Rules vs. Boundaries
I often work with folx in CNM relationships negotiating agreements, which often is a nicer term for rules and boundaries. Rules and boundaries are equally as applicable in monogamous relationships, but folx in monogamous relationships aren’t often taught to consider rules and boundaries and discuss them explicitly. Often, society has already crafted some basic rules/boundaries that couples in monogamous relationships “should” adopt, and it’s not until something happens that crosses a person’s boundaries that a conversation happens. At that point, we’re generally in a reactive rather than proactive state, which can make conflict all the more intense.
As a result, I often encourage all of my couples to consider what their rules/boundaries for their relationship are, so that they can continue to operate harmoniously. By having them clearly defined, you can foster a sense of respect and trust as well as maintain a streamline of open communication - many qualities that we’d want to see in a healthy relationship.
Rules and boundaries
To begin, what’s the difference between rules and boundaries? Going classic for a moment… Oxford Dictionary defines rules as “a principle that operates within a particular sphere of knowledge, describing or prescribing what is possible or allowable,” and boundaries as “a limit of a subject or sphere of activity.” Sound pretty similar, don’t they? Fortunately, many folx have taken the time to speculate on these two terms and clarify the difference. In simple terms: rules are for others, boundaries are for yourself.
Rules are restrictions you put on another person. Boundaries are restrictions you place for yourself to keep yourself from harm. For example: Georgia has a personal value of monogamy, which to her, means sexual and romantic fidelity in her relationship. If Georgia has a partner, Georgia may place the rule on them that they cannot have sex or be in a relationship with other people and also uphold her own boundary to do the same. However, let’s say Georgia’s partner, Clare, is a very social person and likes to go out and spend time with others one-on-one and text others often. This leads Georgia to feeling insecure - she worries that Clare might start to develop feelings for someone else and leave her. This is a classic narrative I see in my office. Georgia has three options: 1. She can set a rule that Clare cannot hang out with others one-on-one and have an ongoing text thread with other individuals. This will often lead to resentment or rebellion on the person is Clare’s shoes, but it’s something that Georgia could try and implement. 2. Georgia can set a personal boundary not to be in a relationship with someone who spends a lot of time with others one-on-one and the like. She could end her relationship with Clare. Or 3. Georgia could talk to Clare and discuss what are rules that they have as a couple and what boundaries each would need to put in place to uphold those rules.
Personally, I like number 3. What happens in this case is that Georgia might explain to Clare that her behavior is creating insecurity. The insecurity is about Georgia, but Clare can do things to help increase Georgia’s security (though at the end of the day, Georgia must do her own work to examine where that insecurity is coming from and what she can do to help herself, too). They may agree as a couple: since we’re monogamous, we agree that as a rule, we will not have sex with and date other people.
It is then their job as individuals to examine what personal boundaries they need to implement in order to protect themselves from breaking the rule. They can then hold each other accountable to these boundaries, but the other person is not imposing rules on the other for how to keep this rule.
There are A LOT of different boundaries a person can set to protect themselves from crossing a line. I like to think of them in terms of time, talk and touch.
Time. Talk. Touch.
The amount of time with spend with someone, the more we touch them, and the depth of talk/conversation we have with have with them will all foster a deeper sense of intimacy. Generally our closest partners are those we spend the most time, talk, and touch with (though this is not always the case). When we are considering boundaries, I encourage folx to consider how each of those will impact their relationship with others in their lives. Everyone has different limitations as to what will tip the scales for deepening intimacy.
Plenty of people are able to separate sex from love. In some ways, they can manage this by restricting the amount of time and talk they spend with someone else, and mostly focus on touch. For others, they can talk with someone and touch them plenty, but by restricting time, they’re able to manage their feelings.
If you think about co-workers: you may spend a lot of time around them and even talk quite a bit, but often, the talk is high-level, shoot-the-shit, or work-related content. You’re often not spending much time alone, and you’re certainly not touching (unless you want to get HR involved).
With friendships, we may have deep conversations, we may even hug or snuggle, spend frequent time together, but there’s always a limit to how much any of these three factors show up at a given time to impact intimacy.
The point is, only YOU know how these three interact for YOU to impact your intimacy and attraction to someone. There are some friendships in which we aren’t attracted to the person at all, so we can spend plenty of time, talk, and touch around them without there being a threat. Then again, there are some people where that instant chemistry/connection just clicks, and we have to be mindful for ourselves about how much we engage in time, talk, and touch in the relationship.
Working together on the rules and boundaries
This is where a lot of my couples like to use the word “agreements.” Because generally one person has a rule that they want the other person to adopt as a boundary, and there might be some compromise happening there. And if that works for you both, that’s excellent.
I think it takes an open and honest conversation with your partner to explore what their boundaries are so that you can understand how you can honor the agreed upon rule.
For example, Clare may acknowledge, “If I find someone attractive, I will make sure to limit one-on-one time with them, keep my texting conversations with them only in group chats, and make sure not to discuss our relationship challenges with them.” Georgia can then help hold Clare accountable by checking in “hey, I know you think so and so is attractive, any concerns with how boundaries are going with them?”
By Georgia understanding what boundaries Clare needs to keep herself from breaking their shared rule of monogamy, she can lean back from trying to impose rules on Clare and instead, let Clare establish her boundaries and share them with Georgia. Clare can also have others in her life holding her accountable to her boundaries, so that Georgia is not having to constantly check in with her on how she is doing with them.
It’s also important for both to establish the value or the why behind a rule they’re implementing. In this case, why do both ladies value monogamy? What led them to choosing that? By knowing why this rule is so important, it will help both individuals set boundaries that don’t foster resentment. They will be more willing to set them if they know why and agree to them.
Examples of Rules/Boundaries
Some sample rules that I will see with couples would be:
- we don't have sex with other people
- we don't have sex with people we're friends with
- we don't go on more than one date per week with secondary/other partners
- we don't talk to other partners about our relationship challenges
For many relationships/people, these are good. They define what the relationship values and what protects the relationship. There are many rules that folx try to implement that don't actually get to the root of the issue, for example "you can't tell someone 'I love you.'" The intention there is to try and prevent these two people from falling in love and by not saying it, it somehow can keep it from happening. That's not the case. Instead, you may explore what boundaries are needed around the rule of your partner not having another primary partner besides you. Trying to keep our partner from falling in love with someone else is ultimately coming from a place of fearing becoming second, less valuable, losing the partner, etc. Explore instead what are activities you both can do to help you to continue to feel like a priority in each other's lives. A rule instead could be "we make sure to spend two nights a week together - one in which we make sure to do something fun that we both love." You both might even agree, "I don't want to be in love with someone else," in which case, you can both set personal boundaries to prevent that from happening.
Some sample boundaries:
- I won't spend one-on-one time alone with people I'm attracted to
- I won't be in a one-on-one messaging conversation with people I'm attracted to
- I will only go on one date a week/month with someone I'm sexually involved with
- I won't turn to the person I'm attracted to for emotional support. Instead, I will turn to my partner.
- If I'm finding myself attracted to someone or falling in love with someone, I will share this with my partner or friend (whoever is holding you accountable) and will explore what boundaries I may need to adjust with this person
- I will not stay in a relationship where someone is cheating on me
There are SO many different rules/boundaries that could be implemented. What works for one person or relationship may not work for another. You have to be willing to collaborate and revisit these from time to time to ensure they still align with what you both want. It's okay and normal for rules/boundaries to change over time as you and your relationship evolve.
When a rule is broken/a boundary is crossed.
While we can enter into any rule with the best intentions and set boundaries that we think are going to be helpful, we’re human. We’re flawed, imperfect, prone to craving mystery, variety, and curiosity. Sometimes, we cross our own boundaries and break rules. When this happens, both people have a choice.
Let’s say Clare crosses the boundary and kisses a friend. Georgia can: 1. Maintain her own personal boundaries (which might be to not be in a relationship where someone cheats) and end the relationship. 2. She can explore with Clare what led to the boundary crossing and both can explore what new rules/boundaries need to be established to better protect the initial rule. 3. She can stay in the relationship and leave things as they are - sweeping the issue under the rug and hoping it doesn’t happen again.
There are other flavors for how this can go down, but, you get the gist. How our partners respond in a moment of breaking a rule can really impact if we go with choice 1 or 2. Our personal esteem will impact if we choose number 3. Nonetheless, when a rule is broken, you have some choices and they are yours to make.
Clare also has some choices. 1. She can decide she no longer aligns with the rule and doesn’t want to maintain it anymore. 2. She can assess what led her to crossing the boundary, establish new boundaries, and share these with Georgia. 3. She can apologize, and not change anything, and hope for the best.
Same thing. There are a variety of flavors of how this can go down, but these are some basics. She also has a choice in the matter and how Georgia responds can also impact her decision.
At the end of the day, if the person who broke the rule is genuinely remorseful and is interested in exploring change, option number 2 can be great for the relationship. It’s simply not always the case though, and sometimes we have to be willing to accept that the partner we are with no longer aligns with the values we have. That doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person - it means that you two have changed, and that just is what it is.
Rules and boundaries in consensual non-monogamy
These rules and boundaries can get a little more complicated in CNM relationships; however, the principles are all the same. By being non-monogamous, you are seeking some kind of intimacy outside of your relationship (which makes sense - we cannot be ALL of everything to someone else). By doing so, you and your partner need to explore what are your rules and why so that you can determine what boundaries you need to implement to protect those rules.
If you practice hierarchical CNM, “I/you will not fall in love with someone else” is NOT a rule or a boundary. It’s not something you can impose/guarantee. But you CAN do things to protect yourself from falling for someone, such as limiting the time/talk/touch involved in the relationship with them. If you find yourself falling, you and your partner need to determine what you want to do about that. Do you cut off the relationship with the person you’re falling for? Or do you engage in activities that allow you and your primary partner to continue to feel like a priority in each other’s lives? Are you maintaining a high level of time, talk, and touch with your primary partner?
At the end of the day, the more you try to impose rules on your partner, the more likely you are to be met with resistance, rebellion, deception, resentment, etc. Rather than trying to enforce rules, be collaborators together. Explore what rules you both want to have as a couple (even if they are compromises/agreements) and then identify on an individual level what boundaries you each need to implement to protect those.
If your relationship is built on mutual respect, open communication, trust, and honesty, this should go well for you both (the creation of the rules may be a little bumpy, but that’s part of life). You don’t want to be in a position of being parent to your partner or constantly having to sleuth on them, so by giving each other the autonomy to own your boundaries, you’re helping to foster a healthy relationship in which you both feel your needs are being met.
And as always, if you’re struggling to put these together or explore this on your own, get together with a sex/couples therapist or coach who can help you to process through these and get you to a place of alignment.