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Relationship Rules - What Are Yours?

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
11/25/2021
Last updated:
5/8/2022
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
11/25/2021
Last updated:
5/8/2022

TL;DR

  • Many people don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like.
  • It’s important to understand from your partner what’s important to them so you can ensure you’re aligned with their beliefs about relationships.
  • Researchers can predict the stability of relationships, based on the way couples behave and whether they put their partner's needs ahead of their own.
  • Effective communication in relationships keeps connection strong and develops a greater level of emotional understanding and intimacy.
  • Nobody gets relationships right 100% of the time. We all make mistakes, but it’s how we learn from them that counts.

 

Many people have no idea what a healthy relationship looks like. And if that’s the case, how can they begin to build a stable love life with their spouse or partner?

By talking to their partner about what they believe is important you are coming up with a set of ideals for the kinds of behavior you feel is desirable. Here we’re calling them ‘relationship rules’ but, if that sounds a little formal, then you can choose to call them whatever you like. Maybe a Partner Pact? Or does Cuddle Contract have a better ring to it?

Why is it important we play by the relationship rules?

Individuals tend to have different beliefs about relationships. They might be based on role models such as parents or grandparents. Or they might be based on how films, TV or books portray marriage. From wherever they came, our expectations of what is acceptable begin to form from a young age.

So when two people come together with opposing views of what it’s reasonable to expect from a life partner, things can get a little tricky. Different people have different tolerances for different behaviors. And that’s OK. But in order to enjoy a healthy, stable relationship, it’s important you’re at least semi-aligned on where the boundaries lie. And it’s a good idea to have some understanding of your partner's wants and needs too.

Respect and consistency in behavior help to build trust. For women, this is particularly important when it comes to forming a deep emotional connection. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that when a partner was responsive to their needs and made them feel valued, a woman was more likely to experience an increase in emotional intimacy as well as sexual desire. (1)

In most relationships, both partners have each other’s best interests at heart and won’t try to hurt one another on purpose. If you believe your previously loving partner is behaving in a hurtful way towards you, it may be that there is an underlying reason. Consider whether they might feel lonely, rejected or sad. Is there something they’re not communicating with you?

Do we get to write the rules of relationships?

In a word, yes. In modern relationships you get to write the rulebook. What makes someone the perfect person or perfect partner for another will depend on many things. To keep your relationship strong, it never hurts to have a few basic rules in your relationship toolbox. 

Talk to your partner about what’s important to them. And open up to them in return, get really honest about what is important to you. We’re talking no-holds barred honesty. The conversation might be sexual or non-sexual: that’s not important. This is the time to talk about what you need from your partner.

Of course, you don’t have to write a two-page manifesto, although you can if that’s the way you roll. Sheldon and Amy from the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory provide some inspiration:The relationship contract states that Sheldon "must take Amy out to a nice restaurant and have casual physical contact that disinterested onlookers would liken to intimacy".

Anyway, the conversation is about understanding one another’s point of view and finding ways to make your relationship stronger. Together.

While it’s no secret that dishonesty in relationships will create resentment, these kinds of open discussions should serve to do exactly the opposite. Effective communication in relationships keeps connection strong and develops a greater level of emotional understanding and intimacy. Ultimately, by improving communication you may even find you improve life in the bedroom. It is often the first step for taking sex problems out from under the sheets.

What does the science say?

Gottman’s 5:1 ratio

Back in the 1970s, Dr Gottman and Robert Levenson began their acclaimed research into the difference between happy couples and unhappy couples. They asked each couple to solve a specific conflict situation in their relationship. By observing their behaviors, the researchers were able to work out who would stay together. They predicted with 90% accuracy who would be together and who would be divorced by the time they caught up with the couples nine years later.

They discovered that the difference between lasting marital happiness and a union that was destined to fail was the balance between positive and negative interactions. More specifically they identified a “magic ratio” of five positive interactions for each negative one.

In short, and perhaps unsurprisingly, this suggests you need a lot more positive interactions than negative ones for a strong relationship. Let’s be real for a moment. No relationship is utterly perfect; tough times and conflicts happen. It’s how, as a couple, you deal with those and move on.

As The Gottman Institute puts it, “Negativity holds a great deal of emotional power, which is why it takes five positive interactions to overcome any one negative interaction. And these negative interactions happen in healthy marriages, too, but they are quickly repaired and replaced with validation and empathy.” (2)

Communal vs exchange relationships

There’s a body of research looking at the difference between what are known as communal relationships and exchange relationships.

To put it simply, communal relationships are ones where we put the other person’s needs ahead of our own and do things without expecting anything back. Exchange relationships are those where you only do something for your partner if they will do something in return.

Studies have found that where both partners display communal behavior, they are more likely to engage in sexual activities even when their own desire is low (3), this can lead to a healthier and more sexually satisfying relationship overall.

So could putting your partner's needs ahead of your own be one of the rules you live by? Probably only if you’re communal by nature.

So what might your rules be?

If you’re keen to strengthen your connection and build intimacy in your relationship, here are some of the basic rules you might choose. Of course you and your partner might prioritize other relationship aspects.

Show affection to your partner

Do you hold hands with your partner, offer a romantic kiss, or embrace them when greeting them at the end of the day? Perhaps you always stop by the bakery for their favorite treat on a Friday, or make sure to leave them little notes in the steam on the bathroom mirror. It’s important to keep on reminding your partner exactly how much they mean to you in whatever little ways you can.

Making quality time for one another

With busy schedules, responsibilities, and seemingly non-stop message pings piling up, it can be easy to deprioritize your partner. But you must be careful not to let that happen. Book in date nights (pay a babysitter if you have to) or sneak out of the office for a quick lunch date. If that’s impossible, simply find 20 minutes to make eye contact and tell one another about your day (wine optional, phones nowhere in sight!). It’s vital for a healthy relationship that you know you’re one another’s priority.

Inject some fun into the relationship

Relationships should never be just about routine and responsibility. It’s important we are able to maintain enjoyment in each other and the time we have together. Try injecting some spontaneity into your relationship or step outside of your comfort zone and try something new.  

Never stop communicating

Communication is key in any relationship. Your partner should never need to guess what you think and feel. Make it a non-negotiable fact that you’re honest with one another and let your partner know what you need from them. We often talk around the edges, not quite saying what we mean, then feel disappointed when our partner doesn’t ‘get’ us. When we are truly honest with one another we become closer emotionally and physically.

Unwavering respect

We all deserve respect from our partners. In the way they behave, the way they speak to us and the way they support us in front of others. Of course, this necessitates behaving in ways that earn our partners respect and trust, too. Without mutual trust, any relationship is doomed to fail.

Never go to sleep on an argument

It’s an age old saying but it really does hold true. Make sure you resolve any conflict before you go to bed. Resentment can build over time, leading to defensiveness and a vicious cycle of undiscussed hurt and unhappiness. Make sure there’s no room for resentment.

Open yourselves up to intimacy

While sex is a vital part of any healthy long-term relationship, the importance of emotional intimacy should not be overlooked. Learning to open yourself up to your partner, to be vulnerable and to fully express your wants and desires is something that will give you a long-lasting connection. If this is something that's hard for you, for whatever reason, it might be worth looking into sex therapy. We have a complete guide on sex therapy, that can lead you in the right direction. If you feel like your intimacy can use a little boost, take our assessment to find out what your relationship is missing. We give you a relevant plan with guided exercises to get that spark back.

Listen actively and without judgement

When your partner speaks, listen. When they confide in you, listen. When they talk about their needs and desires, listen. Don’t judge. And don’t look for the answer every time. Sometimes, simply listening and acknowledging is all that is needed.

Nobody gets relationships right 100% of the time. We all make mistakes, but it’s how we learn from them that counts. Just as lives change, the rules you and your partner choose to live by will be dynamic, too. No doubt your priorities will shift throughout your lives together.

The benefit of thinking about your own relationship rules is as much about the process as it is the outcome. Through your conversations you’ll develop empathy, improve communication and learn to express your needs in a meaningful and empathetic way. All skills that will benefit you for years to come.

1. Birnbaum, G., Reis, H., Mizrahi, M. and Kanat-Maymon, Y., 2016. 'Intimately connected: The importance of partner responsiveness for experiencing sexual desire.', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 111, no. 4, pp. 530-546.
2. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-magic-relationship-ratio-according-science/
3. Day, L., Muise, A., Joel, S. and Impett, E., 2015. 'To Do It or Not to Do It? How Communally Motivated People Navigate Sexual Interdependence Dilemmas', Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 41, no. 6, pp. 791-804.
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