The Rules of Engagement

The Rules of Engagement

As far as marital satisfaction itself was concerned, I think what contributed most was their ability to naturally put the marriage and the partnership above winning. That was the thread that held them all together: the relationship was more important than winning. They would argue, just like all couples do, but they were able to restore the relationship because of how (and how much) they valued the partnership.

Growing your marriage side-by-side

A conversation with Dorothy O’Neill

Sometimes the very idea of people being ‘happily married’ for decades seems like just another fairytale. More and more couples are getting divorced, or they hang on grimly, disenchanted with their marriages but staying together ‘for the kids’ … 

Down the road you’ve got the McBickersons, who do nothing but gripe and complain about each other all the time. A few houses down from them live Mr and Mrs Silent Treatment. And across the street you’ll find Mr Hedgehog and Ms Rhino, who have equally dysfunctional ways of handling their conflicts. And these are the ones who’ve actually stayed together!

Sadly, examples of unhappy or broken marriages can be found in most neighbourhoods, making the lives of all those involved miserable. But it doesn’t have to be that way – and thankfully, throughout those same neighbourhoods, examples of healthy, vibrant relationships can also be found.

So how can we do better in our own relationships? How can we have a ‘successful’ marriage? 

Dr Dorothy O’Neill, couples therapist, and author of The Rules of Engagement, set out to discover what couples who enjoyed successful marriages had in common. And she chatted with us about what her investigations revealed …

GRAPEVINE: What led you to write The Rules of Engagement?

DR DOROTHY O’NEILL: As a therapist, I’d been working with couples whose relationships were in trouble – couples who needed a helping-hand to get their marriages healthy and happy. But over time I became intrigued by the question of how couples, who hadn’t been in therapy, achieved this kind of contentment in their marriage. How did they apply the ongoing repair-work needed for a successful marriage? How did they develop the ability to accept one another – in a tolerant, rather than permissive, way?

So that’s how it came about – I wanted to see how a healthy marriage naturally evolved. This curiosity led to my research, and the research led to The Rules of Engagement.

GV: How did you choose the nine couples you interviewed – and what was it that determined they had ‘successful’ marriages? 

DR DOROTHY: The couples I chose had to score a certain level on the Couples’ Satisfaction Inventory (CSI – a series of self-test questionnaires for couples), putting them above the average level of happiness in their marriages. And, despite arguing and disagreeing at times, they had never experienced the divisiveness of those who would often end up in therapy with me. I was curious about how these successful couples achieved the sort of flow that they had with one another: what factors helped them work well together and stay married when other couples with the same issues ended up divorced? 

In therapy, we work towards resolution of conflict – but these couples were resolving conflict naturally, without therapeutic interventions.

GV: So, what common elements did you find contributed to marital satisfaction?

DR DOROTHY: The couples themselves were very different from one another – they were Pakistani, Hispanic, African-American, etc – they were agnostic and Christian, both Catholic and Protestant – so there was no cultural or religious norm. Aside from having scored highly in the CSI, the only things all the couples had in common were that they’d all been married for at least 15 years and they all had children. 

During the research (and it was proper, empirical research – not just interviews), I asked them all the same questions, and when they’d talk about their lives, the content was very similar. Sometimes they’d even say the same thing – even using identical phrases!

As far as marital satisfaction itself was concerned, I think what contributed most was their ability to naturally put the marriage and the partnership above winning. That was the thread that held them all together: the relationship was more important than winning. They would argue, just like all couples do, but they were able to restore the relationship because of how (and how much) they valued the partnership.

GV: Okay, let’s get started. Tell us about your Six Rules of Engagement …

Rule 1: MONEY

Organise finances early and understand one another’s role in financial management.

DR DOROTHY: The first rule I identified is organising finances early in the marriage. These couples had an understanding and an acceptance around spending, saving, etc. The young ones tended to put their finances together immediately upon being married; then they looked at the money as something that belonged to both of them. Couples who got married later in life tended to keep some accounts separate, but they also maintained and used a common account. This arrangement was very fluid, and it worked well for them. 

In many relationships that result in divorce, couples are divided over finances. They keep their accounts separate. I think that trust is a major factor – you’re making that money, and by making it available to your spouse, you have to trust that he or she will honour the hard work and the finances as much as you do. If you can develop trust with your finances, then that really lays the foundation for trust in other areas of your relationship.

GV: When the couples you’d chosen came into conflict over their finances, how did they resolve it?

DR DOROTHY: With any couple, if someone wants something and the other doesn’t, there’s going to be a conflict – that’s a given. But in each of these relationships, none of them would just go and make the purchase, and then come back and tell their partner about it afterwards. It was definitely important to them to discuss beforehand what they wanted to spend money on. And when their spouse really didn’t agree, it wasn’t all over at that point – they would still negotiate the issue, talking about why it wasn’t a good idea at the time, or how they could make it work, or discussing whether there might be a time in the future when they could do it.

If one of them truly wanted something, and their partner could see that it was really important to them, then the other would concede. This was always within the confines of financial safety, though; they would never do anything at the expense of jeopardising the family security. None of them looked at money as a short-term thing – they always took the long view. Some of the couples were extremely wealthy, but they still had very conservative spending habits.

GV: In your book, you mentioned four practices to do with money that studies have shown to be important in maintaining a happy marriage – can you tell us about them? 

DR DOROTHY: Definitely. The first is the practice of joint decision making – that discussion around purchases, and the willingness to work it out together – what we’ve just talked about. The next idea is economic security, which means that the needs of the family – paying bills, having a secure home, and paying money towards the needs of the children, etc. – comes before the needs of the couple themselves. These couples didn’t just spend money – again, it was about long-term thinking. 

The third practice is successful conflict management – these couples could disagree with one another completely, but they never confused the issue with the personal. The issue over spending money on something was about that thing, not about the person who wanted it. 

And the fourth idea is family commitment – the commitment to the marital bond, which means that the family comes first.

GV: Getting back to that third one … you say the key to managing conflict is avoiding making things personal?

DR DOROTHY: Absolutely! One of the major causes of conflict for many couples is that it does become personal. Someone not taking the rubbish out isn’t just about the mess or inconvenience of an overflowing bin – the one who asked their spouse to put the rubbish out takes his/her neglect as a sign that they’re personally unimportant to their spouse … So that person reacts, “You can’t even do the smallest thing for me!” And their spouse’s response is to take that personally and respond, “I can’t ever do anything right!” 

It sort of spirals. And that’s because the issue has become personal.

In a healthy relationship, the response to a spouse failing to take out the rubbish is, “You forgot to take the rubbish out, and the whole kitchen smells disgusting!” To which their spouse might respond, “Oh, I’m sorry – I was rushing and I forgot to do that …” You might be irritated that the house smells like rubbish, but it’s not personal. This was a theme that ran through everything in these couples’ relationships: they managed to keep the issue separate from the personal.

If you make conflict resolution about your ‘couplehood’, and not about winning, then you’re already ahead. That’s a huge part of having a successful marriage. When you’re in conflict, work out where the issue is, and keep it distinct from the personal.


Accept the role of extended family, while understanding that the couple relationship comes first.

GV: What’s your second rule of engagement?

DR DOROTHY: The second rule is to have an acceptable tolerance of the extended family. This one’s tough – we deal with it all the time in my therapy room. It’s so common to strike problems navigating the demands and expectations of the extended family. For our successful couples, there was a real sense of separation from the extended family to support the spouse. They made the decision that their marriage came first – however, they also recognised that we need our extended families, and they worked to maintain those relationships.

Two couples in the study had the hardest time because, in each case, one spouse wasn’t accepted by the extended family. One wife was ostracised because of income (his wealthy family felt that she was just after his money). Another wife felt excluded because of race (the family were Hispanic and didn’t accept their Caucasian daughter-in-law). But, in both cases, the partners understood the unhappiness their spouses felt by being separated from their extended families. 

However, instead of giving in to a selfish desire to make the gap even wider, both couples made selfless efforts to work together, ensuring those extended families remained a part of their lives (while not forfeiting their own marriage to do so). They navigated the issue together, and they mutually understood the importance of both relationships. And, once again, they didn’t make it personal. 

When you don’t let it get personal, then you’re not going to react defensively; instead, you’re going to seek resolution. You’re going to look at the big picture and ask, together, what you can do. 

GV: How do you make this happen? How can new couples accommodate the expectations of extended family without sacrificing their own relationship?

DR DOROTHY: Well, it’s often terribly difficult. In healthy families, the in-laws see their children having their own lives and they respect the fact that they need to invest in their own partnership. I call it the next layer of the onion. Although the onion’s a whole, the layers are also separate. In healthy families the extended families understand the couples’ needs and respect their decisions – if they can’t be together for Christmas, for instance, they’ll accept that decision and just hope they can see the couple after the holidays. But in unhealthy extended families there’s conflict over these things. 

It’s very important for the couple to actually discuss the question – what do we want? – prior to saying yes or no to any of the extended family. 

Couples meet, they date, they fall in love – and then they get married. They bring all their history into that relationship, and yet often they’ve never talked about it. You wouldn’t go and buy a car without finding out the specs, the history, etc. – and yet many people get married with this blind belief that ‘our two worlds are going to collide beautifully’. And of course, it never quite happens that way. 

Talking about expectations is an important, but easily overlooked, exercise for those entering into marriage.


Make rules for the kids that work for both of you – and both agree to uphold those rules.

GV: What would you say is the greatest source of conflict in a marriage? 

DR DOROTHY: I asked my couples just that – and every single one of them said: “The kids!” As a married couple, you have a bond with each other. In a strong marriage, you really work together, share time together, and have this sense of being ‘one’. But when you become parents, you have to modify that bond to include another person (or people) that you love just as much. 

GV: So what advice can you give us – how can a happy marriage be maintained while raising kids? 

DR DOROTHY: I’ve thought about this a lot over my years as a therapist. What I’ve discovered is that these successful couples used a combination of three key strategies to keep the couple relationship healthy while co-parenting effectively. 

First, you need to maintain the importance of the couple relationship. Second, you need to remember that we each reflect our own upbringing. And third, you need to strive to stay on the same page as your spouse.

We each bring so much of our past into parenting – our own childhood experience (functional or dysfunctional) greatly influences how we parent and how we respond to our spouse’s parenting methods. It’s important to analyse our own behaviour and address conflicts arising from it. And it’s also important to recognise the instinct we have as parents to defend. We want to protect our kids – so when we view what our spouse is doing as harmful, we become defensive – and then that creates conflict. 

If your spouse was raised by parents who used smacking as a punishment, for instance, but you feel that corporal punishment is completely unacceptable, then you’re going to have to communicate about that and resolve the conflict.

We’re often triggered into an instant response or reaction – and that’s a tough thing to navigate. You have to teach yourself, when these situations occur, to talk through it, negotiate, and create rules for parenting that you both agree with. In a relationship where there’s respect for your marriage and respect for your partner, you listen to one another and take your partner’s perspective on board.


Understanding, accepting, compromising and conceding are positive parts of a healthy relationship; when dealing with conflict, preserving the relationship is the goal – it’s not about ‘winning’.

GV: You mention how parenting differences can lead to conflict between couples; what about personality differences?

DR DOROTHY: We all have unique personalities. And when we expect our partner to conform to be more like us, that leads to conflict. Extroverted people might expect their spouse to come home from a trip or a party, for example, and talk about it. After all, that’s what they enjoy doing, so why wouldn’t their spouse?! But if their spouse is an introvert, he or she is going to need some downtime after an outing or event. 

So being ‘successful’ in this area of your relationship is simply a matter of appreciating that we’re not all wired the same way. 

Effective couples learn to read one another’s moods and appreciate those differences, rather than becoming frustrated over them. If you can understand that your differences are also your strengths, then you can appreciate those differences in each other and they don’t become a threat to your relationship. 

Common to all the couples I studied were three attributes: understanding differences … compromising over differences … and conceding when it came to conflict. 

Someone asked me, when I was doing the research, if it was the same person who always conceded – or the same gender who gave in more often. What I found, in fact, was that the person who conceded varied widely. It tended to be the more passive partner, but both males and females conceded, and it was never submissive – it was a conceding with acceptance that made things work for them as a couple. 

It doesn’t have to be ‘tit-for-tat’ – or “you win this time, but then I get to win next time”. It’s whatever works. At times the more passive person stood their ground and said, “This is what I really want!” – and they got it, because it was important. So it’s not that they never got their own way on things.

To quote my friend and mentor Dr Andrew Christensen, “Conflict is a window into vulnerability.” When you’re facing conflict in your relationship, it’s exposing the fact that there’s a vulnerability. If you can see the vulnerability, you can understand the conflict.

Rule 5: FAMILY

The family comes first – and outside activities should be experienced wherever possible as a family.

GV: Prioritising family time – how does that contribute to a happy marriage?

DR DOROTHY: Making family time a priority is difficult these days, because often both parents are working. With all the couples in the study, though, I found that time together was prioritised – even if it was just having a meal together each day or being at some of the kids’ activities together. Prioritising a family meal and supporting the kids’ endeavours as a family – these are both great investments, with benefits to the couple relationship as well.

Another thing that contributes to a happy marriage is family holidays. And that was common for all of the couples in my study: they didn’t take holidays apart. I know lots of couples who go away individually, but none of our chosen couples did that – not even once. That wasn’t how they saw their family. When their kids were young, they spent lots of time as a family, and really enjoyed each other’s company. Their idea of family was that it was about all of them – there was a real sense of it being about ‘us’ rather than just about ‘me’.

GV: What about having time just to themselves as a twosome – how did your couples prioritise that?

DR DOROTHY: They’d carve out time for themselves, setting aside time to chat and catch up after the kids were in bed. They’d put their feet up for a movie and a glass of wine, or just hang out together. They didn’t agonise about having a regular, scheduled date night – they were just intentional about spending time together as a couple within the context of their regular lives with kids. 

GV: You talk in the book about ‘preserving the relationship’ – can you tell us more about how successful couples achieve that? 

DR DOROTHY: The couples in my study preserved their relationships in many ways. They admired one another and spoke kindly of one another. They were proud of each other and proud of things they did. They could even say negative things about each other that weren’t construed as negative – they could have a laugh about it! They were able to acknowledge little failings or idiosyncrasies without making it about someone’s failure as a spouse. They didn’t need to win – that was really important. And something they all said was this: when they had a disagreement they couldn’t resolve, they’d separate to cool down, think things through, and return later to tackle the issue together. Time always helps.

Also, these couples didn’t sweat the small stuff. They could read one another’s emotions – and they were flexible. They’d respond with love. They made it a matter of importance to take care of their partner’s wellbeing, not just their own. None of these couples would be cruel to each other. They didn’t use foul language or belittle one another. Some of them showed public affection and some were more private – but regardless, there was an underlying love, kindness and respect. 

Some of the couples were faith-based, and for them prayer and attending church together were very important – and turning to God for help when they were in conflict. They all believed strongly in the sanctity of their marriage and the need to keep working at it – they believed in their vows.

GV: Faith or religion is another area that can cause stress when couples aren’t in agreement. How did the couples in your study navigate that particular challenge?

DR DOROTHY: Well, for one of my couples, he was an atheist, and she was a Catholic – but there was that same thing we talked about earlier, of wanting your partner to feel loved and appreciated. It’s that acceptance through tolerance. You may not believe in this, but that doesn’t mean you can’t accept that your partner does. 

Some people in relationships do really annoying things and they’re never going to change – early-birds married to night owls; people who like the house cold married to people who like to keep the temperature up inside; all kinds of differences you learn to tolerate. 

If you don’t believe in religion, but it’s important to your spouse, then you can put their needs ahead of yours and negotiate that difference in the same way you negotiate all the others.


Remember the past and how you came together as a way to accept your differences.

GV: Your final rule of engagement is about remembering the past. Can you explain?

DR DOROTHY: Part of what holds us together in a relationship, especially during the difficult times, is an appreciation for our shared past. The couples in our study would take time to reminisce about those early days and talk about when they first met – many of them had such cute stories!

You see, remembering the past is a matter of recognising that, in spite of all you’ve been through and in spite of what you’re currently facing, the person you married is the one you fell in love with – and that person is still right there.