Every Relationship Has Silent Agreements — Here's How To Expose Them

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

Image by Lucas Ottone / Stocksy

Even as relationship structures become more diverse, amorphous, and adaptable, most people still find themselves falling back on familiar narratives. Sometimes it's out of convenience; just as often it's because we're too afraid to directly look our partner in the eye and ask the terrifying question, "What are we doing here, really?" In their newly released book Silent Agreements: How To Free Your Relationships of Unspoken Expectations, clinical psychologists Linda D. Anderson, Sonia R. Banks, and Michele L. Owens demonstrate how entire, years-long relationships get built on secret contracts that we never actually check with the other person. Below, the three authors share exactly how to expose these silent agreements once and for all.

Every single romantic relationship has silent agreements.

Silent agreements are the implicit "rules" of relationships that arise from unspoken beliefs and expectations that both parties hold, and they actually happen in all relationships, whether romantic, platonic, professional, or familial. They might sound familiar: "My significant other should recognize when I need their help," or "My boss doesn't offer me a raise and knows I won't ask for one." These agreements come from the unspoken, sometimes unconscious assumptions we make based on our own past experiences to avoid the anxiety or vulnerability we may feel when dealing openly and directly with our feelings, fears, hopes, and expectations. We all make these agreements at one time or another, sometimes simply because it is too burdensome to analyze and then discuss every detail of the beliefs that drive our daily decisions.

But especially in your romantic relationships, these silent agreements can hinder your relationships when they remain undiscussed because of fear, aversion to conflict, feelings of obligation, or guilt. When neither party is willing to address the issue, silent agreements can cause unhappiness and resentment on both sides.

The unwritten rules of our relationships.

While relationships often begin like the opening chapter of a fantasy novel—attraction, intrigue, and a sense of belonging—once our inevitable reality creeps in, the warm, delicious glaze starts to disappear. Now, what is to be done with this newly recognized reality?

The hidden expectations we have with our partners are present as soon as we meet and can continue for as long as we are in the relationship. They may start because of something we think is better unsaid and not confronted. We may feel that if we address the expectations we hold we will find that the things we value in our relationship don't align. So, we make deals with ourselves: "I'll tolerate her thoughtlessness because she is tired most of the time. I'll pretend he's not cheating until he stops. I'll be so exciting in the bedroom that she'll ignore my jealous rages. I'll ignore that he said he didn't want to be in a relationship when we met since we keep going out and are having so much fun. I won't tell, do, or feel so I won't have to know, see, or acknowledge that this relationship is not what I pretend it is."

We begin hoping that all of the expectations we silently hold and the decisions we make because of them will amount to a happy relationship. Meanwhile, we proceed as if we have an unspoken contract with our partner that outlines the behaviors and feelings we expect from them. Eventually, that full-blown contract in our head, with terms and deadlines that our partner doesn't know about, remains unsigned, and we can begin to feel our relationship becoming null and void. Finally, we make the most deadly leap of all as we begin to evaluate the relationship based upon how well or poorly our partner adheres to our silent agreement.

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Why do silent agreements form?

Many couples have internalized this silent way of being with each other mainly because of the times in life when open and direct expression of feelings received a negative response, resulting in anxiety, shame, guilt, or insecurity. We create these long-held beliefs about ourselves and the world around us, starting from our earliest experiences, which are then reinforced as we grow and mature.

In other instances, we learn to be quiet about what we really feel while allowing, and sometimes requiring, the other to do the same. Just as often, we enter into silent agreements because they work smoothly in our interactions with each other, i.e., "I cook; you wash the dishes." In short, we have learned how to make and participate in silent agreements.

Types of silent agreements.

Here are four common types of silent agreements we've come across, though there are certainly many more shapes and structures they can take:

  1. Dynamic duo: the fast-track couple who make career success the basis of their silent agreement. It has a driven quality with limited time for emotional growth and real sharing of intimacy.
  2. To err is human, to martyr is divine: the dramatic couple that has one partner who expresses hostility by being inconsiderate, unfaithful, and chronically unemployed while the other partner silently agrees to be the long-suffering one who gets to feel like a "good person" because of it.
  3. The winner and the trophy: one person agrees to be the successful showoff with the eye-catching spouse while the other agrees to reflect their partner's glory by remaining gorgeous, fit, and youthful for as long as possible. There is a lot of support for this type of silent agreement from the media, and many in celebrity life push up against this narrative.
  4. Provider and protector: this "rescue couple" has a silent agreement based on one person's desire to be taken care of and protected from pain and another who satisfies their silent agreement by doing it. Somewhere in there is the demand that someone will be taken care of and protected from all that is unpleasant while the other person wants to be depended on.
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The necessary work of exposing silent agreements.

The challenge to understand each other gets more difficult when silent agreements become symptomatic of something much deeper. When we are unaware of, cannot articulate, or understand the assumptions we have made about a person, situation, or circumstance, we risk distorting what is happening based on what we want to occur and then prematurely judge what is actually occurring. Silent agreements need to be understood and talked about openly because, while sometimes our assumptions about what we are doing and how we should do it are well-matched, other times they are not.

In day-to-day romantic life, especially when nothing bad happens, we often assume we are working from the same relationship understanding. But that might not be true. Silent agreements are at play even in the most harmonious and loving relationships. Those mismatched expectations can quietly corrode even the happiest relationships, whether because one person is quietly hurting or because eventually the truth will emerge that each person has been viewing the nature of the relationship differently. Suddenly realizing you and your partner have been living in separate, parallel storylines can hurt deeply and seriously destabilize what seemed like a happy, functional relationship.

Before discussing a silent agreement, you need to start by looking inward at your own assumptions, beliefs, values, expectations, and day-to-day operating principles. Open your mind and let it go way back into unchartered places. What are the assumptions, expectations, or stories that are driving your relationship? List them out, and also write down what led to your willingness to remain silent. What have you gained by remaining silent? What might you have lost by not saying out loud to yourself (and to your partner) what the possible origins of this silent agreement might really be?

After you've done some personal reflecting, sit with your partner and try these conversation starters. Initiate the process of identifying your aligned and misaligned silent agreements by completing these sentences.

  • I have always believed that…
  • I have assumed that…
  • I've been afraid to talk about …
  • My concerns are…
  • What I really, really want now is…
  • Going forward, I hope that…

A few words of advice as you go about this process:

  • Calmly remind yourself that it's human to struggle with open communication. You're not alone in doing this.
  • Reassure yourself that with patience and understanding you can explore different ways of addressing your agreements. One at a time may deliver better results.
  • Don't be surprised if you discover a new way to see yourself as your partner opens up to you about their assumptions and narratives.

Once you identify the silent agreements that operate within your relationships, you'll be equipped to reconstruct, eliminate, or accept them. Two people really are co-owners of silent agreements they share. Together, you can choose to keep the parts of the agreement that make sense, discard the parts that don't, or simply start from scratch with a new understanding that meets the needs that have now been shared openly.

It's enriching to release yourself and your relationships from the silent agreements that hinder. This process can allow you to step out of the roles you've been playing and simply be who you are.

Written by Linda D. Anderson, Sonia R. Banks, and Michele L. Owens.

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