If you have relationships of any kind, you have experienced and likely battled against “silent agreements.” While most have never used or even heard this term, silent agreements are all around us—at home, in social circles, and in the workplace. They are those unspoken “rules” of our relationships that grow from the topics we don’t talk about—the needs, wishes, and expectations we don’t share but hold others accountable to anyway. Most often the other party is doing the same thing, which adds layers that make silent agreements even more complicated and challenging to uncover and rectify.
Sometimes the unspoken expectations of two people align; and when they do, their silent agreements align as well. When this occurs, drama subsides and harmony rules. This is more often the exception than the rule, unfortunately.
Because many can be completely out of line, and given their sometimes clandestine nature, silent agreements are often problematic for our relationships. With the unspoken expectations people often have of one another—money, commitment, intimacy, kids, jobs and careers, health issues, technology, and social media connections—silent agreements can exist in all aspects of life. Sometimes unawareness of these values or expectations can naturally result in long-term complications or even outright relationship chaos.
“Whether in alignment with others or not, in many cases the silent agreements we have with one another, or towards another, are not acknowledged or openly discussed,” says clinical psychologist, Michele L. Owens, Ph.D. “This is largely due to the fact that we, ourselves, may not be consciously aware of the expectations we harbor. Other times, we feel that we have too much to lose if we talk openly, or, we regard silence as less frightening than what would happen if we tell the ‘real’ story about what we are thinking and wanting from another person. So, we avoid discussing the real issues because we are afraid to upset the status quo.
“Each of these scenarios creates the opportunity, and some might say the likelihood of disappointments, misunderstandings, distortions, false assumptions, and resentment between individuals. The more a relationship lacks awareness of these silent agreements, the more pervasive the silent agreements are, and the more likely we risk losing authentic communication.”
“Often we erroneously believe our silent agreements with others to be understood or implied, thinking we share the same understanding or meaning of an unspoken expectation,” reveals clinical psychologist Linda Anderson, PhD. “One person can have a particular perception about an unspoken issue while the other is experiencing something entirely different. The result can be debilitating and downright deadly for relationships. Silent agreements that don’t match typically come to the fore eventually because of the complications and challenges they present to the relationship. And in the meantime, they’re growing and potentially taking their toll on you in other unknown ways. Avoiding communication is not a healthy way to deal with it, and as time goes by, the harder it becomes to hide behind the silence.”
“Silent agreements are not just about communicating poorly in your relationships,” says Licensed Clinical Psychologist Sonia R. Banks, PhD. “In contrast, a silent agreement is a situation where you have consciously or unconsciously agreed to something with another person without discussing it at all. That unspoken agreement and missed conversation shows up in your interactions and can have ramifications not only for your relationships, but for so many other aspects of your life.
“Once you become more aware of your silent agreements, you can identify and make choices about the ones that are prohibiting you from realizing your relationship potential. You’ll be much better equipped to actually begin breaking the silence and talking. Unfortunately, relatively few have the awareness and insights needed to recognize and address the silent agreements that adversely affect their relationships and lives overall.”
Silent agreements often revolve around those issues that people do not recognize or are too uncomfortable to acknowledge and “put on the table” to discuss openly. Sometimes individuals remain silent to protect themselves from exposing their insecurities or fears. Consider these six examples of some typical land-mine issues at home, play, and work that often result in, and are exacerbated by, detrimental silent agreements:
1. Change and Stagnation: Changing the hardest paradigm you fear
People who have been dissatisfied in their jobs and stay anyway often create silent agreements resulting in missed opportunities. Perhaps they are loyal to a person or cause that no longer fits them. The type of agreement they are living with undermines pursuing the career course they truly desire. This silent agreement starts with yourself and the fear of change. A more enriching silent agreement must first begin with a conversation with yourself. Acknowledge the challenge in moving on and create a way to leave even while you are feeling the discomfort.
2. Flexibility and Inflexibility: When roles limit us
He washes dishes and she cooks. Then one day he comes home and cooks and she doesn’t wash the dishes. The expectation that she would automatically switch roles was part of his silent agreement, but not part of hers. Inflexibility can undermine the goals of relationships when unexpected shifts occur without an open discussion of the issue. Here, his agreement involves an exchange of duties, while hers is less flexible and focused on a predictable division of labor.