Blended Families

In this episode, Dr. Darrell Bock and Ron Deal discuss ministry to blended families, focusing on common issues that blended families face and how the church can better minister to them.

About The Table Podcast

The Table is a weekly podcast on topics related to God, Christianity, and cultural engagement brought to you by the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary. The show features interviews with guests who are experts on the chosen topic, and each episode is hosted by a member of The Hendricks Center’s team.

Timecodes
02:11
How Deal began his work with step-families
04:19
Defining what a blended family is
07:23
Complexities within stepfamilies
15:04
How to minister to a blended family
19:00
Challenges facing children in stepfamilies
27:25
Addressing blended family issues in the church
35:58
Psychological factors in relationships
41:48
Embracing difficult conversations
48:05
Spiritual growth in relationships
51:22
Redemptive work in stepfamilies
Resources
Transcript

Darrell Bock:

Welcome to The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture. I'm Darrell Bock, executive director of cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary in the Hendricks Center and my guest today is Ron Deal. We're going to be talking about blended families and all the possible combinations that that could represent. Ron is director of Smart Stepfamilies as well as director, president for Smart Stepfamilies, sorry about that and director for FamilyLife Blended, a ministry of FamilyLife. Let's begin, first of all, thank you, Ron, for being here with us and let's talk about what FamilyLife is before we talk about how you got into this gig.

Ron Deal:

Thanks for having me, Darrell. It's good to be with you. FamilyLife is a ministry of Cru here in North America. We are a subsidiary marriage and family ministry that reaches around the world. A great deal of our ministry here is in here in North America, but we have a footprint in well over 100 countries around the world. We create marriage and family resources, parenting resources, do couples events. We're really known for our events. The Weekend to Remember Marriage Conference is a good example of that. We do a marriage cruise once a year and empower churches to minister to families in a lot of ways, national radio broadcast FamilyLife today, things like that.

Ron Deal:

My division, FamilyLife Blended specializes in working with step families and the complexities that come along with that. We produce, again, events. I have my own podcast called FamilyLife Blended, ministry-equipping events as well as enrichment events for couples, books, resources, online video curriculum, virtual classes, you name it, we try to do it.

Darrell Bock:

Wow. That covers the gamut, I think, very good. Let's talk about Smart Stepfamilies. My standard question at the beginning of every podcast is, how did a nice guy like you get into a gig like this, okay? How does that work?

Ron Deal:

It's a great question. I'll be the first to tell you, this is not my life. Nan and I have been married for 35 years. My parents were married for 65 years before my mom died. I have three siblings. They're all in first marriages. It's not my life, but it is my professional career. I think like a lot of things, God brought me down this path in some ways kicking and screaming, going, "Lord, I don't understand. Why me? What's this about?" The bottom line is, if you're going to minister to people, I think we've got to be relevant in church work. We've got to be looking for, "Where are they? What's happening in culture? How do we respond?"

Ron Deal:

Back in 1993, when I graduated from Abilene Christian University with a master's degree in marriage and family therapy, they taught me how to think and do clinical work, but the whole time I was doing my preparation, I was thinking, "What's the local church do? How do we do ministry and prevention and enrichment with couples and families of all types?" and so I wandered down the road of, "Well, we're going to do single parent ministry. Why in the world would we neglect this group of people? Let's do marriage enrichment stuff. Let's do parent training. Oh, there's this group over here called stepfamilies. Let's minister to them too."

Ron Deal:

Well, little did I realize there was a huge gap in marriage and family ministry for blended families. The little things we began to do in local churches worked. Next thing I know, I'm writing about it, I'm talking about it, I'm training, and over a period of a decade, it became my life. I've been in this area now specializing for almost 30 years. I love it. I really do love it. When you get to see the redemptive work of God in a family situation that has already experienced some difficulty and pain and you see God come alongside them and things change for this generation and the next, what's better than that?

Darrell Bock:

Let's define blended here. When we're talking about blended family, sometimes you hear mixed families. I guess a sub question I have here is that I imagine that blended families come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. That can be ... Well, I'll let you start there and then we'll go from there.

Ron Deal:

No, it's a good question, it's a fair question because blended family is a very general term in some circles across the US. Generally, we're talking about stepfamilies here, not foster families, not adoptive families. We're talking about a family where one of the adults had a child from a previous relationship, whatever that backstory is, and has now brought at least one child into a marriage situation. That's a stepfamily. Some people prefer the term blended family. Now that causes difficulties because in some parts of the US, a blended family is a biracial couple and family.

Darrell Bock:

That's actually where I was going next.

Ron Deal:

That's true in the southeast part of the US. This is also true in the military. The term blended family always, in the military, means a biracial couple. It does not mean a stepfamily. It depends on where you are in the US and around the world. Blended family is the predominant general term here in the US now. That changed about 15 years ago, but it is true, but in the UK, in Australia, in New Zealand and China, stepfamily is the predominant term. In Latin America, Spanish-speaking countries, we have some challenges there because there is no equivalent word for stepfamily, none. It is a reconstituted family.

Ron Deal:

What I'm getting at here is there are some challenges just in languaging about who we're talking about. One of the little ministry tips I would give people watching is we have learned to use blended family and stepfamily, stepparent, whatever form that takes interchangeably throughout our materials. Even in our title and subtitle, we will use stepfamily and blended family so that people understand what it is that we're talking about.

Darrell Bock:

Was there any rationale for the shift in the language? I'm curious as to whether there's something going on there.

Ron Deal:

I think it's culture. I just think it's culture. Now, some people will ... I've got a theory. Some people really reel against the word stepparent, "I'm not a stepparent. These are all my kids. There's no steps in our home." By the way, adults say that, I've never heard a child say that and there's a teaching point here we can come back to in just a second, but sometimes the negative connotation of "step" is something people are trying to get away from. They prefer the term blended family. Whatever the explanation is, about 15 years ago, there was a pretty dramatic shift. If you just go out and survey local papers and online magazines and articles and language and social media, blended family is the predominant term in the US.

Darrell Bock:

I imagine that some of the discomfort with stepfamily is that it puts the stress on either the biological or original relationship and suggests that the one who's now doing the parenting isn't really a parent. That's the hesitation for going there?

Ron Deal:

Yeah, the fear behind calling somebody a stepchild or them calling you a stepparent is that we're not family, that somehow we haven't combined, that we're not together, that somebody feels left out or unchosen or unwanted. Stepparents obviously don't want to feel rejected in their role and the position they have in their home. You can hear the attachment concerns wrapped up in the preference about which language they would prefer to use. When I said a minute ago, I've never had a child say, "This is my blended mom," children know who are biological and who are step relationships. It's very clear to them because that represents who is their parent. That carries with it loyalties.

Ron Deal:

They are not quick to toss around terms of calling a stepmom "mom" or calling a stepdad "dad." That does happen. It's a small, small percentage of children who do that quickly. It's a much larger percentage of children who are on a journey to figure out who you are in my life. Darrell, the quick illustration I would give everybody listening is something probably everybody can relate to and that is, "What do you call your mother-in-law?" Now, some people go, "Oh, she's mom. She's been mom since day one and it's all good. She calls me her son," and other people are like, "Oh, no, I don't call her mom. That ain't happening."

Ron Deal:

There's a reason why you don't call her mom and it could be respect for your mom. It could be you just don't have a great relationship. We all get this. This is not something new, this terminology quandary. It is ultimately about defining relationship and how we're going to get along with one another just like with a mother-in-law or a brother-in-law or somebody that you're still trying to figure out the nature of that relationship.

Darrell Bock:

What a great illustration. I lost my mom when I was 14. As a result, when I got married, my mother-in-law, who I have the highest regard for and we had a great relationship, I would call her Anne, and then when we had children, I would call her Mimi which is what our kids call her, but I was very, very hesitant to call her mom out of that sense of respect for a mom who I did not have all the way through my growing up years. It wasn't meant as a slight in the least. It was just ... I get that. And I assume that is a little snapshot of all the identity issues that are tied up when you blend a family and you've got potentially a biological mother in one location and/or father and now you've got a new, in a sense, a different set of parents or at least a different combination of parents that you're dealing with.

Ron Deal:

Just this morning, I was interviewing somebody for our FamilyLife Blended Podcast and a woman married a man, he's a pastor. He had six children. She had two children when they got married. We talked about the complexity of how one plus one equals 10 in their situation. I said, "But the complexity multiplier is even well beyond that in blended families. Now you have the first child's expectation of the stepmother and her role and who she's going to be in the family. You have child two, three, four, five, six, all have an expectation." Stepmom has an expectation of herself. Her husband has an expectation of her as the stepmother to his children. How many expectations is now she dealing with, not just relationships, but the multiplicity of definitions of who she's supposed to be? Somehow she's supposed to find favor in the sight of everyone?

Ron Deal:

You can begin to see how quickly that is a frustrating endeavor for some people, not for every stepparent, but it frequently becomes something of, "I just don't know who I am, who I'm supposed to be, or how to do this," and that's essentially what we help people try to figure out.

Darrell Bock:

Then add layer that you didn't even get to, which is all the siblings have got to go through all the same relationships and reconfigurations become, are the two that joined older than the others? Are they in the mix? Are they on the bottom end? What does that do to the dynamic? This is how I get my hair line.

Ron Deal:

There are many, many layers. I often say the middle name of a blended family is complexity. To me, this is lesson one for your ministry leaders who are watching. If you assume that the biological family advice that you give is an immediate crossover to the blended families you're dealing with, you're not only wrong, you are not serving them well because that advice will backfire for about 50 reasons. If you don't do your homework and take some time, if you don't listen well to their narratives, it's very easy to give misinformed advice. You want to give second family advice to second families. You don't want to give first family advice to second families.

Darrell Bock:

Again, another feature that we didn't even mention yet, but that's a part of the equation is if the former spouse is still alive, that's yet another dynamic that has to be dealt with on a regular basis that automatically tells you, "This family is not the family that we normally think of when we think about a first family."

Ron Deal:

Gary Chapman and I wrote a book. It came out last year, Building Love Together in Blended Families. One of the things I said in there is blended families are tall and wide. What I meant by that is they're tall in the sense that they're generational. You have this generation and the children, stepchildren, someday you may have step-grandchildren, but you also have grandparents. That's three, four generations, but they're wide and that's the piece that a lot of people underestimate. The blended couples underestimate it and ministry leaders really underestimate this. It's not just who's in your home, but it's the former spouse, the children moving between two households.

Ron Deal:

If you both brought children, there's three households that children are moving between. More and more, Darrell, hang with me, more and more mothers have two or more children by two or more fathers. It's not just three households. It might be four households are five households that children are moving between and now add up the number of parents. That's least 10 parents. It might be 16 parents. I talked to a couple yesterday. When they got married, there were 22 grandparents, 22 grandparents involved in their kids' lives. Where do you go for Christmas? How do you navigate that? The complexity is layer upon layer upon layer.

Ron Deal:

If there is one explanation for why there is a greater level of stress in couples' relationships in blended families and a higher rate of divorce, it comes down to that word complexity. Anytime we come alongside, people begin to help them make sense of this, begin to help them have some ... Give them a map in the midst of that wilderness, boy, is it a cup of cold water that is really, really helpful.

Darrell Bock:

Let's talk about this from two angles simultaneously. What do you do or attempt to do when you come alongside a couple on the one hand? Then secondly, what advice would you give to someone who's in the church who's ministering to this kind of a family?

Ron Deal:

Well, the first thing I want to try to do is listen, hear their story, figure out their narrative, figure out the complexity. I'm doing a little genogram, some sort of a little map on a piece of paper because I can't keep up with the number of people involved in this family production and just beginning to try to hear where the pain points are, where the difficulties are. If I have a bias as a helper, as a counselor, it is I really want to pour into the couple because at the end of the day, the couple has to bear the weight of all of that complexity. They have to navigate it together. If they can't, it's an easy division and they go their separate ways.

Ron Deal:

Parenting dilemmas, financial dilemmas, the other household, "You and I get along great. Our kids get along great. Your ex-spouse is killing us," that's often a narrative that couples have. They really do have a pretty healthy marriage relationship, they really do have growing decent relationships with their stepchildren, but the former spouse is an antagonist to their whole story. You find out where those pain points are and then begin to try to help them navigate through that. One of my tag-lines is helping people get smart about their family and about that complexity. They're easily sideswiped by it if they have no awareness of what it is or why it is. When they hear and understand and go, "Oh, that's what's going on with my kid. My kid is like Darrell, not calling the stepmom 'mom' because he has a deep loyalty and commitment to his biological mother who's been deceased for years, but that matters to them, to my child. I need to let go of the expectation that he's going to call my wife mom. Right."

Ron Deal:

Now that you've relaxed into that, how about we just enjoy the name he does come up with and we try to find that, make that workable and just be okay with it and move forward. Over time, the label may change, the relationship will change, it will grow, but it's not going to happen today. That little shift in perspective and expectation again creates a climate where people are able to get along in some subtle ways but some powerful ways. Obviously, you can see where I'm going with ministry. Pastors need to get smart too. Man, we are pouring into this. We have ministry tools and resources. We have sections of our website designed just for pastors.

Ron Deal:

I'll share a link with you. If you can share it with people, you can do that, but then just go to familylife.com and click Blended Family and they'll find it. They'll get there. We do, every fall, a two-day ministry-equipping event for ministry leaders, lay couples, senior pastors, children's ministry leaders, whoever. Come and learn. It's different every year. We have a different theme. We expand. We build on things we've done in the past. We invite all the teachers and speakers from around the country who are really invested in this area to come together to network. It's a great time. That's now virtual. We now have the back conferences available online. It's available.

Ron Deal:

It used to be that people would say to me, couples and ministry leaders would both say, "Boy, it's so hard to find resources from a Christian point of view." That is not true anymore. It's not true anymore. We at FamilyLife put out in the last two years more resources than the Christian community had over the last 20 years and we're not slowing down. You just have to tap into it and you can learn some things that will really equip you to help others.

Darrell Bock:

Now I imagine that one of the great challenges in the midst of this mix is because we've been talking about at least initially this from the standpoint of the parents in the family, but I can imagine that the real challenges in many ways exist with the children in blended families. Is that a good assumption?

Ron Deal:

Well, I think they have their own journey and their own thoughts about it. Obviously, whether they're two, well, maybe not two-year-olds, five-year-olds have an opinion about what's going on in their life and their family. Adult stepchildren, this is something a lot of people don't think about. You could be 30 years of age, dad's getting married again after mom died. Let me tell you, a 30-year-old is highly invested in what's going on in dad's world and life and how this ripples through the entire generations of the family. They can have as many adjustment issues as a five-year-old or a 15-year-old can. It's just a different playing field, different specifics, but they're still trying to figure out the family identity. Everything's changed again. Everything has changed.

Ron Deal:

Yes, helping kids is one of those pieces that we certainly try to attend to when we do training events. My video series for churches has a session for children. We're always trying to help adults understand the experience of kids, so that they can step into that world a little easier, have a little more compassion and empathy for them, but at the same time, know where to set the boundaries. You don't want to be paralyzed by a child who's upset about what's going on, but at the same time, you do need to listen because a kid who says, "Hey, you're not my dad. I don't have to do what you say," is telling you a whole lot besides they don't want to clean the room. They are telling you, "I miss my dad." That's deeply embedded in that refusal to obey. "I miss my dad."

Ron Deal:

They're telling you, "I've been dealing with a lot of unwanted loss for a long time because of choices other people make for my life and I'm really sick of it, and now, you're telling me I got to clean my room? You know what? I don't want to receive that because if I do, then somehow it feels like I'm saying it's all okay and it's not okay. So no, I'm not going to clean my room." Deep embedded in kid's statement, "You're not my dad. I don't have to do what you say," is a child who's saying, "You know what? I don't know who I am anymore. I was the oldest and I helped all my siblings out and I made dinner three times a week and then you showed up. Now I don't know who I am."

Ron Deal:

There is a lot layered into that one moment. When a parent says in response, a stepparent, "You're right. I'm not your dad. I get it. In fact, if I were you, I'd really not like me very much, but here's the deal, we can talk about that later. Your mom, you guys can talk about that if you want, but here's the deal. Everybody does their part around here and we're asking you to clean your room. Either you can do it or we'll use your allowance and let your brother do it for you. We'll pay him to do it for you." There's a gentle response, a gentle response, a loving response. You don't have to argue about not being the dad. You're not the dad. Don't argue about that. That's not the point. The point is this kid is hurting, but he still has to clean his room. How do we get to that? Later, mom can come in and talk to him. Later, we can spend some time helping him unpack his sadness over what's going on with his life and that will help over time. It's a lot.

Ron Deal:

Again, we just try to help coach people into, "What is this? Why is the kids say that and what can you do about it?"

Darrell Bock:

This is interesting because normally or oftentimes when thinking about stepfamilies, you think about divorces or multiple divorces, but I was in a stepfamily not because of that but because my mom died young, so my dad remarried. He remarried several years later. The most shocking thing about the remarriage was not that he got remarried, the most shocking thing about the remarriage was how my siblings reacted to the remarriage. We were four. I was the only one who accepted the marriage in one sense, who was okay with it and didn't go through very much, but I had a younger sister, for whom my mom's death was absolutely devastating. She actually lost her way for about 10 years as a result.

Darrell Bock:

Then I had two older siblings who were out of the house when my mom died. They were already in college and who are adults, who reacted very differently as well. As a middle child in the midst of that mix was a mess because my older siblings, they were my little heroes, only they were not responding heroically.

Ron Deal:

Right.

Darrell Bock:

My little sister who I sometimes had to parent and take care of just because my dad was on the road a lot, all of a sudden had this parent figure in the house, who she reacted to much like the, "What? You're not my mom." What a mess. Blended sounds like a nice word, but sometimes the blending takes work.

Ron Deal:

Well, let me tell you, that is a teaching point that we tell people. Blended is the fantasy. Blended is what you want, but that's not how it starts and it's not a quick blend. It is a long process and you got to be committed to it. You can breach an integration of family members, just like with your mother-in-law, where you have a respect for her and you love her, but you still don't call her mom. That process will happen between stepfamily members with time. By the way, you said something really important, not all blended families are a result of that. We've got to get that out of our brains as ministry leaders. That is far too small a pigeonhole. A large percentage are a result of death. We have a lot of adult stepfamilies formed after a 40-year marriage and somebody passes away. The adult children are still stepchildren that's still a dynamic there. Here's the one I got to share with your audience. Less than a month, we've had this stat, are you ready?

Darrell Bock:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ron Deal:

15%, 15% of first marriages form blended families, not preceded by death or divorce, preceded by an out-of-wedlock pregnancy with somebody else and a child exists. Nobody's ever been married before. 15% of first marriages in today's culture form blended families. If you got one little pathway into blended family living and that's all you can imagine, then you are missing a large percentage of the people in your church. I still have pastors go, "I'm not sure how many divorced remarried couples we have." "Well, how many widowed remarried couples do you have? How many first marriage blended families?" You got to widen your lens. This is 40% of families raising children.

Darrell Bock:

Right. That's the statistic that gets me is that 40%? There are almost as many first families in the way we traditionally think about it as the amount of blended families that we have surrounding us.

Ron Deal:

Let me just broaden it a little bit. If we think of nontraditional families as blended families, single parent families and single adults, that group of people, those three categories are larger than first married traditional families in the United States. Nontraditional is the new traditional. If you're preaching and all you can imagine when you say the word marriage is a traditional couple, if you're preaching and talking about relationships and all you think of is married people, not single people, if all you can imagine in parenting is a two couple raising their kids versus a bioparent, stepparent raising kids with a coparent in the other home versus a single parent raising ... You are not talking to the people in your community.

Darrell Bock:

You're missing from the start because there's a whole swath of your audience, that's not where they are.

Ron Deal:

Darrell, maybe this is the place where we pause and talk about the elephant in the room because I think, as ministry leaders, that elephant is, "Well, I feel a little weird if I somehow talk to nontraditional families as if they are okay to be in our fold, that somehow I'm saying it's okay. Sin in the past that brought them to this place, decisions they or somebody else made, somehow were blessing sin somehow." I really get that and I really appreciate the mindfulness that leaders have. We never want to be perceived as going soft on sin. The cross is far too important for us to go soft on that, but mercy is never wrong.

Ron Deal:

I just sometimes wish we would stop talking about only one side of the coin. Yes, an invalid divorce is a sin, and yet, on the other side, we are called to mercy, not just a little mercy but to love mercy. According to Malachi, "Love mercy, love kindness, love that stuff. This is who God is." You look at the example of Jesus over and over and the people that he dealt with, "Why does he sit with tax collectors and sinners? Why does he sit with divorced people and remarriages?" Because he loves mercy. We're called to that. I think we've got to find our way to teach truth and be the church that loves people wherever they are, however they come. John 4, Woman at the Well, whatever that John 8, Woman Caught in Adultery. Let's be those people who love mercy and finds a way to bring them in and teach them better from here.

Darrell Bock:

That's a great observation. That's a challenge in a variety of kinds of relationships that we see in the church, how to deal with who we are and lift up the standards and commitments of holiness that the church is supposed to uphold on the one hand, but then how do we live as people who actually understand that everyone who's in the church is a forgiven person.

Ron Deal:

That's exactly right.

Darrell Bock:

My problem might not be your problem, but we all got problems.

Ron Deal:

Amen. Amen. We're all sinners in need of a hospital.

Darrell Bock:

When I talk about evangelism, I often say, "Probably the most important thing to remember in evangelism is that when you're interacting with someone who doesn't understand who God is and wrestling with who God is, that that's exactly who you were when God tapped you on the shoulder."

Ron Deal:

That's good.

Darrell Bock:

I think that helps us to remember where we came from and that we only have what we have because of who he is, not because of anything that we've done, so very, very important. Actually, what I'm hearing underneath all the things that you're saying is helping people who are in a role who are worried about what their identity is and where they are, having a touch of, I don't know what other word to use, empathy or understanding for where the person they're interacting with is coming from and what they are, what their processing is because when we get so focused on ourselves, sometimes we miss that piece.

Ron Deal:

That's exactly right. This is not hard for me. Nan and I have struggles in our marriage. Through the years, we have sought out helpers multiple times in seasons of our life.

Darrell Bock:

I've never had a problem with Sally in 40-plus years of marriage. We just automatically quick. We've never had those, the two parties met and had diplomatic discussion.

Ron Deal:

I know that's a lie (laughs).

Darrell Bock:

That's exactly right. Our joke during COVID has been, "We've been together a year and neither of us is dead. It's a victory."

Ron Deal:

That is a victory.

Darrell Bock:

That's right.

Ron Deal:

The old self is hard to take off. We all have things about us that are not characteristic of righteousness. Marriage and family, here's a little piece for ministry leaders, I really wish we would understand the discipleship value of relationships. Sometimes, we look at marriage and family ministry like it's just this thing over here you do for women or men or couples. No, this is discipleship stuff. Yes, teach them the Book of John. Yeah, that's a really good thing to do and teach them how to live and love another person that sometimes they can't stand, a person that sometimes reflects back to them their own selfishness and makes them deal with their selfishness in ways they would never have to deal with if they weren't trying to walk it out in a marriage relationship.

Ron Deal:

Step-parenting, it will show you real fast how much you crave somebody's approval. When you don't get it from a stepchild, when you don't get respect, when you don't feel like anybody honors you for all that you do for these kids, real fast, you'll discover, "What am I really worshiping here?" This is all discipleship and I really think if pastors understood that, every church in the world would have a marriage and family ministry but we all know that doesn't really happen and it's certainly not prioritized the way it could be. What you want to talk about on the ground, teaching me how to live, family does that and it forces me to deal with my own selfishness in the process.

Darrell Bock:

I just did a series in which I had a message. It was entitled Difficult Conversations. It was actually an exposition of James 1:19 and 20, "Quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. For the anger of man has not achieved the righteousness of God." I spent five minutes on the passage and spent probably 35 minutes on the practical implications of what that passage was relationally. The reason for that is because the mere exposition of the text doesn't get you into the relational dynamics of what it requires.

Ron Deal:

Right.

Darrell Bock:

Wrestling with that ... I told them ahead of time, I said, "This is not going to be a normal message you hear from me. There's going to be far more time spent in how to apply what is being said than in understanding what is being said," because understanding what's being said is the easy part. It's the application that's the trick.

Ron Deal:

That's exactly right.

Darrell Bock:

I sensed that that's what you're saying is that one of the things that leaders need to be aware of is sometimes the passage is relatively straightforward and you can understand what the concepts, the words you're putting together, but to actually live that out in the logistics of everyday life relationally, oh, man.

Ron Deal:

Hey, self-control, one of the fruits of the Spirit, is one of the biggest challenges for most of us in life. If you have ever lost your cookies with your kids, if you've ever become, the big psychological term is dysregulated, neurobiologically interpersonal connectedness, you've become dysregulated over a situation with a spouse, a friend, a family member, a child, guess what? Self-control is the answer, but how do you actually do it? How do you actually implement that? There is a whole lot wrapped up in the application of that, but when you can achieve it, it transforms relationships. This is Discipleship 101. I think when people get that, they see all of a sudden single parent ministry is not just about a handout to somebody who is financially in a tough ... No, we're helping them live faithfully in life.

Ron Deal:

Blended family ministry is not condoning their past, not somehow saying that sin was okay. We're saying, "Live righteously from this point forward as best you can in the family you have, honoring the vows you have taken and we want to help you try to do that because God's going to shape you in the process of walking this commitment out." That's discipleship. When we capture that, the vision for that, then all of a sudden, relationship family ministry, I think, would become at least one priority that we have in local churches.

Darrell Bock:

You use the phrase a while ago and I think I remember, you said dysregulated. It's not a phrase or term I use on a regular basis. Then you alluded neurologically to what's happening. We've actually talked about this on The Table, in other conversations that we've had, but I think it's important to remind people that when you get, I'll use it right, when you get worked up, okay?

Ron Deal:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes.

Darrell Bock:

All right? Your brain reacts and actually, to compensate, prevents you from being focused on what you probably should be focused on as you're dealing with the way in which you've been riled up. Can you unpack that a little bit for us because that's an important idea?

Ron Deal:

It is. Most people are surprised to learn that the same thing happens in your brain as when you turn around in the woods and there's a bear behind you and you go into fight, flight or freeze, the exact same thing happens to your mind, body and spirit, I'll broaden it, not just your brain.

Darrell Bock:

Right.

Ron Deal:

The same thing happens when your wife says, "Why are you driving this way? You're driving too fast. You need to slow down. Move over to this left lane. Why do you turn up here because then we're going to get there fast?" When you feel controlled and in that moment go, "Don't tell me how to drive," the same thing happened neurologically in your body as when the bear is right behind you. You're in a fight, flight, or freeze. You stop thinking. You lost self-control because the frontal part of your brain just turned off. The prefrontal cortex turned off. You went into what we call the old part of the brain where you just fight, flight or freeze and you react. You are now dysregulated. You are not managing yourself. Your fear is managing you.

Ron Deal:

This happens in nanoseconds in every relationship every moment of every day. Self-control, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness is stopping your brain from doing what it wants to do, being having a mind controlled by the Spirit, which is what Paul tells us in Romans 7 and 8, life and peace as opposed to death, and all of a sudden, you're bringing life to your interaction with your wife rather than death. Let me tell you, there is a whole science to this and it is all connected to how we behave and act moment to moment.

Ron Deal:

I'm in the journey myself. I'm very much trying to put on self-control in those nanoseconds. I lost it just last week with my wife, one of those little moments of criticism. What I heard actually turned out I totally misunderstood what she said, but in a nanosecond, I went into defensiveness and reactivity just like I did 20 years ago and I had to grab a hold of myself. I had to apologize. I had to put on humility. I had to own who I was and I had to ask for her forgiveness and we had to spend about a couple hours talking through, "What happened? Why did they happen? What did you hear? This is what I thought. Oh, my goodness, I'm so sorry." Dysregulation, and then we try to bring the Spirit into it to help repair, but as I'm growing moment by moment, trying to do those better next time, I'm becoming more like Christ.

Darrell Bock:

Now you said when this reaction happens is the dysregulation, I'm going to use that word when I go home tonight. Just to see what my wife thinks about it. Hopefully, I won't do it.

Ron Deal:

Just make sure you talk about yourself being dysregulated. Don't tell her she's dysregulated.

Darrell Bock:

That's worth the podcast right there. Anyway, but you've also used another phrase that I think is important and that was a fight, flight or freeze. Am I hearing that right?

Ron Deal:

Yes.

Darrell Bock:

You threw that out pretty quickly. I'm the catcher here. I think I got all the curveball or knuckle or whatever was thrown at me. Talk about that. When you sense you're in a crisis, which I think is quite a way to define dysregulated, when you sense you're in a crisis or responding as if it's a crisis, you've limited your options to three. Is that what basically what you were saying?

Ron Deal:

That's right. The brain at that point really only knows to do three things. Fight, try to stand up against the bear or whatever you perceive as the threat to you. Freeze is, "I don't know what to do. I'm paralyzed," I end up doing nothing or flee, which is withdrawal. When you think about a relational expression of this, we all have our different patterns. I'm a defender. Defensiveness is one of my spiritual gifts. I don't know if you knew that, but it's actually in the Bible.

Darrell Bock:

It's probably in all of us.

Ron Deal:

It's huge in me. If I feel like I'm not winning, I withdraw, I want to disconnect, I want to pull away. Now that I know that about myself, see, this is where humility comes in, now that I know that about myself, literally, I can say, "You know what I know about me is I really want to run away from me right now because I'm not feeling like this is a safe moment in our relationship and what I also know is when I run away, I make you feel insecure and unloved and that's not helpful either, so I've got to do something courageous and godly right now. What would that be? I think that might be just staying here and engaging and managing my fear so that it doesn't get the best of me." That's a grow-up moment, Darrell. That is a grow-up moment.

Darrell Bock:

At the center, we talk about this a lot. Whenever you walk into a difficult conversation, you also only have three options or maybe it's four given what you've said and that is you can push back which is fight. You can withdraw which is your combination of either freeze or flee or you can move towards somebody. The choice that you need to make is to take the effort and the time and the humility, because sometimes it does take that, to move towards somebody and actually make an effort not to think about where you are, but to think about where they are.

Ron Deal:

Sometimes moving toward them, or in fact, I would say many times, moving toward them includes managing what's going on inside of me, refusing to let my fear get the best of me and make me aggressive, angry, critical, defensive, whatever those things are and instead move towards you in softness. Here's where the other fruit of the Spirit, gentleness comes into play. "I'm going to bring self-control and gentleness to this hard moment," I guarantee you it will go better. I don't know if it will go perfect. I don't know if you'll work everything out, but it will go much better than it would have had you let fight, flight or freeze dominate and control you.

Darrell Bock:

Again, I've done ... A lot of work that I do in the in the cultural engagement space is to think about, "How do I have a conversation in the pluralism space? How do I have a conversation with someone who I know disagrees with what I believe? How do I engage in that difficult conversation space?" As we talked about that, we engaged, we talked about the importance of listening, we talked about the importance of moving towards someone, but when you look at the passages in Scripture that talked about that space, that always talks about, "Let your speech always be gracious. Do good to those on the outside, especially those in the bay. Be prepared to give a defense for the hope that is in you, but do it with meekness and respect."

Ron Deal:

Absolutely.

Darrell Bock:

You see this tonal element that literally is on top of everything that's supposed to be going on, regardless of what the content is that you're talking about.

Ron Deal:

Imagine our social political rhetoric ...

Darrell Bock:

Exactly.

Ron Deal:

... flying around right now, if people put on meekness and humility and respect and decency in how they communicated their opinions. Imagine, we'd still have disagreements, but they would be more civil. They might just be collaborative every once in a while. Somebody just might be able to see another person's point of view and go, "Huh? Yeah, you got a point there," instead of it being oppositional and antagonistic. Darrell, man, I could go on about this forever. Let me tell you, the little phrase that is used repeatedly throughout the Old and New Testament in the Bible about pride and humility is it's unbelievably profound. "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." Now here's what I know, so do spouses, so do children, so do coworkers, so do people on opposite political lines than us. We give grace to humility. We oppose pride.

Ron Deal:

If my posture with my spouse or my kids or my coworker is, "Gosh, you're an idiot and I know better than you," pride, "and I'm not listening. I don't need to listen. I've actually got this figured out. I don't need you," pride, we do the same thing with God. God says, I'm going to oppose you," and we're made in his likeness. Let me tell you, it works the same in human relationship, vertically and horizontally is the same. All of a sudden, I'm inviting people to oppose me. There's no way we're having peace when I lead with pride. I invite you to oppose me. If, however, I have an attitude of humility and softness and gentleness and I can have an opinion, and yet, I bring to the equation, "No, I don't really don't have this all figured out. I'm open. I'm here. Just like Christ did Philippians 2."

Ron Deal:

What happens? We invite grace. It transforms relationships. I'm going to spend the next 20 years of my life teaching this as it relates to marriage and parenting and family and leadership. Because it is so deeply profound in what it does moment to moment, but I have to lead with humility. Let me tell you, I think sometimes leaders have a hard time with that.

Darrell Bock:

I agree and I think the hard challenge here, the public square space is no different than the marriage space in this regard. The thing that I try and communicate in the midst of this move towards humility is the example of Christ and the security that we have because our identity is wrapped in the grips of God. There's nothing at stake for me in this. I can walk into this space. I can take the hits, if you will, and in the process, a respond in a non-retaliatory way in the midst of something that might be raised as a battle, and then out of that, hopefully project an opportunity for a different kind of conversation.

Ron Deal:

I agree. It's amazing what happens. I can tell you 15 years ago when my wife said something that I felt was critical of me and I went into defensiveness, not did was I defensive about her initial criticism, I then defended my defensiveness. That would last three days of argument and disagreement and emotional disconnect between us, okay? Now when I do that and I quickly go in humility, "Oh, rats, I just ruined that. I am so sorry. Look what I did, I just put on defensiveness again. You didn't deserve that," and I openly confess my defensiveness and put on humility.

Darrell Bock:

Call it owning your own stuff.

Ron Deal:

We can unwind that moment in about an hour. It is night and day, but it involves self-control.

Darrell Bock:

Self-control and humility, they're very important values. In one sense, it takes courage because it involves vulnerability. That's a hard place and our society to be vulnerable is, generally speaking, not respected. That's what makes it courageous. We came to talk about blended families, we're talking about the soul. That's actually important because how you interact in a blended family environment is all related to where you're coming from in your soul and spirit.

Ron Deal:

I was just thinking the same thing, we're still talking about blended families and other relationships in this process. I am going to layer in another truism about step-couple relationships in particular. When you have been through something really hard, the death of a spouse, an unwanted divorce, for example, you were married, you're committed and then your spouse left you, they just left you, that leaves a residue on anybody's heart and now you find yourself in another relationship, trying to give all of you into it. Guess what is a problem for most people, right? Trust, "How do I sacrifice and surrender me to you in this relationship? I want to, but oh my goodness, the last time I did that, it about killed me. I don't want to go through that again."

Ron Deal:

There's this added dimension that makes surrender and transparency and vulnerability even more difficult. I even extend that to children, "I like you as my stepparent, that's part of my problem. I'm not sure if you're going to be around very long. The last person wasn't. I like you. It's part of my problem. If I move toward you, I feel like my biological ... If you're my stepdad and want to move toward my stepdad, my biological dad might feel offended and he might feel like I'm somehow denying him his place in my heart. I'm not sure what to do with that, so my fear keeps me from moving toward my stepdad." This is a really big factor under the surface going on in many blended family situations.

Ron Deal:

Again, we help people recognize that in themselves, put on humility about it and decide how they're going to ... Are they going to let fear paralyze them or are they going to find a way to courageously walk through and try to love anyway?

Darrell Bock:

That's terrific. I'm sitting here going, "I can think through numerous conversations I've had with couples that have gone through divorces in which there really is a lack of confidence about being able to sustain a relationship because of the previous failure." In some cases, it doesn't matter if you could have assigned fault to how the previous thing broke down. Sometimes, that doesn't make any difference. They're still wounded.

Ron Deal:

Right.

Darrell Bock:

That becomes a real tangle. Just so helpful, Ron. Really, really appreciate it. Our time is winding down here, getting away from us, but I'll ask the question that standard journalists ask at the end of any interview that they do. It goes something like this, you're probably familiar with this. Is there anything that we haven't said that you want to say or something that you haven't gotten to say that you want to say? Fill in the blank?

Ron Deal:

I think sometimes ministry leaders, as we begin to talk about some of these realities and they see the complexity for the first time, they feel a little overwhelmed and I always say, "Hey, by the way, if you're feeling overwhelmed, that's a little bit, that's a taste of what the couple's feeling trying to navigate this space." Yeah, keep learning, keep growing. I think another thing that people sometimes feel is, "Wow, is it even worth it?" and I want to say healthy families are always redemptive. They're always redemptive. There's actually longitudinal research that suggests that when a healthy stepfamily comes along after a difficult divorce, children in that healthy stepfamily grow up to, number one, have a better attitude about the institution of marriage, which we all know people are bailing on the idea of marriage these days.

Ron Deal:

This is transformative for them. They pick better partners and they have more of a likelihood of a long-lasting first marriage. All of that to say, "We are redeeming this family generation to generation by helping this blended family do life well." If that's not the work of God, I don't know what is. That's our business, is redeeming, restoring and bringing that to people's lives. Yes, it is worth it. Yes, it is an investment of time and energy and you get to retool, but man, does it make a difference for people's lives in your church and in your community? I would commend this ministry. I believe there will be a day when the vast majority of churches have a stepfamily ministry of some kind or another simply because they recognize, "This is our world, this is what people need and we can make a difference."

Darrell Bock:

Now I've got one final question that I just thought of which is terrible to ask you at the end, but I'm going to try and do it and that is, we've been talking about ministry leaders, but there are lots of people who surround blended families, their friends and family, etcetera. There's a whole another category of people. I guess the way I would introduce this question is to say, everything that we've said in the podcast also applies to you in thinking about what these relationships are, but is there anything else that applies beyond just the ministry leader that you would think about as you think about that category of acquaintances and friends and family?

Ron Deal:

Well, one thing that's true, period, I think for all people is the need for community. We absolutely see this with stepfamily couples, sometimes we call them step-couples. Many step-couples have never talked to another step-couple in their life. They don't know whether they can bring it up, "Is it okay?" They don't really have those candid conversations. If you orchestrate that, put them in a room together, oh my goodness, they take off, they run and make their best friends and they support each other, they pray for each other. That small group dynamic is just as important for them as it is for anybody.

Ron Deal:

All of that to say, when you come alongside a friend, a brother who's now part of a blended family or something and you are community to them, you support them, you encourage them, you come alongside, hand them a book, whatever, "How's it going? What can I pray for you?" all of that says to them, "You are part of the family of God and you belong here, not on your own merits, of course, but from the sense that we all need God's grace, join a club. We're glad you're here." Stepfamilies really need to hear that. There's often that spiritual shame thing that just haunts them. We need to help them get past that and community is one of the ways to make that happen.

Darrell Bock:

Interesting. Well, what a fascinating time. I really do thank you for engaging us on, I guess we've got to subtitle this, "Blended families in the soul." As always, I'm always impressed with the kind of ministry that you're pursuing, the gap that it represents. It's why we do this as a podcast because our intent is to let people know this is going on and to get them thinking about it and be sensitive to it. Thank you for giving us your time and in discussing this with us.

Ron Deal:

Thank you. Come visit us, familylife.com. We'll help you do ministry well.

Darrell Bock:

That sounds great. Thanks again, Ron. We thank you for joining The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture. If you want to follow us, please go to whatever service you have where you heard the podcast and follow us. That will allow you to be involved in the string of podcasts. If you want to post a review, we'd appreciate that if you found this beneficial and we hope to see you again soon at The Table.

Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock has earned recognition as a Humboldt Scholar (Tübingen University in Germany), is the author of over 40 books, including well-regarded commentaries on Luke and Acts and studies of the historical Jesus, and work in cultural engagement as host of the seminary's Table Podcasts. He was president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) for 2000–2001, writes for the Christianity Today's Places and Space series, and serves on the boards of Wheaton College, Chosen People Ministries, the Institute for Global Engagement, and Christians in Public Service (CIPS). His articles appear in leading publications. He is often an expert for the media on NT issues. Dr. Bock has been a New York Times best-selling author in nonfiction and is elder emeritus at Trinity Fellowship Church in Dallas. When traveling overseas, he will tune into the current game involving his favorite teams from Houston—live—even in the wee hours of the morning. Married for over 40 years to Sally, he is a proud father of two daughters and a son and is also a grandfather.
Ron Deal
Ron Deal is the most widely read author on blended families in the country and directs the international blended family ministry of FamilyLife(R) in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is a podcaster, bestselling author, conference speaker, and family therapist who specializes in marriage enrichment and stepfamily education. He is husband to Nan (since 1986) and father to three boys.
Contributors
Darrell L. Bock
Ron Deal
Details
April 20, 2021
children, family, parenting
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