Navigating Unspoken Rules and Unconscious Roles

Do you know that you live by an invisible rule book? You may not even know you have it, but all of us do. You likely have harbored unspoken rules of what a great marriage should look since before you were married.

And along those lines, chances are you have an idea of what roles you and your spouse should play once you are married. Without knowing it, couples are drawn into acting out roles they form from a blend of their personal dispositions, family backgrounds and marital expectations.

For many couples, this can be a big speed bump in a marriage when unspoken rules and unconscious roles are broken by their spouse. But how is our spouse supposed to know about our unspoken expectations? The key is to address these issues before we create a deep rut we are stuck in.

Unspoken rules explained

We often refer to unspoken rules as your personal ten commandments. These can have anything to do with morals, ethics, traditions, or anything you feel deeply about. They are chiseled in stone in your brain, and you may not even know you hold these true to heart until your spouse breaks them. We hold our unspoken rules dear, and sometimes in a marriage our spouse doesn’t see it the same way.

Here are some examples of unspoken rules couples have shared with us: never raise your voice, always pay bills the day they arrive, never turn on overhead lights (only lamps), don’t interrupt another’s work, don’t ask for help unless you are desperate, always leave the butter on the counter – not in the fridge. You get the idea, unspoken rules vary greatly and some might even seem silly or quirky to the other, but these rules bear a great importance to the holder.

Unconscious roles explained

Just like actors in a dramatic performance follow a script, so do married couples. Married couples tend to follow a script that was written by the role models they grew up with. These roles are often hardwired into us from childhood. We are trained to act a certain way, or expect certain things from the other.

Here are some examples of unconscious roles we play in a relationship: the planner, the navigator, the shopper, the money manager, the cook, the caregiver. Just as there are infinite unspoken rules, there are equally as many unconscious roles husbands and wives fall into.

Navigating rules and roles

When our spouse doesn’t follow through with our unspoken rules, we may feel unloved, or disappointed. And equally, when the roles we expect to fall into place when we are married don’t pan out, the disappointment sets in.

How can you navigate this before you hit a bump in the road?

  • Unspoken Rules:Communication is vital when it comes to unspoken rules. Sit down with your partner and try to articulate some of the unspoken rules you grew up with. These rules can sometimes be so ingrained, we are rarely aware of them. Start by listing your top 10; this what we call your “personal ten commandments.” Once you have listed them, share with each other. You may be surprised to hear what is important to your spouse, and vice versa. Try to respect what is important to the other, and work out a mutual agreement on the do’s and don’ts in your relationship.
  • Unconscious Roles:Being aware of your natural tendencies is all it takes to save you from a disappointing drama. Once you are each aware of the roles you tend to take, you can sit down and write a new script together. Writing your own script will help you build a unique marriage and future, rather than only sticking to the programming you were taught as a child. The key is communicating the roles you wish to play and coming up with a compromise. Or perhaps a shared role may be in the books for you. Whatever the outcome is, be sure you are communicating your roles openly.

The expectations you bring to your partnership can make or break a relationship. So before you get stuck in a rut, sit down and exchange your viewpoints on these important topics. Remember that the more openly you discuss your expectations, the more likely you are to create a vision of marriage you agree on and that is unique to the both of you.

If you want to explore further with your spouse, check out our SYMBIS Assessment here.

What roles or unspoken rules do you and your spouse see differently? How do you plan to resolve this? Share with us in the comments below!


  • Neadyne says:

    The roles me and my spouse see differently are the good and the bad in certain television shows and video games. I plan to resolve this by being able to work together and figure out what is ok and what isn’t ok.

  • Debby says:

    What if the rules and roles have created ruts that would benefit from being smoothed out and paved over? After almost 36 years of marriage we have figured out some rules and roles we grew up with would or would not work for our marriage to hold steadfast. However, after reading this post, I realized that we recently discovered a couple of our “personal 10 commandments.” I think that we could sit down and discuss as you suggest, but is there something else, in addition, you’d suggest for those of us who have been together for many years?

Leave a Reply