Rules of Engagement: Keys to Saving Your Marriage


Before my husband and I walked down the aisle, we participated in our church’s marriage preparation program, as many people do. Being perennially eager students, we also followed the advice of a friend and went through a great book entitled “Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts” by Dr.’s Les and Leslie Parrott. After all, we reasoned, who could not glean something from a couple so married that they are both physicians with the same name? We were not disappointed.

A particularly helpful part of the book helps you define love. To a newlywed this can seem like a rather absurd question. Doesn’t everyone define love the same way? The greatest take away is that no, indeed, they do not. Fortunately, my husband and I found we held the same principles to be paramount, and discussing them ahead of time strengthened and cemented them, serving as guideposts that we often revisit; our rules of engagement so to speak.

When discussing love, it might seem odd to use such a military term and yet it is strangely appropriate. Relationship rules of engagement can be defined as a clearly delineated set of responsibilities and operational constraints. The first step to protecting any relationship is to acknowledge that it is always prone to some type of assault; whether external or internal, passive or active.

The first rule of engagement is the commitment to fight for the relationship at all times. Without that, there is no need to define any of the other rules. Love is a choice and it needs to be proactively chosen each day.

The second guideline is to acknowledge that you are both fighting on the same side, with a mutual commitment to defeat the problem together. Sun Tzu, the legendary Chinese general and author of “The Art of War”, stated that it is essential to “know your enemy.” Your loved one is not the enemy but instead your greatest ally, and your relationship the treasure being protected. This valuable operational constraint guides us to attack the problem not our loved ones.

Third is a commitment is to immediately identify the problem when one of you sees it so that it can be dealt with right away. Many Christians refer to this as the “Matthew 18 Principle” which basically advises that if someone wrongs you, take it to that person right away before it builds to a point that the groundwater is irreversibly poisoned.

While this should not devolve into an exercise of constant correction, the importance of this rule cannot be stressed enough. Its absence is what leads couples to wake up one day, far apart and numb to each other with nothing but a heap of bitterness between them. Deal with issues before they pile up into a insurmountable barrier of resentment.

This is crucial because it creates the opportunity for the next, and perhaps most important rule of engagement, forgiveness. While this list is not exhaustive, it is fitting to conclude with forgiveness, because as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, stated “forgiveness is the final form of love.”

Forgiveness is the most unnatural relationship tenet because it is not the instinctual reaction of any human being when hurt. Perhaps that is why it is also the most transformative and liberating. When we choose to forgive we open a window for a much higher healing power.

As the renowned English Poet Alexander Pope famously stated, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” We will all find ourselves on both sides of this equation because we are all flawed, yet beautiful works-in-progress. It is only in the safety of committed relationships guided by grace that we can become our best selves.

Best of all, these rules are universally effective and can be applied not just to marriage, but also to every meaningful relationship in our lives. When we come to one another in a spirit of commitment, openness and forgiveness, miraculous change can occur; families can be transformed, children equipped, and friendships reinforced. In the battle of life, these really are the only prizes worthy of the fight and by fighting together we can be victorious.