That phrase and other "catch words" have helped the couple navigate the often turbulent waters of a blended family. The Stuarts will bring their advice to a "Restored & Remarried" conference Aug. 17-18 at Big Valley Grace Community Church in Modesto.
The Stuarts, who live in Washington state, talked with The Bee about their lives, their ministry and the lessons they've learned about blending two families with children, then ages 8 to 21.
Gil had been married 24 years when he and his first wife divorced. They had met at church when they were teenagers. They had four children. But the last four years of their marriage included separations and attempts to reconcile.
"The marriage had its good times and its bad times, like any marriage," he said. "My wife chose to take an alternative lifestyle, and that began to tear at our relationship. I wasn't perfect; I had my issues that contributed to miscommunication."
Brenda, a former skater with the Ice Capades, met her husband when she left the ice show to begin coaching in Cupertino. He was the brother of the ice rink's manager. They had three children and moved to Oregon.
"My experience with divorce is different than Gil's," she said. "My ex came in one day and said, 'I don't want to be married anymore,' and that was it. If someone makes up their minds, they're not open to counseling. The divorce was quick."
Neither will be specific about the cause of their divorces.
"We're very respectful of our exes because we're mindful that they're still our kids' bio-parents," Brenda said. But it's clear that divorce, which they call a train wreck, was not something they desired.
The two met at their church, where Brenda was the Sunday school director.
"She was nice to my kids, and that was really all I knew about her," Gil said. "I didn't really have anything to do with women for a good couple of years. I wasn't out to replace my wife right away."
Their children "kind of knew about each other from church," Gil said. "We did a couple of outings ice skating and a day at the beach. The outings were, 'Let's go have a good time.' I think the kids were quicker to recognize that something was developing between us before we did."
In fact, Brenda said, getting your children together too soon is a common mistake for divorced couples who are dating. "If they break up, it's another loss for the kids," she said. "A lot of time, the kids haven't even had time to grieve the loss of their last family, whether it ended through divorce or death. I wish people would just slow down and take their time when there are kids involved."
Added Gil: "Don't let the hormones get ahead of your head. Even though I was in my 40s, I felt like I was back in my 20s. To find love again is very cool, but you have to look at it from every angle. It's hard, but you have to do it for the sake of your kids."
The Stuarts said their advice comes from their own "dirt under the fingernails." For example, Gil said, "For stepdads, the biggest mistake you can make is to assert your authority too soon." Instead, he had to learn to talk with Brenda about issues related to her children, and confront the child only when she gave him permission to do so.
Otherwise, he said, "my authority would cause a rift, and that took time to heal."
For Brenda, too, the "kid issue" was a hot button.
"I was so protective of my kids," she said. "Even though I knew Gil was a great guy, when he would criticize my kids for any reason, I became the mama bear. I would think, 'You don't know them. This is an attack on my parenting style.' I knew Gil cared for my kids and wasn't out to do them harm. He was really loving. But that was real easy to start an argument."
"That was a big hurdle to get over. Even the way Brenda's kids talked to her, my kids looked at me as if to say, 'We were never able to talk to our mom that way, so how come her kids are talking to your wife that way?' We had to talk it over as a family. And there was some territorial stuff going on at first."
They tackled that problem by creating a "safe place where anyone could say anything," Gil said. "That really built trust between all of us and built communication between the kids."
Even though they've been married nearly 10 years, the Stuarts said they are still working on resolving problems. A big breakthrough came a few years ago.
"Around year seven, we began to see some coagulation," Gil said. " 'Oh, you are someone I can trust.' 'Oh, I do love you.'
"Last weekend, we had a belated Father's Day. Five of our kids were here. There's been genuine respect and communication, but over the years, there have been times when doors have been emotionally shut. That's hard. You are being totally misunderstood, but you can't say anything until life bears out the truth."
Gil couldn't speak for a few moments, thinking back to those closed doors that are now, finally, open.
Getting divorced and remarried, he said, "is like a swamp full of alligators, and it's hard not to fall into the pit. It has been tough."
But it also is rewarding, which is why the Stuarts want to give their tools and catch phrases to others who are remarried or considering another relationship. Topics will include communication, trust, expectations, kids, in-laws and ex-laws, money and sex.
They ask the question: Who is the most famous stepchild? "Of course, it's Christ, with Joseph as his stepdad," Brenda said. Understanding the grace "that Christ has extended to us is a reminder to extend grace to each other and our kids," she said.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at(209) 578-2012 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tips for Success
Gil and Brenda Stuart, authors of "Restored & Remarried," offer these tips for creating a successful blended family:
"Not only do I need to forgive my ex, I also may need to forgive myself," Gil said. "If you don't first square off with the offenses or sins against yourself, or that you have done to someone else, you'll be lacking a wholeness or health." Added Brenda, "If you don't forgive, you'll live in bitterness. It oozes over everything. It's not easy, but it's so freeing when you extend grace to your new family, as Christ has extended it to you."
2 TRUST, HONESTY, COMMITMENT:
"Commitment is a huge issue," Brenda said. "If divorce is an option, that marriage is not going to work out. Short of abuse or something that's not healthy, work this out. Never in a million years did I think I would be on this side of marriage talking about it. It just goes to show that the Lord can take ashes and make something beautiful. It's incredible."
3 LEARN HOW TO SURF:
"It stands for having a Servant's attitude; check the Unity; have Respect; stay Flexible," Gil said. "And you gotta laugh. Brenda reminds me of that frequently."4 DON'T DIS YOUR EX: "Running down the other parent is the biggest mistake anyone can make," Gil said.
5 BUILD A WALL:
From the biblical book of Nehemiah, where the Israelites use the old, broken bricks and stones to build a new wall of protection. "Commitment is on each side of the wall and Jesus is in the middle," Brenda said. "Things that come against us are stepkids, exes, ex-laws, life. Sometimes we have to realize that tension is coming from the outside, so we have to remind ourselves to 'get behind our wall.' It's a good visual for us."
IF YOU GO
WHAT: "Restored & Remarried" Conference
WHO: Gil and Brenda Stuart, authors and speakers on blended families
WHEN: 7 to 9 p.m. Aug. 17, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Aug. 18
WHERE: Big Valley Grace Community Church, 4040 Tully Road, Modesto
COST: $30 per couple; child care $5 per child or $15 per family
CONTACT: www.bigvalleygrace.org or (209) 571-4399, ext. 305