The Smart Stepfamily, by Ron Deal (Bethany House Press, 2002). 271 pages.
Churches ignore stepfamilies and, worse, they exclude them, says Ron Deal in his new book, The Smart Step-Family. Deal argues stepfamilies are often treated as the stepchildren of the church, but represent an important, unmet need for ministry and compassion. One-third of all children today live in a step-family home, and current projections indicate that by the year 2010 there will be more stepfamilies in the U.S. than any other type of family. Certainly, most stepfamilies carry a legacy of pain and loss, and the need for grace, healing, and wholeness within a supportive Christian community.
The Smart Step-Family is a sophisticated, compassionate and sober work, fit for the difficult challenges that confront almost all stepfamilies. Deal is a marital therapist and family life minister with a large Arkansas church and has honed his approach through many hours of clinical and church work with troubled, sometimes desperate families. And he has crafted a conversational but tightly organized presentation style appropriate to his nationwide seminar ministry. This is a work which has emerged from the trenches, one which remains true to the daily struggle step-family life, a struggle which Deal willingly embraces.
Yet, as a mental health professional, I was skeptical about reviewing a book that might be placed in the self-help category. Too often, these books dispense easy catch phrases and enthusiastic cheerleading, leaving readers temporarily inspired but unable to make long-term changes or difficult sacrifices. They offer an effervescent cheap thrill rather than a call to long-term commitments and slow, sometimes painful growth. And Christian self-help books sometimes top this off with a naïve, oversimplified use of scripture which fails to deal with the complexity of real life or the important nuances of Scripture. When I began reading Deal’s The Smart Step-Family I expected a sweet but under-nourishing dessert, not the substantial, meaty message that stepfamilies are likely to need.
I was mistaken about The Smart Step-Family—a book with a message meant to minister directly to step-families, both existing step-families and adults contemplating re-marriage. It is a how-to book of step-family life, practical and solution-oriented. Each chapter contains examples and stories from step-family life, clear instructions for making positive changes, questions for further discussion, and assignments for promoting family understanding and healing. Throughout the book Deal maintains a careful balance between empathy for the pain of family members and insistence that they make the difficult commitments necessary to foster step-family life. He advocates a tough love approach in the best sense of the term: heavy on love and acceptance, but never abandoning the demand for responsible, self-sacrificing family life.
The tone and overall approach of this work are best summed up in one of the many vignettes which pepper the work: “A man once drove six hours to talk with me about his stepchildren and marriage. He hoped that once I heard him describe the sea of oppositions he was facing, I would give him permission to leave the marriage. I did not (and he was terribly annoyed). …Avoiding divorce by tolerating a miserable marriage, I suggested, does not honor God. Commitment requires that you strive for a better life together, even when you don’t feel like putting forth your best effort or have convinced yourself the marriage should have never happened in the first place.”
Like most families, The Smart Step-Family book has a normal share of imperfections. For instance, I found some of the chapter titles and summary phrases a bit too cute and catchy. But my complaints are only stylistic, and I doubt that Deal’s intended audience will care. They are likely to have more pressing problems and needs that Deal addresses in direct and capable fashion. Deal likens the journey of step-families to Israel’s forty-year trip to the Promised Land. If this is an apt comparison, then step-family members are likely to feel that this book is something of an oasis in a dry and barren wilderness. I can heartily recommend it to them, as well as to pastors, other church leaders and Christian therapists.
Daniel Morehead is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist currently in private practice. He is the supervising psychiatrist for the Samaritan Center for Pastoral Counseling. He, his wife and three sons live in Austin, Texas.