Could this give couples a “fighting chance?”

Couples in marital distress often do not feel safe discussing their relationship with each other. This week’s column can add a measure of safety to the conversation – see what you think. 

Four Ground Rules to Help Resolve Marital Disputes

For Several years I attended a Smart Marriage conference somewhere in the United States. My first was in 2001 in Orlando, but other conferences I attended were held in Washington DC, Denver, Dallas, San Francisco, and Reno. This annual conference always featured 13 or so keynote presentations along with 160 workshops from which I could select 8.  It was always torture to choose the 8, but since most all were quality presentations from quality presenters it was really a no- lose proposition.
One workshop presenter who made a lasting impression on me was Tom Strohl who had a private practice he called Marriage Works. Whenever he worked with a couple, Tom placed a premium on each party feeling safe in the session. He knew that when couples come for marriage help they are already in a state of distress and he sought to help them feel as comfortable as possible with him, and with his approach to helping them improve their marriage.
So early on in his sessions with a couple Tom would suggest they abide by four ground rules which he felt would increase their chances of reaching a successful outcome. I believe these four ground rules could also be beneficial for your marriage, and your neighbors and their neighbors, etc.
The first ground rule is “No Zingers.” By this he meant that it was off limits for either party to lob verbal grenades at the other. Certainly we all get frustrated with our spouses at times and it’s so easy at those times to let them know how frustrated we are. The problem is that while eventually you will calm down, the damage caused by your hurtful words can take a long time to dissipate. It is far better to avoid causing the damage than it is to try to fix it later. You can’t un-ring a bell and you can’t take back hurtful words – at least not easily or quickly.
Tom knew that while adopting the rule of “No Zingers” was helpful, it might not always be practical in the heat of a battle. This realization led him to Rule Number Two: Time-out. By adopting this rule the couple agreed that if they ever got to a place where they were so upset, so hurt or so angry that they really wanted to hurt the other, they would first call a time-out. I have found time-out to be a hugely effective tool for resolving disputes as it can mitigate further damage to an already troubled relationship.
We tend to think primarily with one part of our brain (the frontal lobe) and we feel mostly with another (the limbic system). There are times when we can get so into our feeling brain that we literally stop thinking. That helps to explain (but not excuse) road rage. It also helps to explain relationship rage and it simply must not be allowed to occur. I can’t encourage you enough to come up with a time-out signal which is clearly understood by every member of the family that the discussion must abruptly stop and be rescheduled at a later time.
This rescheduling is also a vital piece of the rule. We’re talking time-out, not cop-out. Therefore whoever calls for the time-out is obligated to call the time-in, a time when he or she will be back in their thinking brain and willing to discuss the issue that caused the upheaval in the first place. Time-outs typically should be no less than 30 minutes to give your body a chance to calm down, and no longer than 24 hours so the other party knows that his or her concerns will be addressed. You could call for a short time-out and discuss using the LUV talk, but that’s a topic for another column.
Tom’s 3rd rule for couples in counseling is “No Punishment.” It’s one thing to be upset with your spouse; it’s something entirely different to want him or her to have to pay for what they did, or did not do. Trust me, it’s way difficult to keep a happy marriage and want retribution at the same time. You really must decide which is more important to you.
And, lastly, Rule Number 4 is “Talk by Agreement.” You can look back over your marriage and recognize times when you wanted to talk, but your spouse didn’t. The reverse is also true that there have been times when your spouse wanted to talk, but you didn’t. That’s why rule 4 is so important that you agree that you will only discuss sensitive issues when you both agree you are in a proper frame of mind and heart to do so.
Are these four ground rules guaranteed to fix any and all marital problems? Of course not! But what they can do is help each person feel safe in the relationship and to be more willing to fix what’s broken if they know they will not be attacked, that they can escape the conflict with a time-out, that they will not be punished and that they will only talk when both parties are prepared to do so. I can attest that these ground rules are helpful in a marriage coaching session. I invite you to consider how valuable they may be in your home.