All organized sports have ground rules to point competitors in the right direction, make sure they’re doing the right things, and keep them from committing penalties. Rules make good sense in relationships and marriages, too, to keep couples from making serious, life-altering mistakes with each other.
Violate this list at your own peril:
1. Never, ever curse at each other.
Calling your partner a curse word is displays contempt for them. All your post-curse apologies cannot erase what you said from your partner’s memory — and you can guarantee your hurtful words will come up again, exactly as you said them, in another argument, sooner or later.
2. Don’t make threats, conditional or otherwise.
Saying things like, “You don’t have the guts to leave!” or “I dare you to try to get along without me!” puts the other person into a mindset where he or she suddenly has to decide if it may come down to leaving you. Conditional threats — “If you do or don’t do this, then I will do or not do that…” — are a good way to create a lot of doubt in a partner’s mind about the future of the relationship. Threats rarely lead to positive behavioral change, especially if the other person fears that he or she will hear them again later.
3. Don’t bring up partners from the past.
Nothing is more hurtful than being compared unfavorably to another “better” lover, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, from the past; it just cuts a partner to the core. “I should have stayed with...” or “I should have married...” are brutal things to hear.
4. Don’t keep score, especially for trivial things.
Saying things like, “You got me a lousy birthday gift three years ago!” is petty and not helpful when addressing current problems. Focus on the now. It’s hard for your partner to defend himself or herself for something you failed to bring up many months or years ago — and it's unfair to ask them to do so.
5. Don’t use sweeping generalizations like “You always...” or “You never...”
These types of statements are hurtful because both people know they aren’t true. Saying, “You never compliment me on what I’m wearing!” or “You never listen to me when I tell you about my problems at work” is usually not correct. Your partner has done these things, as you both well know, even if they perhaps haven't done them enough. Better to say, “It makes me feel better when you compliment me,” or “Can I get your full attention when I talk about what’s bothering me at work?”
6. Don’t argue in the bedroom.
This is an easy fix and an important one. Your bedroom should be used for sleeping, snacking, reading, TV, and sex. That’s it. It needs to remain a real place of peace. Fighting in the bedroom turns it into a place associated with conflict and fills the room with a negative energy that is hard to shake.
7. Don’t go to bed with unresolved issues.
Sleeping next to someone you are furious at is nearly impossible. Solve your issues, for as long as it takes, and declare a peace treaty at least until the next day.
8. Don’t give someone the silent treatment longer than one day.
Certain people are capable of giving a partner the silent treatment for weeks. This only creates a level of tension that makes daily living unbearable. Passing in the hallway and saying nothing for days is sad, tedious, and usually only leads to more arguments. (Related acts, like door slamming or stomping around, are equally childish.)
9. Don’t yell in front of your kids (or pets).
The noise you generate from screaming at each other terrifies young kids and/or pets. These sensitive creatures are easily scared by disruptions in their routines, especially when they don’t understand why they are happening.
10. Don’t say mean personal things.
It’s common for angry couples to try to hurt each other when arguments get out of control. One method is to pick on something the other person either can’t control (baldness, fading attractiveness), has tried hard to control (weight, fitness level), or is sensitive about (certain body parts, sexual performance). Like using curse words, these examples will be filed away and brought back up at a later time.
11. Don’t throw things when you're angry.
It’s easy to let things get completely out of hand when you or your partner start tossing things at each other in anger. Unlike in romantic comedies on the big screen, though, in real life this rarely leads to both partners suddenly laughing at each other and then falling into bed for make-up sex. Throwing anything at someone can lead to an escalation of the original fight to new, worse levels, injuries, or even criminal charges if the injuries are serious enough. Heaving your partner’s cell phone at his or her face is just a bad idea.
Bonus Ground Rule: Don’t wait to get professional therapeutic help until it’s too late.