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

Silent Agreements

How to Free Your Relationship From Unwanted Expectations

Push back against "silent agreements," the unspoken rules of your relationship.

Posted May 07, 2019

fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Your earliest relationships have a great influence on many of your behaviors, decisions, and conscious and unconscious motives. Silent agreements are the unspoken “rules” of your relationships. They grow from the assumptions, expectations, and beliefs that you don’t talk about, but still hold others accountable for. They show up in every kind of relationship, and as you read on, you’ll probably discover that you’re participating in several silent agreements.

Silent agreements sound something like this: “His mother is allowed to criticize my cooking, but I’m not supposed to respond,” or “My daughter is getting good grades, so I stay out of her school work.” Such agreements can continue indefinitely, often without discussion, because of fear, guilt, feelings of obligation, or aversion to conflict.

Because you don’t share your agreements aloud, complications in your relationships can arise. You may believe that the other person understands the terms of the silent agreement and is fully aligned with it. Consider how many times you’ve said something like, “He should know that already,” or “Why would I have to tell her that?” 

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.

Basic Characteristics of Silent Agreements

Fear

Some silent agreements are driven by our fear that lifting the silence will allow others to truly know us. Why don’t we have the courage to express our real feelings to the people we love? Why can’t we speak up about our ambitions at work? The answers are fairly simple: We’re afraid that people will hurt us, stop loving us, and maybe even leave us. We might also be afraid to admit what we really want. But staying silent about your desires and needs doesn’t make them go away. It just decreases the likelihood that you’ll ever get what you really want.

Diversion

When you have an issue you don’t want to face, you may try to find a way to hide it from others and even from yourself. In such scenarios, you do whatever it takes to divert attention from the issue and keep it underground. By their very nature, silent agreements keep your issues buried.

Multilayering

Silent agreements are usually connected to multiple beliefs, feelings, and expectations. Trying to handle all the layers of a silent agreement at once can be scary and difficult. As a result, you may choose to deal with only the top layer. It can be difficult to uncover all the layers of your silent agreements because one or both of you can become overwhelmed and unclear about what hurts and to what degree. Still, once the basic truths of your feelings and beliefs are revealed, they can provide you with a stronger foundation for a truly authentic relationship.

Change and Transformation

Silent agreements are fluid. Just as relationships go through stages, silent agreements change as well. For example, in your family, you might play the role of the compliant little sister in contrast to your bossy big sister. Both of you may be okay with these roles at first; your sister gets to feed her ego and be in control, and you get to feel protected and safe.

Later in life, you begin to explore other sides of yourself and discover that you have a gift for business. You’re assertive and decisive, and your new business thrives. The silent agreement between you and your sister changes to accommodate your new role.

Silent agreements with yourself can transform in another way. Sometimes you might avoid acknowledging the feelings you have that contradict the beliefs of your family and community. Yet despite your internal rejection of these ingrained beliefs, your behavior might reveal that you’re still attached to them. This behavior can transform how you present yourself; you might actually end up living an alternate version of your true self. The good news is that you can learn to notice, understand, and uncover your silent agreements, face your fears, and speak your true feelings out loud.

Adapted from SILENT AGREEMENTS: How to Free Your Relationships of Unspoken Expectations © 2019 by Sessions Innovations in Psychology LLC. Published by Rodale Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.