Boundaries, Agreements and Rules


I held a workshop at OpenCon UK based on some concepts from Franklin’s and Eve’s new book More Than Two (that I can heartily recommend) – those of boundaries, agreements and rules.

I used the following definitions and examples to illustrate the differences between them:

Boundaries

  • Effects things that only you have.
  • Others must get those things through you.

Agreements

  • All affected parties are involved.
  • A code of conduct.
  • Re-negotiable.

Rules

  • Applies to people not involved.
  • Non-negotiable.
  • Has a penalty for failing to comply.

Definitions re-written in the list above

Even though written in text in these examples, it can seem pretty clear what the differences are between them, try writing your own examples and getting friends to guess in which category they belong. It’s more difficult than it looks.
During the workshop, it became clear that no matter how it is written or presented, what really matters is how it is implemented.
You could say for example that you will not kiss someone who has just smoked a cigarette (boundary). It turns in to a rule if your partner smokes one then returns to you and you make tut tut noises and declare, “how could you smoke? Now I can’t kiss you all night!”
The blame and the punitive measure of no kissing for an arbitrary length of time without recourse to discussion or negotiation (for instance using breath mints, eating a strong curry, until the smell is not noticable any more) means that it was implemented as a rule (non-negotiable and punitive), regardless of the words used.

This trust and communication seems to parallel what is generally accepted as good practices for successful relationships. Trying to rules-lawyer the boundary (denying it’s a rule due to it’s wording) and using passive-aggressive techniques to “enforce” it raises a red flag to me about poor communication skills. I think it’s important to recognize this – both when it hits you as well as how you act. It’s a pretty easy route to conflict when you think you’re right and the other doesn’t, especially if you’re not willing to examine yourself critically.

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