Boundaries Vs. Rules
When I started doing boundary work, I wasn’t clear on what having a boundary meant, let alone when I was allowed to have one and when I wasn’t (spoiler: always and never). I thought it might be useful to lay out the features of boundaries and how they differ from rules. I often got these things mixed up, especially at the beginning of the work I was doing. Even now, I struggle and I often see others struggle with this concept. What am I allowed to ask for? What lines are good to draw in relationships (both romantic and non-romantic)? How do we manage our differences?
While I have no magic answers, here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Features of a boundary:
- Boundaries contain I statements.
- Boundaries do not apply to other people.
- Boundaries are about what is OK and not OK with you.
- Boundaries are as clear and succinct as possible.
- Boundaries are your job to enforce to the best of your ability.
- Boundaries are an absolute right.
- Boundaries are essential to self care, compassion, and living in a generous manner.
- Boundaries require no explanation or apology.
Some examples of boundaries:
- I choose not to watch the evening news because the images and violence are triggering to me.
- I choose not to follow this blog or Twitter account because they are posting things I don’t like.
- I don’t want to get together today.
- I don’t wear jeans.
- I don’t wait for more than half an hour when someone is late to a meeting.
- I am sexually monogamous.
Features of a rule:
- Rules can apply to yourself or others or both.
- Rules require consent of all parties who follow the rule.
- Rules contain we or you statements.
- Rules can be broken by others, and you are not able to always enforce them.
- Rules can be made by society.
- Rules need to be clear, concise, and the language agreed upon by all involved.
Some examples of rules:
- We all agreed to not post spoilers for Marvel’s “Civil War” for one month on our blogs.
- Neither of us is allowed to go to bed angry.
- We all stop at red lights.
- We spend money according to the budget we planned.
- We are sexually monogamous with each other.
- When you are late, you need to call and let me know.
I have frequently heard people use the phrase “I do not consent to my husband not using condoms with his other partner,” or some similar idea. While I agree that it sucks when someone’s desires are not met (especially when relating to health), the truth is a person cannot consent to another person’s behavior if it does not directly affect them (see next paragraph about how this behavior could directly affect them). What this person could say is “I will not have sex with my husband if he does not use condoms with his other partner.” That is a totally valid choice. The person could also say, “I do not want a husband who won’t use condoms with other partners.” That is also a totally valid choice. However, you cannot set a boundary for another person. That’s a rule, and that must be agreed upon by all involved.
Incidentally, this does not mean that the husband in the above example can lie or not talk about about what he’s doing. When your behavior directly affects another person, they have a right to be informed. The husband can’t galavant about condom-free and never mention it to his partners. He may galavant all he wants, but his partners must be informed. In the case that he lies about it (or doesn’t mention it), he is robbing his partners of consent. They are in effect not able to set a boundary, because they don’t know a boundary needs to be set. This behavior is unfair at best and downright shitty at worst.
You are always allowed to ask another person if they would agree to a rule. However, they are allowed to say no. Conversely, boundaries must be respected. If your boundary is that you don’t eat tomatoes, you are never required to eat them for any reason. No one can force you to eat them. When consent does become real is when your boundaries are in question. If someone sneaks a tomato into my food knowing I don’t eat them, they are violating my consent. When someone offers me a tomato when I’m drunk or my decision making is compromised, they are violating my consent. (If you are unsure if a person has a boundary, remember the easy concept of enthusiastic consent. If someone isn’t all in, then assume they have a boundary you might not understand or be aware of yet. See this post for more on consent.)
There are times when it is useful to have rules in a relationship. I personally find that the fewer rules I can get by with, the happier my relationships are. When each person feels they have autonomy over their choices, they feel happier and more fulfilled in their lives. Sometimes, that means the relationship I’m in has to end because my boundaries and theirs are simply incompatible. That sucks, and it is super sad, but it is better for me to make sure my boundaries are intact. I do not enjoy a lot of controlling rules in my relationships.
Some people are perfectly OK with agreeing to a lot of rules, and that is also allowed as long as everyone is happy, thriving, and feels freedom to set boundaries when needed. What is most important is that all of this is discussed openly, rather than assumed. Rules that no one actually agreed to or talked about quickly fester and become sources of resentment in relationships.
I hope this little guide helps! It can be a challenge to navigate the world of important relationships, and if these ideas help then we’re ahead of the game.