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Let’s face it, relationships can be challenging, and nobody likes conflicts. One reason is that we often go into fight, flight, or freeze mode when emotionally triggered. Instead of successfully communicating using our prefrontal cortex, we operate from the more primal part of our brain that senses danger. As a result, one person or both partners do not show up fully resourced, or in other words, not as their best self.
It is enormously helpful to have general agreements in place through which both commit to figuring a challenging situation out as a team, no matter how bad it gets. These agreements increase the strength and longevity of a relationship.
For this blog, I have taken some examples for general agreements a couple can make from Jayson Gaddis book “Getting to Zero” and slightly abbreviated them:
1. We agree to make clear agreements
Partners can avoid unnecessary disappointment and conflict because the expectations are clear when they make unambiguous agreements of how they want to handle things.
2. We agree to grow and learn from our interactions
A growth mindset means that both people are ready to take personal responsibility for their part in a situation and are willing to see themselves as a “student” in their relationships. We cannot help but bring our “baggage” from childhood and past relationships into our long-term relationships. When we are ready to be coachable and learn new ways of being with each other, anything is possible. “Growth-oriented relationships can handle adversity, discomfort, difference, and conflict” (Jayson Gaddis, Getting to Zero, 242)
3. We agree to embrace conflict as a normal part of a close relationship
Conflicts are normal and unavoidable in close relationships. Not the fact that a conflict occurs is the issue, but how a couple handles conflicts. Neither having volatile arguments that do not get resolved nor sweeping matters under the carpet is “doing conflict well.” Conflicts expose differences between the partners and reveal a lack of understanding. Successfully moving through conflicts starts with the attitude of seeing conflict as a growth opportunity and a call to reconnect at a deeper level. Conflicts are an invitation to become curious, empathize deeper and understand each other better.
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4. We agree not to bring up challenging topics over text or e-mail
Our tone of voice and body language is a huge part of successful communication. I have often seen that many misunderstandings occur due to conversations by text. Written communication, more than verbal communication, leaves us with gaps. To make sense of the conversation, we fill the gaps in, often inaccurately, making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. Hence, do not engage in an essential or challenging conversation in writing. As fast as possible, suggest, if not a person-to-person meeting, at least a Zoom or FaceTime call so you can see and hear each other.
5. We agree that the more resourced one of us takes the lead
When there are tensions, we want to connect as soon as possible. However, we cannot do that when we are stuck in a fight, flight, or freeze response. Anger, fear, or other strong emotions prevent us from problem-solving successfully. When emotionally activated, we are not fully resourced to have a positive and heart-centred conversation. Whoever has the most emotional capacity and can take ownership of their part and listen to the other person leads in reconnecting. If one or both of you are highly activated, remember to take a time-out until you are able to have the necessary conversation.
6. We agree to go beyond blame and to each own our part
Unless we are willing to acknowledge the impact we had on the situation and talk free of finger-pointing, the conversation is unlikely to go well. The quickest way to resolve a conflict is by taking ownership of your words or actions without excuses, justifications, or even explanations. “Your ability to work through conflict is directly proportional to your ability to take personal responsibility within any conflict. Ownership keeps the power with you.” (Jayson Gaddis, Getting to Zero, 244)
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7. We agree to give up the need to be right and make the other one wrong
This agreement goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. When you insist on being right or remembering something more accurately, you automatically make your partner wrong. That is a bit like shooting a goal on your own team’s net. What is good for your partner is also good for you and your relationship; what hurts your partner hurts you both.
8. We both agree to be vulnerable as soon as possible
The key to being heard is asking, “what is under my anger, defensiveness, or other ‘posturing’?” Then you can communicate from a more vulnerable place. Any conflict will immediately take a turn for the better when either one of you or both remember to soften. When you allow yourself to be seen in your vulnerability, you will make your partner feel safer and disarm them. It enables you to make a heart-to-heart connection. Vulnerability does not necessarily mean crying. It can be an expression of regret or of taking ownership, for example, “I am sorry. I really screwed up”.
9. We agree to speak with awareness and respect
A respectful exchange is necessary for any successful conversation in which both people can stay open to listening and resolving things. That means no yelling, name-calling, or other intimidating or abusive ways of interacting. That also means no sarcasm, being condescending, or making fun of the other person in a hurtful way. While humour and even gentle teasing can be an excellent way to reconnect, sarcasm does the opposite. Sarcasm stops intimacy. Humour feels playful, gets you both laughing at yourself, and leads to reconnection. Sarcasm widens the gap between you.
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We constantly communicate through micro-expressions of our faces. Many of those small expressions are not in our control, but we can make an effort not to use dismissive body language. So watch your non-verbal communication, for example, eye-rolling, sighing, arms crossing, or turning your body away from your partner. All these can instantly trigger your partner, and before you even realize what has happened, your interaction is going downhill.
10. We agree to work on the conflict until we both feel the issue is resolved.
It is smart to take a time out when you are emotionally too activated to have a productive conversation. However, the agreement always remains that you will continue the talk until you both feel the issue is resolved. So take time-outs responsibly by letting the other person know when you will be back to continue.
11. We agree not to make threats of leaving
Trust is fragile and is easily broken if we cannot rely on the other person to stay and work through things. Making threats of leaving is highly damaging in a marriage or long-term relationship. You might think that your words are not landing, but as humans, we are wired for connection, and you are risking that your partner experiences fear of being abandoned and closes up.
12. We agree to repair and reconnect within 24 hours
The longer a fight or disagreement goes on, the stronger our negative image of our partner becomes. However, if we can resolve our conflicts quickly, they do not even enter into the long-term memory. So even if an issue seems overwhelming, 24 hours gives you both enough time to sleep on it or speak to a professional or a friend. Always chose a friend who is supportive of your relationship and instead of commiserating with you is willing to call you out on your part of the conflict.
13. OTHER AGREEMENTS
Beyond these general agreements of how to handle conflicts, successful couples are transparent with each other and make specific arrangements. When you have small individual deals in place for typical situations, you minimize disappointments due to unspoken expectations.
Here are some examples:
- When we have a joint account, we are very clear about what is being paid from it and what is not an acceptable expense to make from the joint finances.
- When we buy something for our home, we agree beforehand on what price is acceptable, how we will get the item home, and, if necessary, who puts it together.
- When we split up the housework, we clearly agree on who takes care of what. We also agree not to police our partners or expect them to do the work our way.
- When one of us is running late, they will let the other one know.
- When interacting with our extended family, we have several clear agreements and boundaries in place as a team.
- When we have kids, we make clear agreements about who is responsible for what.
What about broken agreements?
Make sure you only agree to something that you are confident you can commit to. Do not say “okay” to an agreement when you do not intend to keep it or have other challenges with it. That is neither fair to your partner nor yourself.
We are all human, and we have broken promises or commitments in the past, often unintentionally. If you find that an agreement is occasionally broken because you are still learning and growing together, use it as an opportunity to make amends and reconnect. In some cases, the deals need to be revisited and amended if they are not reasonable or attainable.
If you find that one or both of you consistently break agreements, there is an underlying issue, for example, lingering resentment and sabotage. Reach out to a professional to work through your resentment.
If you are interested in making successful agreements and want to create solid and lasting relationships, reach out for individual sessions and/or for couples coaching.