(Image: Carolyn and her husband cross country skiing in Washington.)
I bet like you, our falling in love was easy and joyful. We were confident that problems and challenges would never come up in our bliss! Time went on, as it does, and things became more complicated as our commitment grew and we realized that combining our very full lives would take some negotiation. Questions came up, including:
How would it work when we lived together?
How would we manage our kids cooperatively?
How would our relationship change when we blended our households?
So, we developed agreements to smooth the transition from fun and dating to commitment and shared responsibilities. Beyond that, our marriage vows held deeper agreements to keep our relationship healthy and aligned with our values. These have served as guideposts for our marriage and our family.
Relationship agreements serve as our rules of engagement. These rail bumpers nudge us back onto the road together and out of the ditch. They keep us safe, healthy, engaged, and happy. Agreements direct our care of each other and our relationship, and they guide our focus to what is most important to each other. Committed relationships are hard. People are complex and annoying, and life throws up challenges that strain our partnerships, even for relationship experts! Solid agreements guide us to prevent our relationship from falling into bad habits when things get tough.
Most couples have implicit agreements that have never been thoroughly discussed. These are based on assumptions of what is best for the relationship rather than explicit agreements based on a healthy process. Agreements made without communication, understanding, and acceptance of each other’s needs will not hold when things become challenging.
Three different couples I worked with this week were suffering. They ran into situations where they felt hurt, neglected, or misunderstood because they lacked agreement. In one case, it involved the lack of agreements around the division of labor around the house. In another, agreements around relationships outside their marriage were not clear enough that both understood what they were supposed to do. In all three, many painful conversations and negative interactions over multiple days were the cost of the absence of needed agreements.
Taking the time to make solid, mutual agreements hold us accountable and remind us of what’s needed to take care of each other. Creating a living relationship agreement commits us to the actions and conversations needed to keep things healthy. They also prevent the kinds of struggles my couples went through this week and end up saving time and energy in the long run.
Agreements can be in a variety of areas, including:
Agreements about our communication
Rules about time together and apart in our relationship
Promises we make about the rituals and routines to take care of our relationship
Commitments about the process of cleaning up our mistakes
Habits we build to ensure the fun, connection, and play stay in our relationship.
Healthy relationship agreements have three components:
Each agreement is developed in collaboration. Both of you take the time to listen and understand each other’s needs, wants, and feelings about each agreement. You include this information in the agreements.
Each agreement works for both of you. Sometimes that’s easy when your values and needs align, but other times you will have to compromise and negotiate.
You fully understand why each agreement is important to your relationship and what harm will be done in violating it. This understanding helps motivate you when it feels challenging.
The time taken to create agreements that support both of you creates a foundation for a healthier relationship. It creates a deep commitment to both partners’ needs. “I know how to support my partner when they feel insecure.” “I know what is most important for my partner to have enough space to breathe and be their best self in this relationship.” “I know how to take care of them through my communication and actions in co-parenting.” All of these are examples of the ways that our agreements support me in being the best partner possible, and frees up time I might spend trying to figure out how to behave.
Whether your relationship is brand new or time-tested, taking the time to create or review your agreements is a powerful process that ensures it has what’s needed to be healthy and supported.
If you need more support in creating your agreements, join my class “Agreements That Stick” on Wednesday, March 23rd from 7-8:15 pm PST on Zoom. I will support you through exercises to create the best agreements for you. Email me (below) and sign up!