In this episode we hear from a renowned expert in the field, a prolific author, and a trusted guide for countless families navigating the intricate path of blending. Ron Deal is the mind behind numerous invaluable resources, including his latest book, “Preparing to Blend.”
During our chat we’ll touch upon the common challenges that blended families face when preparing to blend, and the guidance he offers in his book to help you overcome these hurdles. We cover setting realistic expectations and finding your role within a blended family, through to co-parenting and building positive relationships with ex-spouses.
We also explore the delicate process of helping children and stepchildren adjust to the changes and challenges they encounter during the blending process.
Ron Deal (00:01): If her fear, her sense of threat, and I’m going to use that word very intentionally, if she perceives threat from this stepmom, Hey, you’re trying to move into my territory, then mom has an agenda and that is to make life really tough for you as a stepmother.
Laura Jenkins (00:18): In The Blend is a podcast series that helps parents navigate life within a blended family. Join me as I speak with experts and guests to get practical advice on how to have a harmonious blended family life. This series dives deep into the unique dynamics, logistics and challenges of raising a blended family. From new partners to juggling mixed finances, we will help guide you through it. Welcome back to In The Blend. I’m your host, Laura Jenkins, and here we are kicking off season five. Can you believe it? Our guest today is a renowned expert in the field, a prolific author and a trusted guide for countless families navigating the intricate path of blending. Ron Deal is the mind behind numerous invaluable resources, including his latest book, preparing to Blend. During our chat, we’ll touch upon the common challenges that blended families face when preparing to blend and the guidance he offers in his book. To help you overcome these hurdles, we cover setting realistic expectations and finding your role within a blended family through to co-parenting and building positive relationships with ex-spouses. We also explore the delicate process of helping children and stepchildren adjust to the changes and challenges they encounter during the blending process. So whether you’re in a blended family or considering taking that important step, get ready to gain a wealth of insights and practical advice. Well, good afternoon Ron.
Ron Deal (01:59): Thank you for having me, Laura. It’s great to be with you.
Laura Jenkins (02:01): Delighted to be speaking with you. So Ron, you’re a bestselling author, you are also a licensed marriage and family therapist. You were just saying you’re a podcaster yourself, and I know you’re also a popular conference speaker, so you are clearly very experienced in this space. Can you start off by sharing a little bit about your personal journey and the experiences that have led you to specialize in working with blended families?
Ron Deal (02:31): Yeah, I’d be happy to. So it’s odd every once in a while you get into something in life, not out of your own need, but out of the needs you see in others. And that’s my journey. I’ve spent 37 years in marriage and family education and ministry context, trying to help families, trying to help young people. Got my start as a student youth pastor trying to help teenagers figure out how to navigate life and I learned really quickly that I didn’t know enough about their family journeys. And so I went back to graduate
school, got a degree in marriage and family therapy, and I really fell in love with working with single parent families and step families. What I didn’t know is that not much had been done in terms of converting that useful clinical material into something that was educational and preventative so we could help families have a good start and have a good go without having to run into some problems and difficulties on the way.
(03:29): So trying to minimize blended family challenges is really what I’ve been working hard at for now, 30 years. So we have a whole bank of books and eight video curriculum that are available. Much of that is online, a couple of online courses. My podcast is called The Fame of Life blended podcast Consultant and teach and write with organizations all over the US and have been to New Zealand before and planning to come back to New Zealand in September of 24 in order to try to help an organization there do a better job of reaching blended families there in New Zealand. So I really love what I do and so it’s a pleasure and an honor to be with you today.
Laura Jenkins (04:10): Fantastic, fantastic. So you said you’ve written many books related to blended families. I’m keen today to talk about your latest book, preparing to Blend. What inspired you to write this one in particular?
Ron Deal (04:28): It’s actually book number nine in our nine book series and all the other books are written for already married, blended family couples. So for example, the Smart Stepfamily is sort of my signature book that covers so much of Stepfamily Living. We wrote a book for the marriage, the smart stepfamily marriage. I’ve wrote, written a book for stepdads, the smart stepdad one, the smart stepmom for moms. We wrote a book on finances and navigating the blended family journey. It just made sense that what we needed to do was back up a step and try to help engaged couples get married. We already had a book called Dating and the Single Parent, and that really took people through the process of dating well, making decisions about getting engaged. But once they got engaged, we sort of left them hanging there. And so we said, let’s write a book called Preparing to Blend.
(05:20): Now here’s the important thing about this book and what makes it so different from all of the other premarital materials that are out there. We’re not just focused on the couples relationship, what you might call couple, but in this book we’ve got to help couples manage family’s journey to becoming a family and having a strong family identity where kids and adults both feel like they belong in this home where it’s a safe emotionally place for them. That’s the kind of stuff we’re all wanting. I mean, that’s why couples get married is because you have this hope and this dream of creating a home where again, there’s and stability and faithfulness and it turns out that you can have a strong couple relationship, that’s why you get married, but doesn’t necessarily mean you have a strong family sense of relationship. And so this book does both. It’s trying to help strengthen the couple’s relationship even as they’re moving towards a wedding, while sharing principles that you share with your kids and activities you actually do with your children to help you begin to turn a corner and start becoming a family.
Laura Jenkins (06:25): Got it. So in your experience then, Ron, what are some of the most common challenges that blended families are facing when they are preparing to blend and how does your book address them?
Ron Deal (06:41): Yeah, so let me just keep running with what I just said because this issue of couples versus familys is really, really important. Laura, lemme just lay it out for you. Okay, 30 years plus reading all the academic research and being tied in with the academic community about stepfamily living and what’s healthy, what adds a benefit to children and adults, and also having a good understanding of why families come apart. Let me just sum all that up in one sentence if I could. Couples get married because they’ve fallen in love with a person, but they divorce because they don’t know how to be a family. Now that’s it in a nutshell. And when your hopes and expectations about marriage and a marriage that will form a blended family is all wrapped up in your couples. That is, man, I met this great guy, girl, whatever the case is, and they’re fantastic and we love each other.
(07:34): We have a similar outlook on life. Our values are the same. We really have spent time together. We really have this friendship and companionship and we just want to seal this tell death to us part That’s great and an awesome first start and a very, very, very important piece of your stepfamily puzzle. But if you don’t know how to navigate parenting and step parenting co-parenting with former spouses, if you still have the grief issues as it relates to the past and children hanging on to their relationship with this person or that person, how that impacts bonding in the present. If you don’t know how to navigate familys, it can tear your couples apart and that’s the big surprise. And so we just say to people, look, this is the way it works and don’t go in naive. We want to help you be educated as to this process.
(08:26): And lemme tell you, Laura, here’s the flip side of that. When couples see it for what it is, when they understand this, when they come together around parenting, for example, which is always very important, otherwise it can divide and conquer your marriage. But when you come together around parenting and how are you going to navigate that? What’s the role of the stepparent? What’s your role not going to be? Then all of a sudden the conflict comes down, the issues between adults and kids comes down and the issues between the married couple become less, hey, bottom line, more happiness, more peace, more harmony, and you find your family identity sooner rather than later. Now let me just explain that because that’s another thing that we really try to help people understand. It takes a while to find your sense of familys for people to feel like, yes, this is my home, not just your marriage mom, but my home.
(09:18): That’s what you’re after, right? Well, on average that takes five to seven years for the average. Now, I did not just say five to seven months, I did not just say five to seven weeks. I did not say five to seven days, go on your honeymoon, come home and you’ll have a family. It doesn’t work that way, but the smarter you are, the more intelligent you are about the dynamics of your home and that you can navigate those well and as a team, husband and wife come together on parenting for example, that speeds up the merger, if you will, the blending the integration of family members. And again, you get to harmony sooner rather than later. So many couples just really honestly don’t get there. They just sort of either exist, coexist, or just call it quits, and we just want to help prevent all of that.
Laura Jenkins (10:09): I’m thinking about what you’ve just said, and so it’s really about just setting those realistic expectations with the individuals who are embarking on this blended journey as such and helping them to be better prepared for what’s ahead and potentially fast track that merger time through doing things the way that you recommend.
Ron Deal (10:37): Yes, that’s exactly it. You just nailed it. And again, there’s a lot of hope in that.
Laura Jenkins (10:41): So can you offer some guidance on navigating the complexities of co-parenting and then building positive relationships with ex-spouses, which is often a significant aspect of blended family life, and it can be a big pain point if you are preparing to blend, and there might be an ex who hasn’t been an ex for all that long as well. So can you talk a little bit about that?
Ron Deal (11:07): Yeah, so lemme just share three quick big thoughts here. There’s tons of little ones, but here’s three big ones. When you get married, let’s just make a scenario. I’m going to make this up a guy, he’s got a couple of kids, he meets a woman, she’s got a couple of kids, they’re planning to get married. They both have former spouses, former partners, the parents to the children. So the co-parenting relationship is going to continue. Well, after this new marriage is over, the first thing to realize is your marriage is going to create a pretty big ripple in the life of your co-parent. Another way to say it is, it’s maybe not an earthquake, but it’s definitely an aftershock. If you’re the biological dad who was married to a woman, you share two children, now you’re marrying a woman who’s going to become the stepmother to your two kids.
(11:58): This makes life challenging for the biological mom. She has to deal with the fact that her kids now have another woman in her home. And if her fear, her sense of threat, and I’m going to use that word very intentionally, if she perceives threat from this stepmom, Hey, you’re trying to move into my territory, then mom has an agenda. And that is to make life really tough for you as a stepmother. She wants her children to remain loyal to her. And so she’s tempted to say nasty things about you behind your back. You haven’t even gotten married to their father yet and moved into the house yet. But lo and behold, you’re already being sabotaged by the other household. It all comes down to threat. If you accept the fact that this is an adjustment for the other parents too, then you’re going to be sensitive to that.
(12:49): You might be compassionate. You might begin to say, what do they need to hear from me that will help this perceived level of threat come down? One of the best things a stepparent can do somewhere in the beginning, even before the wedding takes place perhaps, but if you haven’t done it and you’re listening right now and you’re like, wow, we’re two years in and I’ve never done, I think it’s time. Get it out there. Find a way to communicate what I call the no threat message. So imagine this new potential stepmother saying to the biological mother, well, I say saying she could communicate this in a text and an email, something that’s a little less personal, or perhaps she could do it face-to-face up to her, you decide how you want to deliver it. But here’s the heart of the message. Hey look, I want you to know, so this is stepmom talking to bio mom.
(13:33): I want you to know that you’re the mom to your kids, not me. And I know that, and I’m never, ever, ever step into your shoes and I can’t and I won’t. I wouldn’t even try because you are so important to your children. So I’ll speak well about you behind your back. If we send the kids to your house for the weekend and we forgot something, my goodness, let me know. I’ll try to make it as right as I could possibly do. If you have questions or comments or you just need to know, did Susie color her hair differently before, let me know. I will let you know all that stuff because I’m here to support you in your role as mom. Thank you for your time. Have a nice day. What’s the point? The point is, I’m not trying to erase or replace you.
(14:18): I honor you. I respect you. Now, lemme just say candidly, you might not even like this biological mother. You may not have any personal taste for her at all. That’s not the point. From her standpoint, she needs to know that you will be decent as it relates to her and her relationship with her children. And you’re not competing with her because if she thinks you’re competing, she’s going to compete back and everything’s going to get tough. But if you can put those perceived threat to rest now maybe, maybe, who knows? Maybe she’s even kind about you and towards you and when she speaks to her kids about you, maybe it just has a decency and a respect to it. Guess what? That helps everybody get along. It helps children not get caught in the battles between the two households, the two moms if you will.
(15:09): It just helps everybody settle down and it sets a tone for how you’re going to collaborate moving forward in this family. That’s really helpful. To ignore that is to just assume she’ll be fine. I’m going to do whatever I want to do. And you’ll just discover that more often than not, that works against you, not in your favor. So that’s just one good example. You’re respecting that this is an aftershock for this woman. You’re going to try to help her understand that you’re not the mom. And then here’s what the third thing is, what the biological dad in this scenario could do, what he can do is he’s going to maintain his business-like relationship with his former wife, the co-parent. He’s going to try to be honest and respectful in tone and in attitude as it relates to the co-parenting that they have to do on a regular basis.
(16:01): He might actually even acknowledge to his new wife, Hey, look, I realize this is hard for you because I have to talk to my ex-wife two or three times a week. And maybe we don’t talk that often, but every once in a while something comes up when we do, and I realize that’s a little weird. I just want you to know my heart is with you. I’m just doing business parenting with her. And so all the boundaries are solid and set and defined, and nobody’s having to guess what’s happening in that co-parent relationship that would be inappropriate. And when he walks that out with dignity and honesty, he helps his current wife feel more safe and comfortable in their relationship. And he responds to his former wife, his co-parent, again, in a way that’s respectful, that increases the likelihood, doesn’t guarantee that she’s going to be nice, but it increases the likelihood that they can have some good business-like conversations as it relates to raising their children.
Laura Jenkins (16:57): I think that’s so well said. And if only every stepparent could hear that advice and take that on at the start of any new relationship, I think that would just go such a long way.
Ron Deal (17:10): Laura, I’ve got a real current example in the world today that’ll just make the point about how important this is. There’s an old African proverb that says, when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. Okay? Now that doesn’t take a genius to figure out when their elephants are fighting, they’re not paying attention to the grass. Well, when co-parents are fighting, it’s their children who suffer. Now here’s the question. Do you want to be, I think this is a good example, the US and Australia. I mean, we love Australians. I mean, we have a great relationship with you guys. I think you guys do with us as well. I’ve been to Sydney, spent time in Australia. I love your country. I think you can travel back and forth between our two countries and feel safe and comfortable and have good conversation and meet people. And nobody is mad at you because you came from the other place.
(18:04): Imagine if your co-parent relationship is Hamas and Israel right now, or Russia and Ukraine, that’s a wicked co-parent relationship. Everybody’s scared all the time and nobody wants to travel back and forth with freedom. There’s no peace between those two countries. Everybody’s living in fear. If that’s your co-parent arrangement, you got to do something about that because it will not only affect your children, their emotional wellbeing, and it will affect their wellbeing in dramatic ways, but it’ll also affect your new marriage. It’ll also make it harder for the kids to like your new spouse because the indirectly stepmom sort of the reason why all this battle’s going on. It just makes everything harder for everybody. But if we can be the US and Australia, hey, that’s a good climate for everyone.
Laura Jenkins (18:56): Yeah, good analogy. Good analogy. Very relevant at the moment as well. So we’ve talked a little bit about ex-partners and co-parenting. We’ve talked a little bit about the stepparent perspective. I’d love to touch on the child’s perspective and would love to know what insights you can share about
helping children and stepchildren adjust to changes and challenges that they might be facing during the blending process.
Ron Deal (19:28): So let’s start again with the recognition that for most kids, and when I say children, by the way, I mean young ones 4, 5, 6. I mean teenagers and I also mean adult children. This is really important because here in the us, I don’t know if this is happened in Australia or not, but a lot of people are living longer and they’re having a 30 year marriage to their first spouse, and that spouse passes away. And at the ripe old age of 75, somebody wants to get married again and they think, oh, my 30 year old children, they’re going to be fine. They’ve got families and a career and a mortgage. They’re busy with other things. They’re not going to worry about me getting married. Oh, yes, they are. They have as much of a challenge to adjust to that as do 15 year olds. They really do.
(20:13): It just shows up in different ways, but they’re still trying to figure out what has happened to my family. So here’s the point. This is another earthquake for kids of all ages. It’s a good thing and it comes with a cost at the same time. So happy that dad got married to this new woman. She’s great. She’s kind. She takes me shopping, gosh, she spends money on me and she smiles and she cooks really great, but I’m actually kind of tied up in knots in my gut because I like her and I’m really worried how my mom’s going to feel about that. And I don’t want my mom to ever think I’ve just forgotten her, replaced her. So kids go through this loyalty conflict internally, and they’re trying to figure out how to navigate the space. And here’s the thing, you can make it harder for them to navigate this if you’re Hamas and Israel, it battles at the parental level create a lot of angst inside the heart of a child and make it harder for them.
(21:09): If a stepmom in our scenario walks in and says, Hey, I’m the new sheriff in town and you’re going to do it my way, whether you like it or not, you’ve just made it really hard for them A to like you, B to B have any affections for you at all, and C, you’ve just strengthened their loyalty to their biological mother who may not even be living, maybe deceased, and they still are going to be super loyal to that mom because you implied that you can force your way into their heart and no, you can’t. So when you come in soft as a stepparent, when you say sort of like the no threat message to the biological parent in the other home, you can also say to kids, Hey, look, I want you to know that I know I’m not your mom. You have a mom.
(21:56): She’s a great woman. I think highly of your mom, and I’m so glad you have a good relationship with her. I’m just honored to be another adult who happens to get to help you out in life, and that’s my goal, and I hope we like each other and I love to get along with you. You start with that, you show them you’re respectable, and then you walk that out over time and you start developing a relationship and you honor the kid’s pace. Here’s the other tip, honor their pace. PACE, you cannot force a relationship on somebody who’s not open to that relationship. Go ahead. Let’s just say if you have a new coworker and you meet them tomorrow and they walk up and say hello to you and you hop out of your chair and hug them and kiss them on the cheek, I don’t think that’s going to go very well.
(22:42): It’s not a nice way to introduce yourself to somebody you’ve never met before. We all sort of chuckle at that, and yet sometimes stepparents are so eager to get to familys that they will try to force themselves on a child and they’ll do things like, Hey, I know I’m not your mom, but you could call me mom. That’s like forcing yourself on. You’re saying, I am special to you. You just don’t know it yet. That is not the way you make friends. The way you make friends is you’re gentle and you’re slow and you pace with them. You say hello, they say hello back. You find something you have in common. You start a conversation, but no big bear hugs and kisses on the cheek yet you’ve got to figure out whether that’s appropriate or not. And only after you’ve gotten to a place in a relationship with somebody that makes sense, then you take that step.
(23:31): Same thing’s true about coming in as a stepparent pace with the child. Now, some people will push back and go, but Ron, I’ve got a 21 year old stepson who’s in college, and I don’t see him very much, and when do see him, he hardly even acknowledges that I’m in the room. He talks to his parent who’s there and all of his siblings, but he just sort of acts like, I’m not even there. I’m supposed to just pace with that, okay, here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to be, but the answer is yes, but you’re going to keep pursuing in very soft and subtle ways. You’re going to find something that young man likes and you’re going to start talking about us football. You’re going to start talking about fashion or whatever the things are that he enjoys, and you’re going to slowly just try to enter into that space, but can you make him like you?
(24:20): No, you can’t. That’s a two-way street. So you have to accept where they are at the level and meet them where they are then and only then will that grow into something else. So it can be a hard journey. Bottom line, this little scenario we’ve just talked about, that’s a hard journey for a stepparent. You’re eager it’s met with a closed door. That’s frustrating, which is why stepparents need a biological parent who’s married to them to say, I love you, and oh my goodness, you are getting the short end of the stick with my son, and I’m sorry, and I’m going to give you a big hug and I’m going to take you out to dinner every once in a while just to let you know. I see it. They just need to know somebody’s acknowledging this parent can’t fix it. It’s between the stepparent and the child. It’s their road to walk together. They’ll have to figure it out together. But the sympathy is really pretty helpful, and it is a little encouragement
Laura Jenkins (25:19): I love how you’ve mentioned that. I think that the couple relationship is so important, especially at the start when you’re just preparing to blend or starting to blend and the stepparent may be feeling that sense of defeat or it’s all too hard or I don’t belong, and if they’ve got the support of their other half, just to give them that encouragement, as you say, I think that really can go a long, long, long way.
Ron Deal (25:49): There’s so many things you’ve got to communicate about as a couple in order to navigate the space. One of the big enemies, Laura, of blended families is ambiguity, and on day one, you get married. He’s got two. She’s got two. We think we know how to parent together, but until we’re thrown into the trenches, we really don’t. We think we know how we’re going to spend our money and how we navigate that day in and day out and what we do with our investments and that 4 0 1 K that I picked up 20 years before you showed up in my life, you think you have a sense of how you’re going to do all that, but you got to keep talking, talking, talking and parenting is one of the biggest hot button topics for blended couples. You think you know how you’re going to pair it together, and then you realize, oh wow, you do it this way.
(26:31): I do it this way. We have very different ideas. Your kids are used to you doing it that way. My kids are used to me doing it. We now have a problem, and there’s space there. You got to talk through and negotiate, and you’ll make plenty of mistakes and you’ll learn from ’em, and you’ll get a little better at it over time, but you keep talking and keep communicating because communication is the way you resolve the ambiguity, the, I’m not sure how to do this question. When you get clarity to some of those questions, then you feel like you’re unified. Then you feel like there’s more safety in this team that you and I have put together, and then and only then will you feel more peace about how you’re moving forward in the family. Every once in a while I run into a couple who we don’t need to talk about. Good luck with that. If you’re not willing to sit down and talk and listen and learn and see it from their side and present your side, but also be willing to flex, you’re probably just going to have a whole lot of conflict that you just never can get past, and that’s no way to do family.
Laura Jenkins (27:34): Communication is such a vital component of any blended family, isn’t it? And in particular in that couple relationship at the core, you’ve got to get that right. Ron, I could keep firing the questions at you all day long here, really enjoying our chat. How can our listeners connect with you, Ron, or access more of your resources for blended families?
Ron Deal (28:02): Well, at a couple of different websites, probably the best single place to go to find everything I’ve got my hand in from live events to virtual events and training we do for leaders and podcasts, resources, books, video series, all of that you can email@example.com, smart stepfamilies.com. My podcast is called Family Life Blended and look it up. We’d love to have you join us. Well over a hundred episodes, lots of different topics to scroll through and listen to whatever applies to you.
Laura Jenkins (28:32): Fantastic. Well, thank you so much, Ron. I so appreciate you taking the time to chat today.
Ron Deal (28:38): You’re very welcome. It’s an honor to be with you, Laura. Thank you.
Laura Jenkins (28:41): Thank you so much. Thanks for listening to In The Blend podcast. The show notes for this episode are available @intheblend.com au, and if you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe and please rate and review in your podcasting app. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.