Focus on the Family

Extinguishing Marital Conflict

Illustration of a mom and dad putting out a fire
Jess Golden
Marriage conflict often involves more than simply an issue over which the couple disagrees. How the couple interacts and the negative feelings experienced by each person also affect communication.

Firefighters understand the elements that keep a fire burning: heat, fuel and oxygen. Remove any of the three and the fire goes out.

Marriage conflict also includes these three elements. Heat describes an issue over which the couple disagrees. Fuel can be found in how the couple interacts. And oxygen refers to the negative feelings experienced by each person. Unlike an actual fire, however, all three elements must be managed or the fire in the relationship burns on.

The heat for couples in a blended family often centers on the children. Here’s how these three elements played out in one blended family:

Heat (the issue). Raised by quick-to-punish parents, Gary, a stepfather, couldn’t understand why his wife, Kelly, felt the need to talk so much to her kids about their behavior without giving them consequences. Kelly would say, “You don’t know my children the way I do. Plus, their father is a harsh disciplinarian.”

Fuel (unhealthy interaction). Every time Gary felt disobeyed by his stepchildren, he would expect backup. Kelly usually defended the children, and sometimes threw out an accusation: “You just don’t care about my kids.” Gary would argue until he walked away in frustration.

Oxygen (negative feelings). Below Gary’s and Kelly’s anger were more menacing emotions. Gary feared that Kelly was “more a mother than a wife.” Kelly feared that if she accommodated Gary’s parenting style, her children would again be exposed to an unhealthy environment.

Gary and Kelly must each do his or her part to manage this fire if they are to find unity in their blended family. In addressing the real issue, Gary would do well to show genuine concern about the harsh environment that Kelly and her children experienced in the past. To stop the negative interaction, Kelly might work on being less defensive about her children. Though Gary’s style may feel threatening, she might learn from his perspective. And both Gary and Kelly must manage their fears so they can trust each other.

Learning to be unified firefighters is critical to fostering a healthy blended family.

Ron L. Deal is president of Smart Stepfamilies and author of several books for stepfamilies, including The Smart Stepfamily.

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