Relationship Ground Rules

Originally posted on North Atlantic Books September 06, 2018

Every relationship is different. Some people love ground rules and find them super helpful. Other people think relationship ground rules are unnecessary and even punitive—like a chore wheel that gets posted on the fridge and forgotten about until a conflict arises and one partner uses it to point out all the things the other person hasn’t done. In other words, ground rules, like a lot of things, can be useful and supportive—and can also be unhelpful or weaponized depending on interpersonal context and relationship dynamics.

When I was developing self-defense and boundary setting curricula at Home Alive we spent a good deal of time discussing ground rules for classes. There were many conversations, disagreements, and conflicts not only about which ground rules to include, but also about the goal and function of having ground rules themselves in classes. In addition, while we eventually agreed on a few core ground rules, teachers used them differently in different classes, and they were constantly evolving. Through this experience, I realized that an exploration of ground rules can be as important as actually creating and agreeing on a particular set of them. The process is as important as the content generated and at times can be even more important.

Given that ground rules can offer different things to different relationships, it can be beneficial to pivot from trying to create the best or most effective ones to exploring what ground rules mean to people involved in the relationship; how they would like ground rules to function inside the relationship; and how they might (or might not be) helpful.

There are myriad ways this can look and before trying to generate a list of them, it can be helpful to explore what feels important to each person about starting a conversation about ground rules. For example, what is the goal and purpose for developing them? Sometimes people have really different ideas about the purpose of ground rules, which results in people using and interacting with them in different and sometimes conflictual ways. If one partner views ground rules as helpful suggestions, while another person sees them as rock solid rules to abide by, conflicts can arise.  

Another useful exploration may be about the function or role people expect ground rules to serve. Are people using ground rules to anticipate and avoid conflicts? Or to develop equitable communication skills? Build relationship skills for conflict resolution? Improve communication? Avoid arguments? Create structures that affirm people’s wants and needs? The function of ground rules (and there may be different functions for different rules) will inform what kinds of ground rules may be desirable and helpful in a relationship.

This kind of exploration can be an attempt to illuminate unspoken, or at times even unconscious, assumptions. Partners may be unaware about assumptions, ideas, values, or judgments about how to handle things like conflict, savings, debt, extended family, emotional intensity, job security, pets, education, social justice, class, what constitutes a clean house, budgeting, or friendships outside the relationship. Sometimes people are unaware of a judgment or value until there is a conflict that challenges it. How a relationship handles these moments is as important (and sometimes more important) than having ground rules. For example, making ground rules about who will pay for what, or that all purchases will be split 50-50, may be helpful. However, if there are differences in personal and emotional relationships to money, class differences informing values about money, or different approaches to budgeting and making purchases, something that seems clear can explode quickly into complex and emotional terrain.

There is no one right way to explore ground rules, no particular end goal, or correct result. Exploration involves being curious and open. Listed below are some questions and prompts to get things started.

What emotions, thoughts, and sensations arise when talking about ground rules? (fear, impatience, anxiety, lightness, resentment, joy…)

What kinds of things do each of you want out of exploring ground rules?

What kinds of things do each of you want out of creating ground rules?

What is a “successful” or “awesome” or “helpful” ground rule? Why?

Are there individual as well as relationship ground rules? How are they different? How are they similar?

What makes ground rules important (or not) in general? What makes each ground rule important personally and interpersonally?

How will you (or how would you like to) handle conflicts about ground rules? How would each of you like to handle times when ground rules do not get followed?

How will you check in on, change, and adapt any ground rules you decide on?

How would you like to handle disagreement or conflict about when/if to change a ground rule?