Relationship rules exist in all types of relationships, whether there’s a relationship agreement or not. Regardless of the nature of your relationship – romantic, platonic, or business – you’re inherently bringing expectations of how you should treat and be treated. You determine, based on your personal values, what’s fair, what’s reasonable, and what your individual deal-breakers are. But what happens when your partner brings their own rules to the table; rules you don’t necessarily subscribe to?
There are positive aspects to having relationship rules in place. Establishing boundaries can set a healthy foundation for any kind of partnership. But it’s important to utilize effective communication skills; otherwise, the rules can become a source of conflict instead of collaboration.
Examples of Rules
Money is the leading cause of stress in romantic partnerships, so it’s likely that a relationship would have some rules about budgets and spending. For instance, a couple may decide that all large purchases be discussed and agreed upon beforehand.
In a business partnership, there might be an explicit or implicit rule about mutuality. In other words, if a colleague is willing to help you out on a task, it would be expected that you reciprocate when they need support in the future.
Problems with Relationship Rules
If the idea of relationship rules feels unsettling to you, you’re not alone. Something a conflict resolution professional knows well is that the word “rules,” especially in regard to relationships, can feel stifling. Individuals want to feel a sense of agency and freedom in their relationships.
But rest assured, whether or not you’re aware of it, your relationship runs on rules, and the less communication there is about those rules, the more likely they will serve as a source of conflict.
Most of the time, when we have opinions about how a relationship should work, we don’t communicate that outright with the other person. This can be critical to the sustainability of a relationship because if you’re holding someone to expectations they don’t know about, much less agree with, you’re going to be reacting to something that’s essentially invisible in your partnership.
Disagreeing with a friend, coworker, or romantic partner won’t end the relationship, but hurtful and emotional responses to assumptions might. Not communicating personal assumptions about what you feel is appropriate in a relationship or failing to get buy-in but expecting compliance are both recipes for conflict and may call for relationship mediation services. This is why a relationship contract can be helpful in avoiding arguments and stress.
The Relationship Agreement
A relationship agreement doesn’t necessarily have to be written and signed, although that could help avoid disputes in the future. The goal of an agreement is to turn unspoken relationship rules into something that is agreed-upon and clearly understood. This will require some negotiation and compromise, but the payoff is a collaborative partnership low on conflict and anxiety.
Putting your rules to good use in the form of a contract can positively impact the longevity of your relationship. When both parties agree to clearly defined terms and commit to being held accountable to them, there is an implication of mutual buy-in and, therefore, agency.
Why the Agreement is Important
A relationship agreement, sometimes known as a relationship contract, has the ability to establish a strong foundation with clear boundaries and rules that are understood by involved parties. The contract removes the unpredictability of unspoken rules and assumptions that can quickly escalate a conflict and cause harm to a relationship. By implying buy-in and agency, each partner maintains a sense of choice in the matter, improving the quality of the partnership overall. With a strengthened bond, the relationship becomes more adept at resolving conflict through proper communication and transparency.
Contracts also tend to address the rigidity that might arise from unexpressed relationship rules. Healthy relationships are often navigating and negotiating new rules. As people and relationships evolve, new needs and desires come forth. Becoming too rigid won’t sustain your relationship, so ensure your agreement considers the importance of flexibility and leaves room for growth, missteps, and exceptions that represent everyone’s needs
Pollack Peacebuilding works with individuals, groups, and partners to collaborate on solutions to common and disruptive relational conflicts. Let Pollack Peacebuilding support you to a place of mutual understanding and longevity.