What’s the difference between a rule and a ritual?

by Nathan Chua

Whether you’re a couple suffering through the same predictably unpredictable (or unpredictably predictable) fights, or a parent wanting to salvage the remaining vestiges of the relationship you once had with your teenager, rules have always been a major test to any relationship. How many parents have struggled keeping their teens in check, by imposing rules that have been met mostly with resistance and resentment? How many major fights have been caused by one partner unable to keep their part of an agreement?

In other words, rules can be a major part of the reasons for conflict to arise. Don’t get me wrong though, I am not here to say that rules should be regarded as relationship-busters. There is a place for rules in any social unit to avoid chaos. There is though, something to be said about having relationships that are run mostly by rules. These types of relationships often end up becoming unmanageable, and the sort that crops up in the counseling room.

Past studies have shown that the more resilient families have demonstrated the importance of flexibility in developing harmonious relationships. The families that struggle were mostly those that leaned more towards rigidity. I think that what makes rules so difficult to impose is by their very nature. They are imposed, or impositions. Much of what explains these rules are usually forgotten and most of the time, they are imposed without a solid reason. Why is this so?

Because some of the rules may not have been brought about by the need to keep loved ones safe from harm, but can find its roots from the past. Deep wounds from the past can manifest themselves in our desire to avoid them in the present, when the threat is no longer there. A typical example would be parents who want their kids to experience the very same hardships they experienced with their parents. Unbeknownst to them, is that these rules are not born out of necessity, or made to protect the children from any physical or psychological harm, but it is their talionic impulse, which comes from the Latin term for an eye for an eye, lex talionis. A good example would be a parent not wanting to allow a child to have playtime with the neighbors, all because the parent did not have such a privilege growing up with parents, who were just as rigid with their rules regarding playtime.

Well then, what about rules like going to church, or having dinner together, or a kiss on the cheek before sleeping or leaving home? The better term for these activities are rituals. Rituals help relationships build upon the closeness that they create. In fact, how many times have you heard someone remember a loved one with stories like, I will miss our daily breakfast together. This restaurant is special because this was our favorite place to just have a quiet chat together.

I would call these rituals instead of rules, because they are always subject to change. One can miss out on some of these rituals with no consequence to the relationship. And most of all, they are done because each one in the relationship wants to do it, not has to do it.

So will it be rules or rituals for you? Just remember that there is a difference in motivation, and when you set rules, make sure they are motivated by present reality, not by some wounds from your past.