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Family and Relational Rules

Rule Transmission

Most romantic and family relationships have many different rules. There are rules about how to handle money, show affection, divide the chores, and how to deal with someone who breaks the rules. "Rules exist for all other contributing factors that make it possible for people to live together in the same house and grow or not grow" (Satir 1996, p. 168). Because rules are typically unique to the family and romantic relationship, the types of rules are discussed in the ways in which they are transmitted.

Most scholars discuss types of rules and transmission of rules using the continuum of awareness. This continuum ranges from direct, explicit relationship agreements that may have been negotiated to implicit, unspoken rules. These end points (i.e., explicit vs. implicit) address rule transmission.

Although it is difficult to predict when relational members might use explicit versus implicit means of establishing rules, there is a body of literature on taboo topics that lends some insight into this decision. Michael Roloff and Danette Ifert (1998) found that in new romantic relationships, individuals reported that they and their partner made explicit agreements about which topics were taboo when (1) the couple determined the topic was not important to their relationship, (2) one member of the relationship determined the topic was too personal to discuss, or (3) the members of the relationship had different opinions regarding the topic and felt their differences could not be resolved. More specifically, a prolonged discussion about a topic prior to declaring it taboo leads to a more explicit statement that the topic is off limits (Roloff and Ifert 1998).

At the other end of the awareness continuum are implicit or unspoken rules. These rules often emerge from repeated interactions or experiences (e.g., never mention Mike's mother when he is sad) (Satir 1996). Implicit rules are typically communicated nonverbally (Turner and West 1998) but may also be transmitted through stories. A relational member may tell a story in which someone followed the rule and was rewarded or did not follow the rule and was punished. Implicit rules can also be set by redirecting the undesirable behavior. Amy Jordan (1990), in her study of television viewing and VCR use, tells the story of a mother who came home and found her daughter and babysitter watching a shoot out on the television. This violated her rule of no violence on television. Rather than telling them that, the mother redirected the viewing by suggesting the daughter watch Dumbo.

Implicit rules can have more importance than explicit rules (Turner and West 1998). Roloff and Ifert (1998) found that a topic is declared taboo implicitly when the members of the relationship feel a discussion of the topic might harm the relationship. "Perhaps partners sense the relational danger associated with discussing a particular topic and, therefore, avoid frequent confrontations about it" (Roloff and Ifert 1998, p. 202).

Regardless of how the rule is transmitted, being able to identify family rules can be important. Virginia Satir talks about family counseling methods in which families or individuals try to identify all the family rules. Although the explicit rules are easily identified, often the implicit rules are not. In her counseling sessions, she tries to have the family or individual identify the implicit rules so that they can better understand their own behavior. Moreover, by naming the implicit rules, the family members can decide if they want to challenge these rules or not. It is important to point out that many critical communication rules are learned in childhood and carried into adult relationships without much thought unless the rule is challenged by a relational partner (Satir 1988). Challenging rules is important. Satir argues that to deepen certain relationships, someone has to challenge a rule; this challenge enables the relationship to reach a new level.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsFamily and Relational Rules - Rule Transmission, What Affects The Rules, How Rules Affect Behavior And Attitudes