Silent Agreements: How to Free Your Relationships of Unspoken Expectations

Silent Agreements: How to Free Your Relationships of Unspoken Expectations


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Silent Agreements will help readers define the unspoken beliefs and expectations that might be causing dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and resentment in their relationships, giving them the tools to explore these agreements and work toward healthier communication with a partner, friend, boss, or family member.

If you have relationships, you've likely been part of silent agreements. Silent agreements are the implicit "rules" of your relationships that arise from unspoken beliefs and expectations that both parties hold, stemming from your earliest experiences and reinforced as you mature. They can sound something like "The person who makes more money should pay for the dates," or "My boss doesn't offer me a raise, and he knows I won't ask for one." These agreements can hinder your relationships, remaining undiscussed due to fear, aversion to conflict, feelings of obligation, or guilt. Because expectations so rarely line up and neither person will address the issue, a silent agreement can cause unhappiness and resentment on both sides.

Clinical psychologists Drs. Anderson, Banks, and Owens will help you explore your agreements and work towards healthier communication with a partner, friend, boss, or family member. In the process, you'll learn more about your own motivations and how to dismantle the the beliefs that don't serve you. With guidelines and advice on how to have productive conversations about sex, money, commitment, family, the workplace, and health, this book will help you lift the silence and resolve those land-mine issues before they do irreparable damage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781635653465
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 05/07/2019
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 459,649
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

LINDA D. ANDERSON, PhD, is a professor, organizational manager, clinician, and consulting psychologist. She earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from Columbia University and has been in private practice for over 25 years, helping adults, adolescents, and children transform their lives.

SONIA R. BANKS, PhD, LCP , is a clinical and behavioral change consulting psychologist with over 25 years experience in private practice and organizational impact. She applies research trends to relationship science in her work with adolescent, couples, families, communities and organizational teams to support and build sustainable learning systems that advocate for their human potential.

Michele L. Owens, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City with over 30 years of experience. She earned a bachelor of arts degree from Case Western Reserve University and both master's and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from the Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology. She trains and mentors mental health professionals and presents workshops on subjects that include relationship enhancement, effective interpersonal communication, and living and working in a diverse world.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Where Do Silent Agreements Come From?

For those of you who like to understand how things can get started from an individual’s perspective, we offer a step-by-step progression of how silent agreements form. Here is one person’s story of how it all began. As you consider Sarah’s introduction to silent agreements, you might see yourself in some of these scenarios. Her story will show you how silent agreements start, grow stronger, and show up repeatedly throughout your life. Once you know where they come from, you’ll be in a better position to choose a new path.

The Beginning: Sarah’s Silent Agreement with Herself

Imagine that you are a young girl named Sarah. You’re four years old and your family’s next-door neighbor, Diane, knocks on the door, hoping to come in to schmooze with your mother, who’s busy doing chores. Your mother peeks through the door, sees Diane, and mutters under her breath, “Damn. Why today? I have too much work to do.” Nevertheless, she answers the door, smiling and welcoming Diane into the house. When Diane says hi to you, you tell her, “You should go home. Mommy said that she doesn’t have time for yakking.”

Your mother looks mortified and yells at you to not say such things. She apologizes profusely to Diane, telling her that you’ve been acting up all morning. She then tells you that for being such a rude girl you must sit in the corner until she tells you you can come out. You’re confused and begin to cry. You try to cling to your mother, but she leads you to a chair in the corner, where you sit and cry quietly and where your mother makes clear that you’ll remain until you apologize to Diane.

Powerful Childhood Memories

This experience was a very powerful one for you. If you had never seen another example of this kind of dishonesty, the memory of the incident might have faded and have had little impact on your ideas about truth and openness. Instead, through your childhood and teen years you saw your mother modeling the same kind of behavior. She would complain and sometimes even cry about feeling burdened. But when she was face-to-face with those who generated these emotions, you’d watch her transform into an acquiescent lady who swallowed her feelings and went along with what was asked. Maybe she thought it was impolite, unpleasant, uncomfortable, or insensitive to let others know when she felt overwrought or when, for whatever reason, she just wanted to be left alone. But her actions taught you that being honest is often a poor choice when face-to-face with acquaintances, relatives, and close friends.

Within these recurring incidents are the seeds of your approach to relationships and the formation of silent agreements with yourself and others. You’ll have a difficult time rejecting others for fear that doing so will lead to your being rejected and shamed yourself. You learned from your mother that when you don’t want the company of another person, you shouldn’t be honest about that. In the name of courtesy, she modeled dishonesty and then punished you for revealing the truth. This left you with a searing sense of shame. And you felt abandoned by the mother you thought you were helping.

What’s the big lesson you learned? That telling people how you really feel is bad. Beyond that, and perhaps more important, you learned that your genuine feelings aren’t important if someone wants something of you that you really don’t want to provide.

When you witnessed these scenes during your teen years, you stood up to your mother’s lack of authenticity. Sometimes you’d even berate her, but she rejected your criticism. Instead, she would explain that even when she was tired, busy, or at odds with others, she still didn’t see the need to refuse people and make them feel rejected or unwanted. She explained that people didn’t mean any harm but sometimes just needed her help or were too nice for her to turn away. The ramifications of this kind of “politeness” can be tremendous. For example, as a result of this thinking, your mother spent fifteen years in a relationship with a man who was clearly not a fit for her. With great frustration you watched her fight against her desire to leave him, with justifications like “He really is a nice guy.” And you vowed that you’d never be a doormat or subjugate yourself to another in the interest of meeting their needs while neglecting your own. But you couldn’t have known then how difficult it would be for you to stay true to that promise.

From Feelings to Silent Agreements: The Sarah in All of Us

Sarah’s scenarios are the kinds of early experiences that teach us to enter silent agreements with ourselves and with others. It goes something like this: When you’re a baby, you tend to express genuine feelings and reactions to the world around you, and as you grow, your repertoire of expressions expands. As an infant or a toddler, you might throw a toy down when you’re bored with it or smack away the hand of the adult who’s keeping something you want out of reach, but you eventually learn to use words to express what you’re feeling. Along the way, your parents, families, and countless people you encounter out in the world teach you to express yourself in socially acceptable ways.

In this case, little Sarah was scolded for letting the neighbor know that Mom really didn’t want her around. Her mother wanted to make clear that her daughter’s bluntness was not going to be rewarded, and then Sarah witnessed the conflicting follow-up: Her mother was annoyed but invited the neighbor in anyway. Sarah learned that you might want someone to leave you alone, but you shouldn’t tell them so, and her mother never advised otherwise. Sarah also learned that if you’re honest in such situations, someone is going to end up embarrassed (at her age, it probably felt more like pure shame) and maybe even angry. She also learned that the other person in the situation—in this case, the neighbor—may be in on it. After all, Diane heard Sarah say that her mother wanted her to go home, but she stayed anyway. Blaming Sarah helped everyone sweep the whole thing under the rug. But the lesson was there. Put simply, Sarah learned not to express her feelings if such expression comes with any risk of causing upset.

So what happens next? We typically shut up and shove the feelings down. Sometimes we know they are there and we consciously choose not to share them. Sometimes we’ve shoved them down so far and for so long that either we don’t know what we feel or we can’t clearly determine if our feelings are still present.

One big problem with this suppression is that even feelings that seem buried will emerge through behavior. Because we carry with us doubt and fear about whether to share our feelings, we make compromises with ourselves in the form of silent agreements. We now believe that such feelings will cause difficulties if we express them aloud, so we make a deal with ourselves and with others to make life easier by staying silent.

Feel It, But Don’t Reveal It!

But how can a deal that you make with yourself alone be considered an agreement? In agreements with the self, it’s as if there are two parts of you involved. To spare yourself other people’s anger, disapproval, or rejection, or to simply spare yourself the awkwardness of confrontation, you separate the side of you that holds your genuine feelings, thoughts, and reactions and keeps the truth quiet from the side that expresses them openly. Like Sarah, whose feelings used to be nicely aligned with her willingness to express them freely but who learned to divide herself into two personas, you may feel pressed to separate these sides of yourself. So in order for you to have both feelings you’d like to express and the desire to keep the feelings secret, you have to develop a system that lets you have the feelings but keeps them concealed. That mechanism is a silent agreement.

Silent Agreements in Your Relationships

Silent agreements in your relationships function similarly to this but with more layers. Here you’re sometimes silent about what’s going on beneath the surface even though your behavior reveals you. For example, your partner experiences your genuine feelings when you act out your fear of sexual intimacy in the form of bedtime headaches. But he agrees (silently) not to say anything about it because of his fear that if you two deal with the issue openly, the real reasons for your lack of interest might be so serious that he might never be able to have sex with you again. He also wants to avoid an uncomfortable conversation about sex because he doesn’t want to reveal aloud that he has no sexual confidence and therefore finds women intimidating. So he’s counting on you to continue helping him keep his concerns and feelings silent, too.

Like Mother, Like Daughter: Perpetuating Silent Agreements from the Teen Years to Adulthood

Let’s revisit Sarah as a teenager. As she grows up, her relationships with men unfortunately follow the same path as her mother’s, despite her vow to the contrary. After several months of dating her first high school boyfriend, Sarah decides she wants the freedom to date other boys, but her boyfriend is a genuinely nice guy whose feelings she’s sensitive to, so she finds it very difficult to break up with him. Instead of just telling her boyfriend how she feels, she instead becomes increasingly irritated with him for minor things. Sarah is repeating the same silent response that she learned from her mother. Her boyfriend is shy and is afraid that he won’t be able to find a girlfriend as special as Sarah, so he won’t speak up and end the relationship either. They break up eventually, but only after hurtful weeks of mixed signals, drama, and spotty communication—thanks to their complementary silent agreements.

At twenty-one, a vibrant, daring young woman with dreams and ambitions, Sarah goes through the same cycle again. She meets John, an honest, straightforward small-town guy whom she views as a safe choice. She silently agrees to stay with him so she can experience her first grown-up relationship without too much challenge or risk. John, despite knowing that the two are incompatible, stays with Sarah because he craves the change and excitement that he doesn’t have the nerve to create on his own. Yearning for more, she tires of the relationship. Following her past behavior, she is afraid to tell him how she feels because she fears he will become angry and reject her. Eventually the relationship comes to a contentious end.

Because Sarah does not have the tools to recognize and address her own silent agreement, as well as her silent agreements with others, this unproductive cycle continues well into adulthood. She eventually finds herself in a relationship with Dean, another good man from whom she is very different. There’s not much bringing them together, but he is the first man to validate her opinions and her right to make choices based on her needs, so she marries him. For a while, his acceptance makes it easier for her to put up with their incompatibilities.

After a few years, Sarah admits this relationship isn’t making her happy. To quell the anxiety about rejecting someone again, she convinces herself that she’s too picky and silently remains unhappy in her marriage. Fifteen years later, Sarah is finally confident and self-aware enough to realize that staying in her marriage is intolerable and breaks her silent agreement—if she speaks her truth, it leads to anger, hurt, and rejection, just as it did when she was four. She asks Dean for a divorce.

Why Does Sarah Continue This Pattern?

Sarah’s pattern of remaining in relationships for too long is a remnant of the harsh rejection and hurt she experienced when she said out loud what her mother wouldn’t. This was a significant event in the early development of her anxiety about telling the truth about her feelings. As an even younger child, Sarah could sense much from her mother’s body language, affect, and actions at moments when her mother struggled with her wish to be open with others but decided to stay silent instead. As is also often the case with young children, Sarah’s ability to sense this occurred even before she was old enough to articulate it.

Later on, rather than acknowledge her real feelings and leave after sighting the first (or second or third) red flag, Sarah learned to act out her relationship unhappiness by nitpicking and displaying irritation and impatience, all the while hoping her partner would end the relationship so she wouldn’t have to do it herself. Eventually the relationships ended because her behavior forced her feelings into the light. Only then was the silent agreement broken.

Silent Agreements: What It All Boils Down To

A silent agreement between two people often reveals that both parties have thoughts and feelings that haven’t been fully shared with each other, for fear of ending the relationship or having to acknowledge some untouched deep emotions. As a result of your silence, your behavior and the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that accompany it are often misread. You’ve internalized this way of doing things because of the many times in your life when your open expression of feelings felt risky or received a response that made you feel anxious, ashamed, guilty, or insecure. And so you learned to create silent agreements.

How Can We Recognize Our Own Silent Agreements?

You may have silent agreements in your life when

•    You’re getting along on the surface, and that’s where you stay—on the surface.

•    What you’re not saying has become louder to you than your ability to articulate it.

•    You believe that if the truth comes out, there will be hell to pay.

•    You believe it would be more painful to share what you feel than to deny it.

•    Your relationship is built on knowing what not to bring up.

•    You believe that if you talk about it, you’ll lose something, or more important, someone.

You might find as well that you’re in a silent agreement when you’re talking about anything except what’s actually bothering you. Often when you feel helpless to change a situation, you try to ignore how much it disturbs you and instead invest energy in trying to minimize or deny your feelings. At such times we tell ourselves that it’s more peaceful to remain silent. And sometimes we are so unaware that even when we’re talking about things, the harmful silent agreement goes on and on.

Table of Contents

Introduction What Silent Agreements Are and How They Affect Our Relationships 1

Chapter 1 Where Do Silent Agreements Come From? 13

Chapter 2 The Four Elements of Change 28

Chapter 3 Silent Agreements About Sex 39

Chapter 4 Silent Agreements About Money 71

Chapter 5 Silent Agreements About Commitment 103

Chapter 6 Silent Agreements About Family 128

Chapter 7 Silent Agreements in the Workplace 158

Chapter 8 Silent Agreements About Health 188

Chapter 9 Your Silent Agreements Tool Kit 206

Appendix 233

Acknowledgments 241

References 245

Index 247

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