Family and Relational Rules

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Family and Relational Rules

Think about your own family for a moment. Is it expected that you will eat dinner together as a family? Are there certain chores you must do? Are there topics you cannot talk about? These questions address specific rules your family may have. According to Virginia Satir (1996) every significant relationship develops rules. Most relationship rules can be identified by looking at the redundancies or repetitive behaviors of the relational partners (Yerby, Buerkel-Rothfuss, and Bochner 1990).

Rules are defined as a "followable prescription that indicates what behavior is obligated, preferred, and prohibited in certain contexts" (Shimanoff 1980, p. 57). Because rules enable the relationship members to predict the others' behaviors (Satir 1996) they are important for the survival and maintenance of one's relationship. This predictability leads to comfort and helps family members understand what topics are acceptable to discuss, how difficult topics are dealt with, and whom to include. Rules deal with the concept of what one should and/or should not do, and identify what types of actions define one as a member of the group (Satir 1996). Rules contribute to relational self-definition, development, and satisfaction (Satir 1996).

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.

What Affects the Rules

There is little research on how people decide which type of rule to set, whereas there is a plethora of research on what affects the number of rules, the subject of the rule, adherence to the rules, and flexibility of the rules. Individual and family demographics can affect the frequency, focus, adherence, and flexibility of the rules.

Cultural norms can affect what rules families hold. Mario Mikulincer and his colleagues (1993) collected data from 350 Israeli-Jewish and 504 Israeli-Arab high school students. They found that Arab youths recounted more rules restricting their conduct compared with their Jewish counterparts. When looking at taboo topics among friends, Robin Goodwin and Iona Lee (1994) found that Chinese respondents had a greater level of taboo topics (thus more rules regarding what could not be discussed) than the British respondents.

Sex of the rule recipient can also affect the number of rules. In both the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Jewish cultures, adolescent girls reported more restrictions on dating and leaving home than boys (Mikulincer, Weller, and Florian 1993). The sex of the person making the rule can also influence the number of rules. The Chinese and British males in Goodwin and Lee's (1994) study reported a higher number of topics that they could not discuss than the females in the study.

Most rules also change over time. In her two-year study on African-American adolescents, Judith Smetana (2001) found African-American middle-class families were less restrictive at Time 1 (when the average age was 13.14 years) than at Time 2 (when the average age was 15.05 years).

In addition to impact of demographics on the number and focus of the rules, there is research on what impacts rule flexibility and perceptions of parental authority. Smetana (2001) found that income affects perceptions of parents' legitimate authority. African-American adolescents from upper income families rejected parents' legitimate authority to regulate personal issues more than those from middle-income families. Elliott A. Medrich and his colleagues (1982) and Amy Jordan (1990) both found that families with two working parents typically impose fewer rules on television viewing.

How Rules Affect Behavior and Attitudes

The task of identifying the outcome of family and relational rules is as important as identifying predictors of rules. Rules provide a guideline for behavior and a set of expectations. These guidelines often impact the children in families. For example, parental rules about smoking has been linked to lower levels of adolescent smoking (Proescholdbell, Chassin, MacKinnon 2000) whereas the absence of rules about the use of smokeless tobacco resulted in greater use by U.S. middle-school boys (Brubaker, Fowler, and Kinder 1989). Elaine Rodney and her colleagues (1999) studied the home environment and delinquency for African-American adolescents. They found that family rules—as well as time spent with the child—and home discipline were significantly related to incidents of conduct disorder (e.g., getting into fights, destroying property).

Family and relational rules also provide a sense of predictability and can impact relationship maintenance and satisfaction. The number of rules has been linked to the level of closeness between children and their parents. Mikulincer and his colleagues (1993) reported that Israeli-Arab adolescents who had more rules felt closer to their parents. This is not true for every culture or every family however. Mikulincer and his colleagues also reported that no such pattern was evident among Israeli-Jewish youth.

Family secrets. Perhaps the most profound impact of family and relational rules centers on the rules of communication. A majority of the research on relational and family rules has centered on communication rules. This is because a majority of the research on family rules is centered in family counseling. Satir, a family counselor, specifically addresses the freedom to comment. Freedom to comment rules address what can you say, to whom can you say it, how you go about handling disagreements or disapproval of someone or something, and how you ask a question when you do not understand.

Satir argues that fear on part of the family members has much to do with rules about taboos and secrets. Anita Vangelisti's (1994) research on family secrets supported this idea. Vangelisti identified three types of family secrets: taboo, rule violations, and conventional secrets. Taboo topics were activities that is often condemned and stigmatized by both family members and larger society (e.g., sexual preferences, extramarital affairs) and were often secrets kept by the whole family. Rule violations were activities that broke rules families typically try and enforce (e.g., premarital pregnancy, drinking, partying) and were often secrets kept by an individual family member. Conventional secrets included information that is not usually wrong but is considered inappropriate to talk about with non-intimate others (e.g., health problems, traditions). Each of these types is associated with fear on the family member's part.

Satir also argues that family secrets can be detrimental to the health of the family. She specifically argues that family rules about taboo topics can hurt the child later. Families who avoid discussing a "fault" in a family member (e.g., a relative is in jail) often have children who "grow up to be adults who see themselves as versions of saints or devils instead of living human [beings] who feel" (Satir 1996, p. 170). Satir believes an individual's and family's health is a result of the freedom to comment on rules. This belief is supported by communication research that found secrets impact family and relational satisfaction. Vangelisti found the families with more secrets were less satisfied than families with fewer secrets. This was especially true when family members held secrets from other family members. Roloff and Ifert (1998) also found that relationship partners who had more taboo topics were less satisfied.

See also:Communication: Family Relationships; Conflict: Family Relationships; Discipline; Family Rituals; Family Stories and Myths; Favoritism/Differential Treatment; Health and Families; Housing; Power: Family Relationships; Relationship Metaphors; Self-Disclosure


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yvonne kellar-guenther

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Family and Relational Rules

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