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Rules, Rules, Rules

How many rules do couples need to be happy? There are so many websites, blogs and books that seem to answer this question. A quick browse of the bookshelf reveals these actual book titles (in numerical order!):  

The 5 Rules of Marriage

The Dirty Half Dozen: 6 Radical Rules to Make Relationships Last

Buddha's 6 Rules of Love

9 Rules for a Happy Marriage

10 Universal Rules of Love (Plus One)

Relationship Rules: 12 Strategies for Creating a Love that Lasts

19 Rules for a Successful Marriage

20 (Surprisingly Simple) Rules and Tools for a Great Marriage

33 Rules of Relationship and Partnership

The 40 Rules of Love

41 Love Rules

50 Rules of a Relationship

Who Are You Mr. Right: 60 Marriage Psychology Rules

101 Tips for a Happier Marriage

Web blogs also boast formulas for successful relationships, from "4 Keys to Successful Relationships" to "25 Must-Follow Relationship Rules for Happy Love." Even I get lost in all the shoulds and shouldn'ts, and the more I read, the more I'm convinced I'm not doing relationships right because the message I get is that the more rules I follow the happier I will be. It would be amazing if we could make relationships easier and more gratifying at the same time. To that end, I follow only one rule, and the couples I work with who adopt that one rule find their relationships to be happier and healthier.

Be Considerate

One of my first jobs in this field was as a school counselor. As part of their curriculum, I led a social skills group for middle school aged children. After introducing the purpose of the group, and the fact that they might be talking about personal things, I said, "So that no one here gets hurt, I think we should have some rules for the group." I let them brainstorm the rules that they thought were pertinent to themselves, and they came up with rules you might expect from this age group, including those shown on the blackboard to the left. 

In all, the 8 students in the group came up with 15 different rules!  Looking at the long list scribbled on the board, I mentioned to them that even I would have a hard time remembering them all. I asked them if we might be able to simplify the set, and they agreed that would help them too.  So I asked "What kind of person refrain from calling their classmates names?" After some discussion, they arrived at "someone who is considerate." Then I asked, "What kind of person would not interrupt their classmate?" Again, more discussion led to "someone who is considerate." They got the idea quickly after that, and I suggested to them that the whole list of words can be reduced to one simple rule then: "Be considerate." I wish I had a transcript of the next 20 minutes as 13-14 year-olds debated what it meant to be considerate, which ultimately led them to create another list of rules!

So I helped them clarify what it means to be considerate. When two people in a relationship agree that they are going to have each others' backs, it helps to develop trust, and having a person on your side gives you a sense of security. What we want to know is that when a person makes a decision that might affect us, that our interests are also kept in mind. My wife wants to know that I am looking out for her and her interests, even when she's not with me. It's like she is always there with me, alongside me in my head, helping me to make choices. If I don't keep her in mind, and my decision ends up hurting, frustrating, embarrassing or inconveniencing her, she then feels betrayed, a mark against me on her trust meter. By making her interests my interest also, I am letting her know that I am on her team, and that gives her reason to stay on my team and have my back.

(see my blog on Trust)

Using One Rule

Although relationships at times seem to be hard, it's probably because one or both parties isn't using this one rule, to be considerate. Over the years, I have seen how using this rule can apply to any situation, even in the midst of conflict. I have coached couples in how to be mindful of their partners' feelings and needs, including in those tough moments when their own feelings seem threatened. Here are some examples.

Let's start with an obvious one. Jill and Chuck were looking forward to one day purchasing a home. They had established money goals and a budget which would secure these dreams. All was going well and they were on track, until one day Jill came home with a new puppy which cost her $500. She knew Chuck loved dogs and assumed he would fall in love with the new pet just as she had. It turned out that he had more anxieties about money than Jill, and all he saw were dollar signs, envisioning a long line of additional costs. Jill made the decision to purchase the dog with her own wants in mind, and projected those wants onto her husband. She had forgotten they were two separate people, and assumed that he would think and feel exactly like she did. If she truly had considered Chuck in her decision, she would have sat down with him and discussed this option in person, with the budget in front of them. However, this was an emotional decision, and when making emotional decisions, we fall prey to all kinds of rationalizations. Being in a marriage relationship necessarily involves working as a team always. Lacking Jill's consideration, Chuck's resentment and sense of betrayal may make it difficult for him to bond well with the puppy, and he may see the animal as competing for her affections. 

Now, in this example, Chuck also had a responsibility to be considerate towards Jill. An emotional response would be to complain about the money, berate her and try to force her feel guilty about her decision. Is this how good teammates should work together? How would this response polarize the couple further? As I have seen in my office, these kinds of exchanges almost always increase the emotional divide between people, making it harder to work together. A more considerate response to Jill bringing home the puppy would be to calmly help her talk about her decision, validate her feelings about the puppy, and help her to discuss how the budget might be affected by the new family member. It could be that the pet would fit into their financial picture, but Chuck's anxieties about money made him react emotionally rather than helping Jill to work with him and hear his concerns. If they look at the finances together, with the mindset that they are on the same team, it is possible that either they could make it work, or both agree that it's not the right time for them to get the pet. It is very important to remember that it's easier for two people to work together gladly if they are being kind and considerate to each other, and not imposing their emotional baggage on each other.

Making choices with your partner in mind is essential to being on the same team. Traci and Samantha considered themselves to be married. They had talked about the possibility of living elsewhere, but when Traci came home from a job she dreaded announcing that she applied for and got an interview for a job in another state, Samantha dug in her heels and was resistant to that option. Once open to moving, feeling betrayed made her less sympathetic to Traci's feelings.

Brent knew that his wife, Cassie, had a very difficult week. Her mom was diagnosed with cancer, and she dropped the ball at work, leading to her boss reprimanding her. But Brent was looking forward to his 40th birthday over the weekend, and wished it to be special. Rushing home from an especially tough Friday, she went out of her way to pick up a nice cake for him. They didn't eat cake very often, and she made a judgement call. Being considerate, he could have chosen to see her love, and appreciated her efforts to make her happy. Instead, because he was frustrated it wasn't his favorite cake, he immediately blurted out, "You should know I prefer chocolate!" He wasn't thinking about her at that moment, and his choice of words made Cassie's heart sink. She broke down in tears, sad that Brent saw her as a failure.

We make choices all day long. When you're in a serious relationship, you're no longer making those choices for just yourself. Many of those decisions will affect your partner. If they have the potential of affecting your partner, whether it's the words you choose, the food you eat, the company you keep, or the money you spend, or career options, you must keep in mind the only rule that's important in a relationship... 

To Be Considerate.

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