Rules of Engagement

Long ago, I was told that couples argue primarily about money, neatness and sex. In all of my years of working with couples, I can see that that is a pretty complete list. Of course, there are lots of sub-categories under each of those topics. Money also refers to differences in ambition, preferences toward planning or spontaneity and what contributes to overall feelings of safety and security. Neatness is about how persons organize their homes, and also their lives. And sex is fraught with all kinds expectations and opportunities for disappointment. This remains true whether the relationship monogamous or polyamorous.

So how does this whole relationship thing work? Below is a list of what I call the “rules of engagement”. This is what I have learned from the happiest couples that I know:

• You Know Nothing

I’d like to write this on the walls of my office. Assuming that you know what your partner is thinking and why they are thinking that way is deadly. Your safest, most generous position is to assume that you know nothing about the other person. That way you get to remain curious and open to learning.

When you really get that you are completely different people with different motivations, preferences and desires, you have entered the elite category of happy couple. It’s easy to like your sameness. Can you love your differences?

• Believe What Your Partner Tells You

Stop trying to hear what you want to hear. Stop trying to change their mind. Of course, over time, minds may change, but continuing to ask the same question and hoping, or even demanding, another answer isn’t going to work. There is grief in relationships. Grief, because there are some activities and values that you are just not going to share with each other. No couple is 100% compatible.

• Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Related to #2 is that regardless of what your partner says, what they do is what they mean. They may be telling you something else because they aspire to do things differently, or they just want you to stop bugging them. Believe what they do.

• Cringe Worthy

You will be disappointed and even embarrassed by your partner from time to time. Guess what? They are going to be disappointed and embarrassed by you too.

• All Relationships Are Experiments

No one has this figured out. There is no point of arrival. You figure it out as you go and each relationship is unique.

• You are Your Relationship

Many people fantasize about finding someone better. Your relationship reflects your relationship with yourself. You aren’t going to find someone different if you stay the same.

• Nothing to Lose

If you are thinking about leaving the relationship, take every chance before you do. Say or do what’s in your heart. You have nothing to lose.

• Drop the Blame Game

If you decide to go your separate ways, you can do so peaceably and without blame. Just because a relationship ends, it doesn’t mean that it was a failure. Maybe you had two, or ten, or even twenty good years. That’s an accomplishment, not a failure.

Published in AAC, Work-life Balance