Ground Rules for Sharing Concerns

In every relationship, there are bound to be concerns, complaints, or issues that come up. In marriage, one spouse gets annoyed, the other may be oblivious, but something needs to change. How can you share these offending matters with them without it escalating into a blame game or shutting them down altogether? How can you promote change with someone you love in an effective, God-honoring way?

I have recently dealt with a number of couples who fight so much that it seems the marriage is headed towards separation or divorce. In almost every case, the couples seem to have no “ground rules” or rules of engagement when one spouse has a concern, complaint, or issue with the other. Any attempt at discussing them often becomes a free-for-all with no solutions and lots of anger, resulting in distance or even destruction when it is over. With that in mind, it is helpful to keep certain, basic ground rules to ensure you are heard and they take in what you are saying. Change is possible with a few guidelines.

1) Approach the other person as a friend—that is, as someone who accepts them rather than one who wants to change them.

In 1 Timothy 5, the apostle Paul says that people should be talked to with respect and friendship when correction is the subject. Proverbs 15:1 tells us that a gentle answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up strife. This is so true! When you start the conversation with humility, gentleness, compassion, and friendship, the possibility of success goes way up. However, starting the conversation with harshness, criticism, or excess emotion (see #5 below), make the chances of success next to zero. It goes without saying that talking about change during a fight is a huge mistake, but people do it all the time, “Well if we are really going to talk about what is not working around here, what about the way you treat me when your mom is over?”

People really can only hear correction from a position of friendship, understanding, and acceptance. If we sense that someone wants us to change who is not a friend, then our defenses go up and we resist whatever they are saying. Also, bigger changes may be met with resistance. If that happens, try addressing smaller matters rather than something that will require great change. 

2) Figure out what problems in your marriage are perpetual vs. solvable.

Realize that 70 percent of marriage problems are perpetual and will not be solved by any amount of talking. Yes, it would be better if they picked up their clothes, but that is not going to happen. Yes, it would be a lot easier if they helped with certain chores, but the chores you want them to do are the most distasteful to them for some reason. Perpetual problems need to be understood, embraced, worked with, or worked around. Sometimes it is just something a couple has to laugh about because it is just the way it is. I remember one couple who had a room in their small house that they just wouldn’t go into because they could not agree on how to clean it out. Things would get put in there but very few things came out. It stayed the “clutter room” for over ten years because the husband could not let the wife clean out the room the way she wanted to, and she could not let him clean out the room the way that he wanted to. Yes, it was silly but they stayed happily married, even with a room full of junk. They realized it was a perpetual, unsolvable problem at that time, so they embraced it instead of letting it divide them.

3) Share one concern per month.

There is a tendency with the efficient, leader-type to share lots of concerns or complaints at one time. “Let’s just deal with it all at once while it’s on my mind,” they think. The problem is, this does not bring about the desired change. It lets the frustrated partner get things off their chest, but it doesn’t improve the marriage or relationship. Practice one concern per month wrapped in acceptance and understanding. Even though there are lots of things you might want them to change to make the relationship work best for both of you, refrain from giving them too much all at once. This is called flooding, and it will almost always cause the other person to disengage with you and make no changes at all. They will be like a stone wall which will not move. Men especially will shut down if too many things are rattled off at once. They just can’t process them all to the point of making the change.

Limit the needed changes to one per month. If either one of you makes a change in a month that’s twelve changes! That’s a lot of change! Encourage change for things over time by prioritizing what gets brought up. Only bring up the important ones that really will impact your relationship or your future in some significant way, because you don’t get many of these per year.

4) State your concern clearly and succinctly without wrapping it in emotion.

Many times, people have watched their concerns get more attention when it is wrapped in emotion. Maybe it worked with your parents or your friends a few times, but it will rarely, if ever, be a successful strategy with your spouse if that discussion is wrapped in emotion (anger, fear, tears, moodiness, depression, and so forth). Express your request clearly and calmly, having decided ahead of time about why the change is needed and what you want them to do. If they come back at you, stay calm and keep the emotional level low.

5) Seek education of where the other person’s behavior is coming from.

Sometimes a person responds or promotes things in a relationship based on the way they were raised. Are they just having a bad day? Is something else going on? Are they acting out a pattern from their childhood? All people have ways they act or do things that come from their parents, upbringing, or culture or subculture. It doesn’t make any sense to you, necessarily, but it makes perfect sense to those who were raised that way.

In marriage, there are certain topics that are constant sources of difficulty. A couple needs to decide together “What do we do on the weekends?”, “What happens on holidays?”, “How are the children to be trained and disciplined?”, “How should we handle our finances?”, “What is the connection (or lack of connection) to the extended family?”, etc.All of these and many others can generate complaints, concerns, or issues in marriage. Handle them one at a time, without emotion, realizing that it may just be the way that person was raised.

So decide with your spouse what ground rules or rules of engagement will be employed whenever one of you has a concern, complaint, or issue about the other one. Change is possible if approached one-at-a-time in a clear, respectful, non-emotional, and understanding way.

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Dr. Gil is a catalyst for positive change both personally and organizationally. He excites, educates, and motivates audiences all over the world, through passion, humor, leadership, and wisdom. He is the Discipleship Pastor at Bayside Church in Roseville, CA. He has led seminars in China, Europe, Canada, Mexico, and all over the United States. He has taught at several Christian Universities and Seminaries (BIOLA University, William Jessup University, Western Seminary). He is on the faculty of Principles to Live By, an organization committed to teaching God’s principles in a life-giving way.

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