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 sometimes unknowable) 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 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 always to 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.

We believe that 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 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”? In our experience, 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 with us, we will ask the other, “I am wanting to share about ____ right now or as soon as 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, and other means to process feelings if the other person is not a YES now… 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 dysregulating for us to hold space, reflecting that is helpful 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 when it arises. If there is a need to revise or refine the agreement, a separate request to schedule time for that is more optimal in our experience than attempting any refinements when one or both parties are stressed and unresourced.

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 feel good receiving (but not everyone!)

What is it for you that helps you feel recognized and respected for the emotional labor you bring to 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 that 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 for us to do for another being, without needing reciprocation, we benefit from knowing and answering 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 for 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 picking up the package, right? The “give to get” is contained in the experience for both! Sweet!

Useful Questions

  • If we had an ongoing agreement that was flexible and achievable, how might that support our mutual well-being… rather than feeling disappointment and resentment that our expectations were not 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

Contributors: @Rick

We invite you to share your experiences and wisdom:

  • Life examples where this concept has played a role
  • Other useful questions
  • Links to audios, videos, books, and courses that add to our shared understanding of this concept
  • Memes, quotes, and inspiring images

I worked for ten years with mentally handicapped adults. I was the ‘one to one’ worker for nine years with a young adult male with autism. He was in his twenties but had the mental capacity of perhaps a four year old. He could become quite violent and he was a big guy at around 240 lbs., so I had my hands full…(lots of stories I could tell!!)

Agreement Routine

One of the routines I developed early on was an ‘agreement’ routine. This would take place usually in my vehicle prior to entering a store or recreational facility.
I would outline what we would be doing and what would be expected of him, etc.
Then I would ask:
1)Did you hear me?
2)Did you understand me?
3)Do you agree with me?
4)And you’re going to do what I’ve asked?

The order of the questions was important because they each asked for significantly different types of information…each question built on the preceding one. For example there was no point asking if he agreed with me if he hadn’t both heard what I had said and understood what I had said. And it was important to get a ‘Yes’ to each question before moving on to the next. Now, I can’t say for sure how much public mayhem this actually averted but I do believe it had a positive affect on his behaviour most of the time.


Wow. That feels really useful with neurodiverse people and children, like, you know, everyone I know including the weirdo in the mirror!


I hear you!!!.. :slight_smile:


Added examples and questions. This one really gets me considering how often expectations have driven my work and relationships. Ouch.


Yeah…this is an ongoing thing for me…‘ouch’ for sure.