10 Rules of Engagement

If you enjoy this blog, you may enjoy the book I wrote that covers topics like this one:

Husband and I love each other, but we don’t always see eye to eye. We have to sort out disagreement and differences of opinion and perceived and actual slights just like anybody else. I don’t like it when Husband and I are at odds with each other.

My world isn’t quite right when Husband and I aren’t right.

And when he and I are solid, I go through my day in a more solid way. I like it when I know he and I are on the same page, when I feel like he’s got my back and we’re good.

But…here’s the thing: I believe in hashing it out. I don’t like ignoring the underlying tension hoping the trouble will disappear on its own.

I don’t like a fragile ceasefire existence where we are ignoring an issue to look like we’re OK. I’ve worked with enough couples to know that pretending something isn’t there, doesn’t actually make it not there.  The instability and uncertainty of ignored stuff will show up sinisterly in different ways in our relationship as we go about our lives, and I don’t like those subtle effects.

I want a relationship where we’re actually good with each other, which means taking care of the crap as it comes up, to make us stronger.  It means welcoming the tension of a conflict as a deliberate lifestyle.

I don’t like conflict with Husband, but I do find it less worse than not dealing with the conflict.

Husband and I, formally and informally, have developed some guidelines around our conflict. We’ve worked at this, explicitly and implicitly over time to develop a style of conflict that is authentic about the tension and the upset, but something that doesn’t create all sorts of damage that needs to be healed later.

One of the big dangers of working out a conflict is to incur further damage during the conflict itself.

Just like a bell can’t be unrung, some things said in the heat of the moment can be unsaid, and can’t be unheard.

I work with couples frequently who come in not only deal with a major issue, but the additional fallout of the fights that have arisen during the processing of the issue.

Collateral damage of bad behaviour during an argument stings, even when everyone calms down, and there is huge regret for the actions.  Threatening divorce or calling a partner names is something people often regret after (if they can even remember that they did it while they were all fired up!)…but sticks in a partner’s head and creates distance.  That distance shows up on the couch when you’re watching TV later. Small irritations that wouldn’t usually matter start to matter.

I hate messing up when I’m dysregulated and upset.  I know that when I’m mad at Husband, and/or when I’m feeling like he’s mad at me, I am not nearly at my best. I dislike knowing I’ve acted outside of my values in the heat of the moment. Because of that, we have some ground rules that minimize the damage that occurs during the argument.

Rules of Engagement on loose leaf

There are things that we don’t say, lines that we have decided ahead of time that we don’t go over:

Lines. We. Will. Not. Cross.

We all have lines that we don’t cross in arguments. Some folks say, “I’m not in control of what happens when I’m upset, so don’t hold it against me.” Think about how often you have pulled a knife on your spouse, slugged your partner, or not done any number of outrageous and illegal things.  Of course you don’t cross some lines. Of course you have some ground rules that you don’t break.  I think the challenge is for us to be deliberate and conscious about the lines we do not cross…because while calling your partner a “#*&%@^” may not be illegal, the heart wounding can be almost impossible to come back from.

The lines that will not be crossed need to be clearly established at a time of calm, when you are fully connected to your best self, and are clear on your values. And it’s not enough to decide not to cross them. Unless there are healthy alternatives in place that are known and understood, it’s not realistic to expect those decisions will actually be honoured in the heat of the moment.

I asked Husband what he thought our rules of engagement are, to see if our understandings matched.

This was our list of rules of engagement:

  1. Comment about behaviours, not character.  That means no calling names, which is labelling a person.
  2. We work to own our feelings and our concerns with “I” language. Blaming with “you” language is not considered helpful. E.g. “I felt embarrassed when…” rather than, “You embarrassed me when…”
  3. Words like “never” and “always” are inflammatory…we try not to use superlatives that are extreme. This, by extension, means not using the ultimate superlative–we will never threaten end of marriage. That’s just mean–a hollow threat that would do untold damage.
  4. Thinking is a good thing, and we have to allow time for thinking.  In other words, silence can be a productive part of arguments.  This one is really important for me to remember, because Husband is thoughtful and words come slower for him than me. If I’m not deliberate, I’ll fill the spaces with my words in ways that aren’t helpful. (There are times when I will say with a wink, “If this is a dialogue, then it’s your turn. I’m not sure what you’re thinking.”) I have to remember to not do all the talking, with filling up the empty spaces.
  5. When we start going in circles, or one of us is too upset, either of us has permission to take a break. One lets the other know that it isn’t working, and we say something like, “We matter too much for me to keep going and say something that I’m going to regret later. I need space.” It helps when the one left behind knows that the one taking a break is not rejecting or abandoning…just protecting the relationship.
  6. When one of us takes a break, we resume after a break and finish talking it through–an hour later, or after the kids go to bed, or the next day. That sometimes means falling asleep with things left unsettled if one or both of us is too tired to be productive in the conversation. In that case, it means remembering that we are OK even when we are not OK.  Sort of like remembering in the middle of a flu that even though it feels like you’re gonna die, you will get better. That’s important to hold onto.
  7. We allow ourselves the ability to say, “I’m too tired to give this conversation justice.” We need to do it another time. We will often check in, “There’s something I want to run by you.  Is now a good time?” Just because I’m not up for hearing him in the moment, does not mean I don’t care…I’m glad that he can hold that.
  8. We give each other and ourselves room to be stupid and to own it.  Even in the heat of the moment, we try to not take ourselves too seriously. It’s not uncommon for one of us, in the middle of an argument to say something like: “I get that I’m being unreasonable and not fair but…” or “I’m going to have a better grasp on this tomorrow, but right now I’m very upset that…” or “I know you probably didn’t mean it this way, but the story I’m telling myself is that you…” or “What I just said wasn’t kind, and I’m trying hard to be sorry, but I don’t know how else to say it”. It’s brutally kind honesty at a deep level even when we’re upset.
  9. This is not our first rodeo. We know the other’s hot buttons.  We know where each other is most vulnerable, and where the most tender spots are–and are careful to not only not exploit them, but take extra care. E.g. Husband knows that trust is legitimately fragile for me because of a previous relationship…he doesn’t overreact when I’m upset around a trust issue, and he’s careful to reassure me. I know that if I mention certain things to him in an argument, it’s nothing but a low blow. He will never deserve that.
  10. We argue knowing that we got into this marriage because we truly care for and love each other. Hold onto that truth, however hard, throughout the discussion.  Act out of this, even if you feel differently in the moment. Sometimes, holding onto this big picture isn’t easy–but it’s always worth it.

Underneath it all, simply is this: I trust that Husband is for my good, not my harm.  When he says or does something that feels hurtful, I work to remember the big picture. And he words to trust that I ultimately have his back, and I am for his good.

The big picture is this:

We love each other.

We will have our moments of selfishness, self-preservation, and downright goofs…but the core is: we are a team. We picked this relationship and are invested in making it work. The small acts of caring, consideration and love throughout the week reinforce this. We work, imperfectly to be sure, to have love permanence. I want to remember that even when I’m furious with Husband (and I have been!), ultimately he loves me.

I work hard to remember that he doesn’t have it as a core goal to be a jerk to me. On occasion, that becomes a mantra in my head, “Husband is fundamentally not a jerk“, over and over, to temper my reaction.  That sounds perfectly obvious now to me as I write this. However, there are moments of anger where it needs to be a deliberate choice to repeat and believe this line. My mind, when I’m threatened, can become almost convinced that he is deliberately being a jerk to me. My brain plays tricks on me when I’m mad.  Yours, too, right?

Often, figuring out how to help a couple hold onto, “We are ultimately for each other’s good, not harm,” is the key to  successful therapy with that couple.

quote by Brene Brown: "Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare." With follow up question: Do you have strategies to protect the roots of your love? on background of rope creating a heart.

There is one more fundamental agreement we’ve made in our relationship:

If either one of us says we need to go see a marriage therapist, the other one is obliged to be cooperative with the process. No exceptions.

Statistically, it is more likely that Husband will pull the trigger on seeing a therapist.

Here’s the deal:  I work with words and conversations and relationship dynamics for a living.  I know my way around a marital conflict like nobody’s business. It’s my job. We have discussed the possibility that without my realizing it, I could talk him out of his feelings or work my way out of a situation in a way that is not cool. This disadvantage he has because I am a professional relationship expert means that our relationship could become unfair for him and I might not even be aware. He might not even really understand what is happening–he’d just know that it wasn’t good. I so wouldn’t want that.

I want Husband to love our relationship, and hope that if I am doing something destructive without being aware of it, that he will call me on it, on his own, or with the help of a therapist.

If either one of us feel:

  • in over our head,
  • that we repeatedly aren’t heard,
  • that something critical in our relationship is missing and our efforts to figure it out are unsuccessful,
  • that something isn’t working and nothing is working to get it working again,

then we will both go to a therapist together.  Even if we:

  • don’t want to go
  • are embarrassed
  • think it’s silly

We will go because our relationship will be more important than our desire to not go to a therapist.

Do you have rules of engagement to fall back onto and rely on? Have you structured your relationship for circumstances when you’re upset and might have trouble being your best selves? What rule(s) of engagement have you found to be helpful over the years?

Leave us a comment so we are all richer for it!

1 Comment

  • LifeWorks Recovery

    I would like to learn more about your article. Hi there. I really need help trying to contain my emotional neediness.

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