Family Rules

Family Rules

The Bottom 5 of Cohen’s Top 10

What was it you wanted?
Tell me again so I’ll know
— Bob Dylan
— What was it you wanted?

In response to The Invisible Psychological Contracts We Make With Our Families, my virtual colleague and friend, Bonnie Hall wrote; “Now I wait with baited breath for the other 5 on your top ten list in a future post…” So Bonnie, this one’s for you (Be careful what you wish for).

Herein the bottom five of Cohen’s top 10 list of unspoken rules of family togetherness behavior in reverse order just to be different (see Rule Number 9 below):

  • Rule Number 10: In this house there are no rules unless I say so.
  • Rule Number 9: Because …..
  • Rule Number 8: Don’t inhale, Bill Clinton never did.
  • Rule Number 7: “Nobody” did it.
  • Rule Number 6: Are you talking to me?

At various times and in various places Murray Bowen defined differentiation of self as:

  1. The process of partially freeing oneself from the emotional entrapment of one’s family of origin.
  2. The process of developing a personal, authentic relationship with each member of your family.
  3. The process of changing one’s part in old, repetitive, dysfunctional emotional patterns to the point at which one is able to speak calmly and non-reactively about one’s personal views on important emotional issues regardless of who is for or against them.

Some of the benefits of engaging in this life-long, never-ending process include improvement in:

  • Long-term psychological functioning
  • Baseline measure of person’s strengths over time
  • Resilience in the face of significant stress and adversity
  • Accessibility to therapeutic intervention

The opportunity to work on self-differentiation in one’s family of origin is always available, is uniquely applicable, productive and effective regardless of the situation, and cannot be sabotaged by those who choose not to participate. By attending to our own “stuff” we always have the opportunity to make things better. A change in any one family member’s behavior creates change in the entire family’s relationships.

If you change yourself, you fundamentally change the nature of your relationships. It’s not so much what others are saying and doing as it is how one interprets other’s behavior that causes distress. Start by distinguishing what you want in life for yourself as opposed to the roles, rules, stories, expectations, and taboos you learned growing up. Becoming more ‘responsible’ for self allows one to act more ‘responsibly’ toward others. To engage in this process is to provide a platform for maximum growth and development.

Strive to bring your behavior more in line with your deepest beliefs, even if this means upsetting family members by disobeying family “rules.” You are learning how to deal with differences without losing connections. Be prepared for the worst. You are disrupting the status quo of your family system and it will push back. In his essay on Self-Differentiation, Bowen wrote, “There are three predictable steps in the family reaction to differentiation. They are:

  1. “You are wrong,” or some version of that;
  2. “Change back” which can be communicated in many different ways; and
  3. “If you do not, these are the consequences.”

Keep your own counsel and take an “I” position. Do not share your efforts with others. Discussing your plan with another person almost always guarantees failure. You are working to develop a unique one-to-one relationship with each and every individual in your family system. This is an individual and somewhat solitary process. It is not household group therapy.

So now as my mother would say, I hope you got what you wanted, and you still want it now that you’ve got it.

Best of Luck on Your Unfolding Journey of a Lifetime.

Please share your thoughts and experiences concerning rules, roles, stories, expectations, and taboos you learned growing up in your family of origin in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the social media buttons below to share this article with your own networks. To request more information please click here. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Ronald B. Cohen, MD

Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530
[email protected]