Who Makes the Rules?

Families are complicated.  There are power structures in place that we can see, but often the real bases of power are disguised.  Sometimes the weakest-appearing person is really the one in charge.  I have long been interested in the effects within a family when one member has an impairment.  I knew several people who had a disabled sibling and the entire family revolved around that sibling.  The impact on the so-called “normal” child was very profound, but each one was trained never to talk about it.  It was all about deferring to the impaired child’s needs and always feeling sorry for that child’s plight.  Nothing bad that happened to the non-impaired child could ever compare to the tragedy the sibling lived with on a daily basis.  That was the constant mantra in that family.

This happens in other less obvious family situations too.  As you may have noticed, some families are so adverse to their child having a public tantrum that they will do anything to avoid it.  They don’t realize that the child is just asking to be stopped!  The child wants her parents to set a limit so she knows how far she can go and what behavior is safe to do and what is not.  In those families, that child is running the show and the parents are pawns in the game.  That is unfortunate.

When two adults are in a relationship, the hope is that there is mutual respect, reasonable power-sharing, deference to the other’s wishes based on true caring and an underlying assumption that any mistakes are truly that – an aberration, not a malicious statement.  This applies to friends, lovers, partners, co-workers and any other adult person in your life who is worthy of your respect.

So what happens when that gets out of whack?  Not too long ago, someone close to me was very offended when she told me about an event that was important to her son, and when she stated the date of the event, my response was, “Oh, I have theater tickets on that day.”  I didn’t say, “So I won’t be attending.”  I simply uttered the first thought that was triggered when she mentioned the date.  Somehow my mentioning the conflict was a terribly disloyal act and I was in the doghouse in a big way.  I did attend the son’s event and everything worked out fine, but I was still considered to have messed up big time because I mentioned those tickets.

Fast forward to a time when an event is planned that is important to MY son.  I share the date with this person, and she says, “I have another event on that date.  My friend has a son who is getting married in a few months.  The bride does not want a shower but my friend wants to have a party so everyone can meet her.  It’s on the same day as your son’s event.”

“So what will you do?” I ask.  Without a moment of hesitation, my friend says, “Oh, I’m going to Linda’s party.  I’ll visit your son later and celebrate with him on another day.”

Here’s my confusion.  I merely mentioned an existing conflict and was considered to have performed a terrible act.  The same friend has made it clear to me, without a moment’s hesitation, that she is choosing the OTHER event, not my son’s event, and I’m supposed to understand that and be ok with it.  What’s the difference?

“I made a commitment to a PERSON,” she explained.  “You merely had theater tickets.”  But her rule was that I should never even have MENTIONED the theater tickets to her.

Now if I tell you this person is a family member, not simply a friend, you will start to understand why I am writing about Who Makes the Rules?  In my family, we were raised with inexplicable rules that made no sense.  You could offend people without even realizing it.

Example: if I went away on a trip, I was expected to call my grandmother when I returned home.  If SHE went away, I was still expected to call her when she returned home.  I think she thought as the older person, she deserved this treatment, but it never made sense to me.  On the other side of the family, my mother was totally intimidated by her older brothers and lived in fear of offending them.  So if we, as a family, had plans on a Saturday to go out and have a family adventure, all of this would grind to a halt if one of her brothers happened to pop in, uninvited and unannounced.  It was forbidden to say, “Hi Brother Joe, we’re going to the amusement park, want to come?”  No, instead my mother would say nothing to her brother and sit down and offer him coffee and lunch while we kids sat there, crushed with disappointment as our exciting day evaporated.  And she would be giving us the hairy eyeball lest we dared to express any of that disappointment.

So it’s not surprising that my family member has special rules that apply to me – even regarding what I am allowed to SAY – and different rules for herself.  The question is whether I am obliged to put up with it.  I have been through these things before with this person and was made to feel very bad about my choices, my relationships and my point of view on certain subjects.  For this reason, I have chosen on many occasions to defer to her wishes in order to keep peace and not be excoriated.  Now I am not so sure I did the right thing by making that choice.  Like the child who starts to have a tantrum because she knows her parents will do anything to make it go away, I may have been indulging this family member’s power trip to the detriment of both of us.  I think it’s time to stop.  These rules are not working for me any more.

Who makes the rules in your family?



4 thoughts on “Who Makes the Rules?

  1. Your first paragraph described my situation completely. Having 3 siblings that each had special needs growing up I was viewed as the “normal” child and to this day that dynamic still remains (and is hard). But about your overall point here, good for you for deciding that you want to change the rules. I totally support you.


    1. WOW — 3 special needs sibs! That must have been a chaotic situation. How did your parents choose which one to prioritize? I was always very grateful to my kids for taking turns with their personal crisis periods.
      However, you should know, and you probably do, that this situation does quite a number on YOU. Asking a kid to suck it up and not ask for too much attention because of the other kids’ needs is unfair. Even adults have trouble doing it. How does a kid make sense of this? I have seen the damage and it is deep: self esteem issues, never wanting to disagree or make waves (so tamping down one’s own feelings and needs), and most especially, never feeling loved enough. There is always that cavernous hole that one’s parents could not/would not/did not know how to fill.
      My observation is that it is not just siblings that can cause this. In my family, it was the needs of other relatives that came first, as well as limited capacity to love on the part of my parents because of their OWN messed up childhoods. But growing up with that deficit is not something that is easy to overcome. It’s always a work in progress for me.


  2. This is interesting to think about! I’d never really considered it before. I’m not sure who makes the rules in our family, but I know for sure it isn’t me! 😉 Hahahaha. Very frustrating, however. I guess I will file this under “things to re-read as my kids grow up” so I can remember how this works. I don’t want to use my age and seniority as an excuse to call the shots and steamroll their plans.


    1. It’s also useful to reflect on who made the rules in your family of origin. It clarifies a lot of confusing and conflicting messages you may have carried with you throughout life.


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