9. Preponderance Implicit Rules - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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9. Preponderance Implicit Rules

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Ghost Guest Family Past

Ghosts and Guests of Family Past in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

"Why did you do that?  How is that so?"  When a person answers these questions with "Because!" it is indicative of the person being bound by some non-articulated and unacknowledged standards.  Every family and every relationship has a set of rules.  A couple operates from some set of rules.  In their respective families-of-origin were family rules that were guides or regulations for behavior comparable to but unique from other families.  Rules govern the family, directing members to behave in some consistent, structured, and predictable manner.  The rules organize the members and family to deal with various functional needs: cooking, laundry, housecleaning, schoolwork, etc.  They also define interpersonal boundaries, govern communication, and regulate intimacy in the family.  "In families where emotional distance is the norm, there may be implicit or explicit rules against the expression of feelings (e.g., "Don't talk about your feelings") or displays of affection (e.g., "Don't get close").  Both family and individual psychological health may be profoundly affected by the appropriateness of family rules (Broderick, 1990; Constantine, 1986; L'Abate, 1998).  Family rules that facilitate communication and understanding among family members are considered to be healthy, or "functional," rules (Blevins, 1993; Satir, 1988).  In contrast, family rules that hinder communication, foster low self-awareness, or cause emotional distance in the family are considered "dysfunctional" rules" (Larson et al., 2000, page 162).

Discouraging genuineness or blocking or punishing self-expression of thoughts, feelings, wishes, and needs may have harmed individual's personal growth within the family.  If dysfunctional rules about genuineness and communication harm individual development and expression, as an adult the individual may be crippled in intimate relationships and perhaps, in work and social relationships as well.  While overtly expressed and taught family rules can be highly influential, implicit rules may be more binding.  For example, the explicit expectations of relationship may be monogamy, joint bank accounts, shared household chores, as well as a male economic role along with a female household/childcare role.  Explicit expectations may or may not be congruent with social and cultural evolution of norms, such as accepting or rejecting cross-gender friendships, gals or guys nights out, girls' roles versus boys' roles, communication with out of family individuals about family affairs, spending money, vacations, time with extended family, and so on.  Explicit expectations may be contested and the source of conflict, but the contention would tend to be overt.  Implicit rules however are often more incendiary for the relationship.  "Of course, the reverse of a real marriage certificate is blank, hence the invisibility of their 'contract'.  I ask them each to think along the following lines: 'What was it that the other was meant to provide for you?  How was the other going to 'heal' you? What was the other supposed to 'be' that would help you feel better about yourself?  What did you not like about yourself that the other would carry, and that you could then criticize or be angry about?'  The questions are both general in order to evoke freer thinking, and specific to their particular circumstances, to challenge their personal beliefs.  I always emphasize that the questions are there to facilitate and not prescribe.  The rationale I give for asking this is that often the other person is not aware of the 'invisible contract', and therefore of the expectations laid upon them. I will add that we as individuals in our relationships are also not always aware of what are the questions we are asking of the other, and the roles that we have prepared for the other and for ourselves.  At this stage, I speak intentionally in terms of 'we' to emphasize the normality of these processes, and that this does not relate to some kind of psychopathology.  It is important to avoid, if possible, attributions of blame" (Jenkins, 2006, page 128-29).

The therapist should prompt the partners for unexpressed expectations and requirements for each other in the relationship.  Although some of the "shoulds" of the relationship may not be verbalized, the expectation nevertheless of compliance or performance may be highly charged.  The individual often acquires implicit rules from the family-of-origin.  The entire family or system is beholden to the secret rules.  Never expressed, but clearly felt especially when violated, a preponderance of secret or implicit rules tends to be held in dysfunctional families or systems.  Not all implicit rules are dysfunctional.   Some may be relatively benign although still impactful.  Amy's elderly father living with them challenged the family.  Reed was physically somewhat frail but still assertively active.  He refused to passively give in to his eight decades of life.  Recently, he had a fall and had broken his ankle.  It was healing as well as could be expected.  That was not the problem for the couple.  The problem was that he still insisted on doing everything he had done before: make his bed, cook dinner, take out the garbage, carry firewood from the yard for the fireplace, drive to his activities… and he had an upstairs bedroom!  A secret rule was revealed when the therapist naively proposed, "Why don't you just tell him… 'Dad, we know you like to be independent and keep doing things despite getting older, but why don't you take a break and let us help you a bit more while your ankle heals?  It'd be easier on you and us both if you'd take the downstairs bedroom and relax a little bit.'"  As Amy's husband nodded in agreement, a look of shock and incongruity flashed across Amy's face.  She sputtered, "I can't say that!"  The therapist asked what was the "that," that she was referring to.  A little bit of processing revealed that Amy felt, knew, and had been trained from childhood not to ever challenge her father's competency.  Her mother discouraged anyone questioning him and Amy was still avoiding breaking the secret rule, which had morphed into not bringing up his mortality.  Pointing out that he should make accommodations for his broken ankle and his physical deterioration from aging would be breaking a rule that Amy unconsciously held for half a century.  And, broke a rule that her husband knew nothing about.  Working through problem solving much simpler once the implicit rule was made explicit and could be examined in the clear and current light of day.

Some implicit rules are harder to decipher.  They may be hidden beneath seemingly reasonable values or cultural behaviors.  In addition, implicit or secret rules usually obscure a significant if not profound vulnerability.  Revealing them can be emotionally and psychological agonizing as the individual or family comes to face what they had not been able to face for decades.  Implicit rules develop covertly because their underlying issues may be too sensational and terrifying to address directly.  In the example above, the family dysfunction, ignoring or dismissing other members' needs, the mother's impotency, the father's (Reed's) intimidation and rage, inconsistency between reality and behavior, inconsistency between professed love and treatment, possible alcoholism, and more may be the family's "broken glass" or the implicit rules that must be tiptoed around.  The family-of-origin secret collusion to hold members to implicit rules is often more extremely powerful than similar toxic but overt rules.  Overt rules are visible to be considered and challenged and perhaps, to be adapted although perhaps not until the next generation.  Unknowing family conspirators through multiple generations however may pass secret family rules forward through decades.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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