Of Course Rules and Boundaries - But What About Agreements?

The difference between rules, boundaries, and agreements in open relationships.

Of Course Rules and Boundaries - But What About Agreements?

In my first open relationship, we started with an understanding: "We will tell each other if we have unprotected sex with other people."

To me, this meant I would not have unprotected sex with others; however, in the instance where it did happen, I would be sure to disclose in a timely manner so we could talk about the impact to our sex life.

To him, it meant that he would choose to have unprotected sex and that he would let me know...at some point.

You can probably glean the challenges that came from this misunderstanding. It took us almost a full TWO YEARS to identify the confusion and correct it. The hardest part of the whole debacle was that we both thought we were acting within the framework of our relationship. Neither of us was doing anything wrong, per se, we were just not acting as the other expected based on the understanding we had.

The initial understanding was stated with good intent, but led us down the rabbit hole to learn the differences between rules, boundaries, and ultimately, agreements.

If you have dipped your toes into open relationship education, you have likely encountered the strong differentiation between rules and boundaries. If not, I am happy to provide:

A rule is a restriction or limitation you apply to someone else's behavior or actions.

A boundary is a restriction or limitation you outline for yourself, often to protect yourself from harm.

In general, rules are often seen as negative in the great world of open relationship discourse, and boundaries are seen as good. While coming from a good-hearted place that controlling others is bad and agency is good - creating a moral standard for relationship dynamics is not a one-size fits all experience. For example, some people prefer to have rules set as they like high structure in their relationships and they defer to their partner to make those decisions. Others, prefer high autonomy, and any rule discourse is an automatic no-go zone.

You may have gotten an idea of where you fall simply reading that last paragraph. The fun comes when these ideas enter real life, rather than theory.

By "fun" I mean "complicated." When we are navigating our own relationships, rules can feel good because they create a sense of certainty in an uncertain situation. "Rules" help you to self soothe that your partner is not doing anything you didn't expressly discuss. Unfortunately, this is exactly where the rub exists: rules are often broken, leaving the person who was self-soothing to question their ability to self-soothe again.

Boundaries are also complicated. If you state, "I will not have unprotected sex with someone who is having unprotected sex with others" the boundary might seem clear. What can feel challenging is the potential consequence. If your partner chooses to have unprotected sex with someone else, will there be emotional backlash? Will you choose not to have sex with them at all? Again, these questions are not meant to paint someone as a villain. They are simply realistic responses that people can have in these situations.

When we are not sure of the consequences, boundaries can feel like rules. And therein lies the rub. And the complexity.

A third option available is an agreement. I like to think of agreements as the bridge between a rule and a boundary. Agreements can guide both (or all) partners' behavior and they are decided upon by both parties. I encourage partners to talk about the potential consequences if the agreement is violated, but also regularly revisiting agreements to ensure they still make sense in the relationship.

Agreements can sound like rules, but the difference is that everyone has a voice. If both people truly agree - and there is not actually just complicit rule making happening - agreements can serve as a relational tool that helps partners outline their expectations, availability, and capacity in other relationships.

The nuances between rules, boundaries, and agreements can make differentiating between them futile. I would argue that these nuances can be conversation starters in relationships to understand wants, needs, and expectations.

What rules, boundaries, or agreements do you have in your relationship(s)? How have you adjusted them over time?

In curiosity,

Dr. S. Kay Webb

P.S. In the coming weeks, you will be receiving a few more emails from me than usual, as I open my membership! I AM STOKED!