Dinner is just finished. Hans stays at the table and picks up the evening paper to see what has happened out in the world that day. Meanwhile Lena is tidying up the table and starts washing up the dishes after dinner. Hans is feeling good, full and satisfied with his paper. Lena is feeling frustrated, disappointed that she once again is getting no help with the dishes.

During this the kids have run from the dining table and up to their rooms. Exactly fifty-two seconds later they are running, full of energy, through the hallway and towards the front door. "Have you done your homework?!" shouts a surprised and newly annoyed Hans. The kids turn around in the door and start walking back to their rooms with their heads hanging.

What is happening in this family? Apart from the obvious that dinner has just finished at the Lindstrom family we can also note that there are several rules that in different ways affects what happens and how the members in the family feels.

Every relationship has rules, rules that show what's allowed in the relationship and what is not. They can help us understand what an acceptable behavior is and what is not.

Sometimes these rules are clear, sometimes less clear. How clear these rules are for the parts in the relationship has a big importance for the quality of the relationship. Relationships where two people live happy together for a long time are characterized amongst some things by the clarity of the rules applying to the relationship. Both parts are also aware of these rules and accept them.

Four categories

Before we return to the Lindstrom family to see what they can teach us, let us begin with taking a closer look at the four categories of rules that can occur in a relationship.

  • Clear spoken rules
  • Unclear spoken rules
  • Clear unspoken rules
  • Unclear unspoken rules

What characterizes the different rules?

A rule is clear when it is understandable, tangible and everyone involved has the same interpretation of the rule. A rule that is unclear is perceived as fuzzy and leaves a lot of space to your own interpretation. That a rule is spoken/pronounced means that everyone knows about it, it is so to say official and is included in the language of the family. An unspoken rule is either known or secret, but if it is known it is only spoken about in parts of the family or group.

If we place the four different categories from the list above in a table we will get the following image:

Four types of rules or guidelines

More about the different types of rules

Unspoken clear rules

When rules are spoken and clear it means that the people who are part of the relationship or the family have openly spoken about what beliefs and expectations they have on each other. You have spoken about the rules, discussed them and compared them. Together you have formulated these rules so that everyone understands them, interprets them the same way and fully accepts them.

This way, everyone knows what is expected. It is clear that if you want to be part of this relationship you have to act a certain way. If you want something different you either have to leave the relationship or try and change the rules. Everyone knows what is expected and not to waste fantasy and energy on other scenarios or feelings.

An example of a spoken and clear rule can be that"mum is in charge". There is no space for ambiguity around such a rule. That means that no matter what you think, hear or see, you know that in the end it comes to what mum says. You know how to act to not get in trouble and you also know that other members of the family will understand the reasons for your actions. You can be more or less happy about the rule but you will so to speak know what is expected and act from that.

Another example could be that "everyone has the sole responsibility for his/her own room". That means for example that it could look like a bomb has gone off in there. It is completely up to the one who lives in the room. The rule "it is free to ask, the one who answers is the one that sets the boundaries" means that you never have to be scared to ask the person something, it is free to test, try and explore. It is up to the one who gets the question whether or not he/she wants to answer.

Markus: An area which is an exciting play field for different categories for rules is sex. Here there are several inner culture taboos that can make it to a challenge to speak about the rules around sex.

My partner and I have a clear and spoken rule that I think is a good example of how a rule that creates security works. It says for example that "sex is built on lust and happiness".

Even if it has an exception, for example after an argument when it isn't always lust and happiness, at least not to start off with, when there are other rules, it creates a security that it is either to cheer up or I can forget all about sex.

Sometimes this rule is the reason to a lot of frustration when I, myself, am frustrated and full of testosterone, but the rule is clear as any, spoken and I know what to expect. It is a rule that I appreciate us having in our relationship, even though I am also grateful that there are rules of exceptions!

Spoken unclear rules

It can often seem like the rules are spoken and clear even though they don't have to be. Maybe you have put a lot of time and energy down to talk through understandable and practical rules, you have probably also thought you've understood and accepted them, but they are still not working as expected. Here is a case of these spoken unclear rules.

The members in the family or partners in the relationship attempt to live by these rules, but will face resistance when they seem to be interpreted in different ways by everyone. This result in ambiguity and confusion increases due to this. A rule like this could be "we should be more open to each other". It appears to be clear but openness is an abstract and subjective term that means totally different things for different individuals.

Someone might interpret it as we shall how we feel in every given moment that our feelings change, someone might interpret it as we speak about something we feel needs to be brought up, someone else might interpret it as you should be open in your listening without judging.

Since the rule is spoken it allows for that discussion, which often happen, but it doesn't serve its purpose due to the vagueness. It also needs to have more information added and reshaped so that everyone knows what the rule means. Vagueness will make the people in the relationship uncertain.

The Lindstrom family had a rule "you shall do your homework". Everyone agreed that this was important but the rule gave a lot of room for individual interpretations. It didn't say anything whether or not it had to be done before or after playing with your friends.

Unspoken clear rules

It is common in relationships that the rules are clear although they are unspoken. They are "the backbone". You know what is possible and what isn't. What's ok to do and what's not. These rules are also clear in such way that they give no room for other interpretations. They are however spoken and often carry some sort of mental block that says that they cannot be discussed in the open. If it is about a larger group or family you might be discussing them between two people but never with everyone gathered.

This creates an inner inertia in these rules and they can be hard to change.

They can be like"that's how we have done it in our family through all years". The first times that you meet your partner's family or relatives can be opportunities where you get to experience a lot of these kinds of rules. They often have a hint of morals and there seems to be a general perception that these rules do not need to be discussed. Money can be an object for several of these rules. "You don't talk about it at the dinner table", "you never ask what someone else's monthly salary is" or you just don't talk about it.

Two people who move in together and come from families with different rules have an exciting adventure ahead to try and lift these rules up and make them spoken, not just clear.

With the Lindstrom couple there is obviously a clear but not spoken rule that says that Lena is the woman and takes care of the dishes. This is the way it has been for several years and there is an expectation in the air that after dinner Hans will sit down with the paper. The rule is manageable but has come to a point where Lena without a doubt isn't happy with it. She probably feels a certain pressure not to stir things up because this is the way it has always been, probably without it ever been discussed but it just happened to end up like that.

Markus: When I grew up there was a very clear rule in my family that so called negative feelings were to be kept to yourself, you don't talk about them, even though it was very clear we had never decided that we wanted this rule and we also never spoke about it.

It had a steadfastly support by the rule that said "emotions are not to be spoken about". It is one of the best examples in my own life of a rule that was manageable and where it really was a massive resistance both with myself and others to speak about it.

Unspoken unclear rules

This is where the real chaos is. We live with fuzzy rules and they tend to constantly change. This also makes it really hard to discuss them. You have to guess what is expected, it can be different from day to day. In these relationships more or less hidden challenges about power occur in the empty space that these rules create. Time and effort are used to look at the situation and the relationships become strained, secret and competitive. You're on your guard, overly friendly and avoid telling the truth.

For example in the work place a "be friends with everyone" attitude can develop. Add to this also the rule "don't trust anyone". You avoid responsibility and that way not having to deal with the negative or having to stand for something in this harsh climate.

To live with a temporary mentally unstable partner or alcoholic can created this type of rule. Two people who live together but somewhere along the road due to laziness or convenience stop taking care of the relationship and talking to each other tend to end up in this kind of relationship. There is plenty of space for manipulation that in a way is trying to tame the powerful insecurity that is a created in the chaos.

Filippa: When my partner and I met we obviously brought our own rules in to the relationship. The first year there were a whole lot of rules that needed to be clarified.

What I thought was the hardest was that most of my rules were so obvious for me that I wasn't even aware that I had them. It wasn't until we started to clash that I realized that I had a rule.

It was also a challenge to find out Markus rules, sometimes when I thought I had understood them I could in the next moment end up in a conflict because there was a misunderstanding again. I remember there were moments where I was wondering if we would ever manage to get to a common plan of rules so that what was obvious for me but also for Markus.

In conclusion

The easiest in a relationship is when the rules are spoken and clear. In that case, everyone knows what's expected. I can do this, others can do that. That is not allowed. Unfortunately this kind of rules is rare. The spoken and unclear rules are not very common either. We are mostly not used to discuss our relationships and how we would like to have it in these relationships, either in a clear or unclear way.

Most of us are instead living more or less in fuzzy relationships where beliefs, expectations, needs and feelings are presumed to be obvious, both our own and others. Over and over again we are disappointed and wonder why others are behaving the way they are or we get annoyed with them but won't do anything about it. We live in a life with rules that we feel are clear as anything and that we think we have expressed clearly together with our wishes. We stand there amazed each time someone doesn't seem to comprehend them or we don't comprehend their rules.

Even though, rules are sometimes obvious so they get some kind of clearness. It gives us the opportunity to handle the situation but it is a difference to survive and live. When we handle the situation it means that we have some sort of map that we are using to orient ourselves after but it doesn't mean that the relationships are secure and harmonious.

The toughest thing is with rules that are unclear and unspoken. It's like skating on new ice or trying to balance on a tight line. It is a constant checking of the other person. How is he today? What can be done now? What can't be done? Here is the fear in charge and it's pushing passion and lust far away.

So what to do...

Maybe you belong to the ones that have clear rules in your relationship that both you and your partner are happy with. If you don't belong to one of them it's time to start practicing to talk to each other about the rules in your relationship. It will most likely feel a bit weird at first but the old wisdom that practice makes perfect applies even here. Do the experience below together as a start. If you get stuck it could also be good to have some extra help in the beginning by someone from outside, for example a relationships coach.

Homework assignment

Get a piece of paper and a pen. Write down the five most important rules you feel are in a relationship that you would like to work with. Ask the other partner in the relationship to do the same. If there are several members involved, ask all of them to do the above.
When everyone is ready, sit down together and read out the rules. Remember to listen without judging each other and that each and every one has their own truth. Take a break and breathe through your heart as previously described if needed.

Explore the following together for all the different rules:

  1. How was this rule created?
  2. How is it affecting our relationship today?
  3. Are we happy with this rule?
  4. If we're not happy with it, which rule do we need to replace it with?
  5. For all the rules that you agree to keep in the relationship, ask each and every one to clarify how they have experienced the rule and to give several practical examples on how this rule has had a positive effect.

Couple with laptop studying relationships