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Owning Your Hidden Agendas

5 steps to move towards more honest communication.



RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

When intimate partners talk to each other, they most often express only part of their thinking or feeling. They carefully withhold anything that might interfere with what they want at the time.


There are legitimate reasons why people choose what to say and what to keep hidden in any interaction. Social strategy is an essential part of all communication, and emotional intelligence is highly regarded as a social skill. And, there are times when total honesty is not appropriate if that information has no benefit to the other person and causes unnecessary distress.


Yet, most intimate partners do know when their partners are withholding. They pick up incongruencies between words and non-verbal behaviors that create mistrust and a need for clarity. When they become evident, they are often seen as the real message, invalidating the legitimacy of what was said aloud. Over time, the self-serving hidden agenda is the only one believed, even when it is only part of the total communication.


There are many reasons that intimate partners still resist being upfront about their hidden agendas. What if their partners react negatively and are less likely to cooperate with the goal of the interaction? Or perhaps they will think less of them when they find out the part of the message that exposes self-serving behavior? Maybe they are uncomfortable expressing what they really feel or want for fear of being less valuable or too vulnerable?


When I describe this common pattern to couples, many readily agree that they continually fight these double messages and understand why they have come to distrust each other’s communications. Most are openly relieved to have the process revealed. They want to understand why they behave that way and want to regain trust in each other. Fully realizing that they may not like what they hear, they realize that, in most cases, they knew it anyway and are relieved to have everything out on the table.


Within a short time of simply sharing hidden agendas, the couple eventually trusts each other more. Because they no longer feel gas-lighted, they can talk about why and when they held back and replace fantasy fear with reality. For better or worse, they know each other more deeply.


This process is not for the weak of heart or those who would rather not know the full truth. To determine if you are a couple who would benefit from this way of interacting, read the following examples and decide together if you would like to try to follow suit.


Now I finally understand. You tell me out loud that you want to be fair, and I believe you want to be, but my gut always knows that you want your way and won’t give up until I give in. I really would be more okay if you just admitted that upfront. Then I would give you what you want without you having to manipulate me, or tell you that I can’t, or what I can give instead. It would work out better for both of us to know what we’re doing and to be on the same team, and I wouldn’t feel so confused and crazy.

You always say that you don’t have any intention to hurt me, but then you say things that hit below the belt. If I knew in advance that you were that hurt and angry and wanted to get back at me, I’d be much better able to understand why you seem to be attacking me so unfairly. Maybe you don’t realize how hurtful you come across, but I just shut down and give up when you talk to me that way. I know what’s going on, but you won’t admit it. That makes things much worse.

You tell me all the time that you want to be a team and be equals in making decisions, but that’s not what happens. When I try to contribute, you keep challenging my ideas and invalidating my reasons. I feel like I’m fighting for my right to say what I want and that you’re going to push until you have total control. I don’t even think you realize it, but if you’d recognize what you do, I’d already feel hope that we could work together someday. At least I wouldn’t feel so confused if I knew why you need to be in control.

I think you believe that you’re always wanting me to be happy and maybe can’t see yourself ever being selfish, but somehow we end up doing it your way in the end. If you’d recognize that you want things to turn out the way you want them to, we could talk about fairness. But when you try to tell me that you’re there for me and then push for what you want until I give in, I could hear you better. Maybe I’d even give it to you upfront and at least get credit for being generous when I give it to you. Maybe you’re just afraid you won’t get it if you’re honest?

I think you mean to be fair and for us to both get what we want, so I give in to your needs first, thinking that you will automatically then allow for mine. But, when I do that, somehow, we don’t get around to mine. I feel like you manipulate me into thinking that you will be fairer than you turn out to be because you keep assuring me that you are, but it’s not what happens. It always feels like it’s me who has to give in for us to get along. If your agenda is really to win, but you can’t accept that, tell me. Then I could handle what I want upfront and trust you.

What is in common with all of these responses is the conflict every partner feels when they know something is not kosher in the other partner’s seemingly altruistic offering, yet told that their thoughts and feelings are not valid. If the underlying self-serving motives are not revealed upfront, the more selfless or caring motives are no longer believable, even when they are legitimate.


Yet, the combination of self-serving and other-serving motives exists in all verbal exchanges between intimate partners. When either feels they have to hide the more self-serving parts of their desires, they can only resort to strategy or manipulation in their attempts to appear more diplomatic than they feel inside.


The Five Steps to Communication Congruency


One – Recognize that it is human to have both partner-serving and self-serving motives in most all communication.

Two – Recognize both of those in your communications with your partner and be honest about what and why you hold back those thoughts and feelings.

Three – Tell your partner your self-serving motivations upfront before you tell him or her the partner-serving part of your communication.

Four – Ask your partner if he or she feels less crazy and more trusting of you when you do that, even if that truth is hard to hear.

Five – Agree together on what is okay to withhold and what is not. Sometimes, once a partner understands the other’s reason for withholding, they can actually be supportive that it is better for the relationship in some cases.

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