Is It Okay To Set Rules in a Relationship?


A recent story in the Daily Mail here prompted LBC radio to interview our in house therapist Joanna Harrison to discuss the question of when is it okay to set rules with each other in a relationship and when it might stray into territory that is perhaps more toxic or in the area of coercive control.

Joanna is an experienced couple therapist who has worked with many people in respect to their relationships, both couples who are together and couples who are working towards a separation. We asked her and two of our lawyers at FLiP for their thoughts on this issue:

Is it okay to set rules in a relationship?

[Joanna] I think in any relationship each person will have an idea of a rule they would like to set, even on the mundane stuff – you need to stack the dishwasher a certain way, or you need to not put wet towels on the bed! But whether it’s possible to get one’s partner to sign up to those rules is the ongoing work and frustration of any relationship because we all come into relationships with our different ideas and different ways of doing things and all have our different capacities. When couples are able to have ongoing conversations with each other about what their ideas mean to each of them then this can be quite a healthy fruitful process – perhaps more important than the setting of the rules itself.

Can we have rules about being able to look on each other’s phones?

Everyone has different ideas about what’s appropriate with each other’s phones, just as there are different ideas about what level of transparency there might be when it comes to bank accounts.

There may not be a ‘right’ way about levels of transparency but I think what can be important is to be able to be open and transparent with each other about your ideas about things. Different couples will choose to manage their finances in different ways. Some couples prefer to have a joint bank account (although there is no legal obligation for couples to do so). If you have separate bank accounts then it might be important to think about levels of transparency and to think together about what that means for you and whether there are times when you’d like to know what is going on in each other’s bank accounts.

I do think with phones actually it’s an area that is so important for couples to have some ideas of ground rules with each other. I often think that parents spend so much time thinking about rules with their kids about screen time but very little thinking about the ways in which they use their phones might be problematic for each other. Having conversations about things like those listed below can be rich conversations that can help us to understand each other better:

  • Is it okay for you to look at my phone and if so when;
  • Are there times or places when we don’t look at our phones;
  • What does each other’s phone use mean to you.

What I have come across so many times is that couples underestimate their capacity to have different ideas on something. They may assume that the person they love naturally feels the same about them on certain issues and then it can come as a shock when they discover they have different ideas about it. It may be that they only discover the different ideas as a result of getting it wrong with each other and this is one of the ways that conflict can help couples grow, if after a disagreement they can sit down and think together about what they’ve learnt from each other.

When do relationship rules become toxic or too controlling?

So far I’ve been talking about the value of open conversations about the different ideas a couple may have. This to me is quite democratic and is about creative constructive conversations that help couples figure out ways of being together. What would be very different is if rules were imposed in a relationship in a one-sided way or without an opportunity to think about what something meant to both people in the relationship. If one person was frightened or alarmed about the consequences of not following the rules their partner had ‘set’ then this would be of concern.

What is coercive control?

We asked Hannah Greene, a Senior Associate at FLiP, to explain the law on coercive control.

The law states that:

Coercive control is when:

  • A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person, B, that is controlling or coercive;
  • at the time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected;
  • the behaviour has a serious effect on B, and
  • A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B.

Examples of coercive control would be:

  • isolating a person from their friends and family;
  • depriving them of their basic needs;
  • monitoring their time;
  • monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware.

The College of Policing Authorised Professional Practice on Domestic Abuse sets out that: “In many relationships, there are occasions when one person makes a decision on behalf of another, or when one partner takes control of a situation and the other has to compromise. The difference in an abusive relationship is that decisions by a dominant partner can become rules that, when broken, lead to consequences for the victim.”

It wouldn’t be coercive control if a couple had negotiated a rule between them that they could look at each other’s phones and they were both mutually happy about that arrangement and there weren’t serious consequences of breaking those rules that would cause them harm or distress. However, if one of them imposed a rule that they were allowed to look at their partner’s phone and monitor their behaviour online and then if that caused their partner fear or distress about the consequences if they didn’t comply with this rule then this would be more in the realm of coercive control.

It’s important to differentiate between more general controlling character attributes (i.e. one partner having a fastidious approach to the dishwasher to use Joanna’s example above or personal finances) and when this passes into the realm of “coercive control”.  The difference lies in the consequences of breaking imposed rules.

Are all relationships controlling?

Joanna was asked on LBC Radio if there are elements of control in all relationships. What do you think about this?

I do think that everyone in a relationship has the capacity to seek to be controlling and it’s often in the domestic side of things that people might be seeking to control their way of doing things because they have an idea about how something might be done. This is part of the inherent tension of being in a relationship and the anxieties that might be stirred up about having to compromise with someone or depend on them. However, where we would start to be concerned, as Hannah says above, is if there were real fears about the consequences of not complying with a partner’s wish to control.

What to do if you are concerned you are in a relationship where there is coercive control?

FLiP Director Helen Greenfield says:

Since December 2015, coercive control has been a criminal offence.  If you do think you are experiencing this kind of abuse you can report it to the police.  They may in the first instance give your abuser a warning or could arrest them.  This may lead to them being sentenced to up to 5 years in prison.  The court may also made a restraining order to protect you, the breaching of which would be a criminal offence.  You may also be able to apply to the Family Court for protection.  This is something that we at FLiP can assist with.  There are various injunctive orders available.  You could apply for an occupation order to exclude someone from your home.  However, perhaps more appropriate in relation to coercive control might be a non-molestation order.  This can be used in an attempt to prevent someone from being violent, threatening violence, harassing or intimidating or even contacting you by phone, e mail social media or in person.  The breaching of a non-molestation order is a criminal offence.

 We don’t think there is coercive control in our relationship but we would like help having conversations about some ground rules about the basics in our relationship. How can we do that?

The counselling team at FLiP is able to work with couples to help support these kinds of conversations and can be contacted at . Joanna also has a book Five Arguments All Couples (Need To) Have which is full of advice and tips on how to communicate about these sorts of issues and which is available to buy here .

Find out more about how our in-house relationship therapists can support you by looking at our dedicated page linked below.


T: +44 (0)20 7420 5000