How To Know When Your Agreement Will Fail or When You’ll Fail Your Agreement.
Even when you are trying to minimize agreements in your relationships and be the purest relationship anarchist you can be, humans still have basic agreements that we abide by if we want to exist with other people. One of the first things that people do when they try to open up the relationship is create some agreements to protect the relationship or to protect their emotions. Or people might start new relationships and lay out some of their expectations to see if someone is willing to agree to them before moving into second or third dates. Obviously as therapists, we see agreements get broken all the time. It’s one of the biggest reasons people come in to see us.
In addition to being aware of the common agreements that get made and then don’t work, there are all sorts of other things to think about when trying to make agreements. If you have already broken an agreement, this is a good list to go over to see if something here applied to you to better understand why you broke the agreement. If you are making agreements, it’s a good list to go through to make sure none of these scenarios apply to you.
Is Your Agreement Trying To Fix The Wrong Thing?
One of the reasons people make agreements is to try to enact repair for previous behavior that hurt someone. The person who was hurt needs to trust that the person who hurt them is not going to hurt them again. What they usually try to do is make an agreement that looks like it’s going to repair the hurt, but what it’s doing is legislating around an emotion, rather than getting to the core of the issue.
Let’s start with what it means to legislate around emotions. When people have strong emotions like jealousy, anger, sadness, or hurt, and since we don’t like feeling those ways, we want to do everything we can to not feel them. The thing I notice in therapy is that it often feels much easier to ask our partner to change who they are and the way they behave than it does to look inside ourselves and understand where that hurt is coming from and change ourselves. There’s a fallacy in here that we assume it’s easier for someone else to change what seems like a “simple behavior” than it is for us to change something core to us. That’s just not how it works. Our behaviors are often driven by our emotions far more than we care to admit. Sure, some behaviors are easy to change, most are not. When you are asking someone else to change so you don’t have to feel some particular way, you are also likely asking them to change something fundamental about them as well, even if it seems trivial to you.
So let’s go back to repair. Repair needs to happen when you feel you have been betrayed. The first thing that needs to happen is that the other person really truly needs to understand at a fundamental level how they hurt you, which takes a difficult conversation that doesn’t involve a lot of defensiveness. If you are getting a lot of defensiveness and your partner never expresses understanding for your hurt, no amount of “better behavior” is going to fix the broken trust. You, as the hurt person, will just find that broken trust shows up in other behaviors.
The other problem with this is that your emotions might be stemming from a life long void that you are asking your partner to fill that they do not have the ability to fill. If you were traumatized in your childhood, you might constantly need empathy, unconditional love, attention, safety, peace, or something else your adult attachment figure should have provided you with but couldn’t. We should be able to rely on our partners for help in times of need, but there’s a level of this that becomes unhealthy in adult relationships. If you had a traumatic childhood, it’s worth exploring this in therapy with a trauma-informed therapist to figure out how to heal that wound.
Someone Hasn’t Fully Bought Into The Agreement
Is the agreement trying to get someone to change a behavior that they don’t think needs changing? Or, did you agree to something early on, and then circumstances changed, and one of you is having an experience that changes the way you view the agreement. I’m not going to cover the first scenario in much detail because it can fall more under coercion. Someone in the relationship may not fully understand why they are being asked to change their behavior, but they agree because they are feeling coerced, or they are saying yes just to avoid fighting about it. I do want to cover the second scenario in more detail.
A good example of this is when you have two people with two different levels of risk profiles for STIs. We see this one happen quite often with established couples opening up their relationship. A couple agrees to use condoms and not have sex with anyone who has STIs before they open up. Both of them find this set up quite reasonable at the time. Then, he starts dating someone and finds himself eyeballs deep in new relationship energy. The oxytocin kicks in, and he feels he trusts this person with his life after two months. His partner has only met her new metamour once, but sees her partner behaving in rash and unpredictable ways. One night, the new couple has difficulty with condoms or forgets to bring them. The new couple decides they trust each other completely and just goes without condoms. They had both been tested before their first date and both tests came back negative. The next day, he tells his well-established partner they went without condoms, thinking nothing of it, and she is very pissed off. He is confused as to why since he felt they had taken every precaution necessary, and told her before she and they had sex again.
What he is not understanding is that his assessment of risk has changed, but hers hadn’t. He quit buying into the agreement and changed the agreement in the heat of the moment, making the rationalization that it was a logical decision given what he knew. She has different context for the agreement, and her risk assessment hasn’t changed at all. She has still bought into the agreement. Now starts the argument about whether or not this is a rational agreement, and they are each going to be able to find arguments for and against their side.
Someone Feels Coerced or Like They Don’t Have A Choice But To Agree
There are three places we see this one come up consistently. The first and most difficult to navigate is when one person makes significantly more money or one is a stay at home parent. More than once, I have seen the primary breadwinner want to open up a relationship and the SAHP only goes along with it because they don’t feel like they have the power to say no. Worse, they don’t feel like they can exit the relationship because they don’t have a way to fend for themselves outside of the relationship. If you make significantly more money than your partner, you have to have continuous conversations about how money influences the power dynamics in your relationship. The person with less power in this situation will often agree to whatever the other person wants and then may break those agreements in secret.
The other place I see this is if you have done something genuinely hurtful in the past and you feel you “need to make up for it” and your partner holds that over your head. We see this show up as “both people in the relationship are complicit in who the scapegoat is in the relationship.” This is sometimes a very difficult power dynamic to overcome because each person is very comfortable in their roles. One person holds onto the belief that they are a terrible person who hurts others, and the other holds onto the belief that others are to blame for their hurt. In healthy relationships, people hurt each other, but they also repair and are able to move forward. In unhealthy relationships, one person endlessly holds the other one accountable for everything wrong in the relationship without taking responsibility for their own actions. In these situations, the scapegoat will agree to anything to make up for their sins and then break their agreements because they can’t ever meet the weight of expectations put on them.
Are you saying yes to the agreement to stop having to discuss it or not argue about it any more? This is common with people pleasers and other avoidant types. This could just as easily fall into someone not buying into the agreement, but with a twist. Not only do they not buy into it, but they don’t feel like they have the power to say they don’t buy into it because they have convinced themselves they won’t get their way anyway, or they’ve learned they won’t get their AND will get a lot of anger and yelling in the process. Usually this agreement gets broken the moment it gets tested precisely because there is no real buy-in. Either the person finds secretive ways to get what they want, or they end up behaving in the way they want to behave because they figure they are going to get yelled at no matter what they do, and they have accepted that as part of the relationship.
The Language is Vague or Loopholes Are Built Into The Agreement
This is sometimes the hardest one to fix when you first start out because we don’t always understand where our language is vague. Human language – no matter what language – comes with a lot of context layered on top of the literal definition. Let’s go with an example that often comes up in relationships – the word respect as in “We will treat each other with respect” or “I expect my partner to treat me with respect”. The literal definition of this word is “1. A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities or achievements, and 2. Due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights or traditions of others.” But what does that even mean? We often hear in sessions “I need you to respect my time.” To one person, this means they want their partner to be on time and present on date nights, not texting other partners. To other people this means they don’t want their free time interrupted or scheduled over.
There are an astounding number of vague words like this, and it can be hard to catch all of them. Many of them are commonly associated with values or abstract concepts. If you come across one of them, it’s best to ask for clarification: what behaviors do you associate with these words, or what does it look like for someone to show you respect or patience or love? This is where having direct conversations about what a person means when they ask for something. Specificity and shared language help avoid unnecessary pain when both partners think that they’re following an agreement, but have two different definitions of the terms.
Loopholes tend to also exist in the vagueness. The biggest place this shows up is in sexual situations. Just look at the situation I mentioned in not fully buying into the agreement. If you haven’t fully bought into it, you are going to find the loophole, and then try to use that as the excuse that you didn’t actually break the agreement, claiming that’s not how you interpreted things. The other way that I see this one play out is that someone feels a great deal of shame for breaking a fairly clear agreement, and then starts looking for loopholes to justify their behavior and absolve them of shame.
Treat Agreements As Experiments
We’ll talk later about crafting good agreements, but I want to end this post reminding you to treat your agreements as experiments. You aren’t going to get them right the first time, and you want to make a lot of room for mistakes to happen while still feeling like you are on the same team as your partner. When you first start on this journey, you are learning a lot of things, and you are going to screw some things up, and so is your partner. Give space for growth and change to happen. You will never be able to close every loophole or be able to completely remove misunderstandings from your life. If you make room for them and learn to work together through them, your relationship will be much stronger with it. The process you are going through of building insight, building communication skills, learning how to repair with your partner(s), and learning to recognize when something isn’t working for you or your relationship is much more important than each step being perfect.