Ron Deal didn’t invent the field of family counseling, nor did he pioneer the concept of the blended family. But in addressing the gaps that often exist within the family counseling community for blended households, he’s become a leading authority on the subject of bringing two tribes together and all that comes after.


“There are few of us who are focused on the subject matter in the secular world, where the average marriage therapist has very little training in stepfamily dynamics,” he said. “Within pastoral church settings, what I do is extremely rare. I tell people I think less than one percent of churches will do anything in a given calendar year that is specifically targeting blended family couples, even though a good estimate says at least a third to 40 percent of weddings taking place in a given year form blended families.


“Whether you’re talking pastorally in a church, or whether you’re just talking about marriage and family educators in a secular context, this is a big population of people and very, very few of us have positioned ourselves in a way that makes us really relevant and helpful.”


Deal, who’s been in marriage and family ministry for nearly 35 years, has devoted three decades to the challenges facing blended families. He’s written more than a dozen books on the subject and hosts a podcast, “FamilyLife Blended,” in addition to a full slate of speaking engagements. This month, he will deliver his expertise via a free two-hour workshop, Becoming Stepfamily Smart, at New Life Church in North Little Rock.


“I wouldn’t describe it as therapy; it’s psychoeducational from a Christian standpoint,” he said of the event. “We’re going to talk about some of the unique challenges that stepfamilies have, and then we’re going to talk about a couple of really important solutions related to guarding and protecting your marriage within the midst of the blended family journey, and also how to parent and stepparent together. We’ll talk about what kids need from their parents in a blended family and how adults can be sensitive to some of those issues.”


Any way you look at it, blended families are a major component of society today. According to Pew Research Center, 16 percent of U.S. children live in blended families, and that number has remained stable since the 1990s. About four in 10 families feature at least one partner having a child from a previous relationship. Such families largely color-blind, with roughly the same number of Black, white and Hispanic children living in blended households.


But while the blended family isn’t a societal novelty, or even a new phenomenon, such households still experience steep challenges in perspective and interpretation of roles. Where a first-marriage couple with no children only have to focus on getting two people on the same page, a blended relationship is refracted through more points of view. Deal refers to the process of getting these perspectives aligned as “getting smart,” a recurring theme throughout his ministry.


“What’s unique about blended family couples is, they have all the regular challenges of intimate relationships that marriage has, but then you add to it a completely different structure around them that, if they don’t manage it well, works against them,” he said. “If you’re trying to build a house with a certain set of blueprints but it turns out the house you’re building requires a different set of blueprints, you’re not wise in how you’re going about building the house.


“We give people the ‘stepfamily blueprints to stepfamily homes’, and that’s what we call getting smart. It’s amazing what a difference that makes for couples.”


The process not only helps couples relate to each another, but to the equally tricky process of relating to the children brought into the marriage from previous relationships.


“In a first marriage where a husband and wife are raising their kids, couples disagree about parenting pretty often,” he said. “But what is not attached to it are the parent and stepparent dynamics, where the stepparent feels like the bio parent is favoring their child, or the stepparent feels like they have no voice in this parenting dilemma because they feel like an outsider and can’t quite join the team. That all lends a whole other layer of complexity that can add pain and unravel the couple’s relationship.”


Deal said approaching the blended home as the unique organism it is, rather than trying to retrofit past relationship strategies to fit, helps couples set realistic expectations and a workable roadmap for the new social unit they’ve formed.


“‘Getting smart’ is really, really helpful. People stop working at cross-purposes, inadvertently making things worse rather than helping things move forward,” he said. “They stop trying to demand love from kids when kids are already wandering through this minefield of loyalty and loss and trying to recover what has been pushed aside, wanting to find their own significance as they move between two different households with all these new adults and new stepsiblings in their life.


“When the adults know how to approach the child within that, and do so respectfully and lovingly, things just start moving in the right direction.”


Deal said he took a specific interest in blended families after seeing how many households were yearning for guidance, and how few resources existed to meet the need in the community. He said the problem was especially dire in faith communities.


“I think, in general, the stigma for married couples getting help is diminishing,” he said. “I think it’s easier for people to reach out and get help than ever before. A lot of people can do that online these days, and that sort of preserves your anonymity.


“However, within a local Christian fellowship, I think there is a high stigma on being divorced and now remarried, in part because there are some theological matters for people to work out within a local Christian community. For that reason, I think the stigma remains pretty high.”


To reverse this trend, and to cover as much ground as possible, Deal branched into various forms of media, from books to podcasts to videos to live events, providing help to those who seek help discreetly for fear of rejection from family or fellow congregants. He said between these efforts, and those of notable colleagues in the field, there’s a way to access strategies for improving relationships to suit just about everybody.


“The biggest complaint that we used to get from people is there’s nothing out there for stepfamilies, which used to be true,” he said. “Then it was, there’s nothing out there for Christian stepfamilies, and that also used to be true, but it’s not true anymore. Our ministry has 12 books in the series by me, some of them co-authored with other people. We have multiple video curriculums available for people and a podcast that comes out 24 times a year. You do not have to search hard to find something for your eyes, your ears or your heart.”


If there’s one negative aspect of the growth and success of his Little Rock-based blended family ministry, it’s the opinion that many people hold of him as infallible in his own 37-year marriage. Deal said such is not only not true, it diminishes his effectiveness in helping others not to be seen as a human with failings and struggles just like everyone else. He’s therefore quick to dispel illusions of himself as anything approaching perfect in his relationship with his wife, Nan.


“People do celebritize leaders, whether that be within a local church or whether that be authors, and I am very, very quick to take myself off of any pedestal that people might put me on,” he said. “I’m a regular person, and my wife and I have regular issues. We’ve had strife in our relationship, and we’ve needed counsel many times.


“Church leaders are just regular people. People who write books are regular people. Our message is, my wife and I are growing into this space just like the rest of you, so let’s grow together.”


Interested in Attending?

Becoming Stepfamily Smart

Thursday, April 27

New Life Church, North Little Rock

For registration information for this FREE event, click here.



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