Live Through This

The Family Dance

Every household has its own weird rules.

Illustration by Beth

Illustration by Beth

Growing up, I always saw my family as the epitome of “normal”: I was raised in a home with two married parents and one sibling, within a close-knit community of cousins, aunts, and uncles. It was a relatively peaceful and not at all dramatic upbringing, and I was sure that, for better and worse, there was absolutely nothing notable or unusual about the way we operated as a group. Then I got an advanced degree in couples and family therapy, and that picture of unremarkable normalcy fell to pieces. Looking at our dynamic with the cool, objective eye of a professional, I saw all sorts of idiosyncrasies that distinguished us from other clans and that would come to influence the person I became. For example: My parents loved us unconditionally, but we weren’t the center of their lives on a practical, day-to-day basis. They definitely had their own lives that didn’t include us, and they pursued them without guilt or apology. I think this is great, but it also made me into someone who is extremely uncomfortable being the center of attention, because I am just not accustomed to it. Also, at my house, everyone was (still is!) constantly talking all the time, even while we were watching TV or driving or gardening or whatever. Silence was never golden to us—in fact, we took it as a sure sign that someone was furious or extremely upset about something. It took me a while to understand that most people are more comfortable with silence than I am, and why—I still have to remind myself that it usually doesn’t mean anything at all. And finally, despite our nonstop crosstalk, we were always super polite to one another, and to outsiders, so it comes naturally to me to be nice to people, even the ones I may secretly want to destroy. (That last one may just be a Southern thing.)

Let’s talk about the family dance. That’s not some weirdo event like Motherboy from Arrested Development, but rather the unspoken set of rules that every single family operates by. There are explicit rules, like what chores you’re expected to do and when, but the family dance is the stuff we all just accept as “normal” without even questioning how other families might operate. You know how the first time you spent the night at someone else’s house as a kid, you were kinda weirded out by what they ate in the morning and how they behaved at the breakfast table, and how the parents asked you what you wanted to eat instead of just serving you whatever? That was an early look at some other family’s dance.

It’s important to take a step back and figure out what unspoken rules exist in your own family, because, whether you love or hate the way your family interacts, you carry their unspoken rules with you into school, into your dorm room, into your work, and into your love life—the rules of interaction we learn during childhood become blueprints for the rest of our lives. If, for example, when something goes wrong, your family puts a lot of emphasis on figuring out who’s to blame, rather than figuring out how to learn from the mistake and move on, you may find it difficult to admit guilt as an adult, opting instead to try shift responsibility for your mistakes onto others. If your parents always dictate meal decisions, and those decisions are invariably made with health in mind, you might have a hard time deciding for yourself what and where to eat when you live on your own, or you may constantly want to eat at fast food restaurants because there’s no one else dictating your meals. If birthdays are severely downplayed in your home, whoever you fall in love with may feel like you aren’t celebrating their big day enough. None of this should make you feel trapped, though—whether you had a happy or troubled family life growing up, once you figure out the unspoken rules of your household, you can decide for yourself which rules stay, and which ones you want to change. Like, it was very stressful for me to have dinner with my husband’s family for the first time—they are all much more reserved than my family, and I thought I had done something wrong and was waiting for a huge fight to blow up. It took me weeks to understand that the reason I felt so stressed out at their table was that silence equaled trouble in my childhood home.

The best way to figure out the unspoken rules in your family is to ask yourself a ton of questions, and if you feel comfortable doing so, have your friends answer the same questions (just the stuff in bold) about their own families and compare your answers. Comparing notes with friends will put your family’s dance into context—things you might think every family does may be completely unique to yours. Here are some sample questions to get you thinking. Again, there are no judgments in any of these questions or answers—there is power and value in every family dance.

1. Who is in charge in your family? Are your parents the ultimate authority, or are the kids allowed to discuss things they find unfair with their parents? Or do your guardians kinda let you figure things out on your own? The answers to these questions might give you some insight into how comfortable you are with taking the lead in a project, or standing up to authority.

2. How are birthdays celebrated? People can have radically different expectations about what will or will not happen on their birthday, and it’s never a bad idea to figure out where your own expectations came from.

3. You’ve done something really, really bad. Who is the first person in your family you tell, if you tell anyone at all? Who are you most concerned about finding out what you’ve done, and why? (hat trusted confidante could well become a model for the types of people you trust, even the types of people you’re attracted to, later in life. And if you feel like you can’t tell anyone, know that you’ll have to work to get yourself to open up to friends and other loved ones—do this, it’s worth it.

4. How do meals happen at your home? Is there a specific ritual to them? Do you all eat together or separately? Are you allowed to watch TV or use your cellphone during a meal? What kinds of conversations happen during meals? See above in re: Kumail’s reserved family vs. my chaotic one.

5. Who is the comic relief in your family? Is there someone who can be counted on to bring up issues no one else is talking about? Who bolts during conflict, and who just wants to get to the bottom of it? What would happen if any of these people stopped playing their assigned role? We get so good at these roles that it’s easy to just keep playing them for the rest of our lives, and expecting other people to play the complementary ones.

6. How is affection shown in your family? How has that affected what kinds of affection you’re comfortable with today?

7. When someone is angry in your family, how can you tell? One person in a friendship might be comfortable yelling when they’re mad, which might make the other person feel upset or even scared—just because of their contrasting family dances.

8. What does support look like in your home? How do you know that your family is behind you on something you’re working hard on? It’s worth it to recognize other kinds of support that you’re not as used to, so you can feel them when they’re directed at you (who would say no to more support in their lives?).

9. What do conflicts look like in your family? How are they usually resolved, if they are resolved? How do you deal with conflict outside of your family home—does it echo your family’s way?

This information may be something you want to share with your family, or it may be something you just keep to yourself, so that you have a better understanding of how you interact with the world. The point is that examining your family dance is something you do for yourself, and to help you see your relationships without the tangle of your own emotions clouding things. For example, for years I thought my dad just wasn’t big on showing affection, but then I realized that he shows affection by taking meticulous care of my car. To him, taking care of the thing that carries me around was how he took care of me. Realizing this unspoken rule of my family helped me come to terms with the idea that we don’t get to choose how others show us love—we just get to choose whether or not we accept the love they are showing us.

I don’t want to give you the impression that once you figure out the steps of your own family dance, your family will magically become more supportive and understanding of one another. But when you start uncovering answers to these questions, you become a bit of a scientist, with almost an outsider’s view of your own crew, which will help you understand what makes you work (or not work, as the case may be) as a group.

Now that we’re creating our own little family, Kumail and I get to choreograph our own family dance. The main unspoken rule we have is that whoever has had the less stressful day takes the lead on home chores. This works on most days, but when we’re both equally stressed, it can get hairy, with each person expecting the other to pick up our slack—which just leads to more stress for both of us. This is something we’ll have to be careful of when we have a kid of our own, because I don’t want our family dance to convince my future child that they can’t deal with stress on their own or turn the volume down on it temporarily when someone else needs them.

The environment you’re raised in is massively important in shaping how you interact with the world, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t change your shape at any time in life. No matter how your family dances, take the steps that work for you into the rest of your life—mandatory pancake Sundays, when to say no, how to work collaboratively, whatever—and scrap the ones that don’t. And you then comes the fun part: making up your own dance steps, even when you’re a family of one. ♦


  • Nadifa November 7th, 2013 12:21 AM

    Hi, I want to ask a question. If I submit an article, and there’s a chance for it being published, would you guys post it in this theme or the next month’s theme? thank you :)

    • Anaheed November 7th, 2013 1:57 AM

      It depends on what the article is about.

  • MaddsBeMe November 7th, 2013 12:42 AM

    Great article, I found one of the things that helped me understand my family the most was living in another family. I exchanged with a german girl for 6 months, seeing the way her family was run gave me a whole different view on the way my family works. In some ways it made me appreciate my family more, and in others it showed me how it can be different and gave me hope that I can have a family later in life that doesn’t have every single annoying thing that is in my family. If that makes any sense at all. ANYWAYS this was cool thanks <3 <3 <3

  • Zzz November 7th, 2013 12:54 AM

    Wow, that was an intense set of questions! I have to confess that my reactions were along the lines of ‘eeeek never tell family I have done anything bad ever ever repercussions too severe.’

    I’m glad you pointed out things like family meal choices not necessarily being passed on, but sometimes having an opposite effect. That has really given me something to think about.

  • julalondon November 7th, 2013 4:48 AM

    I loved this article; probably one of the best ones EVER!! Thank you for writing this. I could especially relate to the part where you described the relationship to your dad; mine is exactly the same..=) I’m gonna save this on my Computer!

  • elliecp November 7th, 2013 5:06 AM

    This is really awesome…I’ve been thinking recently about how my family life works and how different it is to other people’s. my parents are I are very close and it’s weird to think that some people don’t have the kind of relationship we do.

  • flocha November 7th, 2013 6:59 AM

    This is really interesting especially as things have messed up a bit in my family recently so I think it would help to see them from an outside point of view

  • Tourdivoire November 7th, 2013 8:20 AM

    THANK YOU Emily, this is SO helpful!!!
    This is precisely why I love Rookie although I’m not a teenager anymore. You guys are mindblowingly awesome.

    • Tourdivoire November 7th, 2013 10:36 AM

      Also, would any of the Rookies have reading advice in the field of organizational behavior regarding families?

  • Hannnah November 7th, 2013 9:09 AM

    This is really interesting, and addressed something I’ve had niggling in my brain for a while but never thought to put a name to it. Especially since I’ve started college, I’ve obviously noticed that different people do things differently, and that my family/childhood plays a massive role in the way I do things. But then I also noticed that I’ve tended to befriend people who seem to have very similar family dances to mine. I wonder if a side effect of analysing one’s family in this way could be a more open attitude to the idea that someone else’s way of doing a certain thing might actually be better rather than just scarydifferent therefore not worth considering. Maybe it could loosen the circle of the “kind” of people I hang out with, a “kind” I’ve been attracted to without realizing because the family dance can transgress more obvious categories like race, education, religion, gender…

  • Lillypod November 7th, 2013 12:34 PM

    mandatory. pancake. sundays.

  • epw37 November 7th, 2013 12:51 PM

    Thank you so much for this. It helped me understand why I feel so awkward when I am at my dad and stepmom’s house after growing up with my mom and stepdads ‘dance’. I’m still figuring out what the rules are. For example I know now that my stepmom’s family doesn’t congratulate achievements with the same warmth but it doesn’t mean that they are not supportive.

  • pizzaface November 7th, 2013 3:03 PM

    this is such a great, interesting and funny article!
    really made me realize what house and family i live in, haha

  • farawayfaerie November 8th, 2013 4:15 AM

    This is really great. My family is very tight-knit and we’re all very close, but it means that things get pretty intense quite quickly. I think the idea of a ‘family dance’ describes this perfectly: how we all get on with things, especially because so many things repeat themselves, and become small rituals, that add rhythm to the dance ~ like dinner table conflicts that turn into full blown arguments. I know that i am not part of the only family who does this, arguments that begin at the dinner table after everyone is stressed out from the day, but it’s really important to observe the way everyone deals with these moments differently.

    on a side note ~ “And you then comes the fun part:” ~ just a tiny-typo

  • Halfaaperson November 8th, 2013 7:40 PM

    This is such a great article. It really got me thinking. But made me very upset at the same time. It really made me think about my family before my parents split up. I guess it was thinking about the way it all works and how much it’s all changed. I really miss it.
    But it triggered me to talk to my dad about it and only good can come from that.
    Thank you for writing such positively triggering stuff. (I know I make it sound like it’s awful but I know why I’m sad now and stuff so it’s all groovy). X

  • Maisie November 10th, 2013 9:01 AM

    Wow thanks! I stayed with my aunt for a while and it was probably the strangest thing i’ve ever experienced (even though her ‘dance’ is more similar to a funeral procession and mine is pretty much-

  • amelia November 11th, 2013 4:57 AM

    this made me a bit sad because i used to be able to answer all these questions confidently and relatively happily – now i can’t really at all. the one thing that remains, even though my family isnt on the best terms anymore, is how open we are with each other – for better or worse. in fact, that’s what caused the rifts in the family to begin with.