The Unspoken Bargain

Have you ever entered into a bargain without realizing it? Alice did, and now she’s getting a daily dose of frustration from an arrangement she thought would be to her benefit. Here’s her story. 

Like so many people of her age, Alice feels responsible for her parents. Her dad is ill, and now he needs lengthy hospital appointments several times a week.  This presents a difficulty. How can Alice possibly juggle children, work, and her own life with this new requirement?

Enter Jenny, a long time friend of her parents. When she heard the news and learned of the difficulty it’s presented for Alice, Jenny offered to take dad to his appointments. Gratefully, Alice agreed. It was such a relief to know that her dad’s transportation would be reliably handled.

Well, nothing’s ever simple, is it? Since Jenny has taken on the role of driving dad to the hospital, Alice finds that she and Jenny are in continual conflict.

There are disagreements with Jenny over schedules, diet, medications—all sorts of things that Alice feels are none of Jenny’s business. In Alice’s mind, it’s as if Jenny now thinks she’s in charge!

Alice always knew that Jenny was a tad opinionated, but this interference is too much. How did this happen? And, what can Alice do?

When Alice accepted Jenny’s offer, she didn’t realize that she had entered into a kind of unspoken bargain.

Let’s look at things from Jenny’s perspective. The family needs her. She is playing an important role and she wants that to be recognized.

Is Jenny’s behaviour reasonable? All of us have a need for power and recognition, and it looks like Jenny expected to satisfy some of her need for recognition through her offer to help. So while Jenny’s behaviour may not seem reasonable to Alice, it’s certainly understandable.

Now, what can Alice do? She does have choices. One possibility would be to acknowledge Jenny’s need for recognition by addressing it to some degree. For example, she might offer Jenny some decision-making opportunities.

If so, it’s important that Alice be clear on what authority she is (and is not) prepared to share. For example, Alice might be willing to have Jenny decide the menus. However, Alice may insist that she, not Jenny, handle the medications.   That’s Alice’s prerogative. Every issue need not be negotiated for Jenny to feel valued and for Alice to have the help she needs. It could work out well.

On the other hand, Alice might conclude that the benefit of having Jenny’s help is not worth the interference and conflict that comes with it. If so, then Alice will have to find another way to deal with her father’s need for transportation. It will ultimately be better for everyone if she does that without hurting Jenny’s feelings and fracturing her relationship with the family.

One thing we know is that Alice’s fuming to friends and family about Jenny’s butt-in behaviour is not helpful—not for her, for Jenny, or for dad.

If you were Alice, what would you choose? Are there other, better options?

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