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Until my last relationship, I hadn’t thought, formally or extensively, about the place of “rules” in romantic engagements. But in my experience, establishing guidelines of conduct for my behaviour helps me set expectations and give clarity, which sets me up for success from the get-go.

How is it that this is not the norm in relationships? Or is it?

Based on the couples I’ve interviewed for Rebel Love, I have found that most of the time, in relationships I deem successful, clear rules are present/or laid out. One couple even shared with me a Google document stating their rules. They told me it was a work in progress, frequently updated and discussed.

Is it not both practical and useful to know exactly what is ‘okay’ and not okay? 

a Pinterest pin that says The Rules of a Relationship with an image of an Asian woman and Caucasian man looking at each other covered their backs with a sleeping bag. Colorful sky background,a big question mark in between them and a book behind the man's head. Small hearts in red, pink and blue and paint splatters in the background

When acceptable conduct is clearly outlined for you, it makes sense that it would be far less likely for you to behave in a way that would upset the peace in your relationship. Even the act of participating in the rule-setting states a commitment to your mutual success. 

In writing this post, it was pointed out to me that it’s important that the language around rule-setting be considered carefully. It’s very different to say, for example, that we have a code of conduct in our relationship that is inflexible, setting up a very rigid and institutionalised way of behaving versus having transparency and clarity around boundaries and guidelines.

Prior to my very last relationship, I tended to make things up as I went along, as did my partner; writing down commitments seemed too much and too serious for me to handle at the time. I was not only avoiding the responsibility of writing the rules down, I was avoiding fully committing to the relationship.

In my last relationship, we didn’t write anything down, but we spoke often and clearly about how we were going to communicate with each other. We agreed, for example, not to jokingly tease or be mean in a playful way. I have found that sometimes when you start this behaviour, it sets a precedent and can open the flood gates to more harmful treatment. This might not be a problem at the start, but gradually these gestures escalate, and you find yourself resenting the person you’re with or feeling unloved and insecure. 

Have you set rules in your relationship?

Similarly, on the other side of the coin, you find yourself being a person that you don't want to be because of habits you have formed from unexamined, repeated behavioural habits, following the trends you create over the years unconsciously with your partner. 

We found when we were committed to a certain code of behaviour, almost from the get-go, we built our relationship upon a strong foundation of love, commitment and loving communication. We chose that because that's the relationship we were looking for. 

After all, why would anyone want to be in a relationship with someone who gives them shit on a regular basis?

Every affront would chip away at your self-esteem and would ultimately lead to breakdowns, personal and communal. That’s when the changes you don’t want start happening. I’ve seen it and lived it personally. You get a glimpse into other people’s relationships when you witness how they interact with each other. 

white woman and black man holding hands and leaning to each other while smiling together

The disrespect I have witnessed in some relationships is astounding. I cannot believe the way some people treat their partners in public. Speaking to them as if they were children, berating them over the smallest things, and fighting or displaying impatient behaviour about petty things in a callous manner.  

I often think, when I witness this behaviour, how sad it must be to live that way. If that’s the behaviour outside of the home, then what is it like behind closed doors?

If you have been, or currently are, in the kind of relationship described above, and would like to change it, then read on. 

Often it’s a case, like most things in life, of waking up one day and finding yourself in a sticky, undesirable situation rather than having consciously chosen that path. 

Setting rules:

So how do we go about setting rules in a relationship? 

Well, there is no “one way”, and that’s what’s so great about being in a relationship: you get to write the rules, and decide what YOU and your partner want, how YOU and your partner want to communicate and behave, what’s okay for you and your partner AND what’s not okay.

A few years ago, I was at a friend of a friend’s house for a BBQ; his wife was a lovely Indonesian woman. I was in the kitchen helping her prepare lunch and the first thing I noticed was her joy for life. She was such a happy person, or so it seemed at the time (I say this because I can never really know how someone else is really doing). She went out of her way to see the best in everything. 

I learned a lot just from being in her presence; she was very positive. I opened the fridge to get something, and I noticed a checklist stuck with a magnet to the door. It was a weekly list of all of the things they had agreed on in their relationship, mostly practical things like — pick up their daughter at this time on this day, this is when the cleaning is done, X time is Mum time, X time is Dad time, etc. 

Would you be open to talking about rules or guidelines in your relationship with your partner?

But what really struck my eye was the very last task; it said: Sunday- “have sex”. I asked her about it, “Is this the only time you have sex, on Sundays?” I asked. 

They had just had their first child together and she explained she had found it very hard to get back into the rhythm of enjoying sex with her partner since her child was born. She stated that enjoying sex was very important in maintaining her relationship with her husband. She said, “With newborns, your thoughts and body belong to your child”. She went on to mention, that they were both aware of this and they didn’t want it to distance their bodies from each other — so they made a commitment to try and have sex every Sunday even if they didn’t feel like it. 

She said it was important for her to have that with her husband, for both their sakes and the sake of the relationship. I asked her if it was working. She said, ‘so far, so good’, sometimes she had to really try, but was happy she was doing it. 

She mentioned that they, of course, gave her time to heal after the birth, but when she was ready to start trying to connect sexually they started their weekly program and commitment to each other and their relationship. 

woman in white and woman in plaid shirt kissing

I walked away that day unable to stop thinking about this commitment they had made to each other and how it might relate to the success of their relationship. I also thought about the fact that she might have felt pressured to have sex after the birth of her child when she didn’t feel like it. Although this was not at all the vibe I got from her. 

I mention this because when we take the time to really think about what kind of romantic relationship we want to be part of, and take steps to achieve that reality, we can be responsible for something magical. We still get to make it up as we go, but when we behave in a way that is conducive to success and have clarity around that, it snowballs. 

The more you engage in productive discussion with your partner the more you grow together and the snowball snowballs. WE get to make up the rules for ourselves because WE are the rulers of our world. This is one of the things we can control in life. 

As long as we do it with 100% consent, respect and integrity we can be vulnerable and have something we might have never had if we weren’t brave enough to take that step.  When we realize this, setting rules can be exciting, fun, and incredibly loving. 

This seemingly small gesture can make such an impact in one of the biggest areas of our lives. 

I went through a time in my life when I would categorize everything I did as important or unimportant. It really helped me take action in places of resistance. When I hit a roadblock, I would ask myself, “think about it. Is this really important?” In other words, does it move me towards my goals? This process also helped me listen to what was really going on internally more regularly, and be present in feeling my response. If the answer was yes, I would go ahead and do it. 

Do you believe that setting rules/guidelines in your relationships would help you both?

Is the pain of writing down rules with your partner greater than the pain of fighting and misunderstanding?

Instead of stumbling through our relationships blindly, we can give ourselves the power to create a fluent path for our romance and live in a state of love and happiness as much as we can. Not by accident, because we chose it.