I’m working with one amazing couple right now on rebuilding trust and making sure they’re both being seen and heard in their relationship. They started their coaching process with a solid foundation and did what I wish every couple would do, which is reach out for help before things get too far gone.
They’re the kind of couple that keeps a finger on the pulse of their marriage and are acutely aware when connection starts to fade, communication starts to decline, and overall satisfaction is starting to slip. So, when we started the coaching process, I knew within the first session that I wouldn’t be seeing them for long (the downside of being a coach – you start a relationship with the ultimate goal of saying goodbye 🙁 ).
We’ve implemented a few powerful strategies that have made all the difference, which I’ll be sharing over the course of a few blog posts. Some of these tools are ones I’ve implemented in my own marriage to great success, one of which I’m sharing with you today.
Quick question before we get going though…. Do you have fighting rules in your relationship?
Yep. Healthy, loving relationships have fighting rules for when things get nasty. These can be spoken or unspoken rules, but I HIGHLY recommend having some conversation about what’s acceptable and what’s off limits when things get heated.
Why? Because there are certain fighting tactics that can do A LOT of damage in the heat of the moment if you’re not careful.
I think we’re all acutely aware that we all say things we don’t mean when we’re angry, which is all the more reason to have some fighting rules in place that help you play (err… fight) fair when disagreements arise.
Being (and staying) in a healthy relationship doesn’t mean you don’t fight or have disagreements. It simply means you handle them much differently when you do.
Here are 4 fighting rules I’ve found that have worked with every single couple I’ve worked with as well as in my own marriage. Make sure to check out the bottom of this post for how to apply these rules to the relationship you have with yourself too! They’re good ones!!
1. Refuse to say ALWAYS and NEVER.
Always and Never are part of Black and White thinking meaning we tend to see people/situations as all or nothing. When we use Always and Never to describe a person we love, what we’re doing is pinning them in a corner (and no one likes being put in a corner! Just ask Baby!). We’re telling them that they are always one way or never another, which doesn’t acknowledge the times they AREN’T these things. This is SUPER important!
When we use Always and Never in our relationships, over time our partner (or ourselves) tends to feel they can’t win no matter what. This leads to helplessness (like “what’s the point?”, which leads to hopelessness (“this won’t change no matter what I do”). When you hit this point in your relationship, you’re starting to majorly chip away at it’s foundation, which is what we’re trying to avoid!
2. Refuse to bring up the past.
Oh, don’t we always LOVE to fuel the fire by bringing up the times our partner has disappointed us in the past? When our “rightness” is threatened or we want to prove our point, don’t we tend to bring up their past mistakes?
A lot of us do, but what we don’t realize is that bringing up the past is like a literal slap in the face to our partner. Not only does it shame them in the moment (“see how bad you are!”), but it shows another dirty little secret… we haven’t fully forgiven them. When we withhold forgiveness, we keep the person we love at arm’s length, which dramatically impacts the level of intimacy we can co-create in a relationship.
But further still, we don’t give our partner room to grow into a better person, a person who can love us better. When we take away this opportunity by holding a grudge, we set our partner up to fail us. We create a relationship environment where no matter how much good they do, we can take it all away by bringing up their past in a single swoop. This is not only disheartening to the person on the receiving end, but it’s a nasty way for us to prevent trust from building in our relationship. It’s a way we self-sabotage.
If you want more intimacy and trust, you must resist bringing up the past. The past is the past. What’s done is done. The only thing that can be changed is what happens moving forward.
Now, I can almost hear the question being asked, “but what about when they continue doing the same thing over and over again? Are you not allowed to bring up the past then?”
Yes and no. If someone refuses to change and continues to break your trust over and over again, if they continue to hurt you, then bringing up the past to set a boundary can be powerful. It will not be helpful, however, if you bring it up without moving toward a solution. To bring up the past with no solution is mudslinging and over time will erode the foundation of the relationship.
In the instance where you are setting a boundary, you use the past as factual evidence for why change needs to occur. It isn’t emotional. It’s just the facts. You state, “such and such has happened this many times. This needs to change for me to be able to trust you” and then (the most important part…) you must move to finding a solution/agreement/compromise. This is where getting clear on what you need is a necessary piece as well as being able to communicate these needs in a non-threatening way, which brings us to the next rule.
3. Refuse to THREATEN the future of the relationship.
Have you ever been in a relationship where every single fight turned into an ultimatum? It was almost as if anger, disappointment, or disagreements turned into an all out “you’re either changing or we’re done” kind of conversation…
Do you want to know what this does over the long term? It teaches the other person to do one of two things;
1. Walk on eggshells to avoid being threatened. (read: don’t be emotional, don’t “cause a scene”, don’t speak up for what they really need)
2. Lie to avoid disagreement.
Both of these options will eventually lead to a demise of a relationship or a seriously unhappy one because there MUST be room in a relationship for conflict. There must be space to air out your needs, share your emotions, and ask for change when change is needed. Without this, a relationship will stall and communication will become stifled. And not only that, continuing to threaten the future of the relationship (i.e. “I’m going to leave you if….”) and NOT leaving begins to chip away at mutual respect. The person doing the threatening who doesn’t leave begins to lose self-respect. The person being threatened begins to lose respect in the other person’s word. Without respect, love cannot thrive.
But even more so, threatening the relationship or even using the D word (divorce) makes the future of the relationship unstable. It is incredibly difficult to build trust and intimacy in a relationship who’s future is uncertain. If the relationship is constantly being threatened, emotional vulnerability will be hard to cultivate. Without emotional vulnerability, you cannot build the trust and intimacy a relationship needs to thrive.
4. Refuse to take criticism personally.
Oh, how my husband and I have worked on this one. Isn’t it so common for us to assume that when our partner is airing a grievance that there must be something wrong with us? That there must be something we’re not doing enough of and so we must not be enough? It’s scary how fast our mind can go there, actually! Which is why this one is such an important rule.
When we can depersonalize our partner’s grievance, we can start to listen to what they need vs. what we’re doing wrong and the way this conversation goes after that dramatically shifts. Instead of getting defensive, we let our guard down. We move closer. We listen instead of forming our response.
Instead of making our partner’s complaint about us, we make it about what the relationship needs and every relationship has its own set of needs that must be balanced with what each individual needs within the relationship. (Was that a tongue twister?)
That means that each partner will make compromises on the relationship’s behalf. This is how those who with opposing religious beliefs can still stay married for years, why those with opposing political views can still make it work, and why people with very different love languages can build a ridiculously strong marriage/relationship – because both partner is willing to look at what the relationship needs vs. only what they need. And when both partners do this, a marriage/relationship cannot only overcome some very major differences, but can be such a rich, deep well of trust, intimacy, and partnership that it is pretty much resilient to any nuclear attack that can come its way.
BUT, this will not happen if we continue to take things personally because it takes the focus off of the relationship and onto us and what this does is create drama where drama doesn’t need to be.
TINY NOTE: There’s a difference between criticism and being critical. Criticism is when we share something with our partner about their behavior. Being critical is attacking their character.
ANOTHER TINY NOTE: Constantly giving our partner criticism (i.e. complaining) can be just as damaging as attacking their character.
Do you have a fighting rule you use in your relationship? Share it in the comments.