One of the constants that couples may have to fight within themselves is the tendency to become parental or the “rule maker” in their relationship. Sometimes these rules are overt when they are presented as commands: “Don’t turn on the television immediately when you walk through the door from work!” Other rules are covert or unspoken and you don’t know about them until you break them: “How could you leave hair in the bathroom sink?”
Making rules can be a big intimacy destroyer in a relationship.
Often the rule maker also appoints themselves the rule enforcer. Since they made up the rules, they feel like they have the right to enforce the rules. But there is a big problem here: their partner didn’t agree to the rules or didn’t know about them. How are rules enforced? They are imposed in many typically maladaptive ways – passively, aggressively or passive-aggressively. In other words I might get angry or withdraw or nag or treat you with silent contempt – but somehow I will make you pay.
Early in our marriage Nan or I would defend our rules by saying “Well, if I didn’t need you to do such and such, then I wouldn’t ask.” The message was clear: “This is one of my rules that you need to obey.” And that was a source of conflict for us until we were able to learn to compromise and agree. Oh, by the way – that took a long time and sometimes we still stumble across it in our relationship.
The best way to deal with a rule-maker is to first reflect what they have said (“So you would like me to connect with you before turning on the television when I come home from work?”) Then you can kindly ask to have a discussion. (“Let’s talk about that.”) You are gently asserting your power within the relationship and letting your partner know that you need to be treated with respect. If you have a very dominant or aggressive partner you may have to be more firm and set a harder boundary. (“I am not comfortable with the way you are approaching me with your ‘request’. We need to talk about this.”)
I have been known, when given a direct command by Nan, to smile and reply, “Are you asking me?” Again, I am communicating my adult status in the relationship. She is always gracious and replies “Sorry. Would you mind….”)? Then there is no conflict that follows and usually I am willing to meet her request – or at least negotiate with her.
When it comes to unspoken rules, we need to identify them. Our partner can’t read our mind, and they didn’t grow up in our family so that they automatically know what is expected. Then we need to talk about them, where we agree and where we disagree. That is one of the exercises that we have couples do in our premarrieds class. It saves a lot of unpleasant conflict later in the marriage.
Whether you are a rule-maker or in a relationship with one, talking about it when you are not in the heat of a conflict can be very helpful. Kindness and humility will win the day.
If you need help from an outside party, don’t be too proud to ask.