Anytime that two people commit to each other, there will inevitably be disagreements. For instance, it’s very likely that before “the Fall” the first marriage in Eden was truly one of wedded bliss. Yet according to the Bible account, their ultimate bliss only lasted until a squabble erupted regarding a piece of fruit that led to the couple’s blistering expulsion from paradise.
It seems from this example that even within the confines of a perfect, God-created garden—where every need was met—the seed of bickering could germinate.
The root cause for such conflict abides within each of us as we read in James 4:1-2: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it” (NIV).
Whether you’re a Christian or not, individual desire doesn’t automatically die once you find your significant other, begin a serious relationship or get married. If anything, those selfish wants seem to blossom because they often cut across the wants and desires of the other person. Hence conflict ensues.
My wife and I recently celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary, and prior to that we dated for another five years—that’s a grand total of 21 years’ worth of relational bliss. We’ve had some “spirited disagreements” along the way, but very early on we decided to mutually accept certain rules of engagement to ensure we protected our single most valuable shared asset—our relationship.
We came up with the idea because we realized that most conflict-oriented competition has rules that protect participants and the integrity of the sport. Whether it’s mixed martial arts, hockey, boxing, football or Scottish leg wrestling there are rules and agreed-upon conduct for all engaged participants of those activities.
As an extreme example, even modern warfare has guidelines for appropriate conduct under the Geneva Convention, which has established rules of engagement and a host of other protocols that are applicable to mortal combat. To a much lesser degree, my wife and I adopted our own seven rules for “marital combat” that are listed below, which have helped us stay together all these years.
Do not use universal language. This occurs when a minor habit by either party happens to annoy the other individual and a specific occurrence of that habit gets magnified into some gross overgeneralization. This exaggeration is frequently associated with language such as “always,” “never,” “every time,” “all the time” … etc. Specific examples might include, “You always leave the toilet seat up," "You never close the cap on the toothpaste," "Why do you always leave only a swig of milk in the jug …” The truth is that nobody engages in any specific behavior all the time. It’s a loaded accusation that nearly “always” escalates a fight.
Do not let issues reach “last straw” status. If you have a problem with your mate, address it early and as unemotionally as possible. Never let it get to the point where one of you shouts, “That’s the last straw—I can’t take anymore of this.” Early intervention in this regard might be analogous to a demolition expert who must diffuse a bomb before the timer goes off. As a committed couple, it’s up to both of you to disarm your personal incendiary devices before all that bottled frustration explodes, inflicting collateral damage to the relationship.
Do not use coarse language, personal attacks or name-calling. This type of language quickly spirals down into negative exchanges that will unavoidably result in a truly hurtful comment that can cause a deep wound, which is especially hard to heal since it was inflicted by your soul mate. Focus on the issue, not the faults of the other person. Specifically, if you attack or belittle a physical trait of your mate that they can’t change, you may unintentionally strike a death blow to the relationship. Once something like that is said, it’s difficult for the other person to un-embed it from their psyche.
Do not bring up past issues that have been resolved. Proverbs 17 tells us that forgiving an issue promotes love but repeating a settled matter causes separation. Nobody wants that, so once an issue has been dropped don’t pick it up again.
Do not use physical force. Unless you’re defending yourself from violence, threat or abuse, physical force has no place in an emotionally charged situation with your loved one. Period.
Do not threaten separation or divorce. Avoid deploying this verbal weapon of mass destruction, because even after your fight is over your significant other will begin to have serious misgivings about your commitment to the relationship and your loyalty to them. Now obviously there may be exceptions to this rule regarding issues of adultery, addiction or abuse. However, absent the aforementioned “Triple-As,” this must be avoided in a heated discussion. And then it should only be discussed with a trusted and vetted Christian counselor who speaks with you together—not individually.
Do not assign false motive. This is the biggest problem for me personally. When my wife asks if I’ve paid the bills for the month, it’s easy for me to get rankled and assume she’s insulting my ability to provide for our family. That’s obviously a fiction I’ve created in my mind, but I need to assume the best intentions of my mate—not the worst. That’s a critical component of maintaining a loving relationship.
Each of these rules has a grounding in the Scriptures and is worthy of thoughtful consideration. However, both of you have to agree on these rules in advance, which means during the heat of a fight you both must be ready to concede your respective point if either breaks one of these rules. Additionally, these rules should be in effect at all times in your relationship—there are no holidays or vacations from them, and they apply to disagreements big and small.
Print out these rules and post them strategically around your home as a reminder. If each of you internalize these principles and asks yourself, Will what I’m about to say violate one of these rules? before you say it, you’ll both soon find your disagreements are more civil and contain less verbal napalm.
It’s important to point out you don’t have to be married to benefit from these guidelines. They’re applicable to any relationship, but have the greatest value and impact on those unions you value the most.
Tor Constantino is a former journalist who has worked for CBS Radio Network and Clear Channel Communications. His first nonfiction book A Question of Faith will be available in November 2011, and he posts regularly at www.torconbooks.com.