Experiencing Love, Experiencing Grace
High Quality Marital RelationshipsThere is a honeymoon for couples in stepfamilies, it just comes at the end of the journey and not at the beginning. Ongoing research of couples in stepfamiliesconducted by internationally recognized marriage and family researcher Dr. David Olson, president of Life Innovations, and meconfirms that couples in stepfamilies can create high quality marital relationships. In a book we're writing on our findings we detail the qualities of successful stepfamily marriages and reveal how couples can deepen their intimacy. In sum, as with all marriageswhether a first or fifthqualities like effective communication, the ability to resolve conflict well, a relational style that is flexible and adaptable, enjoying leisure activities together, and couple spirituality prove to be very predictive of a high quality marital relationship.
In other words, couples can create mutually satisfying, intimate, God-honoring marriages within stepfamilies. Undoubtedly there are a number of unique barriers to overcome (see chapter 5), but remarriages can be healthy relationships. Furthermore, I've observed that couples that endure the adversity of the journey frequently have a bond that is powerful enough to withstand anything. There is strength and a sense of victory after surviving what for some is a difficult journey.
And how long does it take for couples to find an increase of satisfaction? E. Mavis Hetherington reports, in her highly scientific book For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered,1 that it takes most couples five to seven years to get through the tensions of stepfamily life, such that their stress level declines to match that of a husband and wife in a first marriage. Furthermore, surviving their tumultuous early years seems to give couples a staying power that keeps them going . and growing.
Marital satisfaction is a process. Keep pursuing it.
A New Marital Heritage to CelebrateA strong remarriage is critical for the relational development of the children. Stepfamily children, especially those who have lived through a parental divorce, need to witness and learn from a healthy marital relationship. This counteracts the negative and destructive patterns of interaction they witnessed in their parent's previous marriage (and since the divorce). Instead of arguments filled with yelling and personal agendas, they watch two people who maintain a win-win attitude negotiate the best solution for their family. Instead of a distant relationship between two people living parallel lives, they witness two people giving time and attention to their relationship. Instead of an unbalanced relationship, where one spouse is constantly chasing an ever-distancing, never available spouse, children see a husband and wife who continually seek to sacrifice for the other out of love. On the other hand, if children witness repeated marital breakups, the net effect is a weakening of the child's sense of permanency to marriage and an increased lack of trust in the people they love.2
It's worth mentioning that many children do not welcome their parent's remarriage, especially in the beginning. They may even fight the stepparent's efforts to join the family, and be antagonistic. This is normal, as children hold on to the dream that their biological parents will remarry. Despite the children's resistance, a strong stepfamily couple will have positive benefits for them over time. The key is to remember that during the early integration years, children may resent the stepparent's presence in the home. Maintain a long-term perspective and live as if a healthy marriage is just what the kids desire. Someday they may come to appreciate, even celebrate, your marital commitment.
Some time ago a woman sent me an anniversary card she received from her stepdaughter. Debbie had kept the card because it meant so much to her. It made her realize just how much her stepdaughter was watching and learning from her marriage. Nearly a decade into her remarriage, Debbie received the card, which read, "Glad to see you two still haven't lost the magic. Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad!" The hand-written note inside the card was even more encouraging: "Happy Anniversary! I just wanted to thank you for the wonderful Christian example of how a marriage should work. The way you solve conflict with humor is fun to watch. When the time comes for the Lord to bless me with a mate, I hope I am as lucky as the two of you are! I love you both, Kara."
Now, that's what I call a Promised Land Reward!
A Healthy Family Means Healthier KidsIn 1998 James Bray published research culminating the first ten-year longitudinal study of stepfamilies in America. His research revealed that a loving, well-functioning stepfamily over time can negate many of the detrimental psychological impacts of divorce on children. While not all of the negative effects can be reversed, it is certainly a message of hope for parents and children. It seems that with time, healthy stepfamilies can have benefits that counteract the negative costs of divorce.
In addition, Bray says a "strong, stable stepfamily is as capable of nurturing healthy development as a nuclear family. It can imbue values, affirm limits and boundaries, and provide a structure in which rules for living a moral and productive life are made, transmitted, tested, rebelled against, and ultimately affirmed."3 The key here is a "strong, stable stepfamily." This isn't created overnight, but affirms that dedication to healthy stepfamily integration has significant rewards for children. If that's not a reason to endure the journey to the Promised Land, I don't know what is.
Cooperation Between Homes Results in Well Disciplined ChildrenWhen children grow up in a stable stepfamily home, they benefit tremendously. When co-parents (birth parents) cooperate, the benefits are even more profound. Increased co-parent cooperation results in increased disciplined behavior in children and a greater respect for boundaries. It doesn't happen often, but some co-parents, like Jason and Leigh, have learned not to let their marital differences and past conflicts keep them from checking up on their children. When Samuel, age nine, and Wesley, age six, figured out that they couldn't play one parent off the other, their misbehavior at school diminished significantly. Gaining this level of cooperation is not easy for most, but seeing the rewards in well disciplined children makes it worth the effort.
Respect and Care Between Stepparents and StepchildrenI met Gail at a stepfamily conference; she shared with me her journey to acceptance by her stepchildren. As we'll see in chapter 7, the pace of the stepparent-stepchild relationship is determined by the child; you can't force kids to embrace or love a stepparent. At the beginning of her marriage to John, who had three children, Gail, full of expectation and hope, assumed that the children would hug and kiss her each night just as they did their father. The children and their dad had a very affectionate relationship, and Gail, understandably, wanted to be welcomed into their nightly ritual of hugs and kisses before bed. However, for many years all John's children would offer her was a passing "Good-night, Gail," before going to bed. Just a few days before attending my conference, that changed. Gail reported that for the first time in four years, her oldest stepson hadfor no apparent reasonblessed her with a side-hug before going off to bed. "It wasn't a full-on bear hug like he gives his father," she said, "but it sure was nice."
Over time, stepparents and stepchildren can develop a tremendous bond with one another. The pace of this developing relationship varies (see chapter 7), and some will never be more than just respectful friends (especially if the children are adults at the time of the remarriage). But for most, a basic sense of mutual respect and care for one another is genuinely attained. If you aren't there yet, don't give up. The journey isn't over yet.
Multigenerational Blessings in Second-Half StepfamiliesMany couples marrying later in life mistakenly assume that because their children are adults that their transition to a stable intergenerational stepfamily will be smooth. Most of the time, it is anything but smooth. As with younger stepfamilies, a remarriage in the second-half of life4 brings many emotional transitions for adult stepchildren. Initial fears that grandchildren will not be prioritized, feelings of abandonment, renewed grief over a changing family heritage, and concerns with family inheritances and finances can eventually give way to feelings of bondedness, connection, and multigenerational blessing when a stepgrandparent also begins to spoil the grandchildren. Experiencing these rewards in the intergenerational family is, too, a journey. But it is well worth it.
Experiencing Love, Experiencing GraceLearning to love again after being hurt is a fearful, risky endeavorvery risky. Extending grace is part of that risk. Without it we cannot give and receive love. God taught us this. Romans 8:1224 reminds us that God through Christ's sacrifice has adopted believers as His children. Despite our sinfulness, His grace casts out of us a spirit of fear and replaces it with a spirit of hope. He chose to love us; He chose to extend grace to us. In so doing, He made it possible for us to experience love and grace in deeply profound ways.
I have seen this process replicated many times in stepfamilies. Adults who extend to ex-spouses the grace that God has given them and stepparents who choose to love stepchildren who are cold to their presence have both brought about profound changes to these relationships. The warmth of their heart eventually softens the anger of the other. I've watched children once empty due to the abandonment of their mother or father begin to bloom under the loving care of a stepparent. I've been inspired when a non-custodial mother speaks well of her children's stepmother and insists that they respect her. Despite personal fear and risk, people in stepfamilies choosing love and grace gently invite others to respond with the same. Yes, when grace is shared, amazing things happen. People are blessed and rewards received. And God is brought a little closer to us all.
NOTICING WHAT GOD HAS DONEThe Israelites experienced many periods of doubt; perhaps you do too. But undoubtedly, when they stopped to look back, they could see the hand of God and how many times he had acted on their behalf. Perhaps you haven't looked back recently. Perhaps the barriers that stand in front of you now are fueling your doubt and pessimism. Stop for a few moments. What has God done to help you navigate your journey? In what ways has his Word provided insight for decisions and encouragement for patience? How has trusting in his truths about marital fidelity, kindness toward your enemies (perhaps your ex-spouse or stepchildren), and having a servant's heart helped you and your family to overcome obstacles along the way?
Is there a Promised Land for stepfamilies who don't quit, who faithfully follow their Lord, and who learn all they can about navigating the journey? Absolutely. And it's well worth the effort!
Questions for DiscussionWork through the following questions on your own before sharing them with your spouse. Some of the questions are appropriate for children as well. Before talking with your children or stepchildren, take into consideration their ages and your overall relationship with them. In addition to discussing these questions with your spouse (or dating partner) and children, share your answers with your discussion group.
FOR ALL COUPLES
1. What aspects of your past did you hope remarriage would "cure"?
2. Which of the following emotions have you felt in the past? Which still haunt you from time to time? Anger. Bitterness. Depression. Sadness. Longing. Hurt. Resentment. Guilt. Fear. Pain. Rejection.
3. In what ways did you experience disillusionment, and at what point did you realize things weren't working out like you expected? How have you adjusted your expectations?
4. In what ways was your remarriage another loss for your children? How can you be sensitive to that loss without being guilt-ridden (or easily manipulated because you feel guilty)?
5. Look again at the list of uncharted waters on page 19. Which of these represent areas of growth for you or your stepfamily? What areas do you consider to be the priority growth areas right now?
6. In what ways have you or your stepfamily members experienced God's leading or his healing hand? Be sure to share with your stepfamily how you see him at work in your lives.
7. What Scriptures have been helpful or inspiring to you recently? If you haven't been reading the Bible much lately, how can you begin to do so again?
8. Share a time with your spouse when you weren't sure the work was worth the effort. If that time is now, what do you need to help you stay determined? If you trusted God to bring you through, what would you be doing differently than you are now to work in that direction?
9. Which, if any, of the Promised Land Payoffs have you experienced to some degree already?
CASE STUDY IN STEPFAMILY FEARS
Read again the fears from the Thomas family on pages 18 and 19, and then answer the following questions. Remember that when fears are left to govern your behavior, you will find yourself limited in your range of responses. An integrating stepfamily cannot afford to be controlled by fear.
1. Which fears of the biological and/or stepparent can you relate to and why?
2. What are you doing to prevent these fears from becoming a reality?
3. Think through your previous losses and painful family experiences (either family of origin or first marriage). How do your current fears connect with those experiences? How have they sensitized you to avoiding more pain in current relationships?
4. If you weren't hamstrung by the past, how would you be different in the present?
5. Consider the fears mentioned by the children. Which might your children also feel?
FOR PRE-REMARITAL COUPLES
1. In what ways do you feel intimidated and frightened after reading this chapter?
2. What challenges are you beginning to see that you had not thought about before?
3. Think of a stepfamily couple that you can interview. Ask them the following questions. If possible, start attending a stepfamily support group to help you make a more informed decision about remarriage.
- What do you wish you had known before you remarried?
- What are your three greatest challenges?
- How could you have better prepared yourselves for stepfamily living?
- What painful emotions from the past did you not resolve prior to remarriage?
- How long have you been traveling this journey?
- What blessings have you experienced and at what price?