Breaking the rules is risky if you want to continue being a Jehovah's Witnesses. Some rules are extremely serious and must not be broken. Others can sometimes be broken as long as the person is repentant, remorseful, and doesn't challenge the authority of the Elders or the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Punishments can range from a verbal scolding, warning, and slap on the wrist, to disfellowshipping. In some cases congregation 'privileges' and responsibilities might be taken away. A public announcement to the entire congregation might be made. Certainly most punishments involve embarrassment, some harsher than others.
The entire purpose of disfellowshipping and shunning for breaking the rules is to remove those who threaten religious harmony. JW's pride themselves on 'speaking in agreement' and be 'like-minded'. They know this is not normal behavior in any free society, however they don't notice any evidence of religious control. Instead, religious unity proves to them they are the only ones with 'the truth'. After all seven million JW's agree on everything! Totally amazing!
However the seven million like-minded JW's don't see what goes on privately behind the scenes at judicial committee meetings. All they see is love, joy, and harmony at congregation meetings. They are isolated from reality. The truth is JW's are leaving the organization in droves. Why? Because they can no longer put on a happy face and pretend to believe in things that aren't true.
The rules are an excuse to remove individuals who challenge the authority of man. They are written in such a way that anyone can be a target for disfellowshipping and shunning if they become a bad influence or if they are not 100% loyal.
Sometimes minor rules can be broken and Elders look the other way. Why? Because these individuals are 100% devoted to the organization. They attend meetings, participate, go door to door preaching, and they swear with all their heart that the Watchtower is God's organization. On the other hand, someone could be disfellowshipped for a minor violation, if the organization wants to get rid of them.
Examples of serious rules that must not be broken are:
e.g. if you choose to have a blood transfusion to save your life or someone you love, you automatically 'disassociate' yourself with some exceptions. Although shocking, remember that in most cults, members are prepared to die for their beliefs. See Are Jehovah's Witnesses A Cult?
Disassociated Jehovah's Witnesses are shunned by close friends, family, and other loved ones (with some exceptions).
With Christians, breaking the rules of their church is not such a big deal. If people complain, they can go to another church. They don't normally lose their family and all of their friends because they usually have friends outside their church. Jehovah's Witnesses do not have close friends outside of their organization, unless they are 'spiritually weak'.
For Jehovah's Witnesses the threat of disfellowshipping and disassociation always hangs heavy over their heads.
Even though Jehovah's Witnesses are told God's rules make them 'free' and happy, some see the truth. They are not free to disagree. They only have two choices. Agree with everything or disagree and leave.
Even though Jehovah's Witnesses are free to leave, their freedom comes with a steep price. They lose family members, and close friends who will no longer talk with them. In that sense they are not 'free' to leave. Leaving is pricey, - not in a financial way, but on an emotional and spiritual level.
If a JW decides to leave, deprogramming can take months, years, or a lifetime. Some never recover. See Mental Illness
Wise JW's recognize that their depression is not normal and they seek professional help. These individuals recover very quickly and move on to create better lives. Unfortunately, when JW's leave they take their beliefs with them. In other words, they leave physically, but their mind is still parked at the Kingdom Hall. This limits their willingness to search for help. See Religious Traps
Joining the Jehovah's Witnesses is easy. Leaving is hard, unless a JW is willing to ask for advice outside the organization. Even then, the loss of family and friends involves a natural grieving process that can take time.