The Hidden Cost of Silent Contracts

We enter into silent contracts every day.

When we cue up for a latte at the local coffee shop, we are agreeing not to cut in line, and not steal anything, for the privilege of procuring the baristas services and life-giving caffeine concoction. We don’t sign any pieces of paper but there is an implicit agreement – you do right by me, I’ll do right by you. You live up to your side of the bargain, I won’t chase you out of my coffee shop with a broom.

Most people refer to this as the social contract. We conduct ourselves with a certain amount of respect and we are thus afforded the same by other people. Mostly.

When these contracts are balanced and consider and respect the agency of others, they are an important tool for ‘doing your part’ and not being ‘the worst’.

But some silent contracts can be one-sided, and have hidden costs that could destroy your relationships.

One-Sided Contracts Explained

A one-sided contract is when someone decides they are going to do something for someone else and then feels as if they are owed something in return.

The recipient is never informed of the contract and just receives the unsolicited ‘help’. The recipient is never actually consulted on what they want, or what is good for them, they are just given something they did not ask for.

The giver, or the instigator of the one-sided contract, feels they are doing the recipient a favour and feels jilted when it is not received as such, or when appreciation is not apparent and reciprocation is not issued.

The conflict arises not because the giver wants to give, but that the giver is not actually consulting with the recipient about what they actually want and need.

It puts the receiver in an awkward position because they now have a debt that they did not ask for. This silent contract creates a barrier between the giver and the receiver because though the ‘help’ may be coming from the right place, it is not a gift – it comes with an unstated expectation of reciprocity.

Ethical Implications of ‘Helping’

A real world example is going into a vulnerable community and ‘helping’ by building a well. These kinds of projects often do more damage than good because the givers do not appreciate the immediate needs or concerns of the people in the community or how their systems work.

No one asked them to come.

Unfortunately, very often, groups who decide to do this kind of volunteer work don’t actually consult with the community they are ‘helping’ about what they actually want and need. They decide on their own what is good for the community.

It’s possible that the community does not have the resources to upkeep the well, or their current water source is actually a very important part of their social fibre and network. They could be burdened with the upkeep of the new well, hosting volunteers in their homes, using valuable resources feeding, bathing and housing the ‘helpers’ and see the deterioration of their social networks as they no longer travel to the local water source and meet with neighbouring community members.

One-Sided Relationships

Though nothing is ever written or signed, these silent contracts feel binding because of the good relationship that already exists between the two parties.

As a receiver, you feel icky about being manipulated into accepting something you never needed nor wanted. As a giver, you are frustrated that you were looking out for someone you cared about and they don’t appreciate it.

What happens as a result is a disconnect between the giver and the recipient – and often some pretty ugly endings.

I have seen these contracts manifest in intimate and professional relationships in a thousand different ways. Some can be much more nefarious and troubling than others.

For example, think of the woman whose date believes he ‘owes’ her something because he paid for dinner. He did something nice, and the uncomfortable fact remains that he feels he is owed some sort of reciprocation for his good deed.

Consent and Communicating Your Needs

No one wants favours, help, or opportunities that come at a cost that they have no way of consenting to or expecting.

But, it can also be easy to fall into patterns of not speaking our truth when we don’t want to seem ungrateful. We can feel guilted into a behaviour.

Maybe we trust and love this person, and we don’t want to disappoint them or discourage them from helping us out in the long term.

We all, givers and receivers, have a responsibility to respect each others’ agency and ability to create our own life. Even more so perhaps, we have a responsibility to communicate constantly, about what we need, want, feel, and when necessary, get it in writing.

The Power of Language

The term ‘one-sided contract’ was introduced to me by my lovely friend and colleague
Dr. Cathy Sevcik.

At the time I was dealing with the repercussions of engaging in a one-sided contract with one of my trainees. I felt angry and disappointed because I felt I had gone above and beyond for this person. I was flexible and helpful, and this trainee continued to abuse my good will.

Dr. Cathy was (and usually is) right. I had drawn up a one-sided contract. She expertly helped me navigate my emotional / communication breakdown and reflect on my expectations and my behaviour.

I never forgot that conversation.

Often, when we find a word or term to apply to a situation, experience or feeling, it is incredibly freeing and things start making a lot more sense. Being able to markup and parse out the world around us with language is one of the most important tools (in my opinion) to processing and reflecting on our experiences in order to grow.

Naturally, as soon as Dr. Cathy woke me to this term, I began to see instances of it everywhere. I couldn’t ignore the multitude of instances in my life and others’ where this concept was wreaking havoc.

I realized that when combined with other traits and behaviours, this kind of thinking can become devastatingly abusive.

How Not to Be The Worst

Even the most well-intentioned person, in the effort to do right by others, can do serious damage with a one-sided contract. Here are a few tips to avoid creating and falling victim to one-sided contracts, that could save your relationships, professional, intimate or otherwise:

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Speak your truth!
  2. Be honest with yourself when you are doing someone a ‘favour’. Are you looking for something in return?
  3. Ask yourself: Does an action that benefits you, potentially benefit someone else? Are you going to hold it over their head? Are you acting because of the benefit to you, but positioning it as a favour? Check your expectations.

Now that you have some language and some pointers on how to avoid this silent contract trap, I hope you can reflect on whether these kind of situations arise in your own life.

If this has ever happened to you, please leave a comment and tell me about it! I am always interested in my readers’ stories and how they lifehack their way through uncomfortable situations like this.

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