Throughout my growing years as an only child, my parents rarely discussed anything of importance openly. We are talking here about people regularly choosing to keep secrets, and to not address and resolve problems in an open and constructive manner. I will always believe that this problematic fact of my upbringing was a driving force in my choosing a career as a psychotherapist. That way, I could help people learn amongst other things to do the opposite of what I was brought up with, i.e., to openly, honestly, and constructively communicate with each other, rather than keep secrets, argue constantly, and deny–or at least downplay–the existence of significant psychological problems occurring.
In many long-term romantic and family relationships, secrets can be kept for what can be many years, if not decades. In this article though, my focus will not be on secrets reflecting proverbial “skeletons in the closet,” e.g., someone with past or present unacknowledged legal problems, sexual identity issues, or non-acknowledged, non-contacted abandoned children. Instead, the focus will be on psychological issues or problems which exist in a relationship but are either not directly acknowledged or significantly downplayed, resulting in the lack of addressing much less resolving these issues or problems. In these situations then, the relationship itself can remain intact indefinitely, no matter how much dysfunction is inherent along the way. Or to put this slightly differently, a relationship can to an observer appear to be rife with obvious or subtle psychological problems, yet the TRUTH (about the existence of these problems) can, once again, be denied or significantly downplayed by its members.
Unspoken Pacts: Definition
In order to give you a clearer feel for the issue of denied or downplayed truths about major problems in a partner or family relationship, I present the term “unspoken pacts.” This term was well captured in a quote from well-known Scottish psychiatrist and prolific author R.D. Laing: “I have never come across a family that does not draw a line somewhere as to what may be put into words, and what words it may be put into….The (unspoken) rule works best when family members are not aware it exists at all, and simply respect it automatically.”
In defining an “unspoken pact,” let’s start with defining a SPOKEN pact. A spoken pact is simply an agreement or pact between two or more people in some type of relationship which is stated explicitly and directly in words. For example, on a relatively surface level, two people out hiking together in the woods can make a direct pact that if either one of them gets dehydrated, the bulk of their available water goes to the afflicted person. On a deeper level, two parents can create spoken pacts about preferred strategies for disciplining their kids.
UNspoken pacts also involve pacts or agreements–but they are not spoken directly or explicitly in words. As just done in the previous paragraph, let me distinguish for unspoken pacts between a surface level one and a deeper level one.
On the surface level, I am going to tell you my two favorite examples of unspoken pacts. Example number one: a man and a woman get in a car. Except for some extenuating circumstance like an injury, sleepiness, or intoxication, who almost always drives? Example number two: a couple or family sits down at the dinner table for a meal. Except maybe if there is a restless or rebellious child present, who ever changes their normal seating position? The answers I have gotten I’ll bet 90% of the time are: the man, and no one. Kind of fascinating, at least to me anyway, considering the fact that almost never do a man and woman say to each other before getting into a car “ok, who drives?” And very rarely do any family members about to sit down and eat a meal together announce “ok, no one is allowed to change seats at the table tonight!” But unspoken pacts these are nonetheless–and apparently firm ones to boot!
Deeper-Level Unspoken Pacts
Now let’s look at unspoken pacts that can have significant psychological and emotional implications for a relationship containing one or more of these pacts. The key to understanding deeper-level unspoken pacts is to first understand that they reflect truths about major psychological problems or issues which, as noted previously, are either denied or significantly downplayed. As noted above, these truths can remain unspoken–and therefore unaddressed and unresolved–indefinitely. In the process, what typically happens is that one member of the relationship is seen if not defined as “the problem,” or at least “having the problem.” In contrast, the other member(s) of the relationship are not defined as (having) the problem. This way, the unspoken pact makes it look like the truth here is that there is only one member of the couple or family with a big psychological problem–and no one else. A “truth” which may though upon further reflection and investigation, especially in a psychotherapist’s office, turn out to be an UNtruth!
Let me give you an example of a problematic deeper-level unspoken pact. A patient comes to see me to be treated for a severe eating disorder (I.e., a mix of bulimia and anorexia). No question whatsoever the patient needs professional help, in the form of a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and support group. However: as I gather more information about the patient’s family of origin and current long-term romantic relationship, it becomes quite clear to me that several other parties to the case have major psychological problems themselves. For example, I discover that the patient’s mother has a bad case of depression, her father is an active alcoholic, the parents’ marriage is turmoil-ridden, and her significant other has a major gambling problem. Yet only one of those three individuals has sought professional help–and only briefly–and two of them not at all. And then if you ask all three who is or has “the problem,” the answer is virtually guaranteed to be “well, obviously it’s ____ (the person with the eating disorder)”!
So what’s going on here? Why is it only the person with the eating disorder being defined as the problem? That’s because an unspoken pact is in place across the four family members. The pact basically says “we–very much including the person with the eating disorder–agree to a pact that defines the main problem if not the only problem here as the person with the eating disorder!” And how do the non-problem-defined members of the family essentially “get away” with keeping this pact in place? Likely in two ways: one, the “identified patient” (as we in the mental health field like to use this term) typically has a more obvious and severe problem than the other three individuals. And second, the “identified patient” (IP) is likely to be psychologically suffering enough, not to mention passive enough in the relationship system, to have a great deal of difficulty ever rising up to challenge the unspoken pact. More subtly, and to ironically stretch the term “nobility,” the IP subconsciously agrees to remain the primary focus of psychological disturbance so as to “protect” the other members of the relationship from facing their own significant problems. Hence the “truth” that the IP is/has the main if not only problem can remain firmly in place; while the REAL truth–about other peoples’ significantly problems being present as well–is left communicationally untouched.
In the upcoming Part Two on the subject, I will present ideas and strategies for attempting to address and resolve the types of psychologically harmful, deeper-level unspoken pacts presented above. As you will see, the key variable underscored–especially for the IP–is COURAGE!