I’m very pleased today to interview Dr. Linda Anderson, clinical psychologist, in regard to “silent agreements” in relationships. This is a relatively new term, and I am very interested to hear more about it.
Thank you, Dr. Anderson for taking the time to talk to me today.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to discuss our upcoming book about silent agreements My co-authors Dr. Sonia Banks and Dr. Michele Owens and I are writing a book about how silent agreements impact our relationships in our everyday lives and what we can do about them .
First of all, tell me a bit about what the term “silent agreement” means.
If you have engaged in relationships of any kind, you have experienced silent agreements. We all have. You may never have used this term before, but even so, silent agreements, are present in our everyday lives. Silent agreements appear, or, more accurately, live in the shadows of relationships of all varieties – in work, play and love. Silent agreements are often problematic. It starts when people have expectations. Sometimes these expectations line up and sometimes they don’t. In many cases silent agreements are not acknowledged, whether they are aligned or not, and typically not openly discussed, because frankly we are often not aware of the expectations we carry. This creates the opportunity for disappointments, misunderstanding, distortions, and false assumptions. Over time when there is no communication silent agreements develop. In silent agreements we may believe we are understood. We may also believe we share the same understanding or meaning of the unspoken expectation. Imagine one person is having one perception about what is not being said and the other person is experiencing something entirely different. These expectations are often embedded in an issue that we don’t want to or feel we can’t face.
Can silent agreements between partners be either positive or negative? Could you please give an example of both?
Yes, actually silent agreements between couples can be positive or negative.
They can be positive when the unspoken expectations of two people line up and so their silent agreements will line up as well. Then the relationships can hum along without drama, stress or misunderstandings. For example, imagine that every Friday night your husband brings home your favorite ice cream. Both of you relish the feeling that after the end of a very long work week you look forward to sharing down time together including your ICE CREAM! Yes you both share the expectation that he will bring your favorite flavor and he happily delivers it. No one needs to talk about this. You just both know that life is good and Friday nights are special!
At the same time, sometimes when people get married they assume they are “One” and must always do everything together. Some believe they must give up/sacrifice their dreams for fear of failing or losing their marriage or not being supportive of their mate. Some couples are inseparable, and yet that intimacy works to keep each from being their “best independent self”. Their silent agreement maintains the intense closeness by avoiding any pursuit of individual fulfillment. Imagine how this agreement develops. Consider what happens when she does not apply for the job promotion because of how it will make her husband feel. Later she resents him for it.
We sabotage each other’s ability to explore enriching options and reach our true potential when we sign on to silent agreements that neglect the desire for creative freedom. Sometimes we give up our joy too easily and may forget why our partner was interested in us in the first place. How we sustain the positive vibrational level in our marriages while supporting ourselves and our mates to pursue our talents involves creative solutions that life partners must negotiate over time. Finding the right balance together between shared traditional roles and creative individual expression is important to our wellbeing.
Do you believe that silent agreements go hand in hand with a lack of communication between couples?
Yes, absolutely. Communication is often undermined in relationships by counterproductive and contradictory actions that grow out of silent agreements. Remember silent agreements are those unspoken “rules” of our relationships that grow from the topics we don’t talk about—the needs, wishes and expectations that 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.
Silent agreements often revolve around those issues that we do not recognize or are too uncomfortable to acknowledge and “put on the table” to openly discuss. Sometimes we remain silent to protect ourselves from exposing our insecurities or fears. We convince ourselves that it’s safer to avoid bringing up sensitive issues in order to keep the peace. So we simply go on as if we have already communicated. Meanwhile in fact our relationships continue to be affected by this silence. After all, there are some things just not worth talking about, right?
Are these silent agreements ever catalysts for bigger problems within a relationship?
Yes, silent agreements can serve as catalysts for problems within a relationship. Because many silent agreements can be completely out of line, and given their sometimes clandestine nature, silent agreements are sometimes problematic for our relationships. We convince ourselves that it is safer to avoid bring up sensitive issues in order to keep the peace. With the litany of unspoken expectations couples often have with one another on any front such as managing money, commitment, intimacy, kids, health issues and jobs and careers 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.
Why do you believe it is so important for couples to acknowledge the silent agreements that exist between themselves?
We have the freedom to respond knowingly when we become aware of the unspoken silent agreement we carry between our self and our partner. Once we begin to understand them we can bring them out of the shadows. At that point we are in a better position to decide what to do – perhaps seek to eliminate them, change them or keep them.
Once we become more aware of our silent agreements we can identify and make choices about the ones that are prohibiting us from realizing our relationship potential.
Thank you again, Dr. Anderson, for taking the time to talk with me. I can now see the importance that silent agreements play in a relationship. I look forward to reading your upcoming book.
*For more information on “silent agreements” and Dr. Anderson’s upcoming book, check out the website www.SilentAgreements.com