Prescribed Fires—Utilizing Controlled Burns

In their book Fighting For Your Marriage, authors Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Bloomberg suggest that couples should have regular “business meetings” to proactively discuss issues or problems in their marriage. This is what we might call a “controlled burn.”

One of the positive outcomes of the 1988 Yellowstone forest tragedy was a change in fire management policy and greater awareness of potential fire activity throughout America’s national parks. A number of policies were modified, but one significant change opened the door for a more aggressive controlled burns program in the nation’s forests and parks. The unique vegetation in Yellowstone exempted the park from this change, but many forests and national parks increased the number of intentionally set fires on a regular basis to decrease hazardous fire-fuel debris. Interestingly enough, parks implementing this strategy have discovered increased fire fighter safety, greater structural control when a wildfire does break out, and a greater confidence that natural burns won’t explode out of control.

We highly recommend that you, too, have controlled burns in your marriage. Sitting down weekly (or some other regular basis) to proactively discuss family decisions, parenting dilemmas, financial concerns, and the status of your stepfamily’s growth is a healthy way of reducing the potential of hazardous fires. In addition, we believe doing so will increase “fire fighter” safety in your marriage (protecting you from becoming trapped by wildfire) and increase confidence in your ability to lead and manage your stepfamily.

Managing the fires of conflict and proactively igniting controlled burns requires skill. It also requires knowledge of what creates the fire or conflict in the first place.

Avoiding the Fire Triangle

Any good fire fighter knows that it takes three things for fire to keep burning: heat, fuel, oxygen. Remove any of the three and the fire goes out. In couple conflict 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 feels that drives how they respond to the other. Let’s examine each of these.

Heat. Every couple has disagreements. But when disagreements escalate into “issues” there is heat. Ned, for example, loved to buy flowers for his wife, Amy. He enjoyed surprising her with romance and never thought twice about the money. In fact, he’d always heard that all women love flowers and therefore assumed that money was no object when showering his wife with gifts. That’s why he couldn’t understand why his wife complained every so often. She appreciated his thoughtfulness, but her frugal nature couldn’t help but wonder about all the things they could do with the money he spent on flowers. Obviously, Ned and Amy had differing values about money that brought about heat in their relationship. Ned valued romancing his wife; Amy valued saving for family needs. They had argued about this before, but at this point, no one was listening. And, there was more.

Fuel. Even though Amy appreciated Ned’s thoughtfulness, the way she responded to him didn’t communicate that at all. Once after being presented with a dozen roses she immediately pointed her finger at Ned and “scolded” him with her eyes. Ned, feeling unappreciated and confused, jabbed back accusing her of being “too tight” with money. As frustrations escalated, and each positioned to “make their point heard,” the two found themselves arguing over a multitude of issues that had nothing to do with the issue at hand. But there was another element of this fire triangle that lay beneath the surface.