My relationship and couples clients know that I usually explore how they “agree”. As a description of therapy, ‘finding agreements’ may sound rudimentary or simplistic. It may be confused with mediation and negotiation. One party might think that finding agreement means somebody’s got to sell themselves out. I believe the truth is very different.
Helping two (or more) people reach agreement more thoughtfully or frequently – or struggle painfully through gridlocks – lies at the heart of relationship & couples therapy.
Agreements are the basic structural units of a relationship. They apply to all of the main areas of relational life:
- Domestic Management
- In-Laws/Significant Others
- Parenting (if applicable)
The Agreement Process
The agreement process (and its skill development) is a big part of the personal transformation that committed relationships bring about. Relationships shape people from “single” to a “relational”, who “play well” with significant others. This tough process of maturity always involves frustration along with indulgence. Personal development is all about push-pull. And how people experienced frustration, indulgence, collaboration, competition – the clash between “me” and “we” – in their family-of-origin is an important influence.
In my office, agreement is fundamentally about process. Outcomes are for you to determine ‘at home’. For example, I am not primarily interested (even though you should be) in which sexual positions you use or what you spend money on. Rather, it’s all about the skills and personal development that help you achieve a mutual understanding more often.
Not all agreements are necessarily mutual. But they are better for striving to be so. Yet “mutual” takes extra work. It’s a way of organizing the power held by two single people to choose what they want for themselves, and how well they will treat their significant other. Achieving mutuality means knowing:
- what a partner wants, and
- how much a partner wants it
When people can really establish those two understandings, It makes the agreement more solid. Each also learns much more about the other, and their values.
Mutuality Softens Disappointment
On the other hand, mutuality also helps when one person sticks with what they want for themselves.In a mutual process the other’s disappointment may be softened.
Seeking “Me” or “We”
Commitment creates an unavoidable tension between “me” and “we”. People indulge each other to be a “we”, and they frustrate each other so that neither loses their “me.” This back and forth process, frustrating as it may be, is what presses people to develop. A mixture of “yes” and “no” is how people mature.
A first question is whether or not partners will acknowledge that tension. A second is whether they are each truly seeking consensus, something collaborative. Or are they seeking individuality? With which spirit does each person enter the process?
Typically, the partner who seeks consensus is in a weaker negotiating position, even though “morally” they feel stronger. Partners who can’t see the “me” and “we” preferences will experience high levels of pain and vulnerability.
Gridlock Or Agreement
A two partner relationship is a system elegantly designed for gridlock (multiple/poly partner gridlocks usually build on a two-person impasse; and third or fourth parties rarely serve as tie-breakers). Two people have the simple ability to block each others preferences, and to accommodate them.
We could say that agreement is the opposite of gridlock. In agreement, the most vital parts of each person’s preferences fit together. Gridlock might seem unproductive, but the kind of therapy I do treats it as utterly normal. It produces growth because it accurately points to where it needs to occur.
Broken Agreements, Trust and Morality
If I ask the question, “Why do you think it’s so hard for you to reach an agreement on…?”, the answer is usually about broken agreements in the past. I’ve written a bit on making agreements – what about breaking them?
A fundamental part of the agreement process is the skill that’s needed when an agreement is breached, intentionally or not. If there there is a long history of violating agreements, that turns the other “big gear” of relationship – trust.
Trust And Risk
In some relationships, breaches of trust lead to perceptions that life together is unacceptably risky. Promises of all kinds generally decrease in value, and the moral universe is upended. In other relationships, there’s greater latitude for broken agreements, even when low integrity behavior is responsible. In those relationships, breaches are taken as signs that the old agreement(s) have somehow lost viability and meaning, and new ones must be created.
Absence of past agreement
A problem can be based on the absence of any clear prior agreement. This holds really valuable information for people. It shows, not always clearly, how they govern themselves and distribute power when they don’t think mutually. That often motivates partners to start a conscious agreement process on the spot.
I’ll quote one outside source, in a wrap-up that expresses the relationships between power and agreement:
“Power dynamics cannot be eliminated from relationships. What we [therapists] can do is help couples be more aware of their power dynamics, their respective needs, the importance of making and keeping agreements, and give them pictures of healthy power–with examples and by our own modeling.” (“Power, Anger, Trust & Communication”; presentation by Marty Klein, Ph.D.) “Reprinted from Sexual Intelligence™ Marty Klein, Ph.D. (www.SexualIntelligence.org).”