A Step-Couple Back from the Brink

This is one of the most inspiring step-couple stories I know of.  Although it’s long, the drama of their experience will grip you and not let you go until you get to the end…

Gavin and Pamela first met in the 5th grade in 1980 and quickly became best friends. Even when they went to different high schools they made time to hang out together on weekends. When they graduated from a Mastering the Mysteries of Stepfamilies class in March 2010, they had been married for four years. They each had two children from previous marriages. This interview was conducted about six months following the beginning of their implementation of stepfamily guidelines.

Pamela: Gavin (with his then girlfriend who became his first wife) came to my first wedding when I was 23 years old. Although several family members and friends expressed their concerns about my choice, I went through with my marriage to Tom (name fictitious). Abusive behaviors began only two weeks after the wedding. It began with name calling and throwing things, graduated to breaking things, then to hitting me, pulling the telephone cord out so I couldn’t call police.

It continued with financial tyranny and infidelity with my best friend. He made sure we only owned one car and prevented me from attending school. He wanted total control. Our son, Dakota, was born in ‘93 and Amanda in ‘95. They were three and five years old when I left with a police escort after he’d chased me around with a buck knife.

I met Cole (fictitious) on line, a firefighter from Alabama. He seemed very kind. He came to Missouri to visit me and the kids. He and my parents really liked each other. My Dad suggested to me that I marry him on a Friday. We married on the following Monday, packed up our belongings and drove away in a U-Haul. My Ex surrendered his parental rights to avoid child support payments. My dad convinced Cole to adopt Dakota and Amanda because the court wouldn’t allow me (the mother!) to have sole custody!

My marriage to Cole was never very intimate. He liked that I was raising his kids for him, even home schooling them. He brought a check home and spent every night he was home drinking in the garage. He eventually reunited with a high school girlfriend and said he didn’t want to be married to me anymore. He just moved out. Neither of us was sorry. He gave me 6 ½ years of safety. It helped me regain my balance after being afraid for my life with Tom.

Gavin: In my early twenties I was not living according the faith that was important to my family. I made decisions based on how I felt and what I wanted. I met Carol (fictitious) at Cal State Bakersfield and married her in spite of her noticeable problem with drinking. During our first few years she attempted suicide several times. We split before our son Terry was a year old. One night about 10 p.m. I was sitting in my apartment when I got an urgent, sick feeling in stomach.

I drove straight to where Carol was living. I could hear the car running in the garage. When I opened the door, she was unconscious. I turned the engine off, called 911 and found Terry in his crib with a suicide note. I took custody of Terry at that time. I thought I had it all together but was really immature. I was making great money and changing diapers but was a dad on the fly.

I met Cali at an escrow company while I was making good money in the mortgage business. There had been no real change in me. My family was telling me I was out of my mind. Even Pam tried to warn me. Cali quickly became verbally and emotionally abusive to two-year-old Terry. One time he dropped a piece of rice on the table and she freaked out. She’d throw his toys in the trash. She repeatedly said, “He’s not part of our family.”

Meanwhile Terry’s mom had gone through counseling and re-hab. She wanted to spend time with Terry—reconnect. I wanted Terry to know his mom, so I shared time with her even though I had custody. Cali was so rejecting and abusive with Terry that when he was with me I’d take him to my dad’s or a hotel.

Cali and I were expecting. The birth was difficult—a C-section—so I was very active in taking care of Anisha during the first several weeks while Cali was recovering. I felt very bonded with her. Cali became even more abusive to Terry saying, “Now we have our family.”

Things got pretty crazy. She wouldn’t allow any photos of Terry in the house. If we were in conflict when I had to leave for a business appointment, she’d lay on the hood of my car so I couldn’t leave. If she got off and I drove away she would call my phone hundreds of times in 20 minutes. One time I smashed my phone in frustration. The court would not allow her to be present during any time I spent with Terry.

She convinced me to let her drive up to Lompoc to pick up Terry. I gave in. We picked him up. On our way home she began to be angry. She wanted a reaction from me and I wouldn’t give engage. She turned on Terry and began screaming at him. “I wish you were dead! You’re the reason we’re in so much trouble!” I reached back to calm Terry. When we got home I packed a few things and left. I was so tired. I began praying, “God, please help me!”

Anisha was only 3-4 months old when I left with Terry. I was so bonded with her, but because of her age, the judge only allowed me two hours per week. I left the courtroom sick to my stomach. It took a week or two to regain some focus. I knew that as she got older I’d get more time. I was a single dad uninterested in another relationship. I was just doing my job, spending some weekends without kids and some with kids. I was just plodding along. I became more stable, returning to my faith.

About three years went by. I was not looking for another partner. I was resigned to being a single dad. Three years went by. There was not one person I could imagine wanting to see until Pamela emailed me out of the blue. We had not been in touch for six or seven years.

Pamela: A friend saw Gavin being interviewed on television for his mortgage business. I looked up his company’s website. I had no idea whether he was still married, so I just sent a general, “How are you?” email, not even sure if he would answer.

Gavin: I was sitting at my desk at work. It was a shock to open Pamela’s email. I replied, “I’d like to come see you and see how you’re doing.”

Pamela: We hugged and cried and had a great visit. He came out again….and again. I knew he was serious because he’s afraid of flying and I was still in Missouri.

Nancy: Why did either of you think you could have a sane marriage after these horrendous relationships?

Pamela: The only thing that sounded familiar and comforting was our friendship. Gavin was the only person I knew for sure loved me in the whole world and I knew I loved him. We both thought we were finally going to do it right!

Nancy: How long did it take to realize it wasn’t going to be easy?

Gavin: When we returned from our honeymoon I was facing two court battles, one each for Terry and Anisha. Terry’s mom was drinking again. She was neglecting him. Once he called me crying. She ripped the phone from him. I was trying to get him protected. Cali took us to court for everything about Anisha. One thing would get resolved then the next week I’d get court papers regarding something else.

Pamela: Add conflict between Gavin and me to the mix. We were fighting over the parenting of our children. Gavin is very structured in the way he parents. I am far more relaxed. Gavin’s family told him to leave me. When he refused, they broke off all contact with us. We were spiraling downward. Very little could be discussed. We had fights in front of the kids, about the kids. We had no dates, no time for us. Everything had become a competition. My kids had had no contact with their adoptive or biological father since 2005.

Gavin: In 2007 after my last court appearance with Terry’s mom she won back the right to share custody. Two weeks later she was diagnosed with brain cancer. A court mediator was appointed to watch over him. I was given full custody of Terry because his mother’s health had deteriorated. He moved in with us in 2008. Carole and her parents cut off all contact with us. We’ve tried through many different channels to find out how Carole is. We don’t know if she’s alive or dead.

Cali tried to move Anisha to New Jersey—precipitating a court battle which we won. Thousands and thousands of dollars had gone into court battles—paying attorneys right and left. Meanwhile the economy tanked and I lost my mortgage business, two rentals and a million-dollar home. My car was repossessed. We couldn’t afford to put gas in our family car. We moved twice.

Pamela: We knew we still loved each other underneath all the chaos, but we’d lost trust in each other. Both of us had been in insane relationships for so long. Yet, we both believed that God was with us individually and still had a good plan for our lives. We also had our memory of our very solid friendship as children. Even though we’d lost each other for a while, Gavin was the only one I’d shared deeply with. He was a safest place I’d ever known.

Gavin had been going to church before we reconnected. We got involved in a Sunday School class. Nobody knew what going on in our home, but, thankfully, we were there when things got really bad in the Fall of 2009. One couple came over the night of our biggest fight around Thanksgiving when the kids called the police. They recommended we see Pastor Dave Carder. Two days later we saw him, but he said, “There are no classes for you until early February.”

Gavin: In January the church had a preview of all the marriage classes offered for Spring. On the way there we had a big fight and Pamela said to turn the car around and take her home.

Pamela: I heard a strong voice inside saying, “Turn around and get back there!” We did. At the preview, we heard a woman talking about her experience in a stepfamily. She (Nancy Landrum) was promoting Mastering the Mysteries of Stepfamilies class. We related to everything she said. The minute the meeting was over we went to her and poured out how desperate we were for help.

Gavin: Although the class didn’t start for four more weeks, Nancy had experienced the desperation of hanging on by her fingernails, hoping for help. She agreed to see us a few days later. After listening to each of us describe what was happening from our respective points of view, she asked if we were ready to take steps for immediate relief. We would have done anything at that point! We loved each other and were heart-broken that we couldn’t seem to make our marriage work. Without doing something differently, we were teetering on the brink of another separation.

Pamela: She described the guideline recommended for stepfamilies who have conflicts over parenting. We would go back to single parenting our respective children. The step-parent would not comment or criticize the bio-parent’s children or parenting methods. We would agree on a few simple house rules by which everyone in the family would abide. It hit me hard. When I told Nancy that I just wanted a man who would love my children, she replied, “It’s too late to have a nuclear family. That time is gone. You’re in a stepfamily now and most stepfamilies only succeed by functioning with different dynamics than first families.”

Gavin: But we were so desperate we’d do anything to stop the fights, so we agreed. No commenting or criticizing of each other’s children or parenting decisions. We’d focus on rebuilding relationships with our own children.

Pamela: Over the next few days it was like a magic pill had been dropped into our home. The fighting immediately stopped! The calm was like a breath of fresh, cleansing air after being in a smoke-filled room! But I also grieved the loss of my first-family dream. I grieved the loss of a loving father for my children. I cried off and on for two weeks.

Gavin: A few weeks later we took the class. The first full Saturday of class went by so quickly! We were learning how to hear from each other’s point of view. We heard each other with deep empathy, learning to Show Understanding. It was transformational! (Showing Understanding is the listening skill for the Mastering the Mysteries of Stepfamilies curricula.)

Pamela: I learned why my communication methods were creating and escalating conflict. I learned how to say, “I feel hurt when you….” rather than “You are so thoughtless!” That day and in the evenings to follow we grabbed and used every skill and concept that was presented in class. We were so determined to have peace and save our marriage and family that we practiced constantly. We put into practice the Problem Solving Skill with issues that had been hot topics for four years, such as how much money we spent on our respective children.

Gavin: We’d have to call time outs sometimes, but we were successfully talking about things that we’d tip-toed around in our efforts to avoid more fights. Decisions were being made that satisfied both of us. We’ve been successful in following through with our plans. Every successful Skilled Discussion is a miracle that we celebrate!

Pamela: The love we knew was buried under everything all along has returned in force. We’ve gone on romantic dates! We have rediscovered why we’ve been friends through all of these years. The kids have calmed down. The whole family had been divided in half, but now relationships between the kids are healing. There is laughter in our house again!

It felt like the solution to change back to single-parenting was a bomb that dropped in the middle of our family. Everything flew in all directions. Our expectations had been so unrealistic. Now we know that stepfamilies often require thinking outside the nuclear family box. We’re slowly figuring out how to put our family back together in ways that work for us and our children.

Gavin: Right after the class we thought everything was fixed, but in the months since then we’ve realized that a lot of damage was done during all the chaotic years. Now we are taking things one step at a time. As we and the children feel more secure, layers of issues are surfacing that require us to continue using our skills and stepfamily guidelines. We’re doing a better job of listening to our children. Now that we’re not busy being defensive with each other about our parenting, we’re becoming more attentive to the needs of our children. We’re more realistic about the fact that our stepfamily issues will continue to be a challenge, probably for the rest of our lives. Our children will continue to need our love and support as they move into adulthood with the wounds from their childhoods. We hope that they will follow our lead by learning these skills to make their first and only marriage succeed. We pray that they will stop the legacy of divorce with all its pain and chaos that Pamela and I have handed them.

Pamela: The great news is that the kids are living with a model of a healthy marriage for the first time in their lives! Gavin and I are absolutely sure now that we will stay together and love each other until parted by death! It feels indescribably safe to have that security!

Gavin: We are committed to helping other stepfamilies find the miracle we are experiencing. We recently co-taught a class with Nancy where couples thanked us for sharing our story! We are sharing our story anywhere asked and with anyone who will listen. Even relationships with our extended families are being healed. Finally we are seeing some positive purpose for all the years of pain and misery. We are not only giving our children a safe, loving, respectful home environment but are helping other hurting stepfamilies find what they were searching for when they married. We are richly and truly blessed.

Nancy Landrum has been teaching communication and stepfamily skills for many years.  If you would like a no-obligation appointment with Nancy, set it up by using this link to her calendar:  https://meetme.so/SpeakwithNancy