By: Richard Nicastro
No matter how we might resist them at times, we can’t deny the presence of rules in society. From traffic lights to ticket sales, rules help us avoid chaos and establish routines that allow us to cope as a society. But beyond the macrocosm, rules are an important presence in the microcosm of your relationship–even when they’re unspoken or seemingly invisible.
Your Relationship Rules
Your relationship rules influence how you and your partner relate to one another: how emotions are expressed, the way in which needs are communicated, how family and friends are dealt with and how intimacy is expressed.
Ideally, you and your partner will openly communicate and negotiate the different rules that are important to each of you. But this isn’t always the case: Couples are often guided by powerful rules that remain unspoken. Because you learned many of these rules as a child, you may not even be aware of the impact of your relationship rules.
There may be times when your relationship proceeds smoothly under the influence of the unspoken rules that guide you and your partner–this is usually the case when your rules do not conflict with your partner’s rules. But when these rules remain unspoken, your relationship or marriage becomes a game of chance. Becoming mindful of these hidden, powerful rules will increase the control you and your partner have in strengthening your relationship.
Unspoken Intimacy Rules:
Emotional intimacy (as well as physical intimacy) is one of the most important areas of your relationship that is influenced by unspoken rules.
There are as many ways to create an intimate, emotional connection as there are people. Intimacy is a very personal experience–what can feel like a meaningful connection to you might feel very different to your partner. Ideally, you and your partner are compatible in your need for and expression of intimacy. When major incompatibilities exist, it will be essential for you and your partner to accept the different paths you each travel to achieve intimacy.
Your unspoken intimacy rules influence:
1. Whether emotional closeness will be central or peripheral in your relationship.
2. The methods you use to achieve emotional and physical intimacy.
3. The level of emotional vulnerability that will be allowed in your relationship.
4. How much together-time you and your partner share.
5. How much alone-time you’ll each need.
A brief example of intimacy rules at work:
Aaron grew up in a family where it was obvious what everyone was feeling. His parents and sister openly expressed themselves, whether this involved celebrating the good or talking about the painful. If you had a feeling in Aaron’s family, it was expected that you would communicate whatever you were feeling.
Aaron’s childhood relationships created an important rule that governs Aaron’s behavior in his marriage:
Sharing feelings = emotional intimacy
His wife Shontae learned a different set of rules in her family. As a child she often had to care for her ill father. She described him as depressed and, at times, explosive. For Shontae, it felt dangerous to share her feelings–Shontae and her mother often bottled up their emotions. But Shontae did learn to feel connected in her family. A deep emotional connection grew between her and her father as Shontae took on the role of caregiver. She felt loved and appreciated whenever she cared for her ailing father, who was able to show gratitude toward his daughter for the first time in their relationship.
Shontae’s childhood relationships created an important rule that governs Shontae’s behavior in her marriage:
Caring for others = emotional intimacy
As you can imagine, the different unspoken intimacy rules that influence Aaron and Shontae led to some challenging times in their marriage. They both yearned for emotional connection but were incompatible in how to achieve this desired level of intimacy. Becoming aware of their own and each other’s unspoken rules was an important step in creating a more harmonious, intimate relationship.
So the challenge for you is to become mindful of the rules you’ve learned along the way to adulthood and are now applying to your intimate relationship. Talking with your partner about the different ways you each achieve intimacy will help unearth the unspoken rules that guide both of you. This level of understanding can bring you closer to each other today and help you avoid major pitfalls tomorrow.
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Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a psychologist and relationship coach who is passionate about helping couples protect the sanctuary of their relationship. Rich and his wife Lucia founded LifeTalk Coaching, an internet-based coaching business that helps couples strengthen their relationships.