Were you raised in a family with silent agreements?
Were there topics you knew you could not discuss with your parental impactors?
Did big fights or upsetting events happen only for everyone to wake up the following day and pretend they didn’t?
Or do you have unexpressed expectations for your partner, family, or friends and feel disappointed when they fail to meet them?
Silent agreements or expectations are often dysfunctional, which is why, in this episode, I am breaking down the dangers of this behavior and where it comes from. I am also giving you questions to understand where you have silent agreements in your life so you can move to expressed or clean agreements.
Prefer the audio? Listen here.
What Are Silent Agreements?
Silent agreements are the unspoken agreements and assumed rules of engagement in our relationships. A silent agreement is usually one you have not vocally agreed to or verbally expressed.
Many of my therapy clients came from families with unacknowledged disordered boundaries or addiction issues. These families did not have conversations about fights or otherwise ‘messy’ situations.
There are so many ways in which this behavior is bad for us, especially as kids.
Think about it: maybe you hear fighting, something breaking, or someone falling down drunk, and the next morning, everyone acts like things are fine. No one acknowledges the reality of the situation.
What you learn is, “We do not talk about these things.”
This is damaging because it isn’t like you don’t remember what happened. You still had those experiences. Silent agreements teach us to deny how we feel or what we think. We learn to hide our heads in the sand, to a degree.
If you struggle with silent agreements now, it probably means you witnessed or experienced this dysfunctional behavior as a pattern growing up.
Where Do Silent Agreements Come From?
As you can guess, silent agreements largely come from our family of origin.
In my family of origin, we had a silent agreement to avoid talking about anything “too messy,” and no one was allowed to express anger. I was too afraid to ask questions about any upsetting situations I witnessed or experienced.
There are certain cultural aspects of silent agreements as well. Some cultures are more open to talking than others. In North America, and in a more Waspy culture (which is where I am from), many things are considered in bad taste to talk about – both in public and in private.
In the same way, we have downloaded blueprints around how we relate to boundaries, finances, love, etc., we have a downloaded blueprint around silent agreements.
To change this learned behavior, we need to develop a deeper self-understanding of where it originated from. There are questions in the guide to help you begin to identify where you learned silent agreements.
Additionally, you may find yourself in silent agreements if you are an empath or highly sensitive person (HSP) because you are naturally attuned to what other people want. When you are hyper-sensitive to how others feel, it can be easy to self-abandon.
In this situation, it is especially important to get clear on where you might be participating in silent agreements because they are rarely in your best interest.
What Are Silent Expectations and How Do They Differ From Silent Agreements?
Let’s take a moment to touch on the differences between silent expectations and agreements.
Silent expectations typically involve one person being unaware of another person’s unexpressed desire. With silent agreements, all the players are in some way participating and conforming to an established norm.
Here’s an example of a silent expectation:
You come home from a long day of work and see a sinkful of dishes, which sets you off. Normally, this does not bother you, but because you are exhausted, it does.
Rather than telling your partner, “Hey babe, I’ve had a really long day. Can you please do the dishes?”, you assume the worst and are annoyed they didn’t just do them.
You might feel frustrated and think your partner isn’t holding up their end of the bargain, but unless there is an explicit agreement for your partner to handle the dishes (while you do something else), this is an unexpressed expectation.
Unexpressed expectations set everyone up to fail. They set you up for disappointment and set your partner up to feel bad about something they had no knowledge of.
The Danger of Silent Agreements
Silent agreements and expectations often create disordered emotional boundaries. They are barriers to effective communication and talking true.
Instead of having difficult conversations, silent agreements lead us to make assumptions about other people or anticipate their reactions.
Let’s take a closer look at why some of us may participate in silent agreements.
What is the Secondary Gain of A Silent Agreement?
Silent agreements spare everyone from having a hard conversation. This is a short-term plan and short-term gain because it creates long-term dysfunction, miscommunication, frustration, and hurt feelings.
Life and healthy relationships are a long game. Short-term fixes do not ultimately work.
Instead, we need to operate from, how do I want to interact with people on a daily basis?
To help, I am giving you ways you can start to identify the silent agreements in your life. Because you can either talk it out, or you will act it out.
With only those two choices, avoiding hard conversations does not make sense because it often results in covert or passive-aggressive communication, where the probability of being misunderstood is high.
Moving Toward Clean and Expressed Agreements
Having clean agreements means you are not making assumptions. It means you are having the hard conversations.
Yes, it makes you vulnerable, but having expressed agreements increases the likelihood of being authentically seen and known, which also makes us happier and healthier.
The good news is you can learn to do this. The first step is raising your awareness about where you might have silent agreements.
Inside the guide, which you can download here, you will find a few questions you can ask yourself to develop this self-awareness.
I encourage you to answer these questions because silent agreements are personal to you. While many families interact this way, the impact and what you learned are unique to you.
My Journey to Having Expressed Agreements + Expectations
My family of origin had a decent amount of silent agreements, especially around painful or messy conversations. In their teen years, my older sisters sometimes acted out. One time, one of my sisters ran away. While I wanted to ask my parents questions to make sure she was OK, I couldn’t which left me to imagine the worst until she came home.
I learned silent agreements were a way to deal with unpleasant topics or things I did not know how to handle. I had to unlearn all of this in therapy.
The whole way I related to my first few long-term relationships was through silent agreements and unexpressed expectations. This left me in a position of not getting my needs met, being upset, and feeling unimportant.
I remember my college boyfriend saying, “Ter, it’s unfair of you to expect me to read your mind. I don’t know what’s going on if you do not tell me.”
At the time, I remember thinking, well, you should. It took years of therapy for me to understand where I was doing this, why, and how to say, “Hey, let’s talk about this.”
By the time I got into a relationship with my husband, Vic, I was finally able to have hard conversations, express my needs, and get those needs met.
Instead of silent agreements and being internally pissed off about stuff, I was able to have clean and expressed agreements.
Once you identify where you are not expressing your needs and wants, you can figure out the right scripts to verbalize your preferences, limits, and deal breakers.
Here’s the thing: the amount of anger and frustration caused by unexpressed agreements negatively impacts the quality of your life. With a couple of simple changes, you can have a simple, calm, and open conversation where you can actively listen to the other person.
Simple does not always mean easy, but you can do it. I invite you to start with the questions and silent agreement blueprint in the guide.
I am curious to know your two cents on silent versus expressed or clean agreements. Drop me a comment below or tag me on Instagram (@terricole) and let me know your thoughts.
I hope this added value to your life and as always, take care of you.