“Peeps Afloat Together in Muddy Waters” Many thanks to Red Hot Roasters of Louisville for the delicious peep latte! Great inspiration for this “float” we do together in relationships.
Relationship Rules & Expectation and How to Change Them in Your Life
ARGGHHHHH!!!! That was the memorable utterance that Charlie would yell after Lucy picked up the football again and again, always egging him on to try just one more time. Do you ever feel the same way about romantic relationships? Just when you have convinced yourself that this time, when you go to kick the football you won’t land on your…well, you know. Frustrated we either turn inward, blaming ourselves, “Why didn’t you see this coming?” or outward, “AHHH who are these people?!?” or most often, some combination of the two. We expect that we can see a pattern in the future, projecting based off of small “signs” or “clues” that this person may not be the partner of our dreams, however, it seems only in hindsight that the signs are glaringly obvious. And, after these relationships crash and burn, it seems, the only thing left to do is hit our heads against the wall or melt into a little ball on the vegetative couch.
We want some control over this merry-go-round, but often the answer lies in something that feels very out-of-our-control, the relationship rules and expectations that we have learned from a very early age. Think about it: In your family were you taught that if you just held back your feelings and went with the flow of things, that arguments would dissolve and everyone would get along? Were you taught that if something flying across the room didn’t occur, that the relationship lacked passion? Were you taught that a man “wears the pants” in the relationship or oppositely, that if a woman was not dominant in the relationship she was being a weak partner, wife, or mother?
Families have a “culture” to them, unexpressed rules, beliefs, norms and traditions that dictate family patterns and keep the family running. Gregory Bateson (1972) calls this “homeostasis,” or a pattern of relationship interactions that keep the relationship in what seems like a business-as-usual pattern. These patterns can be helpful or harmful, but what they do have in common is that they are established and occur over and over again. They are also only applicable to the situation in which they were created for. For example, if in your family of origin an interactional pattern looked like this: Mom got angry à Dad withdrew à Mom followed à Dad got angry and yelled à Mom withdrew, this pattern of following and withdrawing may seem very normal…but may seem very not-normal to the person whose family pattern meant: Mom got angry à Dad got angry à They yelled it out until the anger burnt out.
We all have established patterns of behavior in our families to function everyday and those patterns are built on relationship beliefs and norms. However, much like the pattern for building an electric loop for a light bulb would not work if you were to directly apply those same rules to build a toaster, when we apply the same unexpressed relationship rules & beliefs to a person who has never lived inside our family of origin, we end up with a relationship “short/outage” (pun intended). Due to these norms feeling so innate and comfortable (we did function with them for quite some time) we often think that these rules are somehow the “magna carta” for functioning within relationships. Even with those norms that we see as dysfunctional within our families, such as the aforementioned flying object example, we may have held on to the relationship beliefs and rules that lead us to those moments, which make that one step further into the flying zone that much closer.
What to do to score a field goal
If you are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by this pattern, take it as an alarm bell to start putting yourself in the driver’s seat of your relationship decision-making. The first step is to reflect on what you believe to be true about relationships, what they should be. Be very attentive when that word “should” comes up, because it will tell you a lot about what you believe to be “absolutely true” about relationships and/or what may be a point of great frustration in your relationships.
1. Make a list.
Yes, while it may seem cheesy, JUST DO IT. Actually seeing it on paper and having it recorded helps you to recognize the pattern when it comes up and helps you not to forget.* Once you have started this list, recognize that it will be a list that you will add to over time, perhaps even if you are in long-standing relationship, because we are constantly becoming aware of these patterns. Also, do two things with this list. First,
2. Recognize where you think this belief comes from (family, previous relationships, etc.) and how you have seen it play out in your relationships.
This doesn’t have to be anything profound, we don’t need you lying on a couch regressing without the proper supervision of a therapist (little Freud joke there). Something like, “I expect that the person that I am with will pick up the tab at dinner” followed by “Got this from dad and mom because dad was always the provider.” Then how it is attributing to how you feel now, “Was frustrated because I feel like I am always the one picking up the tab.” Then finally, step three,
3. Decide whether you want to keep this relationship rule, change it, table it, or ditch it.
This may take a little time to think about, so be kind to yourself and reflect on it a bit. Sometimes when we realize that something that is frustrating us in a relationship has roots in a relationship rule or expectation from the past, we have an immediate decision to keep or ditch. Sometimes however, we need some time to think about it and that is okay. Looking at what this rule has given us (possibly a sense of security, or protected us in the past) helps us appreciate the rule for what it is and helps us to decide if these rules are still relevant for our relationships now. Don’t beat yourself up for having it if you feel like this rule is not one that is healthy. All rules have given us something and it is up to us to put on our detective hats and figure out why that rule was put there and how to find another way if it is no longer helping us and we want to plot another course. Seek advice from someone you trust or see a therapist if you are wanting help in this area too. It is sometimes hard to see these patterns that we are used to, and getting advice from a safe and trusted third party can help us see what we are not seeing in our relationship norms. Although it takes some work, this process truly pays off and can lead to more fulfilling relationships and definitely more awareness on our part.
*As a caveat, if you are in a relationship where you fear your partner or may be in danger, please keep this list in a place where it is not visible to the other person or protected by passwords on your computer.