This week, I’m continuing my series on the six rules of communication. If you haven’t read rule one, go here. This post will focus on rules two and three. You can also find a great introduction to these rules and how they emerged. These rules are also found in my book, The Emotionally Secure Couple, which you can buy here or anywhere quality books are sold.  We are constantly communicating, yet it is an area of our lives where we are often given the least training or guidelines.

These six rules can provide a wonderful framework for all of our communication. They give us a relatively objective standard by which we can navigate difficult and even painful conversations and protect what is most important to us: our precious relationships.

Rule 2: Always Avoid Always and Never Say Never

A common but destructive tactic couples employ is the utilization of universal statements about what the other person does. This often leads to the couple arguing over the validity of the universal claim. An example might look like the conversation I overheard: Woman: You always ignore me when I want to talk about politics. Man: No, I don’t. I haven’t done it for at least three days. The other day, I listened to you rant about how bad (fill in politician’s name) is and how we’re all doomed. Female: See! You’re always so judgmental! Male: You never want to talk about anything else. Female: Because if I don’t want to talk about your precious football or damn music, I don’t want to talk about anything important. Notice how the conversation devolved because each person was arguing against the universal statements, not the actual problem. That’s the problem with universal statements: they automatically increase the defensiveness of our partner. It hides the real hurt and problem behind statements that sound as though they are designed to tear down rather than build up. Think about human nature for a moment. Most of us will think of the exception to what’s being said even if we don’t voice that exception. When the words are leveled at us, we tend to double down on this natural instinct. This works against emotional security, and fosters distrust. I almost always add the word almost when I hear someone say “always” or “never” in my head. I cannot think of a time when I have seen those types of universal words used in a manner that benefited the conversation or the relationship attached to that conversation. Those words are used to end the conversation. It’s the adult equivalent of, “I’m right, you’re wrong, nah nah nah!” To have an emotionally secure relationship, you must use words inviting conversation with your spouse. Even if you do not want to invite conversation, using these words will often derail you from your actual goal. Look at the example above. Do you see something that moves toward her real problem? The real reason she wanted to talk in the first place? I see an interaction devolving into a shouting match, where emotions escalate and dialogue dies. When your partner uses a universal statement, you have a choice. You can seize on that problem, or you can invite dialogue. You might ask, “Could you tell me more?” By utilizing this technique, you are showing interest in building the relationship. This avoids a final problem with these types of statements: they show only self-interest. There is little interest in understanding the other person’s point of view on the topic. It moves the conversation and the couple away from shared understanding and toward misunderstanding and hurt. Healthy couples seek to understand each other’s viewpoints before responding. When I teach this principle in marriage conferences, I often use the following example: Wife: You never do this! Husband: That’s not true. I think it was six years ago. Fall. It had just rained… That silly illustration shows the absurdity of our conversations when we engage in unhealthy strategies.

Rule 3: Does It Have to Be a Problem?

So much of what happens doesn’t have to be a problem. The difference between couples who are doing well and couples who are on the verge of divorce is that the couple in a good place knows that not everything has to be a problem. For couples who are in trouble, everything is a problem. They cannot tolerate the stress of disagreement in bad situations. In my experience and based on my reading of various studies, couples across the health spectrum have the same degree of what I call flash points. Flash points are those times that could devolve into a fight if one or either person pushes the emotional status just a little more toward the fight, or they can pull back just a little. Their belief regarding the necessity of something being a problem will often make the difference. If a person believes that every slight, every difference, must be addressed, they will often be willing to push into the fight. Sometimes, perhaps often, the best thing to do is just let it go. Whatever it is. But what does need to be a problem, and what doesn’t? The answer is going to look differently for each couple and I like to teach what I call the 5-5-5 rule. The rule basically states this: If in 5 hours, 5 weeks, or 5 years, you are standing at your spouse’s grave, will whatever you are stressed about currently be a problem? If the answer is that it will not be a problem at the graveside, then it probably doesn’t have to be a problem now. I am often told this sounds both radical and unreasonable, but is it? Is it truly unreasonable to choose to err on the side of believing in your spouse and your relationship? How many fights have you gone through, and then later, you couldn’t remember what started it? How many times have you decided later that you were just tired or hungry? I strongly believe that most of the fights couples have are harmful because they are unnecessary in the first place. I often tell couples that they just need twenty minutes of serious self-control. After twenty minutes of just walking away or acting like nothing bothers them, the urge to fight will continually pass. The twenty minutes has a second benefit. It allows the fire to burn down, often helping us avoid a fight over something that doesn’t really need to be a problem and helps us have a better perspective for the things that do have to be a problem. When a couple can take twenty minutes to begin processing their distress, they may decide that “it” does have to be a problem. When this happens and they have developed the habit of slowing things down by waiting for an intentional time period, they can begin to formulate how they will approach the conflict with their spouse. This intentionality gives the conversation the benefit of being engineered to express the problem without unnecessarily increasing the defensiveness. Let’s move on to the final three rules of BADFIT. Questions for Deeper Interaction: How intentional do you think you can be in the moment of a fight/argument? What strategies might you employ to be better? Do you or your spouse struggle with universal language? What strategies might you employ to be better? The third rule, while one of the simplest, can also be one of the most difficult for couples to navigate. How will you and your partner decide on what has to be a problem? 


This concludes the first half of BADFIT. Our words will either build our relationship or tear it down. They are rarely neutral. Intentionality allows us to have difficult conversations that consistently build our relationships. Avoiding universals allows us to stay on topic while deciding what is and what is not a problem and allows us to avoid needless arguments. These three simple rules set us up to navigate the conversations that we must have by following rules 4-6, which we will discuss next week.

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