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Making and keeping agreements with your spouse, as well as with others in significant relationships with you, helps to create trust, harmony, and intimacy, while also building respect. These factors are powerful components of a healthy bond.

But many couples encounter difficulty knowing what constitutes a solid agreement. Quite often I work with people who believe they have made an agreement, but my detective work uncovers they did not.

Many relationships get into trouble when one partner agrees out of a need to please – and other, related underlying issues – rather than a serious desire to honor their agreement. If one partner doesn’t hold up their end, the other party can feel angry, hurt, scared, or any combination of negative feelings. They can also lose trust.

My work with my clients helps them develop the inner skills to make solid agreements. Some people also need work with underlying issues, which I will tackle in a follow-up article later.

The Effects of Poor Agreements

The negative toxic energy of broken promises can lead to impaired intimacy, decreased sexual arousal, escalating arguments, and gradual disengagement between partners. However, with a little care and practice, people can learn to make and keep straightforward, effective agreements.

For example, Jennifer and Dirk had a happy marriage, but they sought out relationship therapy because they struggled with issues common to most couples: finances, in-laws, and lack of meaningful communication about those topics. Jennifer grew frustrated with Dirk because he seldom talked about things that bothered him, and she felt that he often manipulated her to get angry with him. When they appeared in my office, however, her chief complaint was that Dirk never followed through on the agreements he made. “Never” is what is called an exaggeration, since he did keep some agreements.

It did not take long to discover they each played a part, which is true with all couples struggling with major issues.

A closer look revealed that Jennifer and Dirk didn’t know how to make solid marital agreements, and this lack of skill and development led to regular arguments. For example, Dirk had agreed to assemble their new dining room table, but it had been sitting, untouched, in the family room for several months.

Jennifer knew Dirk was a hard worker, so she didn’t want to be a nag, but she finally said, “We need to have a talk, because I’m getting annoyed.”

Instead of the usual yelling, she learned to channel her anger into assertive behavior to keep the conversation productive. An adverse issue with her communication, however, meant she didn’t get the results she wanted.

Jennifer: “I want to know when you’re going to put the table together. You said you’d have it done by now, and it still isn’t finished. I’m tired of eating off that shaky, yard-sale table.” (So far, so good.)

Dirk: “I know, I know, but I’ve been busy with work, and I’ve had an extra project that’s taken up a lot of my time. Plus, I’ve gotten used to that old oak table. We sure got a great price on it.” (He makes excuses and changes the subject.)

Jennifer: “Let’s not get off the subject. I want to know if you can get the new table together by November 1. The holidays are coming, and I want the new table for our guests.” (She makes a clear request for action, yet her tone reminds Dirk of his overly critical mother. We call these “tone violations” in relationship work.)

Dirk: “Sure, I think I can do that. I’ll try.” (Dirk uses vague, noncommittal words like “think” and “try” that promise nothing. However, Jennifer fails to recognize the hollowness of his words and his slippery nature, and thus figured he agreed, when in fact he had not.)

Many couples make “mushy” agreements the way Jennifer and Dirk did. My experience informs me there are three levels of mush:

  1. Minor mush
  2. Moderate mush
  3. Major mush

Jennifer and Dirk struggled with moderate mush. After several sessions, the two developed some ability to come to a solid agreement regarding the table. Dirk made a firm commitment – “I can get the table done by November 19” – and in fact he did just that. Jennifer felt a renewed sense of hope, but worried he might slip back. Jennifer was also too focused on Dirk’s issues and was not looking enough at her own tendency to be critical and harsh.

Before too long, Dirk and Jennifer fell back into their familiar patterns. This regression is to be expected, since changing a habit takes time, as well as awareness and practice.

This time Dirk showed up over an hour late to Jennifer’s presentation on climate change, an issue close to her heart. Jennifer was deeply hurt but tended to cover her pain with an angry outburst. She did not talk with Dirk for several nights and was in no mood for sex. (Here you can see Jennifer’s problem is her impaired ability to speak up, but for simplicity we will mainly focus on Dirk.)

If a couple makes a solid agreement and the agreement is not kept, then another problem needs to be explored. Possible issues can include an underlying depression, passive-aggressive personality traits, poor stress management, anxiety, bipolar-spectrum issues, alcohol, financial issues, living in the inner city… and the list goes on.

In this case, further work revealed that Dirk had some passive-aggressive tendencies, along with some mild depression. Passive-aggressive partners with depression generally have low self-esteem and lack the ability to initiate and follow through due to periods of fatigue and lack of motivation. Dirk grew up with an abusive dad, so he learned to stuff his feelings.

Dirk got annoyed whenever Jennifer bossed him around, but instead of expressing his feelings and standing up for himself, he found ways to retaliate. Sometimes he got a kick out of the distress he caused his wife. Dirk lacked the skills to feel a healthy sense of empowerment.

Passive-aggressive patterns can wreak havoc on a marriage, so Dirk needed to learn to be proactive with Jennifer and tell her when he was upset, instead of acting out. Of course this effort took some courage and time getting clear what he was feeling and how to express it. He also needed some motivation and willpower, so he used the thought of a more passionate sex life for inspiration.

Although it took several months in therapy, Jennifer and Dirk learned to address their underlying issues, which empowered each of them to develop the skills to make and keep agreements.

Here are four strategies to help you establish solid agreements in your marriage:

  1. Make a clear request for action. Ensure the agreement specifies exactly what each person is to do, and by what date. For example, “I will get the garage door fixed by the end of the month” or “I will get the bills paid by the first week of each month.”
  2. Put the agreement in writing, so each partner is clear. This also is quite effective for agreements with teenagers, business partners, and friends.
  3. Eliminate vague wording. Statements such as “I should have it done by next week” or “I’ll get it done as long as nothing comes up” create mushy agreements. A better agreement is “I will get the project done by June 20 and I am not letting anything get in the way.”
  4. Avoid reminders, even if your partner requests them. Otherwise, you’ll sound like a parent, and your partner may rebel. Both of you are adults and need to take responsibility for your share in an agreement. Instead of reminding, ask at the time of agreement, “Is there anything I can do to support you in getting your part done?” Dirk told Jennifer it would help if she took the kids out on the day he was working on the now famous oak table.

Keeping agreements is a habit that is central to developing an amazing marriage, as well as healthy partnerships and fulfilling friendships. When you keep your part of an agreement, you establish trust and respect for yourself and your partner, which can create more intimacy, a stronger feeling of teamwork, and family harmony. When you “walk the talk” with persistence and grace, you can open up bright new vistas in all of your relationships.

Remember, there is hope, there is help and it’s just a phone call away. Call 408-358-9679 for a complimentary phone consultation.