When You Fight, Point the Fire Extinguisher in the Right Direction

Fred and Alice (not their real names) came into my office because they had been fighting over Fred’s failure to let Alice know when he would be home from work. The fighting was damaging their marriage, so they came in for help in resolving it. By the end of the session, the three of us had agreed on a game plan to fix the problem. Everyone seemed happy with the plan, and Fred was expressing his gratitude and commitment to work the plan. Then, just when I thought everyone was going to leave happy, Alice dismissed Fred’s words of commitment and began bringing up other issues. What looked like a happy ending erupted into another battle. Fred and Alice left angry and I was left scratching my head and wondering, “What just happened?”

I couldn’t understand why this was happening with Fred and Alice. Was it them? Were they just too far gone to help? Was it me? Did I lack the skills and insight to help them? I couldn’t understand why this was happening, and it was both disheartening and maddening.



Sometimes, marriage counseling is a little like trying to fight a wildfire. You work hard to get a blaze extinguished only to have another blaze pop up and threaten to burn the whole marriage down again. The counselor and the couple wind up jumping from one pop-up fire to another.

After the Fred and Alice incident, I went to a workshop on counseling couples in conflict. There, author and counselor James Sells, Ph.D. helped me better understand what was going on with Fred and Alice. If you find yourself jumping from one pop-up fire to the next, maybe this info will help you also.



Think of it like this…every fire must have a heat source for it to continue to burn. If you take away a heat source and the fire continues, then there’s another source fueling it. Most every marital fight is fueled by one of these three heat sources:

  • The current issue.
  • Past issues in the marriage.
  • Past issues before the marriage.

This is what was happening with Fred and Alice. I was trying to extinguish the heat from the current issue of Fred letting Alice know when he was coming home. But the fire reignited, because the fight was being fueled by another source…other past offenses between the two that were never really extinguished. And those past offenses were still smoldering, because they were being fueled by hurts from their past prior to marriage.



If you want to truly extinguish the fire of a marital fight, you have to make sure you’re pointing the fire extinguisher at the right fuel source. To figure this out, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have we really tried to find a common solution to the current issue and implement it?
  • Is the fight with my spouse really about the current issue, or is it more about feeling and grudges that have built up over the marriage?
  • Are those feelings and grudges still warranted, or do I need to forgive and let them go?
  • How do these issues remind me of experiences prior to marriage, and how might those past experiences be coloring my current reactions?

These questions will not give you a quick fix to your marital fights, but they will provide a road map for understanding what’s fueling the fighting.

So, instead of just mindlessly falling into the same fights, stop and ask yourself these questions. Find out if there’s more to the fight than just what you’re fighting about. Make sure you’re pointing your fire extinguisher in the right direction.

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