The absence of established rules invites chaos. Imagine if there were no rules to Monopoly. Anarchy! People would buy, sell, and tax each other like crazy in that game. People would pass Go and collect $400!
What if there were no boundaries in football? The game would be wild, crazy and unorganized. How do you score if there are no establish demarkation on the field?
You have to have established ground rules for any system, game or origination to function. And yet people rarely think of establishing ground rules for marriage. Marriage is one of the most formative relationships you will have outside of the one between you and God. Yet if you don’t acknowledge what is “in bounds” within the conversations you have in your marriage, you can’t control what is “out of bounds.”
I want to help you establish seven ground rules that will make your marriage WAY better, especially when facing conflict.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of pastoral counseling with couples and have led the ReEngage Marriage Enrichment Program in my local church. In that time, I’ve seen at least seven helpful rules that a couple can establish when life is good, so that when tensions rise, stress and anger flare, there are agreed upon boundaries of how to do conflict well…. and agreed upon boundaries of how not to do conflict.
I’ve incorporated them into my own marriage and they have made our marriage better. Since my wife Aimee and I both have agreed to these rules to govern our relationship and conflict, we have permission to call a “foul on the play” when one breaches the rules.
Here we go:
1) No name calling or foul language directed towards your spouse.
Once you begin cursing at your spouse, no productive conversation can happen after that point. In those moments you’ve demeaned your spouse, and this particular conflict ceases to be constructive. Conflict is not inherently a bad thing. Marriage is a joining together of two different and opinionated people. Conflict is inevitable. Yet when we demean each other, there ceases to be anything good that can emerge from that particular argument.
If insults fly, stop the conversation and come back at a later time when tempers calm and each other can treat each other with genuine respect and love. Establish this rule in advance so when one calls “time out” both people can immediately disengage without further insult.
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” – Ephesians 4:29
2) Deal only with the words coming out of your spouse’s mouth, not what you think they are thinking.
This is critical for a healthy marriage. Have you ever been in an argument with your spouse when after saying something, he or she replies, “But that’s not what you’re really thinking!” No one is a mind reader. There is no way for either one of you to crawl into each other’s brain and “know” what they “really means” behind their words. And it’s impossible to have productive conflict if each is speculating on the other’s intentions.
So trust the words coming out of each other’s mouth. If you can’t trust what your spouse says and you have to “read between the lines” you are calling the other a liar. This indicates there is a trust problem in your marriage, and that’s a much deeper issue. But commit to speak the truth and trust each other’s words. It will make conflict much simpler and productive. Deal only with each other’s words and trust what each other says.
“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” – Ephesians 4:15
3) Don’t have stressful conversations after a certain time at night.
The pastor who did mine and Aimee’s pre-marital counseling gave us this insight: there comes a point in the evening when people are just done… Each person/couple has a threshold where nothing productive can happen after a certain point. Eleven o’clock at night is not a good time to bring up the finances, politics, in-laws, etc. Maybe that threshold is earlier for you. For me and Aimee it’s 10pm. We don’t have major conversations past that point, otherwise, tempers are short, and apologizes will need to be made in the morning.
“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger…” – Ephesians 4:26 *
(*Don’t have conversations to flare your anger before bed in the first place, and sometimes certain personalities types need more time to process before finding resolution.)
4) Don’t intentionally touch on the other’s triggers.
Everyone has those things that set them off, or “triggers.” Usually formed out of deep seated wounds, we all possess things that trigger our insecurities and doubts. This is especially true of those who had rough childhoods or previous marriages/long term relationships. As you grow with your spouse, you figure out what those triggers are. Commit to never pulling your spouse’s trigger on purpose. To quote a mentor of mine, to intentionally trigger your spouse is “emotional terrorism.”
For example, I once did pre-marital counseling for a couple who were both entering their second marriage. The bride’s previous marriage was marked by lots of abandonment from her ex-husband. He’d regularly take off for days at at time and not tell her where he was going. The groom was a someone who needed to step away from conflict to process and calm down. One day in the midst of an argument, he grabbed his keys and left (to go for a drive in order to cool off). What did the bride think? “Here we go again…. He’s abandoning me like my ex.” If the conflict was a 5 on the scale, it just escalated to a 10. I told the groom, “All you need to do is tell her, ‘I’ll be back in 20 minutes and we can finish our conversation.’ That way she is reassured, and you still get time to collect your thoughts. Everyone wins.” Otherwise, he’s going to keep pulling her triggers.
Make it a rule to never intentionally commit emotional terrorism so that if and when it does happen, you can trust it was by mistake.
“Do not cause anyone to stumble…” – 1 Corinthians 10:32a
5) Stop and pray in the middle of a conflict.
This perhaps is the most counter-intuitive rule on the list, yet it’s one of the most powerful. If you can stop in the middle of a conflict to take a moment to pray and invite God into the conversation, I promise, the conversation changes. It’s hard to treat each other poorly when you are fully aware that you’ve invited God to be there. In fact, when you realize God’s presence, you will treat each other much better.
The few times the conflict got really heated in my marriage and we paused to pray, there was calmness and peace that washed over both of us. It takes agreeing upon this rule in advance for one to invoke it during a conflict.
Now when you do pray, don’t let the prayer be manipulative For example, “God please fix my spouse” is not a good way to pray. Rather, “God be here in the mist of our conflict and show us a way forward. May your peace meet us here” is WAY better. God doesn’t take sides the same way we’d hope he does.
“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” – Matthew 18:20
6) Maintain a unified front with the kids and family.
This is key for raising kids, especially with blended families. Always let the children and extended family see you unified. Now that doesn’t mean you have to have the same opinions, but those opinions and parenting preferences need to be worked out behind closed doors. Our family is blended. Aimee had two daughters when we got married. I had a difference of opinions from her in certain areas of parenting. So we had to practice parenting together. That took some time to live out this rule since she had grown used to being a single parent. But it made our parenting stronger when we did it together. The girls soon realized they couldn’t play mom off of step-dad and visa-versa. They also realized they didn’t get instant answers to their requests because we always told them, “Let me check with your mom/or step-dad.” If Aimee and I disagreed on something, we compromised and worked it out together before we ever got back with them. We jointly would give our response, not revealing to the girls who had the dissenting opinion.
“‘[A]nd the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” – Mark 10:8
7) Don’t demand, invite.
When you are dating, everything was new, exciting and wonderful. You always would ask the other, “Would you like to do _____ with me?” Or “Hey would you like to attend ____ with me?” We invited each other into our lives.
Then we get married. That new, exciting and wonderful easily turns into routines and responsibilities. Our language changes too. “Take out the garbage.” “Pick up the kids.” “I need you to show up to this event….” Do you see the difference. We can lose the language of invitation and replace it with language of demand.
No one responds well to demands. No one.
But people like being invited. Establish the ground rule of speaking the language of “invitation” instead of “obligation” and see what happens. The routine changes, and the relationship gets exciting again.
“Come to bed” changes to “will you join me in bed?” Um yes!
“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” – Ephesians 5:21
Rules are only as good as they are enforced. But have a conversation with your spouse about these and others you’d like to include. Establish them during the good times so that when times get tough, the rules are there to better your marriage. I’ve even had couples post these rules on their refrigerator to be a constant reminder of what they’ve agreed too. Christian marriage is a covenant, but even covenants have things that guide the relationship. Let these guide yours.