By Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D., LMFT
Well, we’re heading towards the Super Bowl and the teams have two weeks of rest and practice to prepare for the big game. If you watched the playoff games or any other sport for that matter, rules are an important part of the game, and if you are going to play the game well, you need to understand the rules. Violating the rules can be costly, and in some instances, can harm your chances to win the game. But the rules are what makes the game fun. If sporting events were simply free-for-alls, they would be chaos and even though chaos may create some type of order, that order is not nearly as much fun as a game that is played within the rules. Rules describe the boundaries that determine what a player can do and what the player can’t do. They define what is fair and they define what is not fair. If players transgress these boundaries, they are punished for it and if the transgression is serious enough, they can be suspended from the game. Taking the lead from football games, I wish to talk about rules not for football, but for life. Like a game, the rules of life are just as important, and while rules can be the source of frustration and sometimes irritation, they are necessary if the game of life is to be enjoyed and if we are to succeed at playing it.
As a family therapist much of my work with couples and families had to do with the rules that define a family/relationship, which also determine the boundaries that define the way they live with each other. As I taught my students and interns, the words spoken are not nearly as important as boundaries observed and the rules they represent. If the structure of relationships in a family or in a relationship are to change, then the important thing is not changing the words, the important thing is to identify dysfunctional boundaries that represent rules needing to be changed. Change the rules and change the boundaries; change the boundaries and change the way people relate to one another; if we change the way they relate to each other we change the way they talk to each other. In other words, the work of family and couples therapy is much different from psychotherapy for we are not interested in addressing the psychological development of individuals as much as we are interested in shaping the boundaries by modifying or changing the rules that define them.
The creation of successful rules is the work of the family; helping them create rules and successful boundaries is the work of family therapy.
While digital devices such as smartphones, tablets and personal computers have made our lives easier in some ways, they have also created real challenges to couples and families.
As an example of how this works, let’s consider the personal computer, which has transformed families today in a profound way. It has placed the world at our fingertips and awakened the imaginations of so many people in interesting and important ways. But like anything else, this technology can be counterproductive and when it is, it has a damaging impact upon relationships and families. This has been exacerbated by the development of social media and the tablets and smartphones upon which they are broadcast. The size of these devices makes it easy to hide one’s activities from others. From a relational perspective, this can create what I call digital suspicion. Often, a partner doesn’t know who their partner is talking too and about what, or what types of websites they are perusing, and they won’t know unless they look at each other’s devices. Looking at your partner’s device, however, is frequently treated as a violation creating the feeling that a boundary has been transgressed. When this happens, trust—an important element to any relationship—is called into question. Likewise, these devices have been challenging to families with children. While a smartphone can be an issue of safety, they have also become the device of choice for kids communicating with each other. Apps such as Snapchat include fancy filters that are fun to use, and kids can distort their faces or put mouse ears, rabbit ears, or funny noses and whiskers on their faces. This feature makes the app enjoyable and sometimes the results are quite amusing. But the Snapchat app also allows them to send each other pictures that disappear seconds after they are viewed, a clever feature if you don’t want others including parents to look at the pictures sent or received. Smartphones also place the Internet at the fingers of a youth along with all the dangers that go along with it like sexual predators, pornography, drug issues, etc. If then, couples and families are to live successfully in this digital world, they need to define rules identifying what they consider to be safe and fair usage of digital devices.
The ability to maintain these boundaries is dependent upon rules that define the relational nature of a family or a committed relationship. Relational rules and boundaries open or close the channels of communication necessary if others in the relationship are to understand or be understood. If these rules and boundaries are ineffectual, then the emotional bank account that monitors a relationship will be overdrawn. Let me explain.
People who study this sort of thing have found that our emotional health can be understood through the metaphor of a bank account. We make deposits to the bank account with positive behaviors such as doing what we are asked without complaining, telling the truth, acts of kindness, etc. But we make withdrawals with negative behaviors such as stonewalling (ignoring what is being said to us), arguments, caustic comments, fights, etc. The ratio of positives to negatives is what makes this bank account so alarming. It takes at least six positives to overcome one negative, meaning the bank account is overdrafted much more easily than it is filled up. All of this is directly related to our emotions. If the bank account is in the black, we are happier, and it is easier to give our relational others the benefit of the doubt and expect the best of them. However, if the account is overdrafted, our emotions are much more negative, characterized by doubt, suspicion and annoyance, which means even a little thing can become something that sparks an argument or fight. If the overdraft becomes too severe, even positive gestures are taken as negatives and instead of making a deposit, another withdraw comes about. It can become quite a vicious cycle and when it does, successful communication becomes difficult at best.
To understand this in a more practical way, let us return to the digital world we discussed above. In this instance, we will consider a family that has a mother, father and a 16-year-old child. As I stated above, in a digital world, smartphones are important to adolescents. That is how they communicate with their friends, learn of events important to them, listen to music and through social media, learn the gossip that too easily becomes fact on those platforms. Because the Internet is not an innocent playground for our kids, however, many dangers lurk there. Sexual predators are rampant; sexting is something that tempts even the most innocent of minds, porn entices children and youth to look at pictures not fitting for young eyes, and social media allows them to say things they may never say face-to-face. All of this means that the responsible parent will try and put into place rules of usage governing the way their youth use these phones. Some of these rules might be that only apps approved by the parents are allowed on the phone, or the phone must be turned off, put in the kitchen and placed in its charger by 9 p.m., or yet another rule might be that a locator app is put on their phones so that their parents will know where they are at all times. If the youth is to use the phone, then they must abide by these rules, and just as in a game, when the rules are violated, punishment is meted out.
If we immerse all of this into the emotional bank account metaphor, the way the youth reacts to these rules is dependent upon whether the account is in the black or if it is overdrafted. Parents in the family we are considering are not implementing these rules to punish their 16-year-old. Rather, they are doing so to keep them safe. But let’s consider this scenario. When the 16-year-old is given the phone, they are excited and immediately start texting friends and listening to music. The 16-year-old’s excitement fills the parents with good feelings, and they say little to their child about the rules they expect to implement. When 9 p.m. roles around, however, they go to the youth and ask for the phone. The youth protests, but the parents now inform the youth of the rule. With protest, the youth hands it over. Now, look what has happened. A withdrawal in the bank account has been made, but no harm, no foul.
The next day, the youth takes the phone to school and shows all of their friends. Excited about all the opportunities, the friends tell the youth about Snapchat and encourage the youth to download and install the app. “It will be fun, and besides, everybody has this app. You’ll need it if you are going to talk to others.” The 16-year-old downloads and installs the app. Upon arriving at home, however, the youth is met by a parent who wants to see their phone. Again, the youth protests. “It’s mine!” “No,” the parent explains, “we pay for it and until you can pay for your own, its ours on loan to you. Hand it over.” The youth hands it over reluctantly. Another withdrawal has occurred and so far as the youth is concerned, no deposits have been made. As the parent looks at the phone, they notice that Snapchat has been added, which is an app on the parent’s blacklist. “You can’t have this app,” they tell their youth. “It is a good way to get into trouble and we don’t approve of it.” The youth is now deeply offended and put off. “Don’t you trust me?” the youth asks the parent. “All of my friends have it, and they won’t talk to me if I don’t have Snapchat! This is dumb!” Nonetheless, the parent makes them delete the app and a major withdrawal from the bank account is processed, a withdrawal that damages the youth’s trust of their parents—remember, the youth knew nothing of these rules—and now they are suspect of their parents’ motive. “My parents,” the youth seethes, “are out to get me!”
If we analyze what is happening here, the parents made a tactical mistake. They should have at the very least had a talk with their child explaining the rules of the phone from the moment it was given to them. At best, they might have written these rules out, explaining to the child first of all if rules are added or deleted and why. This does not mean that the 16-year-old will like it, but at least they will understand. However, what if the 16-year-old’s bank account was already overdrafted because of other problems the family is having? When the phone is given to the 16-year-old with all the stipulation, even if they are defined, the positive gesture of being given a phone is received by the youth as a negative. “It isn’t a gift,” they might imagine, “it’s simply a means of control and a destruction of my privacy.” In this case, the positive gesture becomes a negative one and the negativity of the family’s emotional tone becomes more problematic further creating a lack of trust, rationalizing dishonesty, agitating disagreements and fights, and further damaging the communication patterns within the family system.
There are no easy solutions to these kinds of problems. But if the family is to have a chance at living more successfully, understanding the rules of the family and the boundaries defining the family structure need to be identified. These rules cannot be assumed; they must be known if they are to be examined and most importantly, changed. Families often create subsystems and alliances that further exacerbate these problems. If, for example, the 16-year-old is a boy and has an enmeshed (overly close) relationship with his father, and it was the mother that found the Snapchat app and made the youth delete it, because of the close relationship he has with his father, the mother’s actions could also create a problem with her husband, the boy’s father and create an even more problematic family atmosphere. The poorly defined rules of a dysfunctional family create more chaos than order and it is not fun to be part of such a family. It is emotionally unhealthy. But if the family has developed a successful set of rules that define the mother and father as the primary alliance, such an alliance will present a unified front to the youth making it more difficult for him to pit one parent against the other thereby maintaining order rather than chaos. Chaos is the ultimate withdrawal in families, but order is the ultimate deposit allowing for better channels of communication, better understanding of one another, and hence, order is the foundation upon which emotionally healthy families thrive.
Like a football game, overcoming the chaos and creating an opportunity while playing the game is dependent upon well-defined rules, which are challenging, yes, but also makes the game worth playing. Families and couples are no exception. If they are to transform what would otherwise be chaos into order, they too must have well-define rules that manage the boundaries necessary to successful communication that brings understanding, greater appreciation and acceptance of each other. The creation of these rules is the work of the family; helping them create rules and successful boundaries is the work of family therapy.
 I realize that there are theories that may take exception to this statement such as Cognitive Behavioral Couples Therapy (CBCT), Solution-Focused Therapy (SFT) and Narrative Therapy. While I think these are important theories and I have used them in my practice, they take their lead from either a behavioral perspective (CBCT) or a more modern or postmodern understanding of language where the way we talk determines the expectations we have of each other and hence, the way we behave towards each other (SFT), or the narratives that shape our lives are dominated by alienating totalities, which prevent us from interacting with others as well as ourselves in ways that are fulfilling (Narrative). I, however, think that systems still define families, and they are governed by rules and boundaries that determine the nature of the system. Therefore, when using CBCT, SFT or Narrative, I use them through a systems lens, which in my opinion transforms these perspectives into much more interesting and effective ways of doing family therapy.