My husband and I got into our first fight of our marriage painting our kitchen. We had a good friend over at the time and he was shocked that we would be having such a heated discussion. My husband had one idea about how to paint and I had another. That was the first of many arguments in our marriage. I wish I could say they were all conducted with respect and maturity, but that is surely not the case. When we are feeling hurt, disrespected, or invalidated, the worst side of us can come out.

When we get into arguments, we may revert to conflict styles that are the product of our upbringing. Some of us learned to be ostrich’s—conflict in our home was suppressed or very painful so we learned to avoid it at all costs (by putting our head in the sand and pretending it’s not there). Some of us learned to be tigers—we grew up in a home with a lot of fighting and became accustomed to high levels of anger. Anger may have been used to control others or manage fear. Without conscious awareness of our experience with and attitudes toward conflict, we are likely to reproduce unhealthy patterns.

The truth is, some levels of conflict are not only perfectly normal but can increase intimacy as they are worked through and our differences are embraced. To insure that conflict works in your favor it’s important to determine, in advance, what the “rules of engagement” will be for you as a couple.  These rules are the guiding principles you will always strive to live by when it comes to conflict. No matter what, you won’t cross these lines. You can make up your own list, however, here are some suggestions:

  1. We will never use the word ’divorce’. This one is essential. No matter how mad you get, don’t pull out the ‘D’ word. Threatening divorce damages the safety your relationship needs to move forward and grow together.
  2. We’ll strive to complain but not blame or criticize. Complaining focuses on a situation. Criticizing focuses on the person and attacks character or motive. Stick to the issue.
  3. We will not call each other names. Name calling is disrespectful and reflects contempt.
  4. We won’t let the sun go down on our anger. We’ll keep short accounts. My husband and I always kiss each other good night before we fall asleep, no matter how bad an argument we have had that day. It has always been a way of saying, “No matter what, I love you.”
  5. We won’t address areas of disagreement when we’re at our worst. Timing is important. Give yourselves every advantage by bringing up issues when you’re both rested, or at least not depleted.
  6. We won’t bring up something in the heat of battle which was shared previously in a moment of sincere vulnerability (intimate secrets, comments about one’s own parents, etc.).
  7. We won’t make unkind comments about the other’s physical characteristics.

Write down your “No matter what’s” and keep them handy for review. What are your “No matter what’s?” Please share with us some of yours!

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