What Makes A Family tick? Part VII

Happy Family with LifelineThis is the seventh of a multi-part series that examines the workings of a healthy family. It’s meant to be a sort of how-to guide that can help you create the family you always dreamed of.

The Four Foundation Stones


We’re all familiar with the idea of family rules. They are there to keep things running smoothly, help children stay safe, learn manners and establish good habits: Don’t talk with your mouth full. No cursing. No dessert unless you eat your dinner. No T.V. on school nights. Brush your teeth before you go to bed. Rules also help kids learn how to control themselves, and live within a community. These rules are usually explicit and change as children get older or circumstances shift within the family.

But there is another kind of family rule that is a little more mysterious. These rules come into play early on, often due to circumstances, and tend to stick even when the original reason for them has been long forgotten. They dictate how we relate to each other and although they aren’t set in stone, they can be pretty resistant to change.

A lot of them are harmless, like the one that involves Dad writing the corny holiday letter each year. But even that one may have wider repercussions. It may cement the family belief that Dad is the family storyteller or historian. It may result in him being the one that gets called on to settle an argument about something that happened in the past.

My husband managed to break his foot two days before we got married. Then, three days after the wedding, we headed off from San Francisco to Washington D.C. to begin our new life. We were traveling by car and it was a long journey. But since my husband had a cast on up to his knee, I became the official and exclusive driver.

I kept this job for several weeks after we had unpacked and settled into our new place. By the time he got the cast off, it had become the norm for me to drive. A precedent had been set, within the first weeks of our marriage. And even now, 30 years later, most of the time I drive, especially on long trips. It has become a family rule.

These unofficial rules create predictable ways of interacting that help foster stability in the family’s structure. Stability is critical to a family’s survival so if anyone pushes the envelope too far, pressure will be put on them to back off. Think of it in terms of the thermostat in a house. Say you set it to 68 degrees. The temperature in the house might get up to 70 or 71 before the thermostat shuts off or down to 66 before it kicks on. But that will be it. That will be the acceptable range. So in any family, there is a little bit of room for bending the “rules” but only up to a certain point.

Sometimes though, rules evolve that are not so benign. They may make it difficult for family members to resolve problems or get support from each other when faced with a tough situation. We all know families (maybe even our own) where, for example, a family rule has developed that says it’s not okay to talk about challenging emotions like anger or grief.

How and why that rule got established is probably long forgotten. But at some point, expressing intense emotion was seen as threatening to the family system, and as a result it was forbidden. So, whenever someone in that family gets “too upset,” others somehow cue them to calm down. Problem is, people need to express emotions and have them heard and respected by people they love. But just because a particular rule may have developed doesn’t mean it’s set in stone and can’t be changed. It can.

Next Week, Part VIII: The Four Foundation Stones, The Parental Role

Parts I through VII can be found in the MamaToMama blog.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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