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Rules of Engagement

If you say you never argue with your spouse, I’ll say that you’re not talking enough!  Conflict is inevitable in an intimate relationship.  The biblical concept of “the two shall become one” is not an immediate transformation, but rather a process that happens over time.  In nature, when two distinct entities merge into a single new entity, it typically happens through a violent and traumatic process.  Gneiss, is a rock that is formed by exposure to high temperatures and pressures.  Once formed, all traces of the original minerals and fossils are gone.

While nature’s metamorphic process may be violent and traumatic, your marriage does not have to be.  One of the best moves we ever made in our marriage was to establish “rules of engagement”.  It really sprang from necessity, rather than proactive wisdom.  When we were first married, our approaches to conflict were radically different.  Tara was one that would internalize stress and show little frustration to me in a visible form.  I (Jerry) came from the school that if something bothered me, I would get it off my chest and immediately feel better.

For awhile, it was a non-issue.  I would dump my frustration on her and move on.  Her lack of response suggested that she agreed with me, so I assumed things were getting increasingly better.  From her perspective, she would carry each complaint I made in her mind.  Over time the pressure would build.  Eventually, I would make some minor comment (at least from my perspective) and that would send her over the edge as she would explode from the mounting tension of all of my “feedback”.  I would sit stunned as she unloaded on me.  Her words “And another thing…”, would practically make my blood boil.

We realized that this process (while typical in many marriages) was self-destructive, and not something we could live with over the long run.  Continuing on this path would cause one of us to shut down completely over time, building both anger and resentment toward the other.  So, in a calm moment (please notice the emphasis on calm moment), we decided to write up a few rules that we could agree to when in conflict.  It was sort of a Geneva Convention for our marriage.  We both came up with a list about what drove us crazy about our current style of arguing and turned those into “rules” that we could both agree to.  The following are a few examples of our list:

  • I will never use divorce  as a threat or consider it as an alternative
  • If something bothers me I will bring it up now
  • I will stay engaged in the “conflict” until we both agree it is over (or time to take a break)
While we have more on our list, these three were really life changers for the both of us.  The first point really gives us both the peace of knowing that while we may be in an ugly place at the moment, we both know that we’ll get through it.  That’s huge.  The second two listed address the points that I made earlier in terms of our respective styles of conflict.  There’s no one list that is right for everyone, because each couple comes from a different place and from diverse backgrounds.  I would encourage you to (in a calm moment) discuss this with your spouse and to create your own list.  Once it is agreed upon by both of you, it okay to call a “foul” in the next argument if any of your rules are broken.  If you are truly committed to your marriage (and to the list as a by-product), you will redirect your frustration in a more positive manner.  Conflict may not be avoidable, but in the long run it does not have to be destructive.

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