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Unenforceable Rules

 Posted: 2:00 AM March 15, 2014

Late last fall, while sweeping my very long driveway, I started wishing I had help with this tiresome task. Soon it occurred to me that I wanted my adult sons to phone and say "Hi mom, I'm in town and would love to come over and give you a hand. Can I can help you with something?"

It didn't take long for this little fantasy to turn into a story about how my sons should want to help me. Isn't this what adult sons of a single mother do? What's wrong with them? What's wrong with me?

You can see the downward spiral.

Dr. Luskin, author of "Forgive for Good" refers to these kinds of expectations as "Unenforceable Rules." In my work coaching parents of grown children, this issue comes up frequently.

Often I hear "This is not acceptable. I raised them up to be_____." You can fill in the blank, "considerate," "responsible," "respectful," and so on. Sometimes parents will say "They owe me ______" or "The least they could do is ______." While it's understandable that we want to be treated with kindness, respect, consideration and honesty, the expectation that it must be so will foster disappointment, unhappiness, separation and even bitterness.

What I noticed that afternoon as I swept my driveway was that I hadn't even been aware of this "Unenforceable Rule" that lurked in my subconscious. I started looking for others. And I found them. I found them in other relationships, with friends, colleagues and with life itself. I also imagined the unexamined expectations my kids might have of me. "Mom will always be there for me."

Shoulds are easy indicators of unenforceable rules. "My kids should check in with me once a week." "My friend should invite me for dinner."

We communicate these expectations often indirectly. However we do it, they come across as demands. Because we all favor freedom, not subservience, demands create resistance.

If we are able to force someone to comply with demands out of guilt or fear, we bring other complications into a relationship, even with ourselves. Resentment, suppression, evasiveness and distancing easily take root.

One antidote is to become aware of the assumptions and expectations we have and the demands we're making. Sweeping a long driveway is one way to encourage some mindful reflection. There are many others. This is an ongoing practice, not a one-time event. Like any reflective activity, it's a practice that will bring clarity, integrity and connection.

Another solution to the problem of unenforceable rules is to express clearly what we want. We ask for it knowing that if this person does not give it to us, we have other resources available to help us either satisfy that need or deal with the reality that what we want is not available right now. I once asked my son to call me every week preferably on a Sunday. He doesn't do it. He does, however, call me to share important events in his life. Occasionally he'll call when he's stuck in traffic or otherwise bored. I don't resent this at all. I asked for what I wanted. I appreciate what I get. Sometimes, I phone him on a Sunday and sometimes he's available to chat.

Letting go of "Unenforceable Rules" is freeing. By the time I finished sweeping the driveway that afternoon, I was chuckling about the expectations I'd dumped in the trash. I felt available to be in real relationship with my sons. I was at peace with my inner and outer world.

Selene Aitken is a mediator and trainer with The Center for Nonviolent Communication. Her workshops, "Clear, Calm and Courageous: Navigating the Tough Conversations," and "Bridging the Gap: Practical Support for Parents of Grown Sons and Daughters" are offered locally. Info:

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