedule.”  Then, politely hang up the phone or walk away.  Come back later and try again to stay on the parenting subject at hand.

7.      When children have confusing or angry feelings toward your ex, don’t capitalize on their hurt and berate the other parent.  Listen and help them explore their hurt feelings.  If you can’t make positive statements about the other parent, strive for neutral ones.  Let God’s statutes offer any necessary indictments on a parent’s behavior.

8.      Remember that for children, choosing sides stinks!   Children don’t want to compare their parents or choose one over the other.  They simply want your permission to love each of you.  This is especially important when the two of you can’t get along.

9.      Wrestle with forgiveness.  Hurt feelings from the past are the number one reason your ex—and you—overreact with one another.  Do your part by striving to forgive them for the offenses of the past (and present).  This will help you manage your emotions when dealing with them in the present.

10. Work hard to respect the other parent and his or her household.  For your kid’s sake, find ways of being respectable even if you honestly can’t respect your ex-spouses lifestyle or choices.  Do not personally criticize them, but don’t make excuses for their behavior either.

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Ron L. Deal is the author The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family and President of www.SmartStepfamilies.com.  He is a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed professional counselor who specializes in stepfamily education and therapy.  He presents conferences around the country and equips churches to minister to stepfamilies.

Blended Families: 10 Things to Know Before You Remarry

SOURCE:  Ron Deal/Family Life

Challenges every single parent should consider before deciding to remarry.

Specializing in stepfamily therapy and education has taught me one thing: Couples should be highly educated about remarriage and the process of becoming a stepfamily before they ever walk down the aisle.  Remarriage—particularly when children are involved—is much more challenging than dating seems to imply. Be sure to open your eyes well before a decision to marry has been made.

The following list represents key challenges every single parent (or those dating a single parent) should know before deciding to remarry. Open your eyes wide now and you—and your children—will be grateful later.

1. Wait two to three years following a divorce or the death of your spouse before seriously dating. No, I’m not kidding. Most people need a few years to fully heal from the ending of a previous relationship. Moving into a new relationship short-circuits the healing process, so do yourself a favor and grieve the pain, don’t run from it. In addition, your children will need at least this much time to heal and find stability in their visitation schedule. Slow down.

2. Date two years before deciding to marry; then date your future spouse’s children before the wedding. Dating two years gives you time to really get to know one another. Too many relationships are formed on the rebound when both people lack godly discernment about their fit with a new person. Give yourself plenty of time to get to know each other thoroughly. Keep in mind—and this is very important—that dating is inconsistent with remarried life.

Even if everything feels right, dramatic psychological and emotional shifts often take place for children, parents, and stepparents right after the wedding. What seems like smooth sailing can become a rocky storm in a hurry. Don’t be fooled into thinking you won’t experience difficulties. As one parent said, “Falling in love is not enough when it comes to remarriage; there’s just more required than that.”

When you do become serious about marriage, date with the intention of deepening the stepparent/stepchild relationships. Young children can attach themselves to a future stepparent rather quickly, so make sure you’re serious before spending lots of time together. Older children will need more time (research suggests that the best time to remarry is before a child’s tenth birthday or after his/her sixteenth; couples who marry between those years collide with the teen’s developmental needs).

3. Know how to “cook” a stepfamily. Most people think the way to cook a stepfamily is with a blender, microwave, pressure cooker, or food processor. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of these “cooking styles” attempt to combine the family ingredients in a rapid fashion. Unfortunately, resentment and frustration are the only results.

The way to cook a stepfamily is with a crockpot. Once thrown into the pot, it will take time and low heat to bring ingredients together, requiring that adults step into a new marriage with determination and patience. The average stepfamily takes five to seven years to combine; some take longer. There are no quick recipes.  (Read more about how to cook a stepfamily here.)

4. Realize that the “honeymoon” comes at the end of the journey for remarried couples, not the beginning. Ingredients thrown into a crockpot that have not had sufficient time to cook don’t taste good—and might make you sick. Couples need to understand that the rewards of stepfamily life (security, family identity, and gratitude for one another) come at the end of the journey. Just as the Israelites traveled a long time before entering the Promise Land, so will it be for your stepfamily.

5. Think about the kids. Children experience numerous losses before entering a stepfamily. In fact, your remarriage is another. It sabotages their fantasy that Mom and Dad can reconcile, or that a deceased parent will always hold his or her place in the home. Seriously consider your children’s losses before deciding to remarry. If waiting till your children leave home before you remarry is not an option, work to be sensitive to your children’s loss issues. Don’t rush them and don’t take their grief away.

6. Manage and be sensitive to loyalties. Even in the best of circumstances, children feel torn between their biological parents and likely feel that enjoying your dating partner will please you but betray the other parent. Don’t force children to make choices, and examine the binds they feel. Give them your permission to love and respect new people in the other home and let them warm up to your new spouse in their own time.

7. Don’t expect your new spouse to feel the same about your children as you do. It’s a good fantasy, but stepparents won’t care for your children to the same degree that you do. This is not to say that stepparents and stepchildren can’t have close bonds; they can. But it won’t be the same. When looking at your daughter, you will see a 16-year-old who brought you mud pies when she was 4 and showered you with hugs each night after work. Your spouse will see a self-centered brat who won’t abide by the house rules. Expect to have different opinions and to disagree on parenting decisions.

8. Realize that remarriage has unique barriers. Are you more committed to your children or your marriage? If you aren’t willing to risk losing your child to the other home, for example, don’t make the commitment of marriage. Making a covenant does not mean neglecting your kids, but it does mean that they are taught which relationship is your ultimate priority. A marriage that is not the priority will be mediocre at best.

Another unique barrier involves the “ghost of marriage past.” Individuals can be haunted by the negative experiences of previous relationships and not even recognize how it is impacting the new marriage. Work to not interpret the present in light of the past, or you might be destined to repeat it.

9. Parent as a team; get your plan ready. No single challenge is more predictive of stepfamily success than the ability of the couple to parent as a team. Stepparents must find their role, know their limits in authority, and borrow power from the biological parent in order to contribute to parental leadership. Biological parents must keep alive their role as primary disciplinarian and nurturer while supporting the stepparent’s developing role (read this series of articles for more on stepparenting). Managing these roles will not be easy; get a plan and stick together.

10. Know what to tell the kids. Tell them:

  • It’s okay to be confused about the new people in your life.
  • It’s okay to be sad about our divorce (or parent’s death).
  • You need to find someone safe to talk to about all this.
  • You don’t have to love my new spouse, but you do need to treat him or her with the same respect you would give a coach or teacher at school.
  • You don’t have to take sides. When you feel caught in the middle between our home and your other home, please tell me and we’ll stop.
  • You belong to two homes with different rules, routines, and relationships. Find your place and contribute good things in each.
  • The stress of our new home will reduce—eventually.
  • I love you and will always have enough room in my heart for you. I know it’s hard sharing me with someone else. I love you.

Work smarter, not harder

For stepfamilies, accidentally finding their way through the wilderness to the promised land is a rarity. Successful navigation requires a map. You’ve got to work smarter, not harder. Before you remarry, be sure to educate yourself on the options and challenges that lie ahead.

6 Tips for Building Relationships with Your Stepchildren

SOURCE:  Ron Deal/Family Life

Improving your relationship is a challenge, so be intentional.

Improving your relationship with stepchildren is one of the greatest challenges of forming a stepfamily. Use the following suggestions to help you to be intentional about slowly building your relationships:

1. Do not expect that you or your stepchildren will magically cherish all your time together. Stepchildren often feel confused about new family relationships—both welcoming and resenting the changes new people bring to their life. So give them space and time to work through their emotions.

2. Give yourself permission to not be completely accepted by them. Their acceptance of you is often more about wanting to remain in contact with their biological parents than it is an acceptance or rejection of you. This realization will help you to de-personalize their apparent rejections.

3. Give your stepchildren time away from you, preferably with their biological parent. The exclusive time stepchildren had with their biological parent before he or she married you came to a screeching halt after the wedding. Honoring your stepchildren by occasionally giving back this exclusive time in one or two hour increments.

4. Early on, monitor your stepchildren’s activities. Know what they are doing at school, church, and in extracurricular activities, and make it your aim to be a part. Take them to soccer practice, ask about the math test they studied for, and help them to learn their lines in the school play. Monitoring seeks to balance interest in the child without coming on too strong. (From Stepfamilies: Love, marriage, and parenting in the first decade, J Bray, New York: Broadway Books, 1998)

5. Until they feel comfortable with you, buffer your relationship with other people. Be involved with stepchildren when another family member can be present. This “group” family activity reduces the anxiety children feel with one-on-one time with a stepparent.

Adults frequently assume that the way to get to know their stepchildren is to spend personal, exclusive time with them. This may be true with some stepchildren; however, most stepchildren prefer to not be thrown into that kind of situation until they have had time to grow comfortable with the stepparent. Honor that feeling until the child makes it obvious that he or she is okay with one-on-one time.

6. Share your talents, skills, and interests with the child and become curious about theirs. If you know how to play the guitar and a stepchild is interested, take time to show him how. If the child is interested in a particular series of books or a video game, become interested and ask her to tell you about it.

These shared interests become points of connection that strengthen trust between stepparent and stepchild. Sharing the Lord through dialogue, music, or church activity is another tremendous source of connection. For example, service projects are wonderful activities for parents and stepparents to experience together. Little brings people together like serving others in the name of the Lord. Discussing values through the eyes of Christ and having family devotional time can also strengthen your relationship.

A Roadmap to Harmony in Your Blended Marriage

SOURCE:  Family Life/Ron Deal

The simple events of everyday life can create hurt feelings and anger that send blended families down the road to isolation. But there is an exit off that road that leads to Harmony Street!

Stepfamilies naturally foster a lot of frustration. And sometimes, just the simple events of everyday life can create hurt feelings and anger that send families down the road to isolation. But there is an exit off that road that leads to Harmony Street!

In stepfamily marriages, the road to marital isolation often begins in the land of parenting. Here’s a glance at one stepfamily home and some of the mile markers that you may find if your relationship is headed down the same path.

Mile Marker 1: the one-sided tradition. Fourteen-year-old Kari has made cupcakes for her younger brother’s birthday. It is a valued ritual she started when he was very young. Big sister makes the cupcakes, and the two of them eat them warm out of the oven—while leaving the kitchen a mess.

Mile Marker 2: the rub. Kari’s stepmother of two years, Sara, walks into the kitchen after returning home from an errand. She happens to enter the kitchen just as her husband, Kari’s father, comes in.

Upon discovering the mess, Sara gives her husband, Randy, “the look.” Randy knows exactly what she is saying and feeling. Annoyed that the kitchen was not cleaned up right away, Sara is nonverbally asking Randy—again—to get his daughter to clean up after herself.

Randy is aware that Sara basically views Kari as irresponsible. Sara has been confrontational with Kari about this in the past.

Randy views Kari as fun-loving, a good big sister, and in need of encouragement. Besides, what’s the big deal with the kitchen anyway?

Randy views Sara as negative and too controlling of his kids.

Sara views Randy as too permissive.

Mile Marker 3: choosing sides. In response to “the look” Randy speaks not to Kari, but to his wife, Sara. He fears that if Sara aggressively confronts his daughter she will inadvertently shoot herself in the foot, making acceptance by Kari all the more difficult, so he tries to detour Sara’s complaint. “Oh come on–it’s not a big deal. Besides, I’m sure you want one of those cupcakes, right?”

Sara instantly feels unheard, minimized, and unimportant. Her concerns that Kari will not learn responsibility have been ignored, which is frustrating. And Randy doesn’t realize that Sara is fearful that Kari’s feelings matter more to Randy than she does. This touches a deep bruise on Sara’s heart: being unimportant to the man she loves. She felt this growing up from her father and her first husband who left her. In her fear and frustration she reacts with anger and accusation. “You are afraid of punishing or expecting anything from her—and what I want has no value to you at all.”

Mile Marker 4: identifying your spouse as the enemy. Randy feels frustrated that Sara can’t let the dirty kitchen go. So his belief that Sara is a rigid, authoritarian parent is solidified. But even more, he feels controlled. “Sara is resorting to the same type of guilt and manipulation my parents give each other,” he shares with a friend. “She uses guilt as leverage and I really think it’s unfair.”

Determined not to make his kids go through what he endured from his parents as a child, Randy defends Kari and argues with Sara pointing out how wonderful it is that a big sister would make cupcakes for her brother. Over time, Randy and Sara argue repeatedly over parenting situations like this. In no time, not only are they polarized as parents, but they find themselves many miles down the highway of isolation and fear.

Harmony Street exit

Many things must change in order for Randy and Sara to save their marriage—and raise the likelihood that their home achieves family harmony. Here are some key aspects to exiting the road to isolation:

First, both spouses must be willing to empathically listen to the other. This could create a huge shift in the emotional direction of their home. Stepmom Sara may realize that her need for instant cleanliness is actually getting in the way of Kari’s desire to be accepted by her—something Sara also wants. Randy may discover that Sara has good will toward Kari, not hostile intent, and is really trying to equip her for life. Empathy for the goals and needs of the other may soften their hearts toward one another.

Second, both spouses must turn down the intensity of the pain from their past or they will continue to be highly reactive with one another. This is where prayer and forgiveness come into the picture. There’s no way to avoid baggage from the past in a stepfamily, but as Christians, you can learn to forgive your previous offenders and work on trusting your new spouse and their family.

Third, couples must realize their tendency in parenting and work to avoid their natural inclination. Stepparents often move toward hard and strict parenting, and biological parents tend to move toward permissive parenting. Neither is helpful. And ironically, neither is the natural style of the adults; if they slowed down, were less defensive, and less argumentative with each other they would realize their parenting philosophies are actually more alike than different. They have to get on the same page.

Merging two cultures

Harmony Street is really just a place of common ground. Integrating a stepfamily is about merging two cultures—each with their own set of traditions and boundaries. But there can be compromise. For Randy and his kids, leaving the kitchen dirty while enjoying warm cupcakes is permissible; for Sara it is not. So they must come together without the kids and decide how they can meet in the middle.

When adults talk about these expectations, they agree to a set of rules that’s best for everyone in the family. This usually means stepparents must loosen up, and biological parents must tighten down. Sara must consider what’s more important—a clean kitchen or a closer relationship with Kari. And Randy must consider what he can do to help his daughter learn to be more responsible, despite what has always been the norm in their home.

The exit to Harmony Street isn’t easy to find. Sometimes you might get off at the wrong exit and have to find your way back. But don’t get discouraged and give up! With the help of the Holy Spirit, you will have the strength to make it.

Blended Family Issues: Holiday Power Plays

SOURCE:  Ron L. Deal/Family Life

Between the joy and hope of the holiday season, some stepfamilies find themselves in frustrating power plays between homes.

“Because he is on edge and doesn’t want to deal with his ex-wife, he procrastinates in finding out details about the schedule,” Connie complained about her husband. “This causes tension between us when I ask what the plans are. If he has not spoken to her yet, he gets defensive and mad at me. We are always tip-toeing around each other, wondering if the next event will blow up like others have.”

Connie and her husband had fallen prey to the classic unresolved conflict between him and his ex-wife. The more he avoided dealing with his ex, the more the tension escalated between Connie and her husband.

Hidden struggles

It’s not uncommon for special family gatherings and the holidays to erupt hidden power struggles between ex-spouses. Issues that normally can be avoided in the regular routine of life are often not put aside when extra coordination and cooperation is demanded. Even former spouses that typically get along fairly well may burst into conflict during the season of hope.

Some common emotions and power plays that parents and stepparents may experience include:

  • Aggravation when waiting for the other home to decide their holiday schedule.
  • Annoyance when someone changes plans at the last minute.
  • Frustration over the biological parent who refuses to abide by the visitation schedule that was established in the divorce agreement.
  • Stress over grandparents who refuse to cooperate with the boundaries you set.
  • Sadness when the ever-present memory of a deceased parent is so highly honored that new traditions, meals, or decorations cannot be incorporated into your family traditions.
  • Anger when extended family members voice their disapproval of the stepfamily to the children during family get-togethers.

These dynamics can make anyone feel helpless and weary. Here are a few smart steps to help curb the conflict and tension.

First, pay attention to the stress and ask yourself what fears you have that may be fueling your reactions. Then talk with your spouse openly and discuss the situation in a calm manner. For example, after admitting to herself how difficult it is to respect her husband when he avoids his ex-wife, Connie might approach her husband calmly. “Honey, I know that talking to your ex-wife about holiday schedules is very stressful for you. I’m also aware that when I ask you what the plans are, it sounds as if I’m judging you for not talking to her. I certainly don’t mean to judge you or make you feel pressured. How can I best support you?”

Stepparents in this situation are sometimes tempted to take on all the responsibility for bridging the power plays between ex-spouses (“I’ll talk to her for you.”). This is a dangerous position to be in.

Sometimes stepparents can communicate with the other home more easily, but they should not take on too much responsibility. If they do, the tension that exists between exes will likely shift onto the stepparent’s lap. Instead, work out a plan together for how the biological parent will manage themselves as they contact the other home to work through details.

Second, choose “between-home battles” carefully. Whenever possible, attempt to live in peace with the other home. This will require making sacrifices so the children don’t have to deal with warring parents. This may seem unfair if your family is making all of the concessions, but this is one reality of a stepfamily.

On occasion, however, there are battles which need to be engaged. The difficulty is learning when to deal with the issue and when to let it go. For example, if the other home normally is flexible about the holiday schedule, but for some reason this year is unwilling to bend, then let it go. But if he or she has a pattern of repeatedly ignoring the divorce arrangement, refusing to allow visitation, or if they control the children’s time, that’s probably a boundary worth battling. That parent is being unreasonable and hurting the kids.

Accommodating their antics gives them more power and increases resentment within your home.

When holiday power plays begin, strive to stay on the same side with your spouse. The natural flow of stress, even if it is initially related to those living in the other home, is to ripple into your marriage. Couples must be diligent to guard and protect their relationships from this dynamic. Talking calmly with one another, not out of fear but confidence, lays the groundwork for moving through such stressful situations.

Blended Family: Protecting Your Marriage: The Art of the Repair Attempt – Part 2

SOURCE:  Cheryl A. Rowen

We saw in Part 1 of this series how easily our re-marriage can become plagued with the Four Horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling or withdrawing. We learned that criticism has no place in a marriage filled with honor and love (1 Corinthians 13:3-4, Proverbs 15:33). We found, however, that if we restate our criticisms into complaints, recognize when we are becoming defensive and try to understand what our mate is saying to us before defending our own position, and if we can call a time out if we start to feel ‘flooded’, then we are on the right track to protecting our marriage from these deadly predictors of divorce.

Another step we can take to protect our marriage against divorce is to learn the “art” of the repair attempt. Repair attempts, or statements and actions that prevent negativity from getting out of control, are the secret to keeping the Four Horsemen at bay. John Gottman, researcher and expert in the field of marriage found that he could predict divorce with a 94% accuracy rate if the Four Horsemen and failed repair attempts were present in the marriage1! We must find a way to eliminate this type of communication from our marriage.

Many of us living within a stepfamily know how easily our conversations can turn from ‘discussions’ to ‘debates’ to ‘demands’ in a matter of minutes. Repair attempts are those words or actions we can take to deescalate or control the negativity of a situation. Some examples of repair attempts are:

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • “Let’s take a break.”
  • “Wait, I need to calm down a little before we continue.”
  • “Please listen to me.
  • “Would you please stop interrupting me?”
  • “We’re off the topic.”
  • “Please let me finish.”
  • “That hurt my feelings.”
  • “Go on.”
  • “I love you.”
  • “I understand how you feel.”
  • “O.K. Maybe you’re right. Can we compromise?”
  • Humor
  • Love gifts

You can see from the list above that repair attempts don’t always have to be verbal. They may take on the form of a loving or even silly act. That foolish grin, the flowers sent to her office, or arranging for some quite time to talk about the issues calmly may be just what the doctor ordered.

When is it a good time to use repair attempts? Any time you feel that your conversation is taking on a negative tone, or you feel the situation is escalating out of control. Chances are, if this starts to happen, the Four Horsemen (or at least some of them) or close at hand. Beware!

We must note, however, that it is not enough for a couple simply to learn how to use repair attempts effectively. Couples must learn to recognize when repair attempts are sent their way! Remember, your goal is to communicate your feelings and needs, and to hear and understand those of your partner.

The wisdom of Proverbs 10:19 warns us, “Don’t talk too much, for it fosters sin. Be sensible and turn off the flow!” We must learn when to turn off the flow! When our discussions are becoming negative or disrespectful, we need to use repair attempts.

Let’s look at an example where repair attempts would have stopped the escalation of negativity:

Bob: I feel like you’re on my case all the time about how I parent.

Carol: You never keep the same rules. You say one thing, and then if you’re upset you change the rules and I never know how to enforce them when you’re gone. I don’t know if they’ve changed from one day to the next.

Bob: It’s amazing that I raised her all by myself for all these years before you came along. Most people think I’ve done an excellent job with her. All I hear from you is criticism.

Carol: And that’s all you’re going to hear from me until you follow through on what you say.

Bob: I probably should just let you run the household!

Carol: Maybe you should!

Whew! Bob and Carol could benefit from using repair attempts. Let’s take a look at what happened here:

  • Bob did a good thing at the beginning by using “I” statements, and telling Carol how he felt;
  • Carol has a legitimate complaint about the inconsistency of Bob’s parenting, but uses the First Horseman, Criticism, to voice that complaint. Notice the “you” statements instead of “I”, and the absolute language “You never keep the same rules.”;
  • Bob and Carol then become defensive (the Third Horseman);
  • Finally, based on how the conversation ended, I’m sure one of them will withdraw or stonewall (the Fourth Horseman).

Let’s take these same issues now, and apply repair attempts. Notice how the use of repair attempts stops the Four Horsemen, and the negativity from getting out of hand. Repair attempts are in bold:

Bob: I feel like you’re on my case all the time about how I parent.

Carol: Really? I’m sorryI don’t mean to get on your case. I guess I’m just frustrated with the inconsistency of the rules of our household.

Bob: What do you mean?

Carol: Its very hard for me to enforce the rules you set because I feel that when you get upset, you change the rules or the consequences. I’m not sure what rules are in place from day to day, and I don’t think that shows consistency to the kids, which we’ve both agreed was important to us.

Bob: I didn’t realize I did thatThanks for pointing that out to me. I’m sure that can get frustrating. What can we do to change that?

From here, Bob and Carol can start to calmly discuss parenting strategies for their stepfamily.

Can’t you just feel the tension and the anger melt away when repair attempts are used? Also, Bob and Carol did a great job recognizing when the other was using a repair attempt. Bob, instead of taking personally Carol’s comment about inconsistency of the rules, recognized her apology or repair attempt, and asked for clarification (“What do you mean”). This kept the conversation moving forward.

God very explicitly tells us that repair attempts work: “Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing” (Proverbs 12:18). He also guides us by telling us “If you keep your mouth shut, you will stay out of trouble” (Proverbs 21:23).

Recognizing and avoiding the Four Horsemen, and learning the “art” of the repair attempt will restore honor to your marriage, and bring healing to that which the tongue has hurt!

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References:

1 Dr. John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), p. 40.

Cheryl A. Rowen is Director and Founder of America’s Family Resources, a national organization focusing on the preservation of today’s family. She is author and facilitator of the seminar and small group study “When 1+1=3: Discovering God’s Plan for You and Your Stepfamily”. She and her husband Thom live in Johnston, Iowa and have two children.

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