Relationship Bypassing

When we avoid accountability and responsibility, we become untrustworthy and bypass opportunities to be in relationship with each other — in both our personal and professional lives. In this article: 2 symptoms of, and 7 antidotes to, relationship bypassing.

Beth Sanders
12 min readMar 29, 2022

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After a few years of strained relationships and hurt feelings for myself and some people close to me, there was an invitation to me one day to connect and talk about our relationship. I made a request: “Let’s first talk about how we’ll talk to each other.” My request was ignored while we organized a date and location to meet, so I persisted with my request. Eventually, a clarification question came: “What do you mean, talk about how we’ll talk?”

The strain I experienced in our relationship revolved around my ability to trust them. When my marriage ended, my partner and I let people close to us know and asked for confidence while we made the arrangements we needed to exit our partnership with care. When we were settled (at least logistically) in our new lives, I started to let a wider circle of friends know about the end of my 21-year marriage. I found that some friends already knew; the people I trusted to keep our story in confidence had shared our story.

When I communicated to those close to me that I felt a bit bad about this breach of confidence (not a huge amount, but I wanted them to know), I received a way-out-of-proportion emotional blow-up. Following this, these same people kept a big secret from me, and when I communicated that the secret was hurtful, they handled my feedback by either pretending nothing happened or with another big emotional blast: “When you’re ready for effing decent relationships, give me call.”

Back to that clarification question when they reached out to connect — What do you mean, talk about how we’ll talk? My response was this: “Let’s make some agreements about what we can expect of each other about how we’ll speak and listen to each other and handle hot emotions.” Their response revealed the limits on how they imagined what our relationship could be: “A caring relationship doesn’t require agreements in place about how they converse.”

Connection involves responsibility

These dear people were looking for a connection with me, but they were not ready to do the necessary work to take responsibility — shared with me — for the quality of our relationship. They were not prepared to talk about the kind of relationship we’d like to have with each other, which could embody trust and care. We did not meet, did not talk about what we needed to talk about.

I imagine a series of concentric circles around me to describe the degrees of relationship I have with people. Closest in are the people who know the most about me, my feelings, dreams and desires and personal information. Each of these people hold different aspects of me and what they have in common is trustworthiness. They move in and out of my “inner circle” depending on the circumstances and their availability — physical or emotional. Without judgment, we talk to each other about what we can offer each other and what we can’t. I trust them, and they trust me.

The circle of relationships farthest away from me is where I find acquaintances, people I like but don’t know well or people I’ve grown away from. The trust I place in these people is much lower, either because I don’t know them well or they’ve proven untrustworthy.

I see these circles as a continuum of sorts. I trust and share the most with the people close in and trust and share the least with the people farther out. The “location” of people is not good or bad; it’s a means of discerning reasonable expectations of the people with whom I am in a relationship. The objective is not to move everyone to the center, rather have a range of fulfilling relationships. While I need people close in, people to trust the raw experiences of life with, I am also nourished by “lighter” relationships, both personal and professional. What remains constant is that the quality of connection we experience with each other depends on the responsibility we each assume for the quality of our relationship.

Agreements are shared understanding

Whether a relationship is close in or farther out, agreements about how we will relate to each other play a vital role in taking responsibility for our relationship. As I ponder my strained relationships, I ask three questions:

  1. How can having agreements help meet my unmet needs?
  2. How can having agreements help meet others’ unmet needs?
  3. What is scary about having a clear — and shared — understanding of how we’ll talk and relate to each other?

A shared understanding about how we’ll talk to each other, hear each other and handle hot emotions is the embodiment of care because we enable ourselves to meet the most basic needs — feeling heard and hearing another. This shared understanding embodies care, and so does the process of talking about how we’ll talk to each other. Everyone involved is sending the message: I want to make space to hear you and be heard. From this place, we can begin to be honest, build our trust muscles, and build our honesty muscles.

We may need clarity about who’s looking after what, in the kitchen or on a project we’re working on. We may need clarity about our travel plans or who will write the memo to the boss. Whatever we need, without trust and honesty, we don’t go far with other people. We just don’t.

Having a shared understanding about how we’ll talk and relate to each other is about being clear about what we each need in a relationship and what can be met and not met in that relationship. It’s about being honest with myself and others, which means being responsible and accountable to myself and others. This is scary.

Renegotiating accountability and responsibility

Our agreements are often unspoken, but they are always present, our shared understanding of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in our relationships. Whether we acknowledge them or not, there are rules we are expected to play by.

When something feels off in a relationship, I recognize that I need to learn new ways to navigate those rules or renegotiate those rules. “New navigation” means finding ways to live with those rules without talking about them with others. “Renegotiation” means I’m looking for something different, more satisfying in the relationship and requires others’ participation — or someone else is looking for something different, and I am asked to participate, to meet their needs if I can. Adjusting my navigation strategies can be effective at times but does not make our agreements explicit between us; renegotiation does.

When we renegotiate our agreements, we make our agreements explicit. We make ourselves accountable and responsible to each other for our behaviour — and we articulate and agree on how to do so. Further, accountability and responsibility allow us to deepen the quality of trust and commitment we have in our connections with others. We enter into a more profound realm of connection when we trust each other.

When we avoid accountability and responsibility, we become untrustworthy and we bypass opportunities to be in relationship with each other — in both our personal and professional lives.

When we avoid accountability and responsibility, we become untrustworthy and we bypass opportunities to be in relationship with each other — in both our personal and professional lives.

Relationship bypassing

It can be uncomfortable to be open to the influence of others compared to the stability we find in our firmly held beliefs. And it can be unnerving when others invite us to be open with them. We set up our emotional defences against what might happen, what we believe will happen. (Note: our comfort and discomfort are always about us, not what others are doing or saying.)

Below are two symptoms and seven antidotes to relationship bypassing.

SYMPTOM 1: Hidden agreements

Hidden agreements are those expectations that we bump into when others react negatively to our words or actions or when we react negatively to others’ words or actions. Hidden agreements also surface within us as the inner voice that provides instructions about what to do or not do. Hidden agreements are usually not open to question because there is an agreement not to talk about them. Unacknowledged, they are unchallenged, and they run the show.

SYMPTOM 2: Needs are unacknowledged and unmet

We enter into relationships with people for various purposes: to meet our needs for connection and belonging, or to work together to meet needs like food, housing, or to work together to improve our lives in our communities, with everything from dentistry, transportation systems, the movement of goods, teaching our kids, healthcare, etc. In the city making exchange, we each feel a need to contribute and receive what we can not provide for ourselves. This exchange is how we create cities that serve citizens well. We engage in relationship bypassing when we do not acknowledge our needs or the needs of others and let them continue to be unmet.

ANTIDOTE 1: Make and remake agreements

Just as contact between people is necessary for connection, and interaction and exchanging ideas and information between people are necessary for conversation, accountability and responsibility are necessary for relationships. Whether personal or professional, the deepest, most rewarding relationships are based on trust and honesty — qualities that are strengthened by accountability and responsibility.

Relationships are a deeper form of connection beyond mere contact or a conversation. They are the territory where we experience joy and delight as well as hardship and difficulties. Relationships are hard work because they require us to work through our expectations of each other. If the agreements between us don’t work or are not used, we lose connection, and connection is a necessary ingredient in relationships. The quality of our relationships impacts the quality of our agreements. And the quality of our agreements affects the quality of our relationships. Both are our creations to create and recreate as needed.

ANTIDOTE 2: Make agreements explict

Having explicit agreements, rather than unacknowledged agreements, is a commitment of care to the relationships within the group. This commitment is a choice each person makes to be 100% responsible for the quality of relationship and 100% accountable. In contrast, hidden agreements allow us to make others responsible and take the heat off ourselves.

Agreements are scary because they make the quality of our relationships visible. They invite us into the emotional heat of tough conversations about our unmet needs — and we like to avoid emotional heat. When relationships are strained, there are unacknowledged unmet needs, likely for everyone. Improvement is needed, but it’s never only the responsibility of others; I’m always involved.

Explicit agreements are scary because they ask me to be accountable and responsible for my emotions and behaviour. And, I may be more comfortable with hidden agreements, such as “we will not talk about emotions,” “no one questions the authority of ___[insert name here]______,” or “you will not rock the boat.”

ANTIDOTE 3: Welcome emotional discomfort

Being in relationship with self and others means we will experience emotional discomfort. It is hard work being in a relationship with other people, whether intimate partners, family members, friends, neighbours, or colleagues. If we avoid the work of asking to have our needs met, or accommodating the needs of others, we are bypassing opportunities for deeper relationships. One of the ways we do this is to distract ourselves from our feeling. What we think of as bad emotions, feeling sad, angry, frustrated, are signals that we desire something different in our lives, work, or relationships. Being in relationship with others means being in relationship with ourselves.

ANTIDOTE 4: Commit to speaking and hearing about unmet needs

Agreements are an expression of care because they create the conditions for a group to discuss unmet needs openly. They help us craft love and caring regard in our difference. It is safe to assume that everyone had unmet needs and a desire for connection. It is also safe to assume that not everyone is ready to commit to being responsible for the quality of their relationships and find the explicit agreements that would work for them.

(NOTE: This is not a commitment to meet others’ needs at the expense of your needs. It is a commitment to hear needs and meet those you can. In community, the collective can meet the needs of each when we care to hear and act.)

ANTIDOTE 5: Commit to be responsible for the quality of relationship

Agreements are a commitment to be responsible for the quality of our relationships. Whether a relationship is new or established, solid or shaky, a conversation about how we agree to speak and listen to each other can be helpful when connections are just being formed or need to be strengthened or repaired. The agreements we make with each other are an expression of care for each other because we make explicit our needs and how we’ll look after self and each other. To not have such a conversation is a means to ignore conflict and maintain power imbalances that serve some group members but not all.

The people I described above wanted connection but could not take responsibility for their contributions to the quality of our relationship. That’s not good or bad; it’s good discernment on their part to understand that the conversation I needed was not something they could do at that time. This, too, is a form of responsibility. If and when they are able, they’ll be back. In the meantime, our relationships will be as healthy as possible for all parties. The search for explicit agreements is a commitment to care, even when it is rough.

ANTIDOTE 6: Renegotiate relationships / shared agreements

Do not assume that agreements are fixed, never to be renegotiated. After a group has worked together for a while or a personal relationship enters new territory, it is a good practice to pause and check in on how the agreements are working. Are they being used? Are they unclear? Is more clarity needed? In what ways? Do we need a whole new agreement? Conversations about agreements create the conditions for a renewed understanding of accountability and responsibility.

ANTIDOTE 7: Build in connection and conversation

Relationships do not happen after connection and conversation; relationships happen with connection and conversation. And connection and conversation can deepen relationships and vice versa.

When talking about relationships one day, my friend Michael said this: “You can learn about bowling by reading a book, and while this would be helpful for some, it is also insufficient. You have to bowl to learn how to bowl.” And before learning how to bowl, we have to get ourselves to the bowling alley, get those bowling shoes on, pick up the ball and make a move to roll the ball down the lane and see how we do. To be in relationship with other people, we have to make connections with each other (get to the bowling alley and get our shoes on) and have conversations with each other (take turns rolling the ball down the lane). In this, we start to relate to each other.

When designing for the possibility of relationship we need first to design for people to connect and converse. If we don’t, we eliminate or, at best, erode the ability of people to find their own relationships in the sea of people.

A cascade of bypassing

Conversation bypassing is a means to avoid the deepening of relationships. The very purpose of a conversation — to hear other people’s perspectives and see how they weave and tangle with our own — nourishes relationships. One of the ways we engage in relationship bypassing is to set up our emotional defences against hearing others’ perspectives and resist opening ourselves to others. And, of course, connection bypassing, a means to bypass conversation, is also a means to engage in relationship bypassing.

Just as social contact is a means to disengage from connection bypassing, and interactions and exchanges are a means to disengage from conversation bypassing, accountability and responsibility are a means to disengage from relationship bypassing.


Think about a relationship you have, whether personal or professional…

  • What are some hidden, unspoken agreements that guide the relationship?
  • What are the explicit, out-in-the-open agreements that guide the relationship?
  • Are there any agreements that you’d like to renegotiate?

This article first appeared at



Beth Sanders

Beth works with cities looking for practical ways to navigate the complexity of city life — to hear each other and make better cities. Author of Nest City.