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Unenforceable Rules

We are governed by laws and rules. Speed and you can get a ticket. Steal and you can go to jail. As children we were given rules to obey or be punished. As adults we put in place personal rules to manage our lives but then insist everyone else must follow those rules as well.


Unenforceable rules are often at the center of most of our relationship problems. Within these rules we find the words, should, must, or ought to. “You should send your mother a birthday card. You ought to give your wife flowers on her birthday. We have to spend all holidays with family.” We expect others to treat people as we do. We assume our neighbors will take care of their yards and pets as we would.


Marriages often suffer the most from unenforceable rules. Each partner brings their bag full of expectations that are never discussed and we assume the other should automatically know. They involve how we parent, how we deal with in-laws, finances, how we express love and concern for one another, etc. “If you really loved me, you would….”


When conflicts occur, individuals involved are often unaware that they have set up rules that have not been expressed or discussed.


When we assume others should automatically know what is expected of them and they don’t do it, we will be disappointed, hurt and angry.


When we live by unenforceable rules we often end up bitter and resentful.


How do you know if you are living with unenforceable rules?


  • You will be irritated when people aren’t doing what you think they should be doing
  • You assume everyone thinks and believes as you do and if they don’t you are surprised and sometimes offended
  • You blame others and the world for how you feel
  • You take someone else’s behavior personally – what they do or don’t do is a personal attack on you
  • A difference of opinion is seen as an insult to you


Our emotional response will tell us if we are trying to enforce an unenforceable rule; how we feel is directly attributed to what someone else is doing or not doing.


Taking ownership of our emotions and responses allows us to look for solutions instead of nursing resentments. Taking ownership of our attitudes and responses to life enable us to find solutions to differences of opinion.


We can address unacceptable behaviors without trying to manipulate or change the other person. We don’t have to like someone to accept them.


Trying to force something you cannot control is an exercise in futility.  You will end up angry, frustrated and disappointed.


When we take responsibility for our emotional responses to all things, we will find ways to negotiate and resolve disagreements. We can live by our principles and allow others the same privilege.

Marlene Anderson

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2 Responses to “Unenforceable Rules”

  1. Reply John Beck

    As I am reading Fred Luskin this morning I decided to see who had written and posted anything about unenforceable rules. You were close to the top of what propagated on my screen. Thanks for your work on this an other areas.
    John Beck

    • Reply Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

      Thanks for your comments. Fred Luskin is one of my favorite authors.

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