The Power of Unspoken Family Rules

By Kelsey Kuehn

Have you ever been welcomed into someone else’s family? Perhaps you attended a dinner at your friend’s house, traveled with another family for vacation, or married into a new family altogether.

If so, then you have most likely observed how very different families can be. Things like cleaning or eating patterns, routines, conversational topics, traditions, and shared activities are all so unique to where you come from.

Friction is bound to occur when you attempt to share worlds with someone that came from another family. Perhaps your partner cares a lot about keeping up with appearances while you like to show others your authentic self. Or perhaps you and your family prefer to keep your feelings inward and your partner and their family like to talk openly about their emotions. Maybe you follow strict gender norms and want to be the sole provider of your family, when your partner has less traditional beliefs.

No matter who you are, you grew up with certain family rules. Most of us believe these rules were “normal” or even “right” because it’s all we know to be true. But sometimes these family rules and patterns of behavior are actually quite unhealthy… we just might not realize it.

Spoken versus Unspoken Rules

Most families have spoken rules that are clearly stated and, if you’re lucky, followed. Allowances, curfews, chores, and meal times are common spoken rules. If you stay out past your curfew, you know a consequence will be waiting for you. These types of rules often give you a sense of stability and safety in your family, allowing you to know what to expect without too many surprises.

Other kinds of rules, though, aren’t so straightforward and unspoken. Your family functions in ways that support certain ideas, such as how emotions are expressed, how you speak to each other, how you show love, what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate touch, how conflict is handled, and countless other examples. You learn these unspoken rules by observing how others around you behave. For example, if your parents give you lots of gifts as their way of showing you love and affection, you may show your love through gift-giving as well.

Since unspoken family rules lurk beneath the surface, you may not even be aware of them. And when you’re unaware, you miss out on the opportunity to decide if this is a rule you want to keep following. Below are some unspoken family rules that are unhealthy and, unfortunately, quite common in family dynamics.

Feelings Are Bad
Many families have a difficult time knowing what to do with emotions. Emotions such as sadness, anger, hurt, and fear are often minimized or ignored because many parents don’t know how to respond to them. Perhaps there’s a belief that having feelings is a sign of weakness. These beliefs are often passed down through generations. And while it’s important to emphasize that all parents are doing the best they can and operating in ways they think will be best for their family, if your parents never learned the importance of attending to emotions, it’s unlikely they will bestow healthy ideas about them to you.

Avoid Conflict
With this unspoken rule, family members don’t talk about topics that make each other uncomfortable. Perhaps you can’t talk about mental health issues, sex, or hurt feelings. You may notice your conversations with your family feel surface level: Anything that goes deeper is considered dangerous territory. As an adult, you may have a passive communication style and hold important things in, unknowingly creating distance, rifts, and resentment in your relationships.

Problems Aren’t Allowed
Similar to conflict avoidance, this unspoken rule instills the idea that problems are to be overlooked or denied. So maybe you were struggling with a bully in school and knew it was best not to tell your parents about it, maybe you noticed your mom’s alcoholism but feared speaking up, or maybe you felt the need to hide excruciatingly difficult things like abuse. This pattern sets you up for a life of pain and confusion in adulthood, never addressing issues that desperately need attention.

Others Are to Blame
With this family rule, you learned it’s never okay to be wrong. Have your parents ever apologized to you? Acknowledged when they did something that hurt your feelings? If not, you most likely follow this unspoken family rule. This pattern sets you up to either turn blame inward and believe you are at fault for other peoples’ issues, or to have great difficulty apologizing or taking accountability since it was never modeled to you.

You “Should”
Any time you use the word “should,” there is most likely an unspoken family rule behind it. I should go to college. I should have children. I shouldn’t be so sensitive. I should be more ladylike. You learned many “shoulds” from your family. “Shoulds” often propel you in a certain direction in your life, without a chance for you to stop and think about what it is you truly want. “Shoulds” lead to shame and self-doubt.

Be Perfect
In this type of family system, the unspoken rule is about saving face. Appearances are crucial and must be protected. You might have to look a certain way, endure unwarranted comments about your body, or monitor which emotions are acceptable to show to others. Perhaps as an adult you struggle with vulnerability and go great lengths to avoid making mistakes.

Your Worth Is Dependent on What You Do
Families that hold this unspoken rule greatly value achievement, wealth, and success. You may have felt like your worth, or how much your parents love you, depended on what you brought to the table. This is a breeding ground for perfectionism, anxiety, and feelings of unworthiness.

Breaking The Rules

Are you relating to one of these unspoken family rules, some of them, or even all of them? If so, know you’re not alone. And know there’s something you can do about it. With some awareness and reflection about who you are and what you value, you may decide these are rules that you no longer need to follow.

I encourage you to work with a therapist to figure out what some of your unspoken family rules were in your childhood home. In counseling, as light is shed on rules that may have been kept in the dark for so long, you can then think about new and improved rules that you’d like to follow instead. It’s your life that you’re living after all… you get to choose how you live it.

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