Rules and More Rules. No human response is absurd regardless of how ridiculous it appears. Each person’s behavior, decisions, and reactions emerge from a context of some sort. This frame of reference, if it is understood can shine a spotlight into a dark area that is otherwise baffling. In essence, family rules are the way family values are passed on from one generation to another. Through rules, a family communicates its expectations for family members as well as for those outside the family. Rules tell us what is acceptable and unacceptable, proper and improper, good and bad. Family rules communicate expectations about how people are to relate to one another, how the different generations are to interact, and what is expected of each individual.
In the same way that family roles give each member a place to “fit” into the family identity, family rules tell each member how to play his or her part. Some rules are very clear and understandable; some are extremely clouded and confusing. Since families have expectations about everything they do, they also have rules about everything they do.
“Written rules” – expectations that have been communicated directly in some way. Written rules give structure and stability to family life. They include things such as table manners, curfews and chores.
- “Finish your dinner or no dessert.”
- “Do your homework before you go out to play.”
- “Bedtime is ten o’clock.”
Unwritten rules are quite another story. These rules consistently influence behavior within the family but have never been directly stated. These unspoken expectations are not open for discussion or evaluation, generally because no one is consciously aware of them.
Families have unwritten rules about all kinds of things. The most readily visible rules are those regarding emotional tension. If the children misbehave or cause distraction whenever the parents argue, they are communicating the rule “Parents can’t fight”. If parents take over a task or job for a child whenever he or she complains or experiences difficulty, then the rule may be “Children can’t be frustrated”. If family members act differently around a particular parent, treating them “with kid gloves”, the rule may be “Mom (or Dad) must not get angry. Because unwritten rules are not verbalized, family members may often be unaware they exist.
Family rules accomplish several purposes. For one, they serve to regulate tension within the family. Too much tension or conflict within a home makes family life chaotic, unsettled, and insecure; too little tension results in stagnation and indifference.
Another purpose served by family rules is that of defining the family’s identity. They give the family a sense of uniqueness.
A third purpose is that rules lend stability and predictability to family life.
The good news about family rules is that they help make family life stable and predictable. The bad news is that family rules can keep family members from growing, maturing, and changing. This is especially true for rules that limit communication or emotional closeness. It is also true for rules that are arbitrary and overly rigid.
Some rules help us prepare for and live in the adult world. Other unwritten rules apply only to life within the family, and they often distort our perspective of life. As adults we continue to be loyal to these rules until we consciously change them.
The most influential rules in our families are the unwritten ones – those based on assumptions. It is usually easier to identify unwritten family rules in someone else’s family than in your own. Unwritten rules are generally enforced through rejection by parents and family members. Controlling children through rejection can be done with direct statements:
- “Mommy doesn’t love you when you act like that.”
- “You are an awful child when you do that.”
- “If you act (talk, feel) like that, you’re no child of mine.”
Rejection and control can also be expressed indirectly:
- “I won’t talk to you when you’re crying (angry, depressed).”
- “Go to your room if you feel that way.”
- “I won’t be around you when you’re like that.”
The common factor in both expressions of rejection is the underlying message: “You will be loved and considered worthy only if you perform properly.” Behavior is not separated from the individual. Bad behavior equals a bad person. The result is a sense of shame and fear of abandonment.
An alternative message would be: “I love you regardless of what you do, but there are negative consequences for your inappropriate behavior.” In this case parental love and acceptance are not withheld and consequences for behavior are separated from the child as a person.
To a young child, the threat of rejection or abandonment is a powerful motivator. Physically dependent on parents and authority figures, children have a strong need to please them. Something as subtle as a facial gesture, the refusal of a hug, or silence can elicit fear and shame in a young child. When the threat of rejection is used regularly and consistently in a child’s life, that child becomes sensitized to rejection. He or she develops a habit of avoiding rejection at all costs, which will carry over into adulthood long after the child becomes independent and no longer needs parents for physical survival.
Expressing Emotions. For Ken to see his wife cry was an unnerving experience. Whenever she cried he felt a strong need to stop her and smooth things out somehow. For Catherine, crying was a soothing release of tension. She felt minimized and patronized when Ken would try to squelch her tears, and she interpreted his lack of observable emotion as apathy. It was hard for her to feel she was important to him when he expressed no emotion. It wasn’t until each began to understand the other’s family rules that their reactions began to change.
Most families have unwritten rules about the expression of various emotions. The honest expression of feelings needs to be balanced with courtesy and respect for others. Typically, the unwritten rules regarding expression revolve around “forbidden” emotions:
- “It is wrong to make another person uncomfortable. We do not confront one another.”
- “We are a positive, joyful family. No one may express negative emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, or hurt.”
- “The women in our family are gentle. They may not be angry, but they may be depressed.”
- “The men in our family are strong. They may not be fearful or hurt, but they may be angry.”
- “We are a loving family. We do not have conflict or disagree with one another.”
When genuine feelings are minimized, denied, or redefined, a child’s emotional experience becomes distorted. Believing that anger or sadness is bad does not make it less real. The child learns to distrust the senses and becomes confused – anger isn’t really anger; hurt isn’t really hurt. When children experience a forbidden emotion, they feel guilty and ashamed as though they themselves are somehow “bad”. They then deny the emotion to avoid the shame.
When emotions are denied consistently, as a way of life, they tend to come out “sideways”, in some form that does not violate the family rule. Rules suppressing emotions often produce adults who may be convinced that they harbor no anger, but their depression, ulcers, or migraine headaches tell another story.
Family members learn to develop emotional distance. When someone cannot or will not express strong feelings, other people have a hard time getting to know that person very well. Families with restrictive rules governing honest emotional interaction are often communicating to one another that emotional stability is valued more highly than emotional closeness.
Many families have strict unwritten rules regarding standards of performance by family members. Examples of these may be:
- “Whatever you do, it must be done correctly.”
- “There’s only one way to do things – the right way!”
- “To fail in any way is a shameful thing.”
These rules are learned clearly and quickly through regular, consistent criticism and minimal affirmation. Criticism may be communicated directly, through complaints and condemnation of what a child does or how the child acts, or indirectly, through disapproving frowns, silence, or regularly comparing the child to someone or something “better”.
The definition of what is “correct” or “perfect” may vary widely. One family may define “correct” as being sociable. Having many friends and no enemies would be correct in this family. Conflict then would be a measure of failure. Another family may define “correct” as remaining separate from “the world”. In this family a very small circle of social contacts would be considered appropriate and positive.
One family might measure “correctness” in financial terms. A nice home, new cars, and many possessions would spell success. The absence of these things may be cause for criticism or pity. Another family may define “correct” behavior as the absence of materialism.
The values behind these rules may be positive and appropriate, but all too often these underlying motivations get lost when conformity becomes more highly valued than individuality. The performance of family members becomes more important than the people themselves.
Whatever the specifics within the family, the definition of “right”, “correct” or “perfect” is always dependent on a comparison. To be defined, “perfect” must be contrasted with “imperfect”. Because there must always be a “wrong” to avoid at all costs, there is a judgmental attitude or a “better than others” aspect to this rule.
Since being “wrong” results in shame and being “right” is merely expected, avoiding being wrong becomes more important than doing what is right. Defensiveness, blame, justification, and rationalization are typical patterns in families with perfectionistic performance rules.
The long-term effect of these rules is two-fold. First a child develops a mental image as to what he or she “should be” and strives constantly to achieve it. Usually this ideal standard cannot be achieved, at least consistently. As a result of this, the child becomes self-critical, discontent, and defensive – a perfectionist. Second, the child learns to project expectations and perfectionism onto others. Since others cannot fulfill the expectations, the child is disappointed and critical. This child is demanding, condemning, nagging, and rejecting. He or she feels hurt and in turn hurts others, alienating them and damaging close relationships.
Physical Expression of Affection. Eric can’t remember ever seeing his parents touch each other. He certainly felt loved and cared for as a child, but that love wasn’t expressed through hugs. In his family, affection was expressed through giving gifts and other tangible ways, such as doing special favors. His wife, Rosa, grew up with constant physical affection from her family. Touching among family members was a natural part of any conversation. Early in their marriage Eric and Rosa were each offended by the other’s approach to this dissimilarity. She felt neglected, and he felt smothered.
The communication of affection is laden with family expectations. In some families, physical touch is comfortable and somewhat threatening. In other families, members feel rejected when a greeting isn’t accompanied with an embrace. Rules regarding physical expression of affection vary widely.
- “Women may hug one another, men may only shake hands.”
- “Adults may hug children but never other adults.”
- “Physical affection is private, never to be shown in public.”
- “If you care for someone, you touch that person regularly.”
Learning to Disobey. Jesus demonstrated the result of emotionally leaving his family patterns and replacing them with mature priorities and decisions. The process of leaving rules learned in childhood behind is difficult and calls for discernment. Family rules that are dysfunctional and unhealthy can usually be identified by two factors: They have little or no relationship to life outside the family, and family members are not able to discuss or evaluate them.
Some of the unwritten rules from your family of origin are undoubtedly positive and helpful to you today. As you begin to break away from inappropriate rules from your childhood, remember that the family is a system or a mobile. Change in one person causes changes in others. In one way or another people around you will be forced to adjust in response to your new reactions.