“The amount of conflict in a marriage only determines the speed at which the marriage is moving toward greatness or toward destruction. If you want to sit still in your marriage, rule out all conflict. If you want your marriage to crash and burn, let the conflict rage but refuse to learn the skills necessary for managing it. Well-managed conflict is like a stairway that can lead you to higher and higher levels of marital greatness.”

-Neil Clark Warren

“A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that.”

-The Bible, James 3:5-6a (The Message)

“You Could Learn a Lot From a Forest Fire” (Smokey the Bear)

One of my favorite memories as a child was a family vacation to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. I was fascinated by the vast blend of wilderness, mountains, and hot water geysers. But when in 1997 I had the opportunity to take my own children to see Yellowstone, it didn’t look quite the same. Nearly one-third of the park lay burnt from several small forest fires that, in 1988, merged into five large complex fires claiming a full 793,000 acres of trees. Battling the fire required 25,000 firefighters, as many as 9000 at one time, and cost US tax payers $120 million. But how did the fires start and why did they burn out of control? After all, wildfires are common in Yellowstone (an average of 24 fires is ignited by lightening alone) but rarely burn as much as 100 acres—combined. So what were the circumstances that lead to a significant portion of the park burning in 1988? And more importantly, since the most distinguishable difference between high-satisfaction couple relationships in stepfamilies and low-quality relationships is their ability to resolve their differences, what lessons can you learn about managing the fires of marital conflict from the fires of nature

When Drought Leads to Wildfire

All relationships go through periods of drought. But severe drought sets up a relationship for the fires of conflict. Despite the fact that Yellowstone National Park experienced wetter-than average summers from 1982-1987 and relatively low fire activity, an overall 10-year pattern of dryness contributed to a significant build-up of forest debris. This would later prove tragic. During the spring of 1988 Yellowstone had above average rainfall. But by June, the park again experienced a severe drought and the summer months turned out to be the driest in the park’s recorded history. Prior to 1988 Yellowstone’s wildland fire management plan followed the generally accepted wisdom of allowing naturally-ignited fires to put themselves out, which they did quite naturally once the fallen debris in the immediate area had burned. But months of drought combined with a decade of build-up, left the park full of debris and ripe for wildfire. In July of 1988 the National Park Service decided to suppress all fires. But the decision came too late. Within a week, small fires—that under normal circumstances would have been quite manageable—burst out of control and eventually encompassed more than 99,000 acres of God’s wondrous creation.

Sounds like a lot of marriages. Investing in marriage means keeping it “wet” with the refreshing waters of fun, time, and consideration (see chapter six on the importance of fun in marriage). Every marriage begins with such efforts and may even have periods of “higher-than normal rainfall”. But stop investing in your marriage and you’ll begin to build up debris that is capable of taking a natural occurring fire—that would normally run it’s course and dissipate—and turn it into a wildfire than can destroy a relationship.