Boundaries Versus Rules: Navigating Cooperative Power

A black leather book on a wooden table. The book is titled Rules and Regulations.

Boundaries Versus Rules: Navigating Cooperative Power

Tara Thomas

Hey, I'm Tara, relationship coach & couples therapist.

I'm definitely a weirdo, and have never traveled a conventional path-
It sucks because the world isn't designed for misfits, sometimes it's myself I'm rebelling against, and being a weirdo can be lonely.

I swear a lot, think life is too short to waste on drama & bullshit, and dream of a world where we ALL belong.

Tara Thomas

Hey, I'm Tara, relationship coach & couples therapist. I'm definitely a weirdo, and have never traveled a conventional path- It sucks because the world isn't designed for misfits, sometimes it's myself I'm rebelling against, and being a weirdo can be lonely. I swear a lot, think life is too short...

Boundaries versus rules is an important distinction when we navigate power dynamics within relationships. A boundary is about power within me to make my decisions. A rule is about power over your decisions.

Table of Contents

    It's important to distinguish the differences in boundaries versus rules when we navigate power dynamics within relationships.

    Tara Thomas & Kia Handley talk about types of power, and how to collaborate to express preferences, maintain boundaries, and navigate agreements. [Includes audio & full transcript]


    You can also find the incredibly talented Kia Handley on socials here, or listen to more of her works here: This Retro Life & Let's Talk-  Rural Mental Health, PLUS even more amazing gems here.

    While no longer behind the microphone at ABC Newcastle and NSW, she now spends her days working in communications and advocacy in the Aged Care and Community Services sector. 

    What's the Difference Between Boundaries, Rules, and Preferences?

    Kia Handley:

    It's a buzzword at the moment- Boundaries;  But are all the things you want in your relationships... are they all boundaries? Is there a difference between boundaries versus rules versus desires?

    Tara Thomas is your regular Relationship Coach with The Sugar Doctor. Good morning.

    Tara Thomas:

    Good morning, Kia.

    Kia Handley:

    Is it just me, or are boundaries, a bit of a buzzword at the moment? They're all over my TikTok.

    Tara Thomas:

    Yeah, absolutely. It's been an area of buzz for a few years, people are realizing- I don't need to say yes to everything. I don't need to say no to everything. I can make choices.

    It's wonderful to see people developing their agency around what they do and don't have to do. And as so often happens with these things, there's an idea and it's been misinterpreted a little and applied in ways that aren't always healthy or helpful.

    Kia Handley:

    And not just in romantic relationships. How do this idea of boundaries versus rules work in all relationships that we have?

    introduction to boundaries image of shoes at the line.
    Image from Canva

    Tara Thomas:

    Well, let's define a boundary before we look at  boundaries versus rules;

     A boundary is very simply what's okay and what's not okay. There's a great definition from Prentis Hemphill;

    "Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously."

    Where Does Power Lie in Boundaries versus Rules?

    A boundary is something that YOU put in place so that you are both okay. A rule is a regulation or a procedure, a rule is a different type of power; A boundary is about power within me to make my decisions. A rule is about power over your decisions.

     So it's really important to get that distinction right with boundaries versus rules. We're really talking about the power dynamics in relationships.

    What is an Example of Boundaries Versus Rules?

    Tara Thomas:

    So, back to your question, how does boundaries versus rules play out outside of intimate relationships -it might be at work; you might have a preference for the way things are done. You might have a boundary around the way that people speak to you or there might be rules within your workplace about what is, and isn't okay. But it is a rule because you've all agreed to that when you started working there.

    So there are different ways that boundaries versus rules plays out depending on the environment that you are in.

    Two spray painted people on a timber deck with a double headed arrow between them.
    Image from Canva.

    How Do Boundaries & Rules Change In Different Relationships?

    Kia Handley:

    This is gonna be different for everyone, right? That boundaries versus rules are different for everyone, even when we're in a friendship or relationship. So how does that work?

    Tara Thomas:

    Boundaries are really about, as I said, taking care of yourself and making sure that you are okay with what is happening and what isn't happening. And it's about you taking the responsibility for maintaining that. Then a relational boundary is about shared agreements.

     So this is power with, this is power between you and it's about continual conversation and collaboration.

     So what's different when you are talking about relational boundaries versus rules is that it's a continual negotiation. And it's something that we decide between us as to where those boundaries are. And so then nested within that, you can have your personal boundaries as well. Right?

    A Friendship Example of Power Dynamics: Boundaries Versus Rules

    So let me think of an example of boundaries versus rules;

    I might prefer that that we only spend time together on the weekend and I might have a personal boundary around that cuz during the week I'm very busy and I don't have time for social things. If I do social things during the week it has a really big impact on my life.

    So that's a personal boundary: I don't do social things during the week.

     And relationally, we might agree on that. We might say, yeah, okay. You know, we, we only spend time together on the weekend, but then if you were to call me and say, "I'd love for you to come to dinner on Wednesday", you are NOT violating a boundary!

    This is where I hear people weaponizing that idea, that someone is 'violating a boundary' but they're actually just doing something you don't like.

    Kia Handley:

    You knew I don't hang out on a Wednesday....

    Tara Thomas:

    Sure, but that's my preference. And it's up to me to maintain my boundary, which is the decision I made to maintain that preference, as well as to protect my own time, energy, and attention.

     So when you call me on a Wednesday and say "I'd really love to go out for dinner", in order to maintain that boundary I say "Hey, it's Wednesday. I really can't do it till the weekend." It's not a violation of a boundary because boundaries are about personal maintenance of wellness. 

    It's tricky. I mean, it's one of those things where.... It might sound like semantics when it comes to boundaries versus rules . But I think it's really important to remember: power within myself to make my own decisions, versus power over you to ensure you do what I want you to.

    A man in a suit on an office chair shouting through a megaphone at a miniature woman who is also shouting back through a megaphone. They are in a field.
    Photo by konstantynov

    Another Example...

    So I'll give you another example. My preference is I prefer that we speak with pretty quiet voices. I don't really want you to shout. I Don't like that...That's my preference.

    Kia Handley:


    Tara Thomas:

    Unless you are super duper excited in which case it's delight!

    If that were a rule, if I made that a rule, I would say, "you must not raise your voice when we're together. " And in that instance, I'm changing the power dynamic now, and I'm saying, I have power over you and you, you can't do that. Or else.

    The boundary would be where I'm maintaining my preference. The boundary would be, "Hey, when you shout at me, when you raise your voice, my body feels really anxious. And so what I'm gonna do if that happens is I'm just gonna say, Hey, I feel a bit anxious, cuz your voice is loud. And so I'm gonna go and just make a cup of tea and have a bit of a break. And then I'll come back."

    And so that's me maintaining a boundary. Does that make sense? Those layers within boundaries versus rules?

    How Does 'Boundaries versus Rules' Relate to Consent?

    Kia Handley:

    Yeah. And, and I can see that power dynamic, especially between boundaries versus rules, which sometimes can be clarifying and sometimes could end up being a little bit problematic. Right?

    Tara Thomas:

    Yeah, exactly. And that's where we start moving into more of a consent conversation. And you're right.

    There is some blurring and there is some overlap, right? So what you do is you are continually assessing, going back to that Prentis Hemphill definition, continually assessing "the distance at which I can love both myself and you simultaneously."

     So if you call me on Wednesday and you wanna go out for dinner, I maintain my boundary. I say, "look, I can't do it till the weekend." But if you call me every Wednesday and ask me out for dinner and you start getting a bit aggressive or passive aggressive, or like, it becomes an issue between us, then I'm gonna reassess the distance between us.

    I might decide, you know what, we're not gonna be... I'm not gonna spend time on weekends with you as often. And maybe I don't even want be close friends with you anymore. Maybe we're just acquaintances now.

    Kia Handley:

    Awkward that you told me this on the radio, but it's...

    Tara Thomas:

    Sorry for calling you out like this, but I just didn't know how else to do it...

    [both laugh]

    Kia Handley:

    It's fine. You just should have.... I mean, from my perspective, I didn't know this was a boundary. Right. And that's where that communication comes in.

    Tara Thomas:

    Yeah. I've been holding it in this whole time. You can't...

    Kia Handley:

    You can't just ghost me if you didn't tell me not to call you on a Wednesday, bro.

    Tara Thomas:

    Exactly! So this is where it becomes... because it's a relational boundary and I don't need to tell you all of the ins and outs about why it doesn't work for me. It doesn't have to be, it doesn't have to be a hundred percent transparency around that, but a relational boundary because it's about that continual conversation.

     So you're right. I never told you. And I never even said, "Hey, you've called me 20 Wednesdays in a row. It's getting a bit much, stop"

    Kia Handley:

    Stop. Don't you have other friends, Kia.

    Tara Thomas:

    Right? What have you really put them all off as well? Maybe it's the continual phone calls...

    Kia Handley:

    I am the red flag.

    How Can We Assess Our Own Boundaries?

    Tara Thomas:

    I'm off track. Yeah. But you're continually assessing the distance between you and the people in your life as to whether you can maintain your own boundaries, which means your wellness, you're managing your time and your energy and your attention, whether you can stay healthy and happy and engaged with them... in the context and framework of the boundaries that you have. And then assessing their relationship with boundaries versus rules.

    Kia Handley:

    And these change over time as well. I know talking to at least two of my very good friends when we read, as we go to therapy, as we work on ourselves as our relationships change with ourselves, with what we can do with our capacity. Even just across a week... We see those boundaries shift and change, and it is about communicating them.

    Like something that we have put in place between the three of us is, oh my gosh, I've had such a day. Do you have capacity for me to tell you a story? So straight away, it's not like here's me offloading.

    There's that sort of boundary and rule a little bit where there is a, a chance to say actually, no, I really don't because my day has also been trash. And it's just changed, I think how we communicate some of that stuff. And it's been really nice to see that dynamic shift just with a small boundary that we're kind of putting within our friendship group as well, a little bit.

    Tara Thomas:

    I love it. That's beautiful. And that is a really good example of boundaries versus rules -

    You each individually have a boundary that you don't engage with venting or dumping from friends unless you have assessed that you have the time, energy, and attention to hold that space.

    And to support each other, you check whether your friend has that capacity before you vent or dump. This is a boundary that you each have, and are each individually maintaining for yourselves. You are also each respecting your friends articulated boundary.

    If it were a rule, you might say "don't ever call me with drama" and then there would be some kind of punishment you enact if someone breaks your rule.

    A close up of green plastic army figures with guns.
    Photo by JonGorr from Getty Images Signature

    How Do People Weaponise This Idea of Boundaries versus Rules?

    Tara Thomas:

    Usually when I see this weaponizing of boundaries versus rules,  the consequences are quite aggressive. So it's stonewalling, someone's shutting them out, giving them cold shoulder to silent treatment. They're being punished in some way.

    So I sometimes work with clients where one partner feels like they're always in the wrong and they're walking on eggshells because when they forget their partner's preference, then their partner says that, "you've violated my boundary".

    In the boundaries versus rules categories they're going for 100% rules, power over their partner.

    And it's impossible to remember the entire rule book for everyone in your life. You just can't, you can't remember everything they prefer. You know, when the wind's blowing from the west, I want you to be home by seven. If it's the lunar eclipse, then you know, I'm gonna be eating pasta that night. And so you can stay out later.

    It's impossible to remember the whole rule book that comes with a partner or a friend or a colleague. And that's why it's really important that we all continually communicate those with people and let them know in a really compassionate way.

    Brene Brown's research has shown that the most compassionate people actually have the strongest boundaries -not the most rigid boundaries because that's not healthy either. That's like, black or white. But they have the strongest boundaries and they will say, you know, if your friend calls you and doesn't ask you if they can have a bit of a download, you would be saying, "Hey, I'm so sorry that you've had a really hard day, and I'm not feeling really great either. Can we catch up tomorrow? And then I can have capacity to have this conversation". That would be the maintaining of the boundary.

    Kia Handley:

    Well, it always ends up in communication.

    Tara Thomas:

    [both laugh] It does. I'm so sorry.

    Kia Handley:

    Well thank you for going into a, a wee bit more detail beyond just "communicate" -  reassess, reevaluate, do what you need to do to keep yourself and others safe. Always great to catch up with you. We'll do it again in a fortnight.

    Your regular Relationship Coach, Tara Thomas.

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    For full transparency you should know: This transcript has been edited for readability and flow, and to optimise the SEO on my website. That means that I have substituted some words or phrases so that the article is more likely to appear in a google search. In this article "boundaries versus rules" has been optimised. I only do that in a context where the meaning will remain the same.

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