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Why Rules and Boundaries Matter in Romantic Relationships

Being clear about what we want and need makes all the difference.

We don’t tend to enter romantic relationships with the intention of getting our hearts stepped on, but at some point or another most of us have felt that pain. There are few things more agonizing than reflecting on a romance turned sour and wondering what could have been done differently. However, there’s also a lot we can learn from looking back at what went wrong. One thing that’s really helpful to look into when exploring our past relationships is the way we dealt with rules and boundaries.

All relationships, romantic and otherwise, operate based on certain rules. Each person comes into the relationship with a personal set of rules, and together the couple establishes rules that dictate what works and what doesn’t in the relationship. While we tend to put some of the rules on the table, many of them go unspoken. We communicate those unspoken rules—with varying degrees of subtlety—through our actions and interactions in the relationship. For example, if a man gets agitated and rigid every time his partner attempts to show affection in public, he’s silently communicating one of his personal rules—in this case, that PDA is off limits. But if his partner doesn’t pick up on this nonverbal communication, it’s almost a guarantee that the interaction will generate some unpleasant friction. A single instance of this may not cause much damage, but if it happens often, it could unravel the relationship.

That’s why it’s so important to be clear about our personal rules and boundaries. We need to know what they are and maintain them firmly, ensuring that whoever we enter a relationship with is willing to respect them as much as we do. When processing breakups in therapy, many of my clients come to realize that they and their partners failed to speak up about their rules, which set in motion negative patterns of interaction that destroyed the relationship.

I recently worked with a client who was devastated after breaking up with a woman he thought would become his wife. When we explored the series of events that he identified as the cause for the breakup, he started to get agitated and experience feelings of anger and resentment. The further he went into these feelings, the closer he got to understanding where they were coming from. He realized that he felt disrespected and taken advantage of by this woman. This is how he put it: “I did everything for her and didn’t ask for anything in return. There were tons of things that she did that I wasn’t okay with, but I let her do them because I didn’t want any problems. And she didn’t appreciate any of it. She just took and took from me and then ended things without considering what I wanted.”

My client’s feelings of resentment and anger were understandable. His pain was justified. But for him to learn from what went wrong in that relationship, it was important for him to look at the role he played. By examining this in therapy, my client came to realize that he had specific personal rules he never communicated to his girlfriend and, more importantly, didn’t uphold or respect himself. He came to acknowledge that while he wanted respect from his girlfriend, he wasn’t showing much respect for himself by allowing her to do things he wasn’t okay with. By violating his own rules, he was silently telling his girlfriend she could violate them also.

How we treat our own rules sends a message to our partners about how they can treat them. Think about it this way: If you have a no shoes in the house policy in your home but walk around with shoes on, you can’t expect your guests to know the rule and follow it. By breaking the rule yourself, you’ve given them permission to break it as well.

Nobody’s perfect, and no relationship is perfect either. But most of us do strive to have intimate relationships that are as healthy and harmonious as possible. It’s important to remember that harmony at the relationship level starts with clarity at the individual level. Take some time to identify your personal rules and boundaries, and be intentional about respecting them so your partner will respect them too.

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