The Unspoken Rules of the Family We Grew Up In

“Whom we are related to in the complex web of family ties over all generations is unalterable by us.”— Elizabeth A. Carter and Monica McGoldrick—The Family Life Cycle

Decisions, decisions. Have you ever wondered about why you do what you do, when you do it, where you choose to do it, and how you do it, with whomever you choose to do it with? (Hopefully this doesn’t strike too many of you as coming from the department of redundancy department). Me neither. But lets just think about this for a minute. How often do we truly make decisions for ourselves based on our own core beliefs and values? I’d suggest not nearly as often as we’d like to believe we do. So what gets in the way? (Round up the usual suspects). The unspoken rules of the family we grew up in.

This inevitable “stuck togetherness”  Murray Bowen first noted as an “undifferentiated family ego mass.” This concept was subsequently refined and expanded into thoughts about the nuclear family emotional system and projection process, and the multigenerational family transmission process resulting in multiple interlocking triangles.

In the process of fusion, an individual anxiously focuses on relationships and gives up “self,” resulting in physical illness, emotional illness or a problem in social functioning. The question that reflects this process is: What do I give up about myself to be part of the family group?

The flip-side/mirror image of fusion is the process of being emotionally “cut-off,” an equally reactive state wherein the question is “What I DO NOT want to give up about myself and therefore detach from being part of this family.” Unfortunately this is a state of an equally low level of differentiation, which often results in over-investment and fusion in new relationships.

So what are these unspoken rules of family togetherness behavior that we reflexively adhere to or reactively reject without due consideration of what conscious responses would be in our own best interest? Here is my top ten list, reduced to five in the interest of time and space.

  • Rule Number 1: What happens in the house stays in the house.
  • Rule Number 2: Don’t talk politics or religion at the dinner table.
  • Rule Number 3: Do what makes you happy as long as it’s what I want you to do, even if I don’t tell you what it is.
  • Rule Number 4: Don’t ask about the things you’re not supposed to know about.
  • Rule Number 5: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Whether you are fused and enmeshed, or conflicted, distant, cut-off and non-communicative, you remain undifferentiated and out of control. If your behavior is reactive, whether positively or negatively, you are not self-directed.

The process of self-differentiation consists of partially freeing oneself from the emotional entrapment of one’s family of origin, while developing a unique, personal, authentic one-to-one relationship with each member of your family. It is then possible to be emotionally connected without fusing into emotional oneness. One can be both connected, and sufficiently self-aware to make decisions on one’s own, regardless of the Invisible Psychological Contracts We Make with Our Families.

This post was written by Ronald B Cohen, MD, a Psychiatrist and Marriage and Family Therapist from Great Neck, NY. Dr. Cohen is a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and an Affiliate Member of the American Academy of Marital and Family Therapy. As a consultant specialist, Dr. Cohen provides clinical supervision, and confers with individual therapists and other health care professionals and organizations to help them consider how adding family therapy sessions to the treatment program is both restorative and proactive as improvement is long lasting.

Dr. Ronald B. Cohen graduated summa cum laude, from Brandeis University and The Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In addition to his psychiatric residency training, Dr. Cohen was educated at the Psychiatric Epidemiology Program of the Columbia University Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health. Subsequently Dr. Cohen completed the four-year core postgraduate training program in Family Systems Theory and Therapy at The Family Institute of Westchester

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2 Responses to The Unspoken Rules of the Family We Grew Up In

  1. Christine Wabals says:

    I enjoyed reading your discussion. It was very intellectual, conceptual and intriguing. You write extremely well. Good, very good, job. Thanks for the extra thoughts. I may print this out and use it to facilitate a group at my job.

    • Melissa Killeen says:

      You may print this out, if you would please attribute Dr Ronald B Cohen as the author, and attach his web site and email to the document.
      Thank you

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