Learning from Laura, Once Again

In my last post a couple weeks ago, I wrote about a conference I attended in Springfield, Mo., that dealt with the issues surrounding stepfamilies. Laura Petherbridge was the speaker, and spoke both Friday evening and again on Saturday. (You can find my previous post here.)

Listening to Laura speak from decades of experience was of such great value to me that I want to share a little more of what I learned from that conference.

Friday evening’s session was entitled “Thriving in a Stepfamily.” Laura’s ministry to divorced people and stepfamilies was born out of her own experience, having been divorced and then remarrying a man with two children when she had none, and thereby becoming instantly not just a mother, but a stepmother. Like me, Laura confessed to learning many things the hard way – through her own errors. She can well relate to those women she meets in her ministry who say, over and over again, that subsequent marriages and dealing with stepchildren is much more difficult than these women ever imagined it would be.

Remember that I mentioned in my post a few weeks ago that all stepfamilies are formed due to a loss. The failure of your first marriage, and/or that of your spouse’s, created the opportunity for this new marriage.

Over the course of Friday evening’s session, Laura then gave 10 more reasons why stepfamilies have such a hard time thriving, all of them related to a failure to understand that first reason – that even on Day 1 of your marriage, you didn’t really start out with a clean slate.

  • Many people don’t adequately deal with the grief or difficulties associated with a first marriage. Therefore, they bring baggage into the second and falsely assume, “I learned from my mistakes.”

  • Children are fiercely loyal to a biological parent, even if that parent is unkind, abusive, detached, or emotionally unstable.

  • Despite what society says, divorce has a devastating effect on children, and they long for their parents to reconcile (even if they say the opposite). In their eyes, a stepparent is the enemy who destroys the dream of being a “whole family.”

  • During a divorce the children are often the brunt of fighting, court battles, money squabbles or visitation manipulation. This damages their security, ability to trust, and self-worth.

  • Hurt people hurt other people. Anger, manipulation, resentment and belligerence are often rooted in fear. These are the common responses to the trauma of kids who have lost their biological family.

  • Second marriage couples often do not prepare for the complexities and length of time it takes to gel a stepfamily.

  • Step-couples often naively believe that if they are happy, the kids will be happy.

  • While dating and during engagement, the couple often ignores or minimizes the issues, conflicts and “red flags” that reveal potential problems.

  • Second marriage couples often ignore experts that explain why children (even adult children) view a second marriage as a loss of their parent, not a gain of a stepparent. They tell themselves, “That doesn’t apply to us.”

  • Christian couples often think that because they have a deep commitment to Christ, their family won’t encounter the same issues as non-Christians.

As I reviewed this list of reasons why stepfamilies struggle so much, the “big picture” that I see in these bullet points is that people considering remarriage don’t think critically or actively look for the things that will cause problems.

Think about it; you’ve been through the deep, deep pain of divorce. After some time, you meet someone who makes you happy, and it’s a bit like putting salve on a wound – those painful memories begin to fade in light of this new relationship and how it makes you feel. You date, then things get more serious, and you begin to talk about marriage. It’s all so rosy and positive and romantic. Who wants to throw cold water on that by talking about the baggage you’re about to bring into this new and wonderful relationship? After all, everyone wants a fresh start after a dismal failure, don’t we? I know I did.

Warren and I are certainly guilty, at least to some extent, of entering into a second marriage without sitting down and having a very unromantic conversation. We spent very little time looking critically at how our lives with our first spouses, the mistakes we’d made with our children and our post-divorce dating life could impact our marriage. Sure, I thought it would be hard at first, but I was also naively confident that we’d work through the difficulties quickly and easily simply because we loved each other so much and everyone got along so well.

I’m embarrassed to say this, but at the time, I really thought the biggest obstacle to combining our lives would be how to get seven people to temporarily live in harmony in a three-bedroom slab home while we waited for my house in Kansas City to sell.

Today, as I look at this list above and consider all the lessons I’ve learned the hard way the past six years, I can say that had we spent more time at the beginning seeking the advice of experts and proactively discussing how best to blend our two families, we could have strengthened our new marriage and simultaneously avoided some of the more basic mistakes we made.

I’ll take just two bullets from the list above to make my point: Children are fiercely loyal to a biological parent, and second marriage couples often do not prepare for the complexities and length of time it takes to gel a stepfamily.

From my perspective, I quickly developed an affection for Warren’s two daughters from the very beginning. I found them to be a delight. A little indulged, maybe, by a father who adored them; they love to tell the story about the time they quite literally had cake for dinner at Daddy’s, but funny, bright, and loving. It was pretty easy for me to love on them, buy them little things I knew they’d like or bake them brownies.

I’ll never forget the first time one of my stepdaughters said to me, in a moment when I was correcting some less-than-adorable behavior, “You’re not my mommy!” Not only did it sting, but also I recall having a surprised heart response that went something like this: “Well, of course I’m not your mommy, but we have a relationship here, and I’m an authority in this house. I love on you, and in return you accept discipline from me. That’s how it works!”

That’s not how it works, actually. Not with a new stepparent.

While biological parents have complete latitude to discipline their children and to have the kids accept it from them as a natural part of that relationship, stepparents have to earn that right over a much longer period of time than you might imagine. As a stepparent, I had “outsider status” for much longer than I ever thought I would. I had some understanding that I would have to earn the trust and love of the girls in ways I didn’t have to with my own children. But I didn’t realize how hard that could be, and how many other factors could complicate, lengthen or even damage that process. One factor that Laura mentioned, for instance, is that an ex-spouse’s feelings toward a new stepparent can significantly impair a child’s ability to bond with that newcomer.

Relationships within stepfamilies take years and years to firmly develop, according to The Smart Stepmom authors Petherbridge and Ron Deal. If I had had that one piece of information six years ago, I think it would have changed my perspective about any number of interactions between my stepdaughters and me.

One of the experts in the DivorceCare curriculum says that if you don’t go into a subsequent marriage with the heart of a humble servant, you’re likely to fail. This is true for all marriages, but emphasized in subsequent marriages because of the increased complexity that stepfamilies must contend with.

Christ was the ultimate humble servant (John 13:15-17), submitting himself even to death for the sake of his bride, the church (Philippians 2:5-8). If we are to glorify Him with our lives and in our subsequent marriages, we must bring humility, selflessness and patience into our relationships with our spouses, ex-spouses, children and stepchildren. My personal track record with this is spotty at best, but take it from me – someone who learned the truth of Laura’s ten bullet-points the hard way – following Christ’s example of servitude is the only way to maintain the integrity of your marriage under the most daunting of circumstances.

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