The Rules of Engagement
Having rules about how you engage in conflict are very important. Some people/couples tend to launch impulsively into conflict after one of them experiences anger or frustration with the other. If this is okay with both of you - you are just get it off your chest types - and it works, then maybe that is the rule for how you do conflict. Others prefer to move more cautiously, setting up a time to meet and discuss differences only after fully thinking about the issue thoroughly. Again, if this happens to be the way you both like it, great! You have one of your rules right there!
Of course, relationships are rarely so simple and yellers often marry calm discussers with disastrous results, especially when one decides to bend or bully the other to their way of doing things. The rules of engagement for how you do conflict have the primary goal of creating emotional safety for both of you. Being an emotionally safe person to have conflict with means taking personal responsibility for your partner's feelings even when angry or frustrated with them and putting the best interest of the relationship ahead of self-interest.
A few of the rules of engagement we have adopted are:
- No yelling. Raising your voice in anger, frustration, or fear is a natural reaction but it is important to understand what it is (an evolutionary adaptation) and why we do it (to intimidate, scare off, or establish dominance over another). Yelling is very effective at driving off or intimidating those who anger us, but it can do terrible things to those we love.
- No name-calling. Anger often makes us to want to lash out and hurt the person angering us, but the hurt - and harm - it causes lasts long after the anger is gone. Name calling, insults, derogatory comments, or dredging up the past hurts both the recipient of the words and the one delivering them. Sharp words are the cruelest blade.
- Ask first. Human impulse, when upset, is to strike while the iron (or our anger) is hot. Sometimes that may be necessary, but usually not. Blindsiding each other or confronting conflict when one of us is tired, busy, or preoccupied, never goes well. Instead, making sure the time is good to confront conflict, or even making a date to do so on the future, improves the odds for respectful and productive conflict.
- Honor the 10 O'clock Rule. Very simply, if it is after 10 pm, let it slide till morning. Picking a fight just before bed never plays out as well as you hope!
Choose your words with care
What you say, and how you say it, means all the difference in how the conflict will be resolved. Not only is hurting the one you love with cutting words a tendency a temptation to avoid, but being clear and direct, and avoiding distracting rabbit trails that pull you away from the original conflict and only create more before one is resolved, are important skills to be developed.
Interestingly, as people become more articulate and skilled at verbally addressing conflicts, their incidence often begins to decrease! Becoming skilled at conflict resolution actually pays off in reducing the need for it.
Those are a few of the tips that have aided us in having a marriage and partnership we value and enjoy. We love coming home to each other at the end of the day and we are also not afraid to address difficult topics. Learning to resolve and negotiate conflict takes years of practice and a willingness to commit to the relationship. We are not done learning and know that there will be more hard times in front of us, but having a thriving relationship is worth the personal sacrifices we make for the good of the relationship.