In relationships, I often hear a lot about rules. In particular, I’m talking about multiple adult relationships, but feel free to extract what makes sense for you out of this if this doesn’t apply to you. My own opinion is that where an observation can be applied broadly, it seems more likely, but I admit I’m prejudiced against provincialism.

So, rules.

Some examples include who one can or can’t do this or that with, where one may or may not sleep, what words one can or can’t say, who may or may not be disposable, and so forth.

I’m sure you’ve encountered something like this in one form or another. Giving or receiving. It happens.

I could waffle around whether rules are “rules” or “ultimatums” or “boundaries,” but I think that’s a dead-end alley filled with garbage cans overflowing with oozing rhetoric slurry. I could also waffle around which “direction” the rules apply, whether they are things other people must do or things the speaker will do, based on the activities of other people. Again, I think this is a red herring. A dead end.

My attitude about rules changed when I realized the following functional definition:

Rules are agreements we make about when it is okay to hurt other people.

But how does that work, exactly?

Rules contain two basic components:

  • A behavior specification
    “If you…”, “If she…”, “if he…”, and so forth.
  • An expected result
    “…then I’ll have to…”, “…then you’ll have to…”, “…then the police will have to dig up…”, and so forth.

A very simple rule might be “If you paint the house purple, then I will burn your dog alive.” Another might be “If you tell that person you love them, then I will withdraw affection for one week.”

Other rules are a little more complex and tricky to unwind, but it’s kinda fun to do the exercise on occasion.

The reason this has been so useful a model is that it forces me when thinking about “rules” to fill in the blanks.

It would be very silly for me to try to make a rule without including those two components above. A rule with conditions, but no punishment can completely be ignored. A rule with no conditions, but punishment is just crazy shit.

But this is a mistake a lot of people make (and that I have made before as well).

“We have a rule that neither of us ______________ with a third person,” someone might say. The interesting question to ask (well, for me) is “What is the punishment?”

If the punishment isn’t specified, then the rule seems a little… suspicious.

Maybe that “punishment” is “breaking trust” or something. Again, I think a practical, functional approach to that will help. What does “breaking trust” actually mean, as far as actions and reactions. That’s not a result — it’s a rationale. It’s just a layer of abstraction. It’s a buffer stage where the rule is modified to better fit the preferred punishment. Sure, staying-out-late might be bad, but it’s not dump-your-sorry-ass bad. However, if staying-out-late can be converted into a breaking-my-trust crime, then a stronger punishment can then be applied using the new rationale. Mmmmmmmagic!

This is what I mean by tricky and complex to unwind.

This whole train of thought really forced me to understand what kind of relationship I wanted with my partners and what kind of relationship I didn’t want with my partners. I definitely didn’t want to punish them, nor keep a list of punishable offenses in my head.

That meant that conflicts had to resolved by talking with each other and coming from a place of mutual desire for happiness, and a need to understand not only how things went awry, but how to get things back on track as quickly as possible. It also meant that fear-of-punishment was minimized, which is probably good if I’m going to legitimately claim to love and be loved by these people.

Your mileage may vary, of course, and discussion is welcome below!