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November 1, 2022

Rules of Engagement

When we are in relationships with people, we have expectations. Inevitably, those people will let us down and not say or do the things we want and expect them to do. Many times, these expectations are “unwritten rules” in a relationship.

For example, who takes the trash out? Who mows the lawn? Who does the dishes? Who calls the credit card company when some random charge shows up on the statement? Many couples have not talked about who will necessarily do these things, and yet it’s understood who is responsible for certain tasks in relationships.

We have all been there. Someone with whom we are in a relationship has not done something that was expected (expressed or implied) and now we are upset. Many times we respond with, “You never. . .” or “You always. . .” or, worse yet, “If you loved me, you would. . .” These phrases are destructive to relationships. Using these, and other similar phrases, will cause your partner to become defensive and likely cause an argument.

One reason these phrases are not recommended is because of the word “you.” When you have a complaint to share, using “you” automatically puts the other person in a defensive position. Holding in your displeasure also is not healthy. You should express your displeasure but it would be helpful to do it in a way your partner can hear you and respond without becoming defensive.

One way to accomplish this is by using the phrase, “I am confused.” Using that phrase eliminates the need to use the word “you.” For example, if you prefer gas to be put in your car when it reaches a quarter-tank, and no lower, and your partner drove your car and now the gas light is on, a good way to express your displeasure would be, “I am confused. The gas light is on in the car. I prefer putting gas in when it reaches a quarter-tank.” Notice, while there is no “you” in those three sentences, yet the displeasure is still expressed. This allows your partner to explain their choice to not put gas in without having to become defensive. Maybe they forgot, maybe they didn’t have their wallet, maybe they were late and didn’t have time. It’s a much better discussion than “You are so disrespectful! Every time you drive my car you return it on empty! You do this on purpose just to make me mad!” Notice the difference? A good companion phrase to use with “I’m confused” is “Help me understand.”

Expressing yourself in a relationship is important, but it is also important not to do things on purpose which you know will make the situation worse. Peaceful communication will lead to more sharing and better understanding of yourself and your partner.


It is important to note that this article is not intended to take the place of medical advice or to diminish the effects of mental or personality disorders.

Dr. Brad Hinman, LPC, LMFT, AASECT certified sex therapist; director, Hinman Counseling Services; assistant professor, Andrews University