Family Systems: Rules, Rituals and Myths

familyWe are all familiar with rules, rituals and myths in the context of the larger society. Rules are a group’s stated guidelines that clarify the acceptable behaviors from those that are not and the consequences if a member or members fail to conform to the guidelines. Rituals function as the glue that binds the society and the role each member plays in the ritual reinforces how power is structured and distributed within the society. Myths exemplify what members of a society consider as admirable qualities and, oftentimes, the consequences for disregarding the lessons contained within the myths.

Together rules, rituals and myths unify the people toward a common identity. The power of rules, rituals and myths in binding the culture together is so strong that it is no surprise that in times of war each battling side attempts to eradicate them from the other side’s consciousness. Without them, the conquered culture loses its sense of commonality and oneness and are, therefore, easier to subjugate. By imposing the conqueror’s own rules, rituals and myths on the conquered ensures the conquered’s loyalty towards their conqueror.

The unifying force that rules, rituals and myths have, however, does not limit itself on the larger community. On a micro level, family units follow their own set of rules, rituals and myths.

Family Rules

In family systems, family rules help stabilize the unit and set guidelines relating to, among other things, how each member conducts him/herself within and outside of the family system, the boundaries that separate the unit’s subsystems (small groups within the family, e.g., partnership between parents, partnership between siblings, father and son, etc.) and how the family as a unit presents itself to the outside world. Rules can be spoken or unspoken and can be passed on from one generation to another.

The needs of the members of a family system, however, changes with time and as a result of its members’ natural emotional, physical and psychological growth — for example, the couple become parents, they have a child who grows up to be a toddler, another child is born, the children grows up to be adolescents, then teenager, etc. These changing needs threaten the family system’s homeostasis — its state of relative comfort.Through feedback loops the family system addresses, controls and copes with the threats to homeostasis as they arise. Negative feedback loops allow the family to respond superficially by adopting first order changes that serve only to temporarily alleviate the threat to its homeostasis, but makes no commitment to permanent change. Positive feedback loops and second order changes, on the other hand, allow the family system to acquire a new level of homeostasis by adopting more long term and permanent solutions.

Negative feedback loops can take the form of preventing a child who has grown to a teen from having friends outside the home and/or the extended family by limiting her time outside the home to the same amount of time as she had when she was a child. Positive feedback loop, however, would have allowed the teenager to spend more time outside the home provided he/she follow a new set of guidelines or rules. In this example, the goal is not to overly restrict through negative feedback loops or overly giving through positive feedback, but regulating positive feedback to allow for adjustments to meet the new demands on the family system while reinforcing the new homeostasis through negative feedback loops.

Family Rituals

Family rituals are activities that the family system does together that reinforce the notion of oneness or each member’s identification with the family system. Rituals occur on regular intervals — daily such as every evening, weekly, or even annually — and defines the family system’s organization with each member having a role and performing a specific function within the ritual.

Family rituals can be as simple as a family having dinner together at 7:00 p.m. and watching television soon thereafter or as elaborate and unique as the preparation each family takes to celebrate the Holiday season. As rituals are passed on from generation to generation, rituals function as a means to perpetuate the family system’s identity.

Family rituals and rules at times can be mistaken for one or the other. “Be home by 6:45 p.m. and ready for dinner by 7:00 p.m. every night” can both be seen as a ritual — it happens with regularity and with each member performing a specific function, e.g., mother cooking, sister setting up the table, brother clearing the table after meal, father takes out the trash, etc. — and as a rule because it is conveyed as something that must be followed.

Myths

Just as there are family rules and rituals, most families have myths that are passed from one generation to another. These family myths oftentimes carry lessons for the younger generations to follow. Myths convey why one family is better than another family — a member’s heroism at time of war, excellence in school or sports, etc.  The farther off in time from the actual event, the higher the likelihood that the family myth would take on a life of its own.  Myths, therefore, can be factually true, based on truth but embellished, or completely made up.

Just like rituals, family myths serve to unite the family system as members coalesce around and identify with a single (or a few) ancestor(s).

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Every family has its own rules, rituals and myths. Their rigidity or flexibility, permeability or closedness to the outside world determine how the family function as a system and how its individual members adapt (or not) to their ever changing environment.

Franco E. Santos, MA

Franco E. Santos is an adjunct professor of psychology and undergraduate advisor at Mount Saint Mary’s University in West Los Angeles.

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