Rules, Agreements, and Boundaries, Oh My! | Nonmonogamy Academy

In the world of nonmonogamy, people often talk about creating agreements, or the impact of breaking agreements.  When people first open up, they often feel like they are being responsible, or protecting their relationship, if they first create some rules for them both to follow. There are a lot of common agreements out there that seem to be part of the “opening up the relationship package.”  In my practice, I often see people use the words rules, agreements, and boundaries interchangeably, even though they are all very different things.  I also see them use these structures in an attempt to accomplish something, but they don’t really know what their actual goal is.  I’m hoping to clarify a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings associated with creating agreements and boundaries to help you better navigate the way you want to handle your nonmonogamy.

What’s the Difference Between an Agreement and Boundary?

First things first!  Let’s start with some definitions.  Even though people tend to use rules, agreements, and boundaries the most, there are a few other words that will help you better understand how to apply what you are learning on this topic.

Domain:  As in what is in your domain to control.  This is everything that is your responsibility and that you have control over.  Your domain might be your house, your car, your behavior, and your emotions.  Your domain might occasionally overlap with the domain of others, like when you share a house with someone or have children with them.  You may want to consider how much your domain overlaps with someone else’s, from barely to completely.  Your domain very rarely ever consists of someone else’s behavior or emotions, but nearly always consists of your behavior and emotions.  The more you understand where the edges of your domain are, the more you will see where the edges of the domains of others are.  The more you manage and respect your own domain, the more likely you are to be able to respect the domain of others.

Rules: A rule is created by one person or group of people who have power over others to enforce the rule.  The people who are subjected to the rule often don’t have a say in the formation of the rule or its enforcement.  Think of the rules set up at a community pool: don’t run or we’ll kick you out.  The pool may warn you first, but can kick you out if you blatantly disregard them.  People sometimes attempt to create rules in their relationships to control the behavior of their partner when they don’t like it.  You aren’t allowed to masturbate to pornography. You have to put your phone away on date night.  The person making the rule assumes they have some power to enforce the rule, which they often don’t, which is exactly the problem.  If you are trying to make rules in your relationships, you are creating a power imbalance, and you often are operating outside the realm of consent.  A rule attempts to change other people’s behavior through force of power.

Agreement: This is a form of pact made between two people where all information is given and both people agree to either limit or ritualize some form of behavior.  You may still have “No masturbating to pornography” or “no phone on date night”, but now both people are in agreement that you will both behave in this way, likely because you both feel it’s for the health of the relationship.  No person necessarily has power to enforce the agreement, but the hope is that enforcement isn’t needed because both people see the value of the limit or ritualization of behavior.  There are a lot of ways agreements can and do break down, which I will cover in a later blog post.  An agreement might attempt to change behavior through mutual understanding that it’s best for the dyad.

Boundary:  A boundary can be thought of in a few ways.  I like to think of it as an agreement you make with yourself.  I will not masturbate to pornography or I will not pull out my phone on date night.  You might also make the agreement for yourself.  I will not date someone who masturbates to pornography or date someone who pulls out their phone on date night.  Where most people fail to understand boundaries is that they aren’t there to change other people’s behavior. Boundaries are there to protect you from other people’s behavior when you don’t have the power to change them, which is most of the time.  You can tell someone what your boundary is and hope that they will change, but if they don’t it’s on you to take action to remove yourself from the situation when possible.  I also think of boundaries as more permanent and persistent.  They might change over time as you meet new people and realize you need to protect yourself from certain behaviors. But overall, they don’t really change from day to day.

Limit: You can think of a limit as a boundary that is more mobile.  I like hugs, but I can only take so many of them in a day.  Today, I might want 15 of them because I’ve had a bad day and I want more comfort.  Tomorrow, I might only handle 2 of them because I’ve talked to too many people, and I need to sit in a dark room and avoid people.  A limit is something you may need to check in with yourself to see where it’s sitting at any given time and communicate that to people around you.  It’s also possible for something to be a limit for one person and a boundary for another, especially for people who manage sensory processing issues.

Needs And Desires

I define these two words below because they are going to be discussed in more detail later as we talk about creating boundaries and agreements.  You might think you know what needs and desires are, but people often use them interchangeably as well.  This can get very confusing if you or your partner can tell the difference between a demand (an ask for a need), a strong desire, or a request that is more flexible and negotiable.

Needs:  I have found it’s very useful to distinguish between needs and desires when discussing agreements.  I like to use a model that lists nine core needs that every human on the planet has inherently.  These needs are Sustenance (ex. food), Safety, Love, Empathy, Rest, Community, Creativity, Autonomy, and Purpose.  Every behavior you engage in is an attempt to get a need met, and every emotion you are having is an indicator that a need is getting met or not getting met.  If you can sit with your emotion or behavior and point it back to a need, you can start to expand the behaviors you can use to fulfill those needs.  One “need” I often hear people say they are striving to get is “comfort” or “peace”.  This is often said by people who do their best to avoid conflict and manage the emotions of others.  Sometimes these needs fall under multiple categories.  In this case, it might fall under the category of safety, especially if they think they might be hurt by creating the conflict.  Or it could fall under the category of community, if they learned early in their life that it was their job to manage the conflict or strong emotions in the house.  Sometimes it can take some work to figure out under what categories your motivations lie.

Desires: These are the strengths to which the behaviors fulfill the needs.  Let’s look at eating food, which is the behavior that fulfills the need of sustenance.  You might have a strong desire for a burrito from your favorite restaurant.  You might have a slightly lower desire for last night’s leftovers, but they will do just fine.  You might only eat the 23 cent ramen in the cupboard in a pinch, but you hardly desire it.  And you will starve for a day or two before you will be desperate enough to feel anything like desire towards the frozen corndog that’s been in the freezer for three months.  Sometimes when we are angry that a partner isn’t meeting our need, we demand they take us to get the burrito and call it a need. Often, when we’ve gone a very long time without that need not getting met, we will put up with the corndog in the freezer.

Understanding Negotiation

Many people who are dealing with trauma or who grew up in more authoritarian households struggle with knowing what negotiation means.  People may come at creating agreements in a mindset of either you get what you want or I get what I want.  If I get what I want, I am in complete control, and I only give up that control when I don’t want to take responsibility for the outcomes.  That is of course an extreme example of the black and white thinking people have around negotiation.  It isn’t a conscious mindset, but it is surprisingly common.  It can be hard for this person to see negotiation as let’s talk it over until we find a place where you get 80% of what you want and I get 80% of what I want.

Let’s go back to the example of the food.  Maybe you and your partner want to both go out to dinner.  For people who have the black and white thinking, they may either demand their favorite restaurant regardless of the fit for the other person, or they might refuse to make a choice and put it entirely on their partner so they don’t have to deal with the consequences of picking an undesirable place.  If you are doing this constantly, you could have problems with negotiating.  What a healthy couple might do is have one person pick out three places, taking into consideration the types of food their partner likes, and then let the other person pick one of the three places.  Or they might trade off picking restaurants while considering what their partner has said about their preferred foods and places they have been in the past.

Bringing It All Together

When making agreements, negotiation is key to a successful agreement.  You need to be able to identify and then communicate your needs, the spectrum of your desires, and even your boundaries and limits to come up with a good agreement that will be understood and respected by both parties.  Especially in nonmonogamy, you need to understand what is within your domain to agree to, and what may be outside of your domain. In understanding what the difference is between a rule, an agreement and a boundary, you must also understand what is in your domain and what isn’t.  We will cover all of this and more in our series of blog posts on Boundaries and Agreements.