When people think about agreements, sometimes they only think about them as big, monolithic edicts written in stone. But many agreements are small or temporary: I’ll wash the dishes if you do the laundry; Let’s never visit this restaurant again. Many relationships have unspoken agreements that have developed over time, or people have thought they entered into an agreement, but failed to confirm that with or include the other party. Most commonly, you find this when you move in with someone and don’t bother to talk about who is cleaning what.
#1 Make sure you expressed the agreement in the first place
When people are new to nonmonogamy, they sometimes forget how many of their expectations end up being unspoken “agreements” rooted in internalized monogamy. They might have expectations for how often texting happens, and then get angry when the other side doesn’t meet that expectation, even though they never said anything to them about what their expectation was. You might also have expectations about how relationships progress but then forget to mention those expectations as you start dating someone, who might have their own expectations of how they want things to progress.
We often do this when we make assumptions that others see the world like we do, or when we are unfamiliar with multiple ways to do things. Making the implicit into an explicit conversation and agreement is vital to preventing hurt from assumptions no one has communicated.
#2 Look at them like science experiments
I know we said this in our last post about agreements, but this is really helpful to repeat.
If you are entering new territory and trying to figure out what you like or don’t like, it’s best to look at agreements like science experiments to be tested, retested, and updated when they aren’t doing what you thought they were doing. I see this most often when people think they are going to be okay with their partner doing something, but then find that’s not what’s happening when it’s time to actually be okay. Often, when this comes up, it’s best to take a step back and look at why there is a discrepancy between what you thought you were going to be okay with, and what actually happened. It doesn’t mean that the experiment “failed” if you feel differently than you thought you would, it may mean that unexpected variables entered the equation that need to be accounted for. This is information to help you understand yourself, your wants/needs/desires, and the places that you might need to do some introspection and individual work. This is all to help you make agreements that fit your relationship, and the people in it, in healthier and more authentic ways.
#3 Revisit them on a set time schedule
If you have a series of set agreements, it’s advisable to revisit them on a regular basis. You can set up time every few weeks or once a month to check in with each other to make sure they are still working in the way you expect. This goes along with them being science experiments. It’s also best to wait until it’s time to explicitly talk about the agreement, instead of trying to change your agreement in the moment. Relationship check-ins can be a great time to do this, or having specific times where you sit down and discuss agreements specifically.
#4 Accept that misunderstandings are normal
This is what happens when you realize that language is actually quite vague, even when we supposedly have set definitions of what words mean.
So I’m going to pull out another example that I see quite often on this one that is a combination of people making assumptions and language being vague, as well as how it usually ends up playing out.
Aspen: “Hey, can you help me move some furniture later tonight?”
Ell: “Sounds great! I have dinner at 6pm. I can meet you after that?”
Aspen spends all night waiting for Ell to come over, expecting her at around 7pm. Ell shows up at 9:30pm and doesn’t understand Aspen’s frustration. Aspen was expecting dinner not to take more than an hour because they don’t ever remember family dinner taking over 2 hours. Ell thought Aspen understood that she has a family of four to cook, feed and clean up after, which can take a long time. Aspen feels like they wasted a bunch of time they could have reached out to someone else for help, and now they won’t get to the other things they needed to do after moving the furniture. Ell thinks Aspen is being ungrateful given that she made time to help when her night was already very busy dealing with her family.
They could be angry at each other. Or they could each explain their side of their experience to each other, and understand that they need to put more clear time expectations on things when communicating, and solve their problem going forward. Agreements are a place where clarity and specificity are not only important, they are integral to making sure everyone has the same understanding. This can be taken too far at times too, when minutiae ends up being legislated. There is a balance between being specific and getting lost in the weeds.
#5 Allow for space in differences of opinion
You aren’t always going to agree with your partner on everything. There are some things that are big enough that they should be relationship enders, like whether to have children, Star Trek vs. Star Wars, or if someone really doesn’t want to be in a polyamorous or monogamous relationship. But there are always going to be disagreements that aren’t relationship enders: where to get dinner, if pineapple belongs on pizza, or whether Pepsi or Coke are better sodas (Hint, it’s Dr. Pepper).
Differentiating between if something is a place of preference or a moral/life goal incompatibility can take a bit to figure out when first entering a relationship. The thing to determine is if the difference is one that will not cause harm, and can be navigated in ethical and consensual ways in the agreements. This often isn’t a place of one person being “right” and the other “wrong”, but rather their different life experiences leading them to different conclusions and those being expressed in opposite ways that may not be opposing. It may not be an either/or, but a both/and.
#6 Utilize time frames when necessary
Not all agreements need to be permanent. This can also be extremely useful for when you are trying to compromise on something you are struggling to come to agreement on. The place I see most common for this is when someone might be feeling jealousy in a relationship. The person experiencing the jealousy might need some time to figure out their feelings and why their jealousy is coming up, or just need time to build trust into the relationship to move past the insecurity phase. The other person might be willing to help them with their jealousy, but only for so long. If the jealous partner is asking to stop dating altogether, this might not go over well. What can be a useful solution is to give the jealous partner 3 months or 6 months to figure out their jealousy issue, and then the agreement to not date new people expires. After this, the jealous person needs to have worked through their stuff, or needs to find a new way to manage their jealousy.
Time frames can be easy for small agreements, too, like in the above example about vagueness. If you can put an approximate time or a time range on something, do it. Sometimes the agreement can simply be “I would like you to check in with me every hour at this party to see where I’m at, but I think I’ll probably only need it for tonight”. It’s easy to set a watch or phone alarm to track something like this, rather than just ask your partner to “check in frequently,” which could mean anything.
Clearly this list is not exhaustive, which is why this is a series of posts, but these are helpful ways to check your agreements to see if they can actually provide you with what you are trying to achieve, or if they are setting you up for pain and strife.