What are Silent Agreements? (And Why They're So Toxic for Your Relationship)

silent agreements

You’ve been dating this guy for almost a year, and even though it’s going pretty great (you both love early-morning hikes and bingeing rom-coms on Netflix), there’s one thing that kind of bugs you. Whenever you go out to dinner, he never reaches for the check. While you don’t exactly mind paying the tab (you can afford it—you have a great job and your salary is higher than his), it’s a little weird that he never even offers to cover his own pad thai. Are you being petty? Nope. You, my friend, are participating in a silent agreement.

What are silent agreements? 

Silent agreements are the implicit rules in your relationship that pop up as a result of unspoken expectations. They could sound something like “My partner isn’t used to picking up after himself, so I end up doing it for him” or “I cook and she normally washes the dishes.” In theory, neither of these things are such a big deal, but if you’ve never talked about them and just assumed that’s what the other person wants so you go along with it, then you have a silent agreement—and it could potentially erode the communication in your relationship. 

Why are they so toxic?

When neither person is willing and able to address the issues that bother them, silent agreements can breed resentment and unhappiness—even in an otherwise amazing relationship. Mismatched expectations can make one person feel hurt and misunderstood, while the other wonders what they could possibly be doing wrong. A little honesty about how you feel when you constantly end up paying for dinner might be exactly what your relationship needs. It might be tough to discover that you two have been operating in separate spheres, but it can lead to a much-needed relationship reset.

How do you overcome silent agreements? 

We turned to the new book Silent Agreements: How to Free Your Relationships of Unspoken Expectations by clinical psychologists Linda D. Anderson, Ph.D., Sonia R. Banks, Ph.D., and Michele L. Owens, Ph.D., for help. First, ask yourself what you get out of your silent agreement, if anything. (Does picking up the check make you feel like you have more control in the relationship?) Next, create an atmosphere where both you and your partner feel safe to discuss your concerns without criticism or judgment. Even better, put pen to paper. The psychologists recommend “charting your matches and mismatches to help you understand where you and your partner are out of alignment and illuminate what you’ve been silently agreeing to.” Exploring your silent agreements will help close the communication gap and get you both on the same page again. Now go ahead, let him pay for his own damn dinner.

What Is Gatekeeping in Relationships and Is It Secretly Eating Away at Your Partnership?