I had a nice clear example of the difference between boundaries and rules. Let’s meet our contestants! Michael and Sandra have just started dating, and have gotten to the point that they’ve seen the inside of each other’s houses, but live separately.
Michael does not clean his bathroom very well. He thinks it’s fine and sees no reason to change it.
Sandra keeps her bathroom immaculate. So immaculate that it looks brand new and undecorated.
If Sandra tells Michael “You have to clean your bathroom!”, it’s a rule. Sandra is telling Michael what he must (or should) do, whether he wants to or not.
If Sandra says “I won’t go into a house with a toilet that looks like that,” or “I will not date someone whose toilet looks like that,” it’s a boundary. She could phrase it positively as well, but doesn’t have to: “I only go into homes where the toilet is sanitary.” It’s still a boundary, It is now Michael’s decision what he wants to do with his own toilet.
Example totally not inspired by my rapid cleaning of my toilet before mi amours come over.
I keep bashing on about the difference here, because it’s easy to mess up when you’re in the moment. Especially if you’re recovering from some kind of relationship where your boundaries were regularly violated.
It takes a while – sometimes a long while – for the difference to really sink in enough that you can keep aware about it in the moment. The toilet example is straightforward enough that it helps remind me of the difference. (Yes, I still look at my hands sometimes to tell my right from my left; reminders are useful.)
And besides, now you get to think of my – I mean Michael’s – toilet.