FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Letting Go of Control in Your Stepfamily: Ron Deal & Gayla Grace

with Gayla Grace, Ron Deal | April 3, 2024
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Instead of stressing out and working overtime, are there easier ways to handle things? Here is some helpful stepfamily advice from Ron Deal and author Gayla Grace about stepfamily dynamics. Maybe peace is closer than you think.

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Instead of stressing out and working overtime, are there easier ways to handle things? Get tips from Ron Deal & Gayla Grace to ease stepfamily life–and find easier ways for peace.

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Letting Go of Control in Your Stepfamily: Ron Deal & Gayla Grace

With Gayla Grace, Ron Deal
April 03, 2024
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Gayla: We didn’t understand the value of making sure that we parented our biological kids and not step over into trying to be a disciplinarian of our stepkids until relationships were in place, and that can really hinder relationship-building.

Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at

Dave: This is FamilyLife Today!

Dave: Is Ron with us today?

Ann: Yes. I’m excited. We’re going to hear from Ron.

Dave: Actually, we’re going to listen to a podcast that he does, and he’ll be with us at the end of it.

Ann: What we’re hearing today is a portion of the conversation that he had with Gayla Grace, and it’s FamilyLife Blendedpodcast number 102, “Working Smarter, Not Harder.”

Dave: That’s what I want to do.

Ann: We all need that. Gayla is a stepfamily author. She’s a speaker who works with Ron and the FamilyLife Blended team. She also hosts a monthly livestream for women—this is kind of cool—in blended families, that Ron just raves about. I need to listen to that. That sounds pretty great.

Dave: Yes, and just in case you’re thinking, “Well, I’m not in a blended family. I don’t need to listen,” yes you do. Listen on behalf of a friend, a family member. You might even tell your pastor about this podcast, and also coming up, our annual Blended & Blessed® livestream conference—

Ann: —yay!

Dave: —that churches can host for couples in their community.

The next one is April 27th. You can go to We’ll also put a link in our show notes, and you can learn how you can attend this conference. You don’t have to be there in person; you can attend it anywhere in the world.

Ann: So, let’s jump into the conversation.

[Recorded Message]

Ron: Getting smarter, not necessarily working harder—working smarter instead of working harder—what’s wrapped up in that for you? Not just about stepfamilies, but just in general? What’s the difference between working smarter and working harder?

Gayla: Well, for me, working harder is just having to put in so many hours and really investing in a way that, at the end of it, you’re exhausted, and you can’t keep going. Whereas smarter means that you make progress maybe with less effort, maybe in less time, and you can begin to see how your efforts have paid off; easier, quicker.

Ron: Yes, I think intentionality.

Gayla: Yes.

Ron: And that’s the heart of what FamilyLife Blended is about.

Gayla: Yes.

Ron: We’re helping people be intentional about the relationships that matter most.

Gayla: Right.

Ron: And we’re trying to give them some ideas and some direction—some informed, wise direction—about how to work smarter at their family, so that they make more progress. Gayla, I find it fascinating through the years—I think some people will spend more time buying a smartphone than thinking about their marriage or their parenting strategies.

Gayla: Yes, yes.

Ron: Do you think that’s true, or is that—

Gayla: No, I think it is true. I think that it’s too easy to feel like, “Oh, things are just going to fall in place. I love the Lord; I love my family; and we just don’t have to work at this that hard.” But for blended families, that is not true!

Ron: Yes. I just think all relationships, everything, require something. It’s funny. We’ll go to school, spend years investing in a career, and rarely, rarely, rarely will we spend time to read a book or listen to a podcast or go to a seminar or something that will invest in one of the most important things in our lives, and that’s our core family relationships.

Gayla: Yes.

Ron: So, essentially what we want to do—and I start the book talking about just how important that is for stepfamilies. It can’t just be any sort of education; it has to be stepfamily-specific education.

Gayla: Exactly; right.

Ron: Because that’s what’s really going to cue you in on your family and your journey, and that’s what we want to try to do.

Gayla: And there’s a difference. There’s a huge difference in navigating a stepfamily as opposed to navigating a biological family.

Ron: Yes.

Gayla: So, that’s what we’re always aware of: how to explain those differences.

Ron: So, let’s be clear to the listener: We’re not suggesting that working smarter eliminates all the problems or struggles—

Gayla: —right, right.

Ron: —or just automatically makes everybody love each other and everything is going to be fine. There’s still a journey to be had, but you’re going to be more strategic—again, more intentional—about how you bring your family together and how you move through time.

Gayla: The reality is there are some things that we can do that sabotage relationships in stepfamilies. We may not even realize the danger of doing this, and I’ll just give an example, Ron, to begin to talk about (in our early blended life).

Ron: Yes, I’d love it.

Gayla: You know, we’ve been blended 27 years now, so, I think back years ago In our early blended family life, where Randy and I each brought two kids to the marriage, we didn’t understand the value of making sure that we parented our biological kids and not step over into trying to be a disciplinarian of our stepkids until relationships were in place, and that can really hinder relationship-building.

If a stepparent goes too far in the beginning of trying to discipline their stepchild, and the relationship is not in place, it’s going to slow down the relationship.

Ron: Okay, so let’s take that a step further. Working harder is what most of us do. I’ve certainly been guilty of that in my life in certain aspects, when I’m convinced this is the best way, the right way! It should go well, but it’s not, so, therefore, I just need to press a little more, work harder at the same strategy. It’s a little bit like that old saying: “What’s the definition of insanity?” Everybody knows it. It’s working in the same way and expecting a different result.

Gayla: Right, right.

Ron: By the way, working in the same way—that’s on us. That’s the part where you’re working harder, just sure you’re finally going to get it to work the way you think it should. So, in this case, a stepparent who says, “Yes, but your kid really needs correcting.” [Laughter]

Gayla: Right.

Ron: “I’m really going to help your child. I’m going to help them. They’re going to thank me one day! I’m going to get this kid to get up and get out of bed on time and be responsible.” So, there’s the agenda, and you work hard, hard, and harder at that, not realizing that the same strategy is just the same wall you keep hitting your head against.

Gayla: Right! And then, what else happens as the stepparent steps in and becomes a stricter parent, the biological parent steps back, because they’re reacting. They start worrying about how the stepparent’s parenting is affecting their child, so then, they start thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to become more lenient, because you’re so strict!” And that’s a recipe for disaster.

Ron: Yes. Now they’re both reacting off of one another rather than being proactive as parents together, pushing each other in the wrong direction.

Gayla: Right.

Ron: And that’s all flowing out of, “But if I just do it again, it will finally come about.” No, that’s working harder. Working smarter says you pull back and think, “Hmm. I need to look at me, I need to look at the playing field and what’s going on. Maybe there’s a different set of rules here,” which we often find in blended families. There’s a different dynamic to the same types of relationships.

“Well, this is parent-child. It should be the same. I should be able to correct my stepchild the way I correct my biological children.” Well, there are some other factors in play, so let’s approach this from a different standpoint, not the same. And so, all of a sudden, now there are new options that are available to that parent and that stepparent. A stepparent can be the one who focuses on, as you said, relationship building, letting the biological parent take the lead.

This is just one example—this parent/stepparent thing—just one example of a thousand or more that are unique dynamics, that are distinctives; that if you don’t get smart about them, they can really cause some difficulty.

Gayla: They can, and they can slow down relationship building, which is not what we want.

Ron: In the book, I tell a story about a woman. I will never forget sitting and talking with this woman and her husband, her just sitting back, her eyes go bright, wide; and she has this realization, this “Aha.” She turns to her husband, and she makes a statement. Let me set it up: he had three teenaged girls, and she had married in as a never-been-married-before, no children of her own.

She has this “Aha.” She looks at her husband and says, “I have it. I live in a stepfamily, but you don’t.” The reality is: yes, they both technically live in a stepfamily; but to her husband, these are just his daughters, nothing has changed, “I have a relationship with them, and then I have a relationship with my wife. There’s no stepfamily here.” To him, it’s as if.

Gayla: Right.

Ron: But to stepmom, it’s, “I’m an outsider. The girls don’t know what to do with me. Some of them are nice to me sometimes, and sometimes, they are mean to me.” She has this constant experience of feeling like she doesn’t fit.

Gayla: Yes.

Ron: So, for her to say, “Oh, that’s it. I have a totally different experience of this family than you do,” was a moment where we could say, “Yes! And now, how do we work with that?” Rather than, “Husband, you have to be just like her.”

No, he can’t be just like the stepparent.

Gayla: No.

Ron: He’s the biological dad. It’s not going to be the same. And “Stepmom, given that reality, how does this change how you think about your role within the family? Let’s start working smarter instead of harder.” It’s just one “aha” after another [that], often, are great turning points. Don’t you find that when you’re talking or coaching with couples, you get that one thing that just turns the key.

Gayla: Right.


Ann: You’re listening to FamilyLife Today, and we’re listening to a portion of the FamilyLife Blended podcast with Ron Deal and Gayla Grace. You know what I love about Ron and his ministry? It’s the practicality. Honestly, just, “How do we do this? What does it look like?”

Dave: I thought you were going to say, “You are just like the husband he described in that stepfamily,” [laughter] because I seem to live in another plane, and all this stuff is going on, and I’m like, “Oh, we’re all good, right?” And you say, “No! Look at what’s happening in our kitchen, in our family room, in our life.” I think that story is so true. I don’t often have a connection to what’s really going on [Laughter], which is why listening to this podcast is so important.

I’ll tell you this, it’s also why Blended & Blessed coming up April 27th is something you should sign up for, because if you’re anything like me, or married to somebody like me, this opens your eyes. You can sign up at I hope you do. Even if you’re not in a blended family, I hope you do for somebody that you know that this would be helpful to.

Ann: Oh, that’s good. Okay, let’s hear more from Ron and Gayla’s conversation.

[Recorded Message]

Gayla: I think sometimes, especially, biological parents have this tension between their kids and their spouse, and so, they feel like it has to be one or the other. “Well, I’m going to lean heavily on the side of my kids. What you may not know is I’m kind of feeling sorry for them because they’ve walked through the death of a parent or a divorce.” So, they compromise some of the relationship with their spouse because of, “I just feel guilty about what my kids have been through.”

So, they feel like they have to lean on one side or the other, and it’s not one or the other. It’s both! You have to still nurture the marriage, because that’s the foundation, and without the marriage then it’s going to all crumble.

Ron: Right.

Gayla: And yet, yes, your kids have been through some horrific things, probably. And how do you balance that, really helping them understand and grow, but still holding them accountable in everyday life? The other thing I might add is, especially if you’re dealing with teenagers: you cannot force teenagers to do anything.

Ron: To do anything. [Laughter] Amen right there!

Gayla: So, especially if you are a stepparent trying to force that teenager to be your best friend, it’s just not going to happen.

Ron: Yes.

Gayla: Sometimes, you just have to sit back and accept, “This is where we’re at today. This is where our relationship is today, and I’m going to be content with that. I’m going to continue to do my part to grow this relationship, but I’m not going to beat my head up against a brick wall, and I’m not going to take everything personally that this stepchild does.”

Sometimes, it has nothing to do with us, and it has everything to do with them.

Ron: What makes people work harder, to take that approach? I have a couple of thoughts. One of them is difficulty from the past, pain, heartache. If you’ve already been through hard, you don’t want more hard. Of course, you don’t.

So, you’re just trying to make it work. In particular, if you went through a divorce, some people use the word “failure” when they’re talking about that previous marriage. That’s a word that different people agree with or don’t agree with. But even if you think of it that way, you don’t want another “failure,” so, you work hard to make people love.

Gayla: But you know what I also think about is, do we turn our trust away from God and trust only in ourselves? “We are going to work so hard to make this happen! I might pray about it, but I really trust that God’s going to do it the way I want. So, then it all comes back on us. Well, then I’m just going to keep working harder and harder.” When sometimes, we’ve just got to turn it over and allow God to work, in His own timing, that’s going to be different than ours.

Ron: I want to encourage the listener: take what she just said. God’s not going to do it in the way that I want. And what you want is often driven by what you think you need, and that’s often driven by this desire to not experience more difficulty or pain, right?

Gayla: Right.

Ron: So, ask yourself about that? “What is going on with me? Why am I so insistent that these kids receive my correction as a stepparent? Why am I so insistent this kid loves me and loves me today rather than tomorrow? What’s going on there? What’s my need that’s within this push that I keep offering?”

Gayla: Right.

Ron: I don’t know what that is, but it’s important that you at least ask the question so you can discover what that is, and wonder out loud with yourself, or maybe even with your spouse, talk it out loud: “What do I do with this?”

Gayla: “Where is that coming from?”

Ron: “Where is that coming from?” And, “Is there a better way to accomplish this?” I’ve had people just sort of stare at me sometimes when they hear the whole, “How do you cook a stepfamily?” thing, because at the end of the day what that means is, I have to be patient. I can’t get this kid to love me sooner rather than later. I have to be patient and wait on later, and I don’t want to be patient.

Gayla: Right.

Ron: Okay, there’s a stubbornness there, there’s a little desperation built into that. “What’s that from? What’s going on there?” Know what that is, so that it doesn’t take you by surprise. We had somebody write into us recently, who reminded me of this very thing, Gayla. I was so appreciative that she took the time to write in.

She said, “You know, sometimes we talk about fear and pain as a leftover from a first divorce,” but she said, “Sometimes, it’s also a part of the first marriage. There was a reason that that came to an end, and there might have been some real abuse or neglect or trauma, and that stays with somebody.”

“It stays on their heart, and you don’t want more of that for your kids or for yourself, and so you find yourself working really hard to make everybody do what you want them to do.” It’s just not necessarily a helpful process.

Gayla: Yes.

Ron: I want to ask you about something that was in a section of the book. I’m just wondering how you feel about this: “Feeling lost in the wilderness is par for the course.” Do you think that’s generally true for a blended family, couples in particular? That once they get married, the journey begins and they sort of wake up and think, “I’m feeling a little lost in this journey.”

Gayla: Absolutely! And it’s a scary place to be, but I think it is so normal. Sometimes, step-couples don’t realize it’s normal, and so then, they think they’re doing something wrong. Yes, you’re in a role—we talk a lot about ambiguity in stepparent roles or even the biological parent at times. You’re just lost; and lost in the wilderness is just a scary place to be.

Ron: I want to just quickly jump in and say, “Hey, I think most of us are lost.” [Laughter] I think most of life we’re walking in: “Am I living God’s will? Am I doing what I should be doing?”

Gayla: Right.

Ron: “Is this where I need to be in my life, in my relationships, in my work, in my whatever?” That’s a normal thing. [For] any parent who’s raising any child—your own or somebody else’s—my goodness, you feel lost most of the time. It is a hard journey. And yet, we love our children, and we love certain moments about it, but then there are other [days] that we just feel lost.

So, this is not criticism to say the blended family journey is often filled with people who find themselves feeling lost, and that that’s par for the course. That’s not criticism; it’s, “Hey! It’s kind of a different journey and no one really gave you a map.

Gayla: Right.

Ron: In effect, that’s what we’re trying to do, is give people maps to help them navigate. But it’s okay if you feel lost. Just look for some answers.

Gayla: Yes, and if you get off the trail, find a way to get back on. You know, Ron, Randy and I were just at the Grand Canyon, and there are times that we got off the trail a little bit, and then we had to think, “Okay, wait a minute. We can’t stay off the trail, because there are bad things that happen!” So, we would find our way back on; and I think that’s what we are trying to do, is help stepfamilies find their way back onto the trail when they get off.

Ron: Yes.


Dave: We’ve been listening to a portion of the FamilyLife Blended podcast with Ron Deal and Gayla Grace. Guess what? Ron is now joining us in the studio. Welcome, Ron.

Ron: It’s always good to be with you guys. Thanks for having me.

Ann: Ron, thanks for this conversation. I have a question: did this theme of working smarter prompt the title of this book in your stepfamily series?

Ron: You know, the answer is, “Yes and no.” My original title for the book was terrible, and the publisher didn’t like it, but they sort of read this little portion, and they said, “Working smarter. Huh. That’s exactly what we want. That’s what you’re giving people. They’re learning how to be a smart stepfamily.” And the next thing you know, we say, “Wait a minute. I think that’s the title.”

But that is what we’re trying to do: help people have more intentionality. And by the way, with that last little bit we were talking about we all find ourselves in life not knowing what to do next. We’re wandering in some wilderness as a parent or as a couple or as a coworker, [or] in faith with God. I think we can all relate to that.

Ann: Yes, for sure.

Ron: So, we’re just trying to pick up another piece of intelligence; that, maybe, is the way to say it. Get a little smarter as we go. Sometimes, we learn from our mistakes; sometimes, we learn from other people’s mistakes. We get back on the path, trust God, and we keep going.

Dave: Yes. I think what you and Gayla said earlier, we ask God for wisdom.

Ron: That’s right.

Dave: And James 1 literally tells us [to], “If we want wisdom, ask God Who gives generously.” I often think we struggle because we don’t ask. We just keep trying a different path, and we get frustrated or stop altogether. I think God is literally saying, “Would you just invite me in?”

Ron: Yes.

Dave: “I can really help if you’ll ask.”

Ann: That’s good.

Ron: And in contrast to that is the working harder aspect. I’ve been thinking about this in my own life. You know, the more desperate I am around any given subject matter— desperate for one of my kids, desperate for something to happen in life that I really want to see happen, desperate for something to go differently in my marriage because I feel like this is a really important thing—the more desperate I am, the more controlling I get, because I’m trying to get the outcome to be what I want it to be.

Ann: Yes.

Ron: And the more controlling we get, I think, the more we shoot ourselves in the foot. So, there’s this big paradox in trying to make things happen—that’s the working harder mentality—versus, “No. God, I need that wisdom. Help me see it for what it is, not what I think it is. Help me have the goal I should have here, not the goal that I want.” That’s wisdom, and then, getting some practical how-tos to help us move in that direction. That’s what the Christian journey, I think, is really all about.

You know, every year, we do our live stream Blended & Blessed. It’s coming up Saturday, April 27th. It’s a livestream. You can sign up one minute before and join us for this thing from anywhere in the world. We do have churches that are hosting it. We have a map where people can search and find a church in their area and go and be a part of that if you want to. Gayla Grace, who I was just talking with in that podcast, is going to be one of our speakers.

Gil and Brenda Stuart, who have been with us many times before—they are awesome—and Cheryl Shumake, who is one of my new favorite people talking about stepfamily, are going to join us again this year for Blended & Blessed. Nan and I are going to be there. Worship; lots of little blended bits, little practical tips and tools for doing life. It’s a great day. We hope people will join us.

Ann: Hey, Ron. This has been so good. It’s always so great to be with you. Thanks for everything.

Dave: Yes, thanks, Ron.

Ron: Thank you.

Shelby: I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Ron Deal with Dave and Ann Wilson on FamilyLife Today. Just as Ron said, this event is really important. If you’re a blended family or if you know blended families, we really encourage you to check out the Blended & Blessed one day marriage event live stream. You can go to the show notes at to learn more.

Ron is always a great guest to have, isn’t he? He’s just incredible. He has great conversations with people. Ron has written a book called The Smart Stepfamily. This book provides practical, realistic solutions to the issues you face as a stepfamily or the issues that a blended family you know might be facing.

You can get your copy by going online right now to, or you can find a link in the show notes. Or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329. Again, that number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”

Tomorrow—for real: how do you have hope in the midst of suffering? Real, for real suffering that you’re going through, whether it be emotional, spiritual, or physical. Well, tomorrow, my friend Vaneetha Risner is going to be with her husband Joel to talk about hope in the midst of suffering. Vaneetha is a sufferer who loves Jesus. She’ll be joining Dave and Ann Wilson tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.

On behalf of them, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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