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Relationship Rules & Emotional Safety

All relationships are unique, in that they are between two unique people, who combine in a unique way to live a unique life.  So one wonders how it can be assumed that experiences within relationships can understood (or judged) from the outside, or how ‘rules’ can be imposed by external people?

I am often asked to provide couples with the rules or boundaries that are appropriate for their circumstances, generally because they themselves have been unable to establish common agreement about them.  Their friends, siblings, parents, work colleagues and priests all have advice about where the boundaries should lie and what the rules should be, but within the relationship the lines remain blurred and are continually crossed causing additional conflict.

he one and only rule that I ask couples to consider relates to emotional safety.  Is the rule you are looking to put in place or the behaviour you are wanting to accept leaving both parties feeling emotional safe, secure, uncompromised, and respected?  If so, then go ahead. However if one person feels vulnerable, exposed, rejected, disrespected, embarrassed, ashamed, or in some way at risk, then you need to stop and think again.

An example to follow is one that comes up in all forms in my practice.

Is it appropriate for a married couple to go to the pub without their partner?

  • “No married people should not attend the pub without their spouse”
  • “Yes, they can attend individually as long as they don’t drink”
  • “Yes, but no contact of any kind with other men/women”
  • “Yes, but no dancing with other men/women”
  • “Yes, dancing is fine, but no acceptance of drinks from other men/women”
  • “Yes, dancing/drinks are fine, but no physical contact with other men/women”

These are just six of the hundreds of version of “rules” brought into my consultation room by couples in conflict about his/her conduct at the pub last weekend.  Often the issue is not around fidelity itself, but in the couples differing views of what is appropriate for their spouse to be doing.

Before you take your own position about what is right / wrong for a married individual to do, I want to remind you that this is not your relationship and therefore not your rules to impose.

There are often numerous factors leading to what is acceptable:

  • family practices “my dad use to go to the pub all the time and mum never had a problem with it”;
  • social relationships “all my friends are single and this is when/where they catch up”;
  • preferences “I love to go dancing and you hate it, so I go with my friends”;

As well as numerous factors that lead to the view of what is not acceptable:

  • past relationships “my ex went out alone a lot and s/he cheated”;
  • relationship history “you don’t make good choices when you are drinking with your friends”;
  • self-image “I hate him being out there with those gorgeous young girls, now that I’m looking like this”.

Ultimately our job in a relationship is to support the safety in our partner, and if s/he doesn’t feel safety it’s time to discuss what needs to alter to ensure that safety.  While this is often represented as mistrust and challenged by a loyal partner; in reality it is more often connected with individual and experiential issues of the unsafe partner, rather than the wandering eye of the pub goer.

It is important not to cross over into control territory (“you cannot go out with your friends ever”), it is important to care enough about your partner to hear their concerns and try to find a middle ground. Some examples may include:

  • There is one friend who is considered responsible and is s/he is there, your partner feel safe
  • The standard of dress (or length of your skirt) helps to reassure your partner
  • A limit to the amount of drinks consumed
  • Discussion about which venues you are attending, and what time you plan on coming home
  • Being contactable at all times (but please avoid 50 text messages an hour, this isn’t reassuring this is controlling)
  • An assurance to ever accept drinks (or lifts home) from other men/women
  • And agreement to taxi home with a friend rather than alone

This is time for you to establish you own relationship rules as a couple, and stick to them.  We are seeking agreement, acceptance and fairness (what’s good for one, must be good for the other), not a mirroring of someone else’s relationship.

(Please note that this article relates to emotional safety, and is in no way commenting on the acceptance of risks to physical/sexual safety).

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