Learning from Laura: A Realistic Approach to Stepfamilies

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being married and having babies. I know not all girls do, but let’s admit it – most of us women can remember playing with our dolls and pretending they were our own beloved offspring. Most of us played at being a loving wife and mother well before we ever stepped into the reality of those roles.

In my long-ago hopes for the future, my husband wasn’t a prince (I was more of a pioneer, cowboys-and-Indians kind of girl than a princess-and-dragons kind of girl), but he was kind, handsome, courageous and most importantly…all mine.

My childhood dreams didn’t include another woman with whom my husband had already had children, shared a home and bank accounts, a woman with whom he had forged dreams for a future together. But if you, like me, find yourself married to a man who has gone through a divorce, well…that’s exactly what you have.

You’ve heard it said that marriage is hard, and certainly anyone who has been married for more than 36 hours can see the truth in that statement. Two sinners under one roof trying to work together on everything…for decades? Without a lot of love, selflessness, grace and WORK, marriages fail. Even with those things they sometimes fail. And if they do fall apart, you have deep, devastating loss. The loss of those dreams you forged together, and the life you were building on the foundation of those dreams. Broken. Lost.

When those who have experienced the devastating failure of a previous marriage decide to try again, a stepfamily is born. If you think marriage is hard, subsequent marriages – particularly with children involved – multiply the difficulties. The key reason it’s so complicated, according to Laura Petherbridge, is because your stepfamily was born out of a great loss. The loss of your first marriage and/or the loss of your spouse’s created the “opportunity” for your marriage. For at least one of you, there was a dream for a life together with someone else. Because this fact makes us so uncomfortable to acknowledge, it is very often ignored or minimized as best it can be. It’s in this refusal to embrace reality that real problems can occur.

Laura Petherbridge is a nationally-recognized author, teacher, and speaker. She has appeared on television and radio and is one of the experts whose insight is used near-weekly in the videos for the DivorceCare class that my husband and I facilitate.

This past weekend, I traveled with two other women from The Crossing to Springfield, Mo., for a conference on stepfamilies where Petherbridge was the keynote speaker.

I’ve been impressed with the depth of both her knowledge and her faith, based on what I’ve seen and read, so I was very excited to have the opportunity to hear her speak over the weekend. Warren and I have been married for nearly six years, and yet I still feel very much like we’re feeling our way around in the dark when it comes to the issues of raising kids in blended families.

Laura spoke at length Friday night on why stepfamilies are so complicated and why so many second marriages fail. She outlined many realities, all based on the key reason I mentioned earlier – that stepfamilies are formed subsequent to great loss. One of those realities, for instance, is that many people don’t adequately deal with the pain and grief associated with the loss of the first marriage before plunging into a second…and they drag that baggage and all the attendant trust issues into the new relationship. (I think I’ll write next time in more depth about what Laura had to say about the complexity of stepfamilies.)

But what I can’t get over as I think through the whole experience was the shocking (to me, at least) number of people who attended the conference. I drove down with two women; I had no idea as I drove across Missouri that I was bringing with me 33% of the women who would avail themselves of this opportunity.

Friday night’s session was open to both husbands and wives as Laura talked about the issues within stepfamilies, while the Saturday session was designed just for stepmothers. There were less than 20 people who attended Friday night; Saturday morning, nine of us who showed up, not including our speaker. At that point, Laura decided that rather than speak from the podium, we’d have a less-formal, round-table discussion.

When asked if our cozy little group was an anomaly, Laura indicated that low attendance is not uncommon, though she also regularly speaks to much larger gatherings. In her experience, she has found that many people don’t seek real help in their marriages until they are on the brink of divorce, in much the same way that people don’t seek real help with their finances until they are nearing bankruptcy.

Another reason why issues within stepfamilies can be so difficult, according to Petherbridge, is that Christian couples often think that because they have a deep commitment to Christ, they are somehow immune from the travails that assault the average stepfamly. The issues are the same, I can assure you, no matter your faith. How you respond to those issues, though, should be vastly different.

As Christians, I believe we are called to accept that our intelligence is far more limited than we might care to admit, and unavoidably skewed by our sinful hearts. We are cautioned in Scripture not to trust in ourselves entirely; Proverbs 12:15 says that the way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.

Six years ago, my husband and I could easily have been labeled as fools, naive at that, when we remarried. Blissfully unaware of how incredibly difficult life together would be, we posed for wedding pictures that are some of the last to capture that wide-eyed innocence. Photos taken just six months later give evidence to something slightly different behind our eyes as the sheer depth of the difficult path ahead began to dawn on us. Fortunately, we can laugh now about how ignorant we were as we said, “I do,” but trust me when I say that there have been many times when we didn’t find it funny at all.

Thankfully, by the grace of God, we sought wisdom for our various difficulties not “in the world” but in our pastors, other Christian friends and the Word of God. Granted, we didn’t always take to biblical advice immediately, thereby proving ourselves to be the fools described in Proverbs 1:7. In the last few years we have learned, through brutal trial and error, that the wisdom of Proverbs 15:22 is a reality: Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed. Proverbs 19:20 further exhorts us to listen to advice and accept instruction, that we may gain wisdom in the future. Without even looking that hard, it seems clear to me that God’s Word exhorts us to embrace each other, the Body of Christ, as one source of wisdom when we face challenges.

Having been so richly blessed by receiving much in the way of biblical instruction from my new friend Laura, the nagging question left over from April 9 and 10 is this: “If there are so many stepfamilies in our community – and there are – why are so few of us actively pursuing the wisdom and experience of others as we wade through the many, many issues unique to our family situation? Is it really true that most of us will wait until we are right on the verge of bankruptcy – or another divorce – before we will raise our hands and ask for help?”

Here’s a short list of resources for stepfamilies I’ve found helpful:

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