The Hidden Agenda In Relationships
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
By: Reuben E. Gross, PhD, ABPP, LMFT

All relationships have hidden agendas or unexpressed expectations. This axiom includes marital, familial, social, educational, business, political and virtually every other type of relationship. In a manual on marital therapy, Dr. Peter Martin presents a schematic model of the marriage contract. His analysis should be noted by married as well as non-married couples to help them understand the underlying nature of their relationships. Martin postulates three dimensions to the marital contract:

1. Conscious and Verbalized Expectations.

In this category, each partner tells the other, in advance, exactly what he/she expects in the marriage. Conscious and verbalized expectations may include such important items as living location, number of children, handling of finances, religious practices, domestic responsibilities of each spouse, obligations to in-laws, free time or style of life for each spouse as it will be affected by career, social, cultural or political interests. However, in some cases, some of the above are not discussed in advanced and may therefore fall into category 2 or even 3. All of the examples cited above and in the remainder of this article are my own and are based on my understanding of Dr. Martin's three categories.

2. Conscious But Not Verbalized Expectations.

In this area, we find numerous demands or requirements that the individuals did not mention to each other. Their failure to discuss their requirements may be due to their failure to realize that these needs or wishes should have been clarified in advance possibly because they were taken for granted by one or both of the parties. Examples of this category might include: I expect you to respect my opinion, be sensitive to my feelings, be there for me, and solve our problems lovingly with calm, rational discussions. Understandably, there is no perceived need to verbalize these take-for-granted expectations during the excitement of dating or the blissful romance of a courtship.

Sometimes, however, there is a deliberate failure to mention the expectation due to fear or embarrassment. In view of the changing style of marriage and newfound liberties among women, many might fear expressing their views to a prospective spouse whose traditional ideas may be incongruent with their ideas and therefore a reason for breaking off the relationship. A woman might truly believe that it is her future husband's responsibility to interrupt his education to put her through college, professional, or trade school rather than vice versa, but may not discuss her ideas with him instead , she goes along silently when he expresses his opposite expectations. Or, in the case of a two-career couple, a woman may fail to explore with her fiancé, in advance, her belief that it will be her right to stay late at the office, and that her future husband is the one who should leave his job early, or give up his special evening activity, come home right after work and take care of anticipated domestic chores.

In fact, in most young marriages today, the workload is divided very differently than it was in previous generations, and many of the above unexpressed expectations might even get a receptive hearing if discussed in advanced. But what about Conscious, But Not Verbalized Expectations that are unhealthy for relationships? What young woman will say to her fiancé: "If you expect to be #1 in my life, forget it. My mother (father, sister, best friend) will always come first!" One unhappy husband bitterly complained to me "My wife's priorities are as follows: the baby, her mother, her sister, her best friend, the dog, me."

Now, if we may change genders, how many young men are going to tell their fiancées "I expect you to play the traditional homemaking role of my mother even though you are working full time"? Or "I expect you to be available for me 24/7, but I want to hold onto my single friends and the style of life I've been leading all along, including the freedom to come and go as I please?" Or, " I expect you to love me, care for me, and treat me like a prince, but it doesn't matter how I treat you." Not that any man would risk verbalizing such expectations before marriage, but sadly, many married women complain that, when all is said and done, many of the above statements seem to reflect their husband's thinking.

Still other examples of Conscious But Not Verbalized Expectations may involve personality traits in one partner, for example, the need to control or dominate ("I want you to do everything I say. Is that expecting too much?"). At other times, selfishness is the problem. These traits may appear only dimly during courtship to the unsuspecting future spouse but emerge very clearly after marriage. In some cases, the victimized spouse will report that he/she was well aware of these negative traits—or selfish expectations—in their future partner, but closed her/his eyes hoping that the problem would work itself out after marriage.

As noted, many Conscious But Not Verbalized Expectations are normal and appropriate; others are not. Bringing them to the fore at the very beginning is the honest thing to do, and certainly the wisest, not only to create a healthy, long-term viable marriage now, but also to forestall unpleasant "surprises" later.

3. Needs or Wishes That Are Beyond Personal Awareness.

Not everybody who gets into a binding relationship is perfectly self-aware. Consequently, it may take a year or two and sometimes even five or ten years before an individual fully matures, develops his identity, and interacts with enough people, including one's spouse, to clearly perceive his/her emotional, psychological, social and other needs. As these needs emerge, new and surprising demands are made upon the unsuspecting partner. If this problem is left unaddressed, the couple may drift apart and eventually the relationship may dissolve. In a more insidious scenario, e.g., where one spouse lacks consideration for the other, the couple may find stability at a cost to the aggrieved party who suffers the insults or selfishness of his/her partner for years and years. However, the growing dissatisfaction of the aggrieved spouse eventually takes its toll, and one day, the stretched rubber band snaps, and the victimized partner asks for a divorce.

As life would have it in our society, people fall in love and get married in a blaze of romance and confidence. Unfortunately, not everyone knows who he/she is, or what he/she wants or needs in a relationship. People are even less aware of who they will be, or what they will want or need, five, ten or twenty years hence.

How Can These Problems Be Addressed?

Renegotiating A Relationship

The problem of Category Two, Unverbalized Expectations, can be mitigated through premarital workshops or private meetings with a marriage counselor. Short of these, other options would include courses in communication prior to marriage, or at any time afterwards, or at the very least reading articles and books on the essentials of communication. Following this, there should be a simple agreement to talk out in great detail each person's expectations in an atmosphere of mutual encouragement and frankness. If a special time is set aside for this on a regular, or at least on an ad hoc basis, a much better understanding of each other, and a better, richer, and stronger marital bond will ensue.

Unfortunately, Category Three, Lack of Self-Awareness, is more problematical. However, this potential source of problems can also be reduced. How? Premarital singles should be encouraged to learn more about themselves through a variety of educational and growth experiences. They should not shy away from frank discussions with close friends of both sexes, family members or with their partner. They might join groups that are led by psychologists, marriage counselors, or other facilitators with a view towards self-exploration and self-awareness. Reading articles, books, attending lectures, and plays, followed by discussions, and taking self-administered questionnaires are other avenues that lead to self-exploration and self-discovery.

The Need for Continuous Self-Revelation and Mutual Accommodation

For committed or married couples, constant discussion and mutual exploration of needs and frustrations is recommended. The marital contract must be renewed and renegotiated on a regular basis. It is wishful thinking to assume that an agreement contracted 20, 10 or even 5-years ago still holds, especially with such a vague contract as "to love and respect."

Even people who love each other, and have the best of intentions when they marry, do not always know how to translate that love into behavior since each person's needs for love, affection, and need-satisfaction in multiple areas is complex and differs from person to person. Consequently, each partner in a couple must frequently give feedback and clarify what he/she is looking for from their spouse…especially as they change over the years, and as family conditions change.

Hidden agendas do not remain dormant; they eventually emerge; and when they do, they cause surprises, and often problems, but they do not need to destroy a relationship. When they are addressed directly, reciprocal accommodation can take place. As long as there is mutual care and concern, loving members of a couple will find a way to freely express their needs to each other and make reasonable attempts to fulfill them. In most cases their efforts will be amply rewarded.

Author : Dr. Reuben E. Gross
Reuben E. Gross, PhD is dually licensed in NJ as a Marriage Counselor (LMFT) and a Psychologist. He has had a private practice in NJ and NYC for more than 35 years, specializing in marriage and premarital counseling. He is solution-oriented in his approach and takes an active role during sessions. His homework assignments include reading as well as interactive exercises for the couple. To learn more about Dr. Gross please visit his profile by clicking here.