Spoken Agreements and Silent Arrangements
Debra L. Kaplan
M.A., CSAT-3, EMDR-II
During a particularly tense session of couple's therapy, Kelly turned to Robert, her partner of eight years, and said, "You agreed that you would work at paying down your debt, but I don't see you doing that!" Robert, clearly offended, sprang forth with anger: "What right do you have to accuse me when I work hard everyday, just as hard as you do?" Kelly was about to go for his therapeutic jugular when I interrupted her.
"Kelly, when you met Robert, what information did you have about his financial situation, and what information did you choose to ignore?" I understood the situation, as this was a topic often addressed in couple's therapy.
When they met and started dating, Robert was dealing with a recent bankruptcy, and his financial situation was fragile. As Kelly described it, "Robert was reeling from a business deal gone awry, and he was doing the best he could to get back on his feet." Robert promised Kelly that, due to his business acumen, his situation would be short-lived. He maintained that he would bounce back from his mounting debts.
Although Robert's promise of financial rebound didn't materialize, the two moved in together early in their relationship. Before long, they started arguing about finances. Every few months, they came to resolve their issues in therapy - only to back away from the most obvious of issues between them. Kelly had agreed to move in with Robert based on what she knew, and she had chosen to avoid asking questions that would have helped her make a healthier decision.
This relationship, and many others like it, operates on two levels of understanding: The first level speaks to agreements based on information we know, and the second level speaks to the silent arrangements we make based on information we ignore.
Kelly knew about Robert's financial situation but chose to ignore the fact that he was struggling to make ends meet. Kelly also chose to ignore the fact that, rather than paying off his debts, Robert continued spending his money and building financial stress.
How many times do we venture forth in romantic relationships, despite our "our gut instinct" telling us that it isn't right? How many relationships begin with the ominous belief that "I don't care for her/his friends, but once we're together, s/he will change?" If we remain committed to blind hope or desire, we ensure relational demise.
We treat our relationships with ourselves as less important than relationships with others. We allow our hopes and/or desires to push us forward, "eyes wide shut." We risk losing our true selves as well as our potential for enduring positive change.
We often know more than we think we do when we make decisions regarding relationships and life choices. Because we cannot come to grips with the outcome, we often tune out important knowledge in lieu of walking away or sticking to what we know is right. At times, the very information we need in order to have a solid relationship is the very information that we neglect, even when it is in plain sight.
In the case of Kelly and Robert, his bankruptcy resulted from a less-than-stellar work ethic and poor choices. This did not change when he moved into Kelly's house, but she chose to ignore this vital information. Her need to have Robert move in was stronger than her need to ask for more information. Had she asked questions, Kelly may not have moved forward in the relationship. While that would have been painful for her, it would have been less painful than eight years of emotional turmoil, financial ups and downs, and unresolved relationship cycles.
The act of recovery means living life on life's terms and, at times, this means disappointing ourselves and/or another. Recovery demands that we be willing to disappoint ourselves and others in order to live healthy, fulfilled lives. Meeting the demands of life on life's terms is a formidable challenge for many of us. More difficult yet is the challenge to set and meet our own demands while being honest with ourselves. This rigorous honesty is no less necessary in a relationship. We must ask the tough questions and act upon reality as it is, rather than how we wish it to be.