Healthy stepcouples have conflict, but they make having fun and romance a strategic part of their conflict management plan. Enjoying each other makes times of conflict easier to handle because your attitude toward your partner and the problem is one of collaboration. Having a loving relationship makes you more willing to find ways of resolving conflict. But a relationship plagued by months and years of debris will find that small fires can easily rage out of control.

Conflict—A Useful Burn

God’s design to care for forests includes occasional burns that decrease the level of debris. If ecologists had understood this earlier the Yellowstone wildfire of 1988 might have been prevented. The conditions leading up to that destructive fire really began in the 1700’s when early explorers, who believed that fire suppression was good stewardship, put out all blazes as quickly as possible. Throughout the 20th century, park managers continued to view fire as a destructive force, one to be mastered and controlled. But by the 1940’s, ecologists began to realize that fire was a primary agent of change in many ecosystems. In other words, they realized it might be useful and healthy for the forest. In the 1950s and 1960s, national parks begin to experiment with controlled burns. Later in the 1970s, fire management plans allowed lightning-caused fires to burn and reduce fuel accumulations of unwanted debris.

Healthy marriages are comprised of couples who understand that the fires of conflict—managed in a constructive manner—are actually useful to the marriage. They understand what years of research has confirmed: conflict helps to weed-out the unhealthy or weak aspects of marriage and replace them with a stronger marital alliance and growing sense of security. By contrast, couples who automatically suppress conflict—as did the early explorers of America’s forests—discover they inadvertently build up unhealthy, decaying debris in their marriage. And that, in turn, proves deadly later on when a build-up of resentment proves unmanageable. Indeed, the number one predictor of divorce is a couple who habitually avoids conflict.

Conflict in your marriage must be managed, but not completely suppressed. When handled with cooperation, conflict can actually lead to greater levels of intimacy which was clearly demonstrated in our research. Couples in high-quality relationships resolve their differences, demonstrate important listening and understanding skills, and have unity in how they tackle disagreements. In stark contrast, unhappy and dissatisfied couples stock pile the debris in their relationship because they avoid issues, invalidate one another concerns, don’t feel heard, turn small problems into big ones, and can’t even agree on how to disagree.

We should add here that a related strength we found in high-quality couple relationships, called couple flexibility, contributes to the ability to resolve conflict. Flexible couples demonstrate creativity in problem solving, compromise as they deal with each other, and are adaptable, able to change when the situation calls for it. This feeds the couple’s ability to find solutions to the complex stepfamily problems that arise.

A woman named Brenda wrote us about her stepfamily of four years; she was about to give up. She had two “ours” babies, ages 1 and 3, and was stepmother to a 11 year-old stepson, Josh, who was spoiled by his mother and resentful of his stepmother. Brenda wrote about all the influences from Josh’s home and her frustration with not having much control. She and her husband disagreed on how to “play their game” and found themselves divided frequently. We encouraged Brenda and her husband to focus on what they could control and to very intentionally sprinkle their relationship with fun and energy over the next few months. We also talked about searching for compromise and creative solutions to their dilemmas but most of all, we encouraged Brenda personally to find a way to adapt to her circumstances and accept what she couldn’t control. It worked. Six months later Brenda wrote us again noting that she had found a way to “let go of control” regarding Josh and his mother. This had empowered her to be more cooperative with her husband when they discussed what they could control. The net result was a more flexible Brenda and a more collaborative marriage.