• Nicole Arzt

The Unspoken Boundaries: Understanding Covert Rules in Family Dynamics


Every family has its own unspoken covert rules. These rules can shape the entire family system- they are what keep various members feeling close (or separated), validated (or disconnected), and supported (or judged).


We don't go around telling family members how they should or shouldn't behave. These patterns tend to be unconscious and passed down from generation to generation. But being aware of these rules is important. The more you understand them, the better you can work within your family's framework.


What Exactly Are Covert Rules in Family Dynamics?

In every family system, each person takes on different responsibilities and expectations. Over time, the family assumes that you will act a certain way.


In more functional systems, these expectations are fairly loose. Family members are open to change and flexibility. They anticipate people will grow, and they can embrace the growth process. But in more rigid or dysfunctional systems, these expectations tend to be rigid. Family members seemingly require that some members act in a certain way.


What Are Some Common Covert Rules Families Have?

Each system is different, but let's get into some common rules implied within some families.


Don't Talk About Your Feelings

Were you ever told that you shouldn't cry? Or that you shouldn't be scared? Did you ever confess feeling embarrassed or ashamed, and someone told you that you shouldn't feel that way?


If so, your family may have a covert rule that members shouldn't talk about their feelings. This rule often starts getting reinforced from a very young age.


For example, a parent may disregard a toddler's tantrum and punish them instead of understanding that they may be in pain. Another time, they might tell their teenager to stop being so anxious and just "get over it" when they admit to feeling scared about an upcoming competition.


Don't Talk About The Family

Many families don't want members to "air their dirty laundry" to other people. This rule usually comes from a place of profound shame and humiliation.


They don't want others to recognize the problem or see the secret behavior emerge. At a fundamental level, they know that dysfunction could be happening, but they don't want to address it.


Make Us Look Good

In a similar vein to not talking about the family, many families want to present well to others. This rule has become even more pronounced with the explosion of social media. Many people pose and post beautiful pictures of their loved ones- even if they can't stand them.


When there is a rule to make the family look good, members often feel pressured to:

  • maintain a perfect appearance.

  • excel in school, sports, or other extracurricular activities.

  • praise family members when in the presence of other people.

  • maintain a pristine house.

Don't Trust Anyone

Some families instill a sense of fear and slight paranoia about the outside world. Often, these families also encourage die-hard loyalty. If you're not protecting or defending the family, you're letting them down.


People who grow up with this rule may find it hard to give others the benefit of the doubt. They assume that people might be trying to lie, steal, or cheat from them. They might also have a difficult time being vulnerable and letting other people in.


Don't Cause Conflict

Many families have rules about conflict, including avoiding it altogether. As a result, many family members engage in poor communication habits like passive-aggression or aggression. Instead of asserting needs directly, they withhold their feelings.


Don't Do Things Differently Than We Do

Have you ever disagreed with a family member about religion or politics? What about wanting to play basketball when everyone else played football?


If so, you might have a family rule where it's expected that you comply with the usual norms. This can apply to everything from the food you eat to the types of friends you have to the kind of car you drive. Many family members believe that each person needs to follow the status quo. Therefore, they subconsciously punish any independent thought.


How Can You Deal With Covert Rules in Your Family?

First, you need to recognize the rules. What expectations did you have growing up, and how do those expectations impact you today? Remember that these rules aren't necessarily negative, but they can have negative effects on your well-being.


Think about the kind of life you want to live today. Is it compatible with the rules you're still following? Or do you need to start thinking about changing or even breaking those rules altogether?


Therapy can be a fantastic place to start your growth journey. Individual therapy can help you differentiate from your family-of-origin. It can also support you in better identifying your needs and desires.


Family therapy can help family members understand these rules and dismantle the inappropriate ones. It can help each member feel more understood, connected, and respected.


At The Resurface Group, we believe that mental illness and addiction recovery benefit from ongoing family support. We help to treat the entire system- not just one individual who identifies as struggling. Contact us today to learn more about our dynamic approach.










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