Agreements help us navigate relationships by making assumptions and expectations conscious for discussion, refinement, and mutual consent. Agreements ideally are achievable, reasonable, serve the values of all parties, and allow for exit, renegotiation, and repair where possible.

  • People who share agreements are less likely to resent those who don't meet their unexpressed (and often unrealistic) expectations.

From Expectations to Agreements

We expect things to happen a certain way. If the front door was always left unlocked and we found it locked and had no key, who wouldn't emotionally react?

Indeed, the expression "take for granted" is all about expectations. A person is never angry… except that one time… and everyone who expected them to always be kind and go along is shocked when they are angry! Same with the person who always does the dishes, takes out the trash, and works weekends to finish the project.

For efficiency, the human brain creates expectations. They are shortcuts.

It's a problem, though, if we want to thrive. People who are taken for granted often come to resent those situations long-term. If we expect certain behavior and don't get it, it can feel like a betrayal (even when it isn't).

It's why for thriving, agreements are vastly superior to relying on expectations… especially unspoken ones.

An agreement can outline:

  • Who will do what and when?
  • What will we strive not to do?
  • How do we communicate when we can't fulfill our part?
  • How do we change the agreement?
  • Is there anything we want specifically or would enjoy getting as we fulfill the agreement?

An Agreement for Emotional Processing

Stress is part of life. Having people who can listen and help us process stresses can lead to less distress and more thriving. Yay!

But what if someone expects us to "always be there to listen to what's bothering us"? That expectation can be intensely stressful on the person expected to always be there.

Let's take each of the questions and see how an agreement around emotional processing might work:

Who will do what and when?

When one of us is stressed and wants to process, we will ask the other, "I am wanting to share about (this specific issue) right now or as soon as it can work for you. Would now be a good time for that? It feels like I'd want 20 minutes."

What will we strive not to do?

We will strive not to take it personally if the other person is not resourced or available to do processing with us.

We will strive to have other options as well, including other people, professionals, and tools like EFT Tapping, journaling, movements, meditation, and other means to process feelings if the other person is not a YES right this minute… or chooses not to process certain topics with us.

We will strive not to diminish the validity of the other person's true feelings about a situation, knowing that how a life situation is felt in another person's body-mind is unique and a result of their past conditioning, traumas, their current level of rest and resource, and what matters to them.

And we will strive to not say YES except when it is indeed a YES (so that the other person doesn't have to doubt whether we're actually wanting to be holding space for them).

How do we communicate when we can't fulfill our part?

Kindness matters. We will acknowledge the request and be clear that either we cannot right now — and give an idea of when might work — or honor that such processing isn't likely to be a YES for us near term (or ever).

If the situation is too disregulating for us to hold space, acknowledging that is respectful so our partner can choose other resources.

How do we change the agreement?

Since the agreement allows a person to say "no" or "not now," we accept that each time it arises. If there is a need to revise or refine the agreement, a separate request to schedule time for that is more optimal than attempting any refinements when one or both parties are stressed and under resourced.

Is there anything we want specifically, or would enjoy getting, as we fulfill the agreement?

We can learn a lot about our "processing buddies" by asking them what helps them feel good about being there for us. Perhaps it is making them a meal every once and a while, or a written note, or…?

When we show up for another person and hold space, we are providing emotional labor. It's certainly true that moving a heavy sofa by ourselves is a LOT harder than if someone else helps with the lifting (labor). So, too, for emotional lifting.

Offering recognition and words of appreciation — even if we don't necessarily feel much better — is something many people feel good about receiving (but not everyone!)

What is it for you that helps you feel recognized and respected for the emotional labor you do for those you care about?

Moving Beyond Obligation and Give to Get

Agreements help us move beyond the unspoken expectations that someone will be obligated to reciprocate or "do us a favor in the future." Well-executed agreements also make it explicit when there is a Give to Get — an exchange of value that is core to the agreement.

Why does this matter?

Imagine that a friend hears that you need someone to pick up a package from across town. They live nearby, and they offer — without you asking — to pick it up for you since they will be going home for lunch anyway.

Nice, right? Helpful! Unless…

What if this friend has an unspoken expectation that if they need help with an errand, or to be loaned money, or to be picked up at the airport at 3 am, YOU are now obligated since they were so nice to help you out?

Eeeek! For freedom-loving beings, that kind of situation is like creating an IOU for who-knows-what who-knows-when.

Because of the risk of unspoken obligation, many people will say NO to the kindness… because it wouldn't be a kindness if it comes with a not-agreed-to obligation!

Expectations are not kind. Indeed, they are akin to a "favor" owed to a mafia boss. And yet… parents often subconsciously obligate their kids. Employers and employees obligate each other. Lovers, too. Friends… too often.

How do we move beyond obligations into conscious agreements?

First, we talk about expectations and unspoken obligations! Sure, it's uncomfortable. But when we "own" that no one really "owes" us anything, not if they are free and we want them to be, then we are left with the sweet essence of being kind and supportive of one another.

If we cannot say NO, then we are being forced.

If we can say NO, and the other person thanks us for our clarity, then WOW. We can be thriving together. We can seek out those with both a generous YES and a clear and kind NO. We can develop those real skills in ourselves, too.

One question we can start asking when someone is going to do us a kindness is, "What makes this a YES for you?" We believe that when something is a YES, without needing reciprocation, the relationship benefits from knowing the answer to that question:

"It matters because I enjoy being useful. I appreciate it when other people save me time, energy, and fuel, and this is a chance to pay forward to those who have done this for me in the past. And, you matter to me, and I feel replenished when I get the chance to do something helpful for people who matter to me."

If someone said those things, we could trust and say YES to them picking up the package, right? The "give to get" is contained in the experience for both! Sweet!

Useful Questions

  • How might an agreement that was flexible and achievable support our mutual well-being?
  • What feelings of disappointment and resentment in me are because I have expectations that are not being met?
  • Do we have an agreement… or unspoken expectations and perhaps obligations?
  • If there is a give-to-get, has everyone understood and agreed to it?
  • Is our agreement humane (honoring that we're humans and not always resourced or skilled in every moment)?


Related Concepts

Co-Creating, Allowing, Adapting, Better Boundaries, Magical Misconceptions, Trauma-Informed


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