Most relationships have a set of “built in” rules. These rules define your relationship “default position,” such as what can and cannot take place between you and your partner (and others in your life), and what constitutes that which is normal. When you “break” those rules, you and your partner are likely to come into conflict. Generally the rules fit into three different categories: rules that are spoken, rules that are unspoken, and those that are automatic.
Spoken rules are generally the easiest to deal with. Couples may not always agree to the same set of “spoken” rules, but at least they are clear about what those rules are. For example, spoken rules may include how each partner will spend their free time, and things concerning each other’s families, finances, religion and child rearing.
Unspoken rules are generally not talked about, even though each partner can usually articulate — if pressed — what they are. In this category there are a number of things that are rarely discussed with your partner. They include such things as the roles each partner takes during an argument and what kinds of relationships outside the partnership are acceptable and what is unacceptable.
Automatic rules are often the most difficult to deal with because they are not adopted consciously by either or both partners. For example, many couples become clones of their own families of origin and take on roles in their relationships that either they adopted as children, or observed their parents taking on. Some couples, for instance, don’t even discuss whether to have children. Instead, they automatically continue the family tradition of procreating shortly after marriage — regardless of whether this is a good idea in their case.
Think for a moment about what some of your rules may be from each of these categories. The good news is that once you recognize them, you’re always free to accept, reject, challenge or change those that may no longer work.
Then, imagine that for one beautiful moment you could be free of all your rules — spoken, unspoken and automatic. (Undoubtedly there are some that you don’t want to give up. And why should you? That’s your choice, too.) Now, if you were truly free of all obligatory rules, what changes would you make? Maybe your changes would be drastic. Maybe they would be minor. What’s important is that you let yourself dream from time to time about how your life would change if you could be truly liberated to live it your way — both individually and as a couple. Then put back into place only the rules that with this new level of wisdom, you now choose. If you and your partner try this visualization together, discuss each of your experiences and how you can now use this insight to bring your relationship to an even higher level of fulfillment.
You might want to consider these thoughts when examining your existing rules or coming up with new ones:
• A couple is really an artificial entity. What’s most important is that the needs of the individuals — that is, the needs of both you and your partner — are addressed. Rules that consistently favor one partner over the other ultimately will not work for either of you.
• Avoid looking at yourself as having “sold out” when you concede to something that’s important to your partner. Think in terms of how it’s to your advantage to give something your partner, as it will greatly increase the probability of your partner reciprocating. If not, that may be indicative of a deeper problem that needs to be addressed.
• Practically any relationship can work well when there is no conflict. So no matter what you agree on, expect that there will be some degree of conflict from time to time — particularly with respect to the stickier issues. Thus, allow for fine tuning, when necessary, and be open to change as life requests or demands it.
• It’s never too late to begin discussing old issues that are still bothering you, as well as the new ones that will inevitably come up. Maturity requires that you realize that change is a part of life. The best relationships allow that change will occur in each of you individually and together as a couple.
• Agree to deal with conflicts as they occur. It’s a great idea to discuss ongoing issues at times when you’re not angry, and consider it a problem-solving or brainstorming session that produces a win-win, instead of an argument. If you try to work out a problem in the heat of anger, or if you both retreat into silent resentment, it’s unlikely the problem will be resolved. In fact, it will make you want to avoid the issue altogether until those toxic angry emotions take over — which they inevitably will.
Consider these guidelines from my book The Art of Staying Together, as one more tool to establish rules to make your relationship work optimally. And remember to revisit them as your relationship grows and changes.