Our column this week is once again written for us by Ron L. Deal, a marriage and family author, speaker and therapist. He speaks to audiences around the country and is the author of several books, including the bestselling book "The Smart Stepfamily." Ron is coming to the Farmington Civic Center on Saturday, March 15, for the Couple Checkup conference, where he will share his wisdom with all who want to have a strong, healthy marriage. In the afternoon, he'll present information specifically directed toward step-families. You can learn more about the conference at www.fccmf.org. You can also hear more from Ron tomorrow evening at 6 when he will be my guest on TWOgether as ONE on KLJH 107.1FM. For now, consider his thoughts on "fires" within marriage.
Managing the fires of conflict
Each year, house fires occur in more than 400,000 homes in the U.S. In 2008, house fires caused $8.5 million in damages, injured more than 13,000 people and took the lives of 2,780 people. In 2012, these numbers increased to 2,855 fatalities, 16,500 injuries and an estimated $12.4 billion in direct property loss. When the home fires of conflict go unmanaged, marriages and families experience devastating damage as well.
Every couple has conflict. In fact, healthy and unhealthy couples have similar amounts of conflict; what is different is how they manage their conflict. David Olson and I found in our national surveys of married and remarried couples a stark contrast between strong and struggling couples. Healthy couples were four to five times more likely to resolve their conflict. Even further, the healthy couples used the conflict to "burn off" the useless debris of their marriage; unhealthy couples stockpiled it making uncontrolled wild fires more likely.
Avoiding the fire triangle
Any good firefighter knows that it takes three things for fire to keep burning: heat, fuel and oxygen. Remove any one of the three and the fire goes out. Couple conflict also contains these three elements. Unfortunately, all three have to be managed or the fire burns on. "Heat" describes an issue over which the couple disagrees, "fuel" is the process of how the couple interacts and "oxygen" is the negative feelings each person brings to the equation.
• Heat (Issue). Raised by no-nonsense parents who didn't hesitate to use the "rod of discipline," stepfather Gary couldn't understand why his wife, Kelly, felt the need to talk to her kids about their behavior. "They don't need more lectures," he complained, "they need to be punished — something to get their attention." Kelly retorted, "I've tried to explain this to Gary, but he just doesn't listen. He doesn't know my children the way I do. Plus, their father is a harsh disciplinarian and he scares me sometimes. I won't be party to that kind of parenting."
• Fuel (Process of Interaction). Gary and Kelly usually returned to this discussion after one of her children disobeyed a request from Gary. Feeling disrespected he would go to Kelly expecting back-up. But she often didn't respond as he thought best and the two would begin to argue. Kelly played defense most of the time, but sometimes threw out a dose of accusation, saying "You just don't care about my kids — you only want your way." Gary tried to argue his perspective until he threw up his hands in frustration and walked away. Feeling isolated and distant, the couple would then avoid one another for a few days.
• Oxygen. Below Gary and Kelly's anger were deeper, more menacing emotions. Ultimately, Gary feared that Kelly was "more a mother than a wife" and that she wouldn't listen to him because she didn't wanted to give up control of her kids. Kelly feared that if she accommodated Gary's perspective about parenting, her children would again be exposed to an unhealthy environment. They had been through enough already and she wanted to protect them from more pain. Besides, she really did think that talking to her kids was a better strategy of teaching and training than punishment.
Putting out the fire
Gary and Kelly have a legitimate issue in their marriage. And it must be addressed. In order to stop this fire from raging, each of them must do their part to squelch the fire triangle. Gary, for example, might need to stop looking at this situation from a simple black/white perspective and acknowledge the pain and loss Kelly and her children have experienced. Developing compassion for Kelly, instead of harsh judgment of her parenting, will help him to consider the parts of her perspective that have merit. Likewise, Kelly needs to learn not to be so defensive about her children and to not make quick accusations about Gary's motives. Both will need to manage their fears or they won't trust that the other is "for" the children, not against them.
Again, every couple will experience conflict. Learning to manage these fires — even grow through them — is challenging and rewarding. The upcoming Couple Checkup Conference will help you turn your conflicts into opportunities for growth. Come join us.
I'm back with gratitude to Ron Deal for the effect he is having on families all across the nation. Fewer children will experience the divorce of their parents because of his influence. Husbands and wives will enjoy a greater sense of satisfaction in their marriage. I do hope you'll take some time out of your busy lives to invest in your marriage and hear Ron Deal in person at the Couple Checkup conference.