Rules & Expectations in Marriage and Family Therapy

traffic jamDriving through Detroit over a recent weekend I was impressed by how much we all depend upon everyone else obeying the rules and expectations of traffic.  For example, anyone who has been through driver’s training knows that the rules of the road are to obey the speed limits, use your turn signal when changing lanes, keep proper distance between your car and the one in front of you, slow down in construction zones, etc.

When people obey the rules it is often appreciated by other rule-abiders who are grateful for simple things like predictability, a shared commitment to minimizing dangerous situations, thoughtfulness and consideration on the road.  When accidents occur among rule-abiders, it is easy to believe the best and assume the fault was due to a critical malfunction of the car, an unanticipated road hazard or some health issue such as a heart attack, sudden kidney stone or some other natural, unpredictable event.

Others who appreciate those who obey the rules are those who do not have regard for the rules.  While they share some of the same values such as an aversion to pain from serious accidents, they are also grateful for people who keep a safe distance from the car in front of them so they can weave back and forth through traffic.  Also venerated are law abiding people who choose to obey the speed limit and stay in the right lanes except to pass.  This honorable practice gives freedom to the anarchic motorist allowing wide-open left lanes for traveling at excessive speeds, knowing that if a law abiding person wishes to change lanes he or she will use the turn signal giving the speeder time to quickly accelerate to race by before the car’s lane change begins.

This tongue-in-cheek analysis of traffic behavior provides an intriguing metaphor for relationships as well.  This is one reason why working with newly-weds is so important.

That first year is spent learning what rules each partner brings into the marriage from their respective families.  Sometimes couples decide to jettison some or all of the rules of their families and venture forth on their own to set new standards, traditions and expectations.  In other areas the couple may take time to pick and choose which rules they wish to adopt from their respective families.

There are great benefits to making these understandings explicit because they create the boundaries within which the family’s identity is shaped.  They form the nucleus of the family’s unique norms for behavior and consideration.  Furthermore, when one or the other partner steps out of those agreed-upon controls the other partner is justified in reminding them of the infraction.  Then they can decide  whether it is time to apologize and forgive, re-define or re-negotiate the rules or create altogether new understandings.

When couples choose not to make the governing family guidelines for behavior explicit at the outset the rules often become governed by randomness or moods that can change arbitrarily over time.  Add abuse to the equation–in any form–and families can experience a heady mixture of extreme behaviors, irrational expectations and glaring oversights where rules change and morph at whiplash rates of speed.

Returning to the highway metaphor, the chaos of driving at high rates of speed on roads without rules would make  driving a terrifying experience, even for the highway anarchist.  Without rules predictability and safety evaporate at the whim of each driver.  Now, imagine living in a family system governed in such a way…..

Marriage and family therapists help families clarify family rules and expectations to help people choose to thrive in an atmosphere of predictability, security and stability.

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