Should We Make Rules?

Last week, I posted about Why We Make Rules, the gist of which was that making formal commitments (in the form of agreeing to rules) adds a layer of psychological pressure to stick to the commitment. Doing so is useful only when we don’t trust the in-the-moment judgment of either ourselves or our partner(s).

To my surprise, a number of people (online and off) took this as an endorsement of rules. I was cited in a post by Rose at 50love.org entitled “In Defense of Rules.” Franklin Veaux, in response to my post, saw the value in making self-imposed rules, but talked about the danger of partners making and/or enforcing rules for each other:

One of the things that came up on that hashtag again and again, though, was the idea that abusers can gain power over their victims by making their victims doubt their own judgment. “You can’t be trusted.” “You don’t make good decisions.” “You mess things up.” “You have poor judgment.” “I have to make decisions for you or you’ll screw up.” “You’ll hurt me if I give you a chance.” I saw dozens of variations on this theme all through the hashtag. And it got me to thinking.

“I will limit my behavior in this way because I know my in-the-moment decision skills are a bit crap” can be a reasonable approach to healthy boundary-setting. But I see the potential for abuse when it becomes “I want this rule because your decision-making skills are crap; you can’t be trusted to keep your commitments.”

I completely agree, and, in fact, thought this was implicit in my original post. I can’t imagine going to a partner and saying “we need this rule because your judgment sucks.” Or rather, I can imagine someone saying that privately, but not really admitting it publicly. So I was very surprised to see people using this idea as some sort of justification for partners making rules in relationships. To me, if it becomes necessary for me to say to a partner “I can’t trust you to make good decisions,” it’s time to end the relationship.

Franklin’s commenter Shelly made an important point about the difference between making rules and setting expectations:

In my experience, there isn’t much of a difference until someone actually breaks or challenges the rule. Then the difference is kind of huge. When you break a rule, you betray the other person or the relationship. In the aftermath, there is a clear moral victor, and there is a clear power differential. The “thumb on the scale,” the “just in case,” I believe speaks to this power differential. In case of emergency, let’s be really really clear who is wrong. In other words when you do something hurtful or disruptive, I need shame on my side in order to bring you back.

I believe that people who fight for rules instinctively feel a need to have this this power differential in place, and I expect it comes from a sense of personal powerlessness in most cases. Unfortunately, I agree that this kind of power differential, combined with shame, creates a fertile ground for abuse. However, in a “consequence”-based relationship, there is still a fundamental respect for the other person’s right and ability to make their own decisions. Even if those decisions are shitty or hurtful.

This really gets to the heart of the matter to me. Informing someone of the consequences for their behavior assumes that they are going to make their own decisions, using their own judgment. Informing them of the consequences just means that you’re giving them relevant information to make their decision. There is no moral judgment or condemnation, no matter what they choose, so long as they are willing to accept the consequences.

Rules are different. Rules set a required course of behavior, and any deviation from that behavior is considered “wrong.” As Shelly said, a rule-breaker has committed a betrayal, and there is a clear moral high ground.

Rose submits that rules are useful for two reasons:

  • “they give each party an opportunity to communicate honestly about fears, expectations, past experiences, and other factors of real life that affect the functioning of relationships”
  • “negotiating agreements with new and existing partners allows us to establish trust in one another.”

Certainly, if the alternative to making rules is to remain silent, then those are important functions of rules. Thankfully, though, that is not the case. The alternative to rules that I (and, to my understanding, Franklin) advocate is the process of expectation-setting, which accomplishes both goals without the attendant issues inherent in making rules.

Setting expectation involves simply communicating your needs, what you expect to do, and what you expect your partner to do in any given situation. This can also include things that you expect to do if your expectations are not met. This way, each party has an opportunity to talk about “fears, expectations, past experiences, and other factors of real life,” but doesn’t need to put any pressure on the other party.

It also gives partners an opportunity to develop trust. When there are no rules, partners are free to behave however they like. It gives partners a real chance to see how each will behave in the absence of any control measures (but still aware of how their actions will likely affect each other). Trust is then build when partners gradually learn that they genuinely want to treat each other well (or they learn the opposite and break up).

Rules can be useful if we make the decision to create them for our own behavior. As Franklin put it, “having my rational self place a restriction on my future, irrational self is a sensible, prudent thing to do.” But rules can be harmful when we try to control our partners’ behavior for our own benefit. Expectation-setting can create all of the benefits of rules without the attendant problems, and is a much better alternative.

6 responses to “Should We Make Rules?

  1. Pingback: Why We Make Rules | Living Within Reason

  2. Informing someone of the consequences for their behavior assumes that they are going to make their own decisions, using their own judgment. Informing them of the consequences just means that you’re giving them relevant information to make their decision. There is no moral judgment or condemnation, no matter what they choose, so long as they are willing to accept the consequences.

    Rules are different. Rules set a required course of behavior, and any deviation from that behavior is considered “wrong.” As Shelly said, a rule-breaker has committed a betrayal, and there is a clear moral high ground.

    I guess I don’t see these two as so far apart as you or Franklin suggest they are.

    Take an extreme but not-unreasonable example: “if you do X, then the consequence is that I will break up with you immediately.”

    This is a consequence-based approach. There’s no rule there, so this would be (broadly) kosher behavior per the above. Issuing ultimatums is easy to do using “consequence”-based approaches. Moreover, most people (in my opinion) perceive such an ultimatum-based consequence as a rule. It *feels* like a rule, even if it’s phrased as a “consequence.” Likewise, *of course* there is condemnation implied if you say “if you do X, I will break up with you.” Of course the person hearing that, hears condemnation (especially if they love/admire the person saying it).

    Maybe you feel as if it’s less manipulative to phrase “I will break up with you” as a consequence rather than as a rule – I don’t see it, but okay. But I don’t, and I don’t think that it’s credible that there’s some deep difference between the phrase “I will break up with you if you do X” and “Doing X is against the rules.” If your continued relationship with me is contingent on a hard limit of some kind, then that *is* a rule, no matter how you frame it.

    The distinction I’m more interested in making is, be kind, be as clear as you can, don’t be manipulative, and respect your partners’ autonomy. I think you can succeed at this using rules, and fail at it using consequences – so IMO the difference between these approaches is not nearly as sharp as you argue.

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