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Don’t Set Yourself Up for Broken Agreements

How to talk through the most uncomfortable topics.

Cavanimages / Evantoelements
Don’t Set Yourself Up for Broken Agreements
Source: Cavanimages / Evantoelements

One thing I love about working with polyamorous people is that they tend to prioritize honesty, forthrightness, and clarity in the process of making relationship agreements. That said, we’re all only human, and people in polyamorous relationships are certainly not immune to broken agreements. Valuing honesty is a great first step, but it might not be enough when the rubber meets the road and you have to tell your partner something that makes your stomach churn.

At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to: can you be honest with your partner about something that you’re fairly certain they won’t want to hear? Most of the time, the root cause of broken agreements is not maliciousness or callousness. It’s conflict avoidance.

Conflict avoidance is common and very understandable. Sometimes it looks like people-pleasing, other times just trying not to hurt someone you care about; sometimes you might not yet really know what you want, making it difficult to have an honest conversation about it. But in all of these examples, the underlying dynamic is avoiding a tough conversation for one reason or another.

Unfortunately, avoiding conflict makes it difficult to create good agreements, in addition to making it challenging to repair relationships effectively if something goes wrong. The good news is that becoming good at facing tough conversations with integrity is totally possible, and will allow you to reap the rewards in every kind of relationship for years to come.

Conflict-Avoidance and Negotiating Agreements

Stepping outside of monogamy-centric assumptions about fidelity means that you’re going to need to have more and deeper conversations with your partner about what you each envision for your relationship. Those conversations will certainly require you to delve deep into emotionally challenging topics like jealousy, primacy, intimacy, sex, and more.

Attempting to avoid conflict, or protect either yourself or your partner from discomfort when you discuss these or other difficult topics, can lead to a variety of problems. It might result in relationship agreements that are fuzzy and unclear or plagued by loopholes, which is a recipe for trouble when it turns out you and your partner had totally different ideas about what you actually agreed to. It can also mean that you end up avoiding the very topics that you and your partner most need to talk openly and honestly about.

What can you do to set yourself up for success? Here’s a step-by-step:

  • Get grounded. Before you even begin to talk, get grounded and figure out what one thing is most important to you to express first; then stick with that for now.
  • Take it slow. You don’t have to figure everything out in the first conversation you have, or the second, or the tenth. You and your partner will both benefit from ample time to reflect, explore, and consider one another’s perspectives.
    • Consider setting a timer for ten minutes to remind you to take frequent breaks from the conversation to avoid overwhelm or escalation.

    • You might also consider having one person speak and the other listen and ask clarifying questions, rather than entering into a back and forth right away. Then, take a sizable break before switching roles.

  • This is not a decision-making process…yet. You can take your time to learn more about yourself and about your partner. You’re not going to lose anything by taking your time now, and deep understanding comes before effective decision-making. When you are in the role of speaking about your experience, let your partner’s questions help you get to know yourself better. When you are in the role of listening/getting curious, let your empathy show you what this looks like from your partner’s perspective, with their unique viewpoint.

  • Plan to take frequent breaks. As you begin talking about what is important to you, and really letting yourself hear and understand what is important to others in your life, make sure you agree ahead of time that you will take a break if a discussion gets heated. This seemingly simple step will save you a world of trouble but often is overlooked, in part because it is not as easy as it sounds.

  • Cultivate gentleness, warmth, and curiosity about your partner’s experience and perspective. What they are telling you is a precious thing. It’s a unique perspective you can only understand by really engaging with them and allowing yourself to really let in what they are telling you about their thoughts, feelings, and desires. If you become defensive, go on the attack, or shut down, it will effectively end the vulnerability and honesty you are hoping to foster. If you start to experience a lot of emotion or get bogged down, take a break. Remember, this stage of things is not a decision-making process. There is no rush.

  • Get curious about your own discomfort. Take uncomfortable emotions that arise as a signal to explore a bit more, and gently, rather than to pull away. This requires going slowly; as slowly as it takes to stay grounded and leaning toward one another emotionally, rather than getting guarded and pulling away.

  • Consider setting a timer for ten minutes to remind you to take frequent breaks from the conversation to avoid overwhelm or escalation.

  • You might also consider having one person speak and the other listen and ask clarifying questions, rather than entering into a back and forth right away. Then, take a sizable break before switching roles.

As you practice these skills, they’ll get easier and easier, and you’ll probably find you have much less to fear from deep and serious conversations with your partner than you might have thought.

In my next installment, I’ll discuss how avoiding conflict can play out in problematic ways when you’re juggling responsibilities to multiple different partners. Stay tuned.

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