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Archive for the ‘Blended Family’ Category

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.

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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!

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

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.

Blended Family: Protecting Your Marriage: Avoiding the Six Predictors of Divorce – Part 1

SOURCE:  Cheryl A. Rowen

So what does make a marriage last a lifetime?

I once heard this question asked to a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. The husband simply replied, “Going out to dinner twice a week”. “That’s it?” asked the interviewer. “Yes,” answered the husband, “I go on Tuesdays and my wife goes on Thursdays”.

Surely there must be a better way!

With an alarming 60% of second marriages ending in divorce, stepfamilies today need a way to fight back! Many of us who remarry find ourselves focusing on issues that are urgent to the daily ‘operation’ of the stepfamily:

  • Establishing the carpool schedule;
  • Defining roles of the stepparent in discipline;
  • Establishing a relationship with the stepchildren;
  • Dealing with a former spouse and potentially different parenting styles.

Although the health of our marriage may not be “urgent” (especially if newly married), it certainly is a necessary component to a successful stepfamily, and one that is often ignored.

Hebrews 13:4 instructs us to “Give honor to marriage, and remain faithful to one another in marriage”. One way to honor or respect our marriage is to spend time nurturing and preserving our relationship with one another. No matter where you are in your “re-marital” journey, you can take steps now to protect your marriage, by avoiding those things research has shown will destroy it.

Predictors of divorce

After studying marriages for 20 years, John Gottman has found six predictors of divorce1:

  1. Harsh startups. You find yourself beginning a discussion with your spouse using criticism, sarcasm, or harsh words.
  2. The Four Horsemen. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (withdrawal) invade your communication.
  3. Your spouse’s negativity is so overwhelming that it leaves you shell-shocked. You disengage emotionally from the relationship.
  4. Body Language. Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure mounts, and your ability to process information is reduced. This makes it harder to pay attention to what your partner is saying.
  5. Failed Repair Attempts. Efforts made by either partner to deescalate the tensions during a touchy discussion fail to work.
  6. Bad Memories. Couples who are “stuck” in a negative view of their spouse and marriage often rewrite their past – for the worse.

Two of these predictors have great impact on the ability to predict marital breakups: the presence of the Four Horsemen and Failed Repair Attempts.

The Four Horsemen

“You are never supportive of me in front of your daughter. Why are you so weak when it comes to her?”

“Can’t you ever be consistent with your consequences? I always have to do your dirty work!”

Statements like those above appear on the outside to be simply a way to ‘vent’ or verbalize frustrations with our spouse. However, a closer look reveals the First Horseman: Criticism.

Many of us do not make the distinction between a criticism and a complaint. It is common and natural for many spouses to have complaints about the marriage or household. A complaint offers a specific statement of anger, displeasure, or frustration. We begin to see from the above statements, however, that criticism brings with it a personal attack or global accusation (e.g., you NEVER support me, etc.) which usually entails blaming.

It is easy to see how criticism in a marriage can lead to the Second Horseman: Contempt. Contempt usually involves the intention to insult your partner, and is an open sign of disrespect.

Clearly, when criticism and contempt are present in your marriage, respect and honor are very likely absent!

Welcomed Complaints

How can we turn criticisms into complaints? The following offers an alternative to the statements above:

Criticism: “You are never supportive of me in front of your daughter! Why are you so weak when it comes to her?”

Welcomed Complaint: “When you disagreed with me in front of my stepdaughter last night, I felt defeated and devalued.”

Criticism: “Can’t you ever be consistent with your consequences? I always have to do your dirty work!”

Welcomed Complaint: “I don’t feel we have the same rules for all our children. That’s frustrating!”

It is easy to see that rephrasing our criticism and contempt into welcomed complaints allows us to communicate our frustrations in a way that continues to honor our marital relationship.

Proverbs 12:18 teaches us that “Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing”. We can bring healing to our marriage by guarding our tongue and our tone!

When stating a welcomed complaint, make sure you:

  • State your specific feeling (e.g., I get frustrated, or angry when you….etc.) or needs (e.g., I need you to be more decisive…etc.) behind your complaint;
  • Stay away from using global words (i.e., never, always, etc.);
  • Use “I” more than “You”.

It is natural to see why the Third Horseman, Defensiveness, enters a relationship, once criticism and contempt are present. Who wouldn’t defend themselves against such attacks of character?

But what does defensiveness look like? Defensiveness can take on many forms:

Category2 & Example:

  1. Denying Responsibility: “It wasn’t my fault, it was yours.”
  2. Making excuses: “If you would have told me sooner that I needed to take him, I could have gotten him to school on time.”
  3. Cross-complaining: Your Spouse says, “You never stand up to her!” Your cross-complaint: “You’re always on her case!”
  4. Rubber man / rubber woman: Your Spouse: “You’re not consistent with their discipline!” You: “Well, neither are you!”

What can we do if we find ourselves becoming defensive? Try these suggestions:

  • Stop seeing your spouse’s words as an attack. See them as information that is being strongly expressed;
  • Try to understand and empathize with your partner. Steven Covey, in his Seven Habits for Highly Effective People states, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.
  • Be open and receptive during conflict.
  • Remember to breathe!
  • Keep your mouth shut (Proverbs 21:23).

By now, we’ve seen that it’s ok to have complaints in our marriage. But to honor our spouse, and to avoid the predictors of divorce, we must stay clear of criticism, contempt, and defensiveness. The Fourth Horseman is Stonewalling or withdrawing from your spouse.

Although those who stonewall may claim they are trying to remain ‘neutral’, stonewalling makes a very strong statement to your spouse. It says, “I’ve checked out of this discussion. I don’t find it important to continue to talk about this with you anymore”. It certainly does not convey honor or respect for our partner.

Interestingly, most men are physiologically unaffected by their wives’ stonewalling. This is quite the opposite for women. Wives’ heart rates increase dramatically when their husbands stonewall. To add to this, about 85% of stonewallers are men3.

It’s important to note that either spouse in a marriage may stonewall. The key is to avoid letting it becomehabitual. If you or your spouse find yourself wanting to withdraw or stonewall, try to:

  • Stay calm – learn to recognize when you are feeling overwhelmed and make a deliberate attempt to calm yourself;
  • Call a time out – make sure, though, to return to the discussion when you’ve cooled off!

We can see that the Four Horsemen can be deadly to a relationship. God warns us again and again that although the tongue is small, it can produce enormous damage (James 3:5, 3:8, Psalm 34:13, 57:4, 64:3, 140:3). We also learn that before we can have honor in our marriage, humility must precede it (Proverbs 15:33).

In Part 2 of this two-part series, we’ll take a look at Failed Repair Attempts. By learning the ‘art’ of a successful repair attempt, coupled with unbridling the Four Horsemen, you will be on your way to taking a proactive approach to protecting your marriage!

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References:

1 Dr. John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), pp. 26-44. Reprinted with permission.

2 Dr. John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail…And How You Can Make Yours Last (New York: FIRESIDE, 1994), pp. 89-90.

3 Dr. John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail…And How You Can Make Yours Last (New York: FIRESIDE, 1994), p. 95.

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.

 

Staying Close in Remarriage

SOURCE:  Ron L. Deal

Strong couples feel close to one another because they know what to do to make that happen.

Blended family living can create a unique barrier that often keeps couples from staying close to one another. This barrier grows with the concerns, frustrations, and struggles that are all too common in remarriage. I call it “third party thorns.”

These prickly, blended family realities include things such as tenuous stepparent-stepchild relationships, an antagonizing ex-spouse, leftover debt that preceded the marriage, the memory of a wonderful marriage that ended in death, and even an ex-mother-in-law. But despite these thorns, healthy couples find a way to stay close.

For example, let’s look at Matt and Sherry. Matt has a very high need for closeness. His father and mother divorced when he was very young, so he grew up without a great deal of family stability. He mainly lived with his mother and blamed himself for his father not being around much. His grandfather served as a surrogate father for a few years, but then died an untimely death when Matt was just 10 years old. Because closeness in his childhood family relationships was not something he experienced, he longs for it in his marriage.

Matt’s wife, Sherry, grew up in a hard-working middle-class family. While they loved one another deeply, the demands of earning a living kept parents and children going in multiple directions. As a result, Sherry learned quickly how to remain emotionally and financially independent from loved ones. She prided herself on working her way through technical school after having a child in high school.

A later marriage added another child, but the marriage didn’t last. Sherry found herself divorced and the single parent of two. This series of fragmented romantic relationships fueled her emotional independence as a parent and woman.

When Matt and Sherry met, they quickly became romantically and sexually involved. Matt was enthralled with the amount of attention he received from Sherry. She seemed to be a dedicated mom, but went out of her way to make time for him.

Sherry saw in Matt the kind of stability she wanted her children to experience so she pursued him with passion. Her physical and sexual availability and his need for closeness quickly fused their emotional connection, but substance was lacking. They were fooled into thinking sexual passion equaled a healthy future.

After a rushed courtship and wedding, things changed considerably. Sherry didn’t feel the need to pursue Matt as much as she did before and he felt it. The significant drop in time together produced a great deal of anxiety in Matt. He complained to a friend, “Now that we’re married, Sherry is much more worried about being a mom than she is a wife. I feel like I’ve lost her.”

Neither Matt nor Sherry carries all the blame for their increasing distance. Yet each is responsible to fight through the thorns and stay close.

The doing and feeling of closeness

In general, close couples:

  • Trust and have confidence in one another; they feel secure as a couple.
  • Include one another in important decisions.
  • Have a mutual respect for one another.
  • Have many similar likes and interests.
  • Are committed to spending time together on a regular basis and intentionally plan ways to be together.
  • Feel the freedom to ask each other for help.
  • Choose to be loyal to one another.
  • Balance time with family and friends so as to not take away from their relationship.

The largest study conducted on the strengths of healthy blended family couples reveals that strong couples feel close to one another because they know what to do to make that happen. In The Remarriage Checkup: Tools to Help Your Marriage Last a Lifetime, Dr. David Olson and I reported that 94 percent of happy couples have hobbies and interests that bring them together. They find it easy to think of things to do as a couple (compared to 62 percent or less of discouraged couples). In addition, a full 94 percent said togetherness was a top priority for them, revealing strong couples’ intentional effort to invest in their relationship. Doing things that facilitate closeness certainly contributes to feeling close.

Every healthy relationship has a balance of time spent together and time apart. Healthy couples have both a desire to be together and a respect for the individual interests, pursuits, and freedoms of their spouse. In strong relationships, individuals place emphasis on the “self” as well as the “we.” And there’s something else.

Healthy blended family couples also strive for an appropriate amount of sharing, loyalty, intimacy, and independence within the larger family dynamic. This dance of intimacy is not easily achieved in blended families and demands attention and good communication since couples are continually pulled apart by stressful thorns.

Patience and persistence

Matt and Sherry found balance and a loving heart by doing a number of things. First, both had to calm their fears. Matt had to remember that it was good and right for Sherry to spend focused time with her children and that he really wasn’t in competition with them. Sherry had to recognize that maintaining her independence and emotional distance from Matt was in part an attempt to protect herself from depending on someone she couldn’t guarantee would always be there for her. If she was ever to move closer to him, Sherry had to risk trusting Matt.

Second, both Matt and Sherry became more intentional in carving out time to be together to enjoy a leisurely activity. For them, playing golf on occasion helped them to laugh and connect. But, of course, saying “yes” to golf meant saying “no” to other activities and time with children so they communicated often about finding the appropriate balance.

With patience and persistence, Matt and Sherry removed their thorns and stayed close.

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