The Healthy Relationship: 2. Why Do We Create And Need Relationship Rules?

| Karen Scarth |

Why do we seem to create and need relationship rules? The ultimate purpose of relationship rules and boundaries is to create security in our relationships.

A key psychological and developmental challenge is how to best balance between our needs for independence, autonomy, and personal control and our needs for attachment, connection, and belonging.  Healthy relationship boundaries allow us to balance these sometimes competing needs.  They allow us to establish a secure attachment or connection to someone but preserve our need for some degree of control over our choices and decisions. Having a set of mutually understood rules that define a relationship tells us that as long as we operate within those rules, the relationship will be secure.

In other words, if we follow the rules then we do not expect a high level of conflict that might lead to an end of the relationship.  A good example of a common relationship rule is that when you are married or in a long term committed relationship, you are sexually monogamous.  If one person breaks this rule, they understand that this might lead to severe conflict and a possible breakdown in the marriage or relationship.

However, if these rules are not healthy, fair, or reasonable then one member of the relationship may feel violated, misused, trapped, or unwanted.  When boundaries are dysfunctional we experience a range of things directly associated with the nature of the boundary dysfunction.  For example, if the boundary is too rigid and distant, we may achieve high levels of autonomy and personal control but we lose intimacy.  Individuals with these kinds of relationships often feel unloved, lonely, and empty, and life can feel meaningless.  These types of relationships may lead to the feeling “Is this all there is?” If this pattern of relationship is pervasive for an individual they can suffer from symptoms of depression.

On the other hand, if the boundary is too permeable and enmeshed, we begin to feel trapped and experience a loss of our identity and sense of control. This pattern can set us up to be at the service of the other’s needs while our own needs go unmet. We may feel used, unappreciated, and angry in these circumstances. We may wonder why others are not there for us when we go out of our way to support friends and family. This pattern can be associated with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and anger. This pattern can also lead to a loss of self since confusion can develop over whose feelings and needs belong to whom. The message in these relationships is sometimes: “If you feel the same as I do, then this is a reflection of your attachment to me. If you don’t feel the same, you don’t care about me.”

Our approach to the dilemma of autonomy versus connection is shaped by our lived experiences and our own relationship models. These include key relationships in our life such as the relationship between our parents and our own relationship with each parent or caregiver as well as our siblings and other family members.

In the next post, I will discuss how relationship rules develop.

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The Healthy Relationship: 1. What Are Boundaries?

| Karen Scarth |

Our relationships can be our greatest source of fulfillment, meaning, love, and belonging. However, when the boundary between two people is dysfunctional in some way, relationships can become torturous and leave us feeling trapped, miserable, rejected, and heartbroken.

When I reflect on what I do as a clinical psychologist I realize that the vast majority of discussion in therapy is devoted to sorting out relationship boundaries.

A boundary can be viewed as an understanding that exists between two people — or the rules of a particular relationship. Each relationship is defined by its own set of rules. These rules help us to determine what we can expect from a particular relationship. For example, is this relationship sexual? Is this person someone I can count on for anything? Is this someone I only have casual conversation with at work but would never contact outside of work? Is this someone I could borrow money from?

These boundaries and rules are not necessarily static. A relationship can evolve and its boundaries and rules can change over time.

In the next post, I will discuss why we create and need rules in a relationship.

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