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Rules and Identity: Part I–The Individual

April 20, 2010

Sorry that I’ve been away from the blog for awhile. The last few weeks have been an absolute blur, filled with retreats, friends leaving, interviewing and the question of the future location of me and Katie, disengaged students, and so forth.

I’m trying to get back into professional literature, especially as I plan for upcoming interviews. One of the joys of living in Abilene is my access to Abilene’s library consortium, and specifically, the availability of thousands of professional journals. I came across an article this morning from April’s Journal of Marital and Family Therapy concerning implicit family rules and eating-disordered clients and families. (Courtesy to K. Gillett and company for their outstanding research.)

As a postmodern family therapist with interests in social construction, I’m especially intrigued by the messages that children and adolescents receive from their parents; I believe that children create a schema–a set of rules–that helps them construct normalcy for future interactions with groups of people, particularly as they marry and start their own families.

The title of this article suggests a distinction between “implicit” family rules and “explicit” family rules. I would imagine, though I have no research to support this, that few families get together and define a set of family rules. In fact, I would imagine that most of the explicit family rules are created on the fly; for example, I loved to run and play imaginary sports in the house, and in order to protect from injury to self/other things/people, my mom created “No running” and “No throwing balls in the house” rules. Nevertheless, my mom told me what the rules were, and I had the choice of following them or facing consequences.

The authors of this article suggest that unwritten family rules form “as a result of redundant interactions that govern family members’ behaviors” (p. 163).  This isn’t necessarily a critique; parents who speak kindly to each other and express compassion and hospitality to others create a self-perpetuating schema for their children: if love is modeled in the home, chances are children will express similar displays of love to their friends and future families. However, some families are critical, domineering and coercive, and operate out of triangulation, where a family member relies on another family member to release anxiety rather than confronting the third family member, the one with whom the first member has the problem with in the first place. These families have dysfunctional communication patterns, distanced family members, stunted personal growth, and, in time, fractured relationships.

As a result of their research, they focused on two distinct set of constraining implicit rules: implicit rules that control, and implicit rules that perpetuate shame. Implicit rules of control can have two manifestations: coerciveness from the parental hierarchy, where children learn not to express their thoughts at the risk of physical/emotional repercussions, and self-restriction, where children learn to be in control of self at all times, also at the risk of similar repercussions. Children can also perceive rules that promote shame in self and family, such as “Pretend to be someone you’re not,” and “Don’t trust yourself or your abilities,” through constant patterns of criticism and chaos.

Identity is transcribed largely through a child’s interaction with the construction and consequences of following/not following explicit and implicit family rules. For example, I learned to be quite cautious and perfectionistic as a child due to implicit, legalistic rules and fear of consequences for breaking them. The writers suggest that the population of this study, eating-disordered clients, respond to implicit rules by creating their identity and reality in extreme ways, such as high conformity, fear of change and risk-taking, and restricting levels of self-control.

I want to tie some of these thoughts to Sunday’s discussion by Richard and Jana Beck at Highland in my next post. But for now, I want to propose this set of questions:

When you reflect on your family of origin, what was an implicit rule that you observed? Remember, these rules weren’t openly discussed, but they still dictated the pace and level of communication within the family. Also, how was your identity shaped through the construction of and consequence of following/not following this rule?

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