The Battle Over "Rules" in Relationships

January 14, 2016 3 min read

Sherri came into my office, her husband Jonathan in tow. As I have come to expect, it doesn’t take long before they are arguing with each other in front of me.

 “He just takes off, doesn’t tell me where he is going and I have no idea when he will return.”

“You can’t tell me what I can or cannot do!”

“Well, you can’t just take off! We’re supposed to be a married couple and be responsible to each other. I have no idea what you are doing.”

“Where’s the trust? If you truly trusted me I wouldn’t have to tell you everything I’m doing!”

Many couples get caught up in the debate over whether or not there should be “rules” in their relationship. One spouse may feel that rules are important while the other may claim that if they truly loved each other then rules would not be needed. 

Is it okay for a spouse to text and “like” anyone they please online? What if one wants to go to dinner with a boss or co-worker of the opposite sex? What if one wants to watch a certain type of movie while the other feels strongly that the film in question is inappropriate. And don’t even get started on the kids!

When rules are imposed, it doesn’t take long before the argument descends into charges of “control” or “lack of trust” or worse. The one partner thinks, since the relationship is based on love, that rules are not needed – he or she even thinks rules are damaging and hindering to the relationship. The other is convinced that without some basic guidelines the marriage will be damaged by destructive behavior or influences.

The question is: Is it proper to insist on certain “rules of behavior”, or isn’t it?

The Importance of Rules

After years of dealing with couples in crises, I have come to the firm belief that without rules a marriage cannot succeed. The “we trust each other” sentiment may seem noble, but when no accountability exists, disaster is lurking.

True Love

When a couple stands at the altar to pledge themselves to a life of love and commitment, they begin by listing the conditions: For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others and till death do us part, etc. If there were no conditions, there could be no love. (By the way, has anybody noticed how more and more couples are not using traditional vows that spell out the conditions and opt instead for rambling statements of how they make each other feel? They don’t want conditions. They make the mistake of assuming that love without conditions is true love.)

My wife and I love each other very much BUT, make no mistake, there are clear conditions. Trust me when I say "The Red Head" has a few rules and expectations when it comes to our marriage, as do I of her. (Plus the accompanying consequences to go with them!) The major conditions of our relationship were spelled out on our wedding day when we exchanged vows. And we've discovered other conditions along the way as well. Honoring these conditions of our commitment to each other allows love to flourish. The absence of conditions and the presence of true love are mutually exclusive. More simply stated: True love cannot exist where there are no rules.

Most struggles that couples encounter early in their marriages have to do with negotiating, debating and setting the conditions of the relationship. It is a process of discovery:

“What do you expect of me? Who does what? Where are the borders of your conscience? What offends you? How much do we spend on that? We’re going where for Christmas?”

The debate can rage intensely at times and sometimes may even have to be settled by a third party – a counselor, friends, family or pastor. And though it can be painful, this is an absolutely necessary rite of passage if the marriage is to succeed. This is the time when rules and conditions have to be set in place and the earlier it gets done, the better. If no rules or conditions are introduced into the relationship, then love simply is not possible, anarchy will follow and married life becomes unmanageable. Neither spouse knows their limits, neither knows the other’s expectations; there is no restraint on personal gratification because there are no rules to govern it. You simply have two people, still living in their own worlds, still addicted to self-gratification, never giving marriage a chance to transform them into responsible adults. In fact, without rules, virtually every area of life becomes unmanageable.


Check out my next blog post to see how rules are important in many areas of life and why all marriages must have them.

*From my book “The Battle Over Rules” available at: