Don’t Tread On Me: The Essential Nature of Relationship Rules

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Nobody ever enters a romantic relationship with the intention of getting their heart stepped on, but at some point or another most people 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. But 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 shared rules that dictate what works and what doesn’t in their relationship. While we tend to put some of these rules on the table, many go unspoken. The unspoken rules get communicated—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 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 guaranteed 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. What many of my clients come to realize when processing their breakups is that they and their partners failed to speak up about their rules, which set in motion a negative pattern of interaction that ultimately unraveled 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 the way 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 that he never communicated to his girlfriend. More importantly, he didn’t uphold or respect those rules himself. He came to acknowledge that while he wanted respect from his partner, he wasn’t showing much respect for himself by allowing his personal rules and boundaries to be disregarded. By violating his own rules, he silently gave his girlfriend permission to do the same.

How we treat our own rules sends a message to our partners about how they can treat them. If we don’t uphold those rules and boundaries, it’s likely that others won’t uphold them either. After all, we’ve implicitly let them know through our own actions that it’s okay not to. 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 and follow the rule. By breaking the rule yourself, you’ve given them permission to break it also.

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.


Dr. Denise Fournier is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, coach, and consultant. She owns and operates Evergreen Therapy in Miami, Florida and is an adjunct professor for Nova Southeastern University. Visit her at to learn more about her work and read her blog.


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