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Setting the rules for arguing (yes, you should!)

What do all organized team sports have, that we rarely think about? A rulebook. Could any of the sports we enjoy watching on a regular basis exist if the two teams playing each other didn’t agree on what the rules were? Doubtful.

We all come into relationships with the best intentions. We all have morals. We think to ourselves: “Just don’t be a jerk when you don’t agree, and it will all sort itself out.” So the idea of making an explicit rulebook seems a little unnecessary. Surely you and your partner are reasonable, right?

Well, the thing is, you and your partner will likely agree on 95% of the things you are and aren’t allowed to do in a conflict. And our intuitions reflect that. But those last 5% are bound to cause problems.

Imagine a hypothetical football game with two teams who know the game, but haven’t played each other before and are from different leagues with their own rules. Team A thinks, it’s okay for the defense to hand-check the receiver off the line of scrimmage. Team B thinks that’s a no-no. (If you don’t follow football, the terminology is not critical. One team thinks it’s okay to have a little more physical contact than the other when playing defense.) Inherently, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. But the important thing is that they need to agree. Otherwise, when team A’s actions run counter to team B’s expectations, it’s going to cause a problem. Team B is going to be upset. They are going to get mad. And then, after that, what’s going to happen the next time Team B is on defense? They’re probably going to retaliate. Soon you have some bad blood brewing. Team A is probably going to retaliate back because they thought what they did was fine, and Team B was being too physical. Your game has just turned into a fight.

So what’s the solution? Agree on the rules. How do you do this effectively? You sit down and make a conflict contract. Seriously. Find a time when you are in a good mood. Agree to each write down the things that you think should be against the rules. At first, write down your own list, then share, compare and discuss. Likely what is going to happen is you’re going to write down the things your partner does that you don’t like, and they’re going to do the same regarding you. You might not agree on everything. But you might also find you agree on a lot, even if they’re things that you admit that you do that aren’t the greatest.

Type up the list. Sign it. (that’s critical.) Post it somewhere you can refer to it. If you have kids, the list might need to stay somewhere in your bedroom or other private space.

The great thing about this is, now you both know what the rules are. They can be enforced. You’ve agreed to them. If one person says something intentionally hurtful or hurls an insult at the other, that’s a penalty. It's literally in black and white. Still, sometimes it’s hard to avoid hurtful things in the moment. But your partner might call you on it. You should acknowledge that you’ve broken the rules, apologize, and continue from there. If you don’t, and you want to continue breaking the rules, what does that say about you? I would say that’s not being a good partner and we know where the blame lies.

So, since there’s no external referee, you both get to be the referee. And you both get to abide when the other person calls a foul. It’s okay to call the other person out, really. Your partner agreed to it.

Lastly, the rulebook you’ve come up with is not the Constitution. If you find it’s not working for you, you can mutually agree to revise it until you’re happy with it. Even pro sports tweak the rules from time to time.

When you've agreed on the rules, it acts like guardrails on conflict. It keeps conflicts contained, and helps you come to a resolution with less bad feelings.

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