Unlearning invisible family rules that hold us back

Over the years, I've been on a few personal and professional life journeys. Being a first-generation migrant of Indian descent, I find myself uniquely identifying and challenging some of the family rules placed on me as a daughter, wife, mother, and working professional along with these life expeditions, particularly within a South Asian context. While some family rules have held me in good stead, I find others that are particularly problematic and downright misogynistic. Unfortunately, however, they are normalised, practised, propagated across generations in the veil of culture and invisibility, as unspoken family rules. 

In this article, I share my process of challenging and navigating one such unspoken family rule and the insights I've gained. 

Before we dig straight into invisible and unspoken family rules, it is good to examine terms like family structures and boundaries. 

An Argentinian gentleman named Salvador Minuchin (1921 -2017) helped me come to grips with this concept of family structures, boundaries, and rules while re-charting my professional life as a counsellor. By this time, I had spent almost half of my life span enduring them.

Minuchin (1974) proposed this theory that family structures operate within systems and subsystems. Suppose you translate these specifically within a south Indian family structure, such as mine. In that case, the nuclear family Amma, Appa, Anna, Thambi, Akka & Thangai (parents, sisters and brothers) form the base system. The extended family: Thatta, Patti, Chitti, Chittappa, Mami, Mami (grandmother's, grandfather's, uncles and aunts) form the subsystems. 

Boundaries set within these family structures govern and set the expectations of each family member's behaviour within these family systems. Thus the clarity of the boundaries sets the parameters and rules that influence the transactional patterns of the family members. 

Minuchin classifies three types of boundaries. The more precise the boundaries, the higher functioning the family system becomes: 

1. Clear: The boundaries are communicated, understood and respected. (I feel within a larger South Asian family structure, and clear boundaries will always remain aspirational).

2. Disengaged: The boundaries are not well communicated or expressed to members of the family. For example, Appa or Amma, just retorting to "I told you so; hence you follow" type of communication to the children in the family. 

3. Enmeshed: The boundaries are all over the place. There is no clear chain of communication between structures. For example, Amma complaining to kids about dad's behaviour and lateness, Appa using the daughter as the sounding board for his office problems, or discussing his intimacy issues with his wife to his sister(s) or his Amma. 

The thing that blew up my mind was this concept called invisible rule, also known as an implicit rule, which is never spoken but accepted as reality. Hidden or unspoken rules are those pesky things that set the tone, flavour to these boundaries, influencing day to day interactions within the family members. 

Though they are invisible, they hold a great deal of power in the family's everyday interaction. It got more interesting when I realised that as it is never questioned, the family members unconsciously pass them on to the next generation. The only way to strip its power and stop its hold on the next generation is by acknowledging and naming it.  

There are three steps to working through unhealthy family rules: 

1. Identify the invisible rules in your family. 

2. Challenge the status quo. 

3. Replace the unspoken rule with a new visible family rule.  

Step 1: Identify the invisible rules in your life

"When the invisible becomes visible, you start to shift the power dynamics".

I share a personal viewpoint that most South Asian families' invisible rules almost always exist with subclauses. (Perhaps as a way to add complexity to an already complex situation. The more complex the problem, the harder it becomes to question, the easier it is to confirm and carry on). 

These are mine: (They still exist within the pocket of subsystems of my extended family)

Physical activity is predominantly a boy's domain; art is a girl's domain. A married woman must always prioritise her family's health over hers. A man is allowed to pursue his interests even after his marriage. However, if a woman does that, she is not family-oriented. 

I knew I did not have the same privileges as my brother growing up, though no one in my family explicitly said anything. Neither did my Amma or my aunts or my grandmothers. My Amma and her sisters were neither encouraged nor allowed to pursue active exercise like running, jogging, cycling, though they were explicitly encouraged to take up singing and dancing. 

I know it is after her marriage, my Amma, supposedly with my Appa's permission, learned to cycle. Her need to learn cycling also arose to solve a practical problem. To commute without having to be transported around, it was the early 1980's by then and an era where it was socially acceptable to do so. 

Step 2: Examine its origin, unlearn the invisible rule. 

"Challenging the status quo is never easy. However, to construct a new path, disrupting the old one becomes crucial." 

Although I grew up in a different era, and I do not specifically remember my parents discouraging me from pursuing any sports, they did not explicitly encourage me. I knew that my artistic pursuits of dancing or singing made them happier than my gymnastic abilities to do a backflip. Though they never disclosed it, I knew they were secretly worried that if I injured myself, broke a bone or worse face, it may have profound future implications for my life, a disadvantage in finding a groom from a "good" family. 

I learned that my Chithi (mother's younger sister) had christened the toddler me with the nickname "Auto". A shortened slang name for an auto-rickshaw: a motorised three-wheel vehicle used to transport people, an ordinary person's transport option in India. 

In Chennai, the city I grew up in, Auto's though small in stature, are notorious for their ability to zoom through the tightest of spaces, at times not hesitating to plough through the thick traffic. So it seems I was a tiny ninja who possessed volatile energy and the stealthy ease to maneuver my way unannounced with a penchant to navigate tight spaces. "Like an Auto, you were fast, when you would appear, and where you would disappear to nobody knew", Chithi recounted during one of our conversations.

I discovered this anecdotal memory at a stage in my life when I had become the mother of two daughters. But, unfortunately, I grew up ignoring this part of me, leaving this potential for physical activity unexplored. 

Nevertheless, my relationship with exercise, in particular a love for running had paid the price. A direct consequence of functioning within this invisible family rule meant I had spent my prime years from age 10 to 25) (a south asian woman past 25 is considered a relic alias aunty) and a decade of aunty years (from 25 – 35) completely disconnected from my once favourite activity, running.  

Most devastatingly, I had officially joined the statistics of women who became obese after childbirth and lived up to the stereotypical image of an "Aunty". 

By now, I was a 36-year-old woman, a wife, mother of two primary school-going daughters, completely unfit, obese and self-conscious about my weight. 

Step 3: Replace the unspoken rule with a new visible family rule. 

Research suggests that to learn a new habit, condition, and internalise a behaviour takes 21 days. I grew up internalising these rules for a good two to three decades. So, It took me several sets of 21 days to acknowledge and appreciate that I did indeed love running, precisely the next two to five years. Though my physical self took its own sweet time to get fully attuned to gain my running ability, my inner "Auto"- ninja self of wanting to navigate through the tight spaces of resistance returned in full swing within the first set of 21 days. 

By tuning into my inner "Auto", I did many things to keep the momentum of motivation going. First, I joined my local park run with my husband and friends. Then, I set some personal running goals, took part in several Fitbit challenges, impulsively signed up for a 12 km run, trained for it and completed it. 

Another strategy that helped me embed this new behaviour is enlisting my immediate family, my daughter's and husband as my accountability partners and including them in my journey. I noticed that the more we (my husband & I) role modelled the new behaviour, the easier it became to communicate our commitment to keeping this new family rule of focussing on health. 

My learnings 

"When a man achieves, they call him focussed. If a woman achieves, they ask; who is taking care of your family?”

At the start of this journey, I attributed this urge to draw a truce between running as something fuelled solely by sibling envy. If he (my brother) can do it, I can do it, I would tell myself on repeat. My brother and I were living on separate continents. I would spend hours planning and completing chores, ensuring everyone in my family was cared for before I stepped out for a run. And I would be exhausted 7 minutes into the run. 

Meanwhile he spent time running 7-mile courses for practice runs, without a worry about who takes care of the family while he runs. 

The more I started achieving and conquering each personal running goal, the more I realised that the catalyst for my behaviour came from a much deeper place. An unwavering commitment to set a new template, a refreshing set of family rules for my daughters. 

"It is more than ok to focus on yourself first and achieve personal aspirations before you tend to your family".


Rupa Parthasarathy is the founder of Mindkshetra, a creative arts mental health studio that aims to nurture inner wellbeing using creativity. You can connect with Rupa on LinkedIn.