Much of the problems that occur in relationships, whether as a couple, family or between friends, are due to the absence of limits. When others – or us – cross those limits, a conflict is generated. If we are not able to solve that problem, it will remain latent, generating frustration.
The idea has long been promoted that setting rules is the best way to prevent such meddling. However, rules can be a double-edged sword, so it is much better to learn how to set limits that are effective, but also respect others.
A journey to the origin of the rules
In Ancient Rome there was a figure called rex (king). However, he was not a king as we know him today, but he performed essentially priestly functions. That person was in charge of drawing the limits of the city and establishing the rules of law.
The Latin word regere comes precisely from the word rex, which literally meant “to draw a line”, but also “to rule or command”. In fact, this word gave rise to the Italian verb reggere, which means “to drive or hold.”
From regere also derives the Latin noun regula, which is at the origin of the word rule as we know it today. Therefore, the rules do not only refer to something straight, but also to a clear border between what is legal and what is illegal, what is permitted and what is prohibited.
As a result, the rule implies the concept of imposition. It is a norm that is established with the objective that others obey it, even if they do not always agree. The rules usually impose duties or prohibitions that someone must fulfill while there is someone else who demands it. In this sense, they violate the right to decide.
For that reason, it’s not surprising that trying to impose rules in a relationship doesn’t work or even backfires. Rules are based on control because they involve one person claiming the right to restrict another’s actions.
Consequently, anything that restricts a person’s options becomes an unhealthy rule that will probably end up causing psychological suffocation. Basing a relationship on these types of rules could be very dangerous, because limits are confused with control and manipulation happens very quickly. When someone says: “These are my rules, whether you like it or not”, there is a communication problem and a lack of respect towards the other – or at least it is not taken into account.
Nurturing relationships without imposing rules: the art of setting healthy boundaries
Boundaries, on the other hand, help us preserve our sense of identity and personal space. They are not an imposition, they are a measure to protect ourselves. Personal boundaries are clear guidelines for what we expect from others. They communicate our expectations, but they are not an imposition.
Like the rules, they can be understood as a dividing line. However, they do not imply a value judgment because they are not based on what is legal or illegal, good or bad, but rather on what we are willing or not to tolerate. Limits are lines that help us to continue being ourselves, maintaining the respect and distance that we need.
It must be taken into account that in every relationship there are three realities involved: ourselves, the other and the relationship itself. And you need to set boundaries for each of those entities. Each part needs its space, but it also needs to be fed, respected and understood so that it can grow in a healthy way.
Limits are what allow us to maintain our individuality and, at the same time, nurture the relationships we maintain with others, so that they become a source of satisfaction and not conflict. A limit can be: “I won’t wait for you if you’re late” while a rule is “You can’t be late again”. A limit would say “I’m not going to listen to you if you express yourself in that tone” while a rule would say: “Don’t talk to me in that tone again”.
The difference is subtle, but important
In fact, rules and limits are often communicated differently. While rules are addressed to the other and are formulated as norms with no room for objection in order to guarantee compliance, limits are drawn from the personal space. Boundaries are communicated in the first person, which also helps prevent others from becoming defensive.
Limits do not tell the other what to do or what they cannot do, they only communicate our expectations, desires and needs, making clear the behaviors that harm us. The other person will be free to decide. Just as we will be free to decide if we want him/her to continue to be part of our life. Clear limits preserve friendships.
The key, like everything, lies in treating the others as we would like to be treated. No impositions. From dialogue and understanding. Expressing our expectations, but at the same time respecting the free will of the other. It’s about relating as mature adults. No more no less.
(s/f) La vita delle parole: Norma-Regola. In: Zanichelli; 731.