There’s No Such Thing as a One-Size-Fits-All Relationship Agreement

In my work as a couples therapist, I’ve seen that successful, happy relationships come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve found that there’s no one-size-fits-all model for a good relationship–and that, in general, relationships work best when the people in them work together to create the agreements that make sense for them.

Working with polyamory, in particular, has shown me that there’s an infinite variety of possible ways to structure a relationship. That means that poly people are more likely to spend time actively considering and discussing what kinds of agreements best fit their unique situation, desires, and needs. This is a practice that I think a lot of monogamous people could benefit from.

Because monogamy is the norm in our culture, it’s common for monogamous couples to assume they’re on the same page about what’s acceptable within their relationship. But if you look beneath the surface, things get a lot more complicated.

Consider: can you define what, exactly, constitutes cheating within your relationship? Is watching porn ok? What about fantasizing about other people? Or flirting? If you feel pretty clear about these agreements, take it a little deeper. What constitutes porn that is and isn’t comfortable for your partner? Are there types of fantasy that are ok, and others that are not?  How about flirting? Where exactly does it cross the line? Can you say for sure, or is the boundary a bit fuzzy? If you asked your partner, would they agree?

There’s a reason that people often don’t have these kinds of detailed discussions about where the boundaries of their relationships are. It can feel quite uncomfortable. What do you do if you discover you’re not on the same page? What if you find out you have already done something that your partner isn’t comfortable with, or vice versa? Maybe it feels easier and less threatening to leave the boundary a bit fuzzy. But that just leaves the door open for a more dramatic disagreement down the road.

During these conversations, it is very likely that some differences of opinion will emerge between you and your partner. That’s okay. A difference is not a threat as long as you are able to respect and listen to each other’s viewpoints. Hold space for the difference, and resist the urge to solve it by changing your partner’s mind or giving up your own viewpoint immediately. Remember that by having this discussion now you’re providing yourself with ample time to discuss and discover where you are each coming from, without the added pressure of a perceived betrayal of trust.

Ask yourself: what kind of relationship agreements are congruent with my own values, my own moral code, and my own sense of self? Then try to listen, with an open mind and a compassionate ear, to your partner’s answer to the same question. Appreciate the common ground you discover, and explore the differences with non-judgmental curiosity. There is always more to learn about yourself and your partner.

If you want to learn more about building a strong relationship, here are some other pieces I’ve written on the topic:

Sexual Intimacy and Vulnerability: Paths to Personal Growth

Better Than ‘Better Half’

Sex and Differentiation of Self

What Polyamory Can Teach Us About ALL Relationships

How to Keep Fights from Damaging Your Relationship

Addressing the Issues Without Getting Swept Up In Emotion

Last week, I wrote about how I help my clients manage strong emotions. I shared my perspective on how emotions come and go if you let them, and described some strategies for releasing difficult emotions.

I strongly believe that learning to let emotions come and go is one of the most important skills for maintaining a healthy relationship, and for that matter, a happy life. But don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying stuff down your emotions.

It’s very important that you be able to share your truth with your partner, even when that truth may be difficult for one or both of you. Working out differences in a relationship is really about balancing these two skills: letting the emotions come and then go, and discussing what you want your partner to understand about you and your perspective.

Sometimes people believe that if they bring up something difficult their partner won’t listen to them or will get really upset, so they don’t open the discussion in the first place, or drop vague hints that are easily misinterpreted or ignored. Other times, a person might think their partner won’t hear what they have to say unless they show how strongly they feel about it–whether that’s by yelling, pouting, shutting down, or storming off in a huff.

Neither of these strategies is particularly effective. Shutting down or avoiding the topic rather than discussing it obviously makes it difficult to make yourself heard, and ramping up in a dramatic way is likely to cause your partner to engage with the drama rather than the reason behind it–which makes it difficult to focus on a meaningful topic, or even remember what the fight was about after the fact.

Ironically, the very feelings that drew your attention to the topic in the first place also will make it difficult or impossible for you to think clearly, or to express your perspective without blaming it on your partner. If you want the conversation to go well, you will need to get calm before beginning. Here are some tips for setting up a successful conversation:

  • Get calm. Actually calm, not pretend calm. Breathe (remember the long exhale?) Consider the issue as if there were not a “right” and a “wrong”, but rather different perspectives and opinions. Nobody listens well when they’re being told they are wrong or bad. Before you even start the conversation, challenge yourself to come to a place of owning your own reactions and preferences, rather than blaming them on your partner.
  • Calmly express your desire to talk, and come to an agreement about when you will sit down to discuss it. Giving your partner a heads up makes it possible for them to prepare for the conversation and bring their best self to it. Your calm request will help them come to the meeting in a more open place, rather than approaching with their guard up. Starting with guards up makes communication difficult, since you’re already fighting before you start. Both of you have a role in accessing calm and curiosity, not just during the conversation, but before and after as well.
  • Prepare your communication. What would you like your partner to understand about you? Something about your experiences, perceptions, feelings, thoughts, beliefs? Figure out how to express yourself as directly as possible, while being clear you are discussing YOUR unique perspective, not your rightness and their wrongness.
  • Express your perspective clearly and briefly. Stick to one point at a time. Don’t go on and on, and don’t go off topic. You can have many, many conversations. Keeping each one manageable and focused will make it safer to do it again next time. This will help you and your partner stay focused and present rather than becoming flooded and either shutting down or blowing up.
  • If things get tense, take a few breaths, remind yourself and your partner that everything is ok here, you’re just talking, and you care about one another. If necessary, take a break. This might be anything from a few breaths, to a shower, to a walk around the block. If things are feeling extremely overwhelming, be prepared to postpone the rest of the conversation until another time, perhaps tomorrow. Taking a break is a success. Going slow is how to stay calm. You both need to be calm in order to bring your best self to the conversation.
  • When you come to a place of taking a break or wrapping up the conversation, thank your partner for doing their best with it, and engaging in the conversation with you. Pat yourself on the back for bringing it up and for staying calm and focused.

Keep your emotions from dictating your responses, and you’ll likely find that the conversations you have with your partner about differences of opinion or values are much calmer, more open-minded, and more productive.

10 Calming Strategies for Managing Conflict

I’m sure you’ve been there: in a haze of hurt and resentment, you blurted out something cruel. You know that you didn’t really mean it, but, days later, your partner is still hurting from your unkind words. You wish you could time-travel back to that moment and clap a hand over your mouth, but it’s too late now. You can’t unring a bell.

It’s possible to avoid moments like this. It takes effort and practice to learn, but you can do it.

My goal as an educator and a couples therapist is to help you build the skills you need to have a more fulfilling and satisfying partnership. That’s why these past three weeks I’ve been sharing my strategies for managing your reactions to conflict.

Last week we talked about “timing out”, a method of preventing a fight from damaging your connection with your partner. When you start to get triggered, and can’t control your rising anger, “time out” is a great tool. But you can go further, and learn how to prevent yourself from getting completely triggered in the first place.

This week, I’m sharing my set of strategies for slowing down your stress reactions to conflict. This is a deeper practice than “time out”; it is preventative. Learning and practicing holding steady in a hard conversation will help you experience less pain and more connection. If you want a relationship in which both you and your partner feel safe sharing every part of yourself, these are the skills you need to build.

Start practicing these skills at the very first sign of trouble, ideally before you start getting upset. Maybe you notice you’re suddenly discussing a hot button topic. Start then. Or maybe you feel the prick of tears; start then. Maybe you feel like defending yourself. That’s also a good time to start.  If you catch your reaction soon enough, you may not have to “time out,” and you’re certainly less likely to say something hurtful in the heat of the moment.

  1. Slow down. When you first notice your stress rising, slow down your reactions. Pause and consider your next sentence before you speak, and take another long pause to consider what your partner says in response. As the conversation continues, hold to this pace–don’t let anger speed up your reactions.
  2. Breathe. Take a deep breath in, hold it for a moment, and then let it out very, very slowly. Make your exhale twice the length of your inhale, or even longer. This has a powerful physiological calming effect on your body and will help you stay in your thinking brain.
  3. Let your partner slow down. Slowing down yourself can encourage your partner to match your pace, which will help them calm down, too. So don’t get upset if they take a long moment to respond–use the time to breathe and talk yourself down. You can do this.  
  4. Get grounded, literally. Sit down, put your feet on the floor, and feel the stability of your position. Let it in. You are ok.
  5. Look around. See that there’s no danger. Calm yourself by using the classic trick: try to find five blue things in the room, then five red things, then five green things, etc. Tune into the moment, and notice that you are just fine. No machine guns, no saber toothed tiger. You will live.

After following the first five steps, check yourself: are you still thinking thoughts like “My partner never understands,” or “How dare my partner say that?!” or “but I DID…”. If you’re still in a blaming or defending state of mind, continue to slow down, breathe, and stay grounded until you feel able to empathize with your partner again. Sometimes a quick bathroom break is helpful, or maybe you want to walk the dog together and take a little vacation from processing.  If you’re not totally activated, a mini-time-out can really help.  

Now that you’re holding steady and feel ready to engage more deeply with your partner, turn to the next five steps.

  1. Remind yourself you want to know this person deeply. Try to listen from their perspective, without immediately jumping in to tell them that they’re wrong. Remember: you have plenty of time to work things out. You can just listen for a bit and share your perspective later. Whatever they are saying, it is not about you. They are telling you how they see things. This is not a truth, it is a perspective. You don’t have to agree, but it would be helpful if you could listen, hear, and validate that you get how they could see it that way.
  2. Get curious about how they are seeing things. For the next ten minutes of the conversation, ask only questions. Make sure they are only genuine questions of curiosity, not loaded ones like “How could you think that?” or “Why would you do something so stupid?” If you’re able to get curious about your partner’s perspective, you may find your anger dissolving as you realize “Of course–that’s why what I said got under your skin so much!” This is an opportunity for greater intimacy, a vulnerable moment in which you can learn more about your partner’s unique self.
  3. Tell your partner how you are feeling. By this, I don’t mean “I feel like you never…” . I mean what emotion are you experiencing? Tell your partner why this topic is difficult for you. Talk only about yourself, your perceptions, your feelings, the meanings you make of the topic. Don’t let the word “you” start your sentences. When your partner asks clarifying questions, stay loose. They are trying to get to know you better too.
  4. Tell your partner something you appreciate about them. At this point, or any point in the conversation you can shift the energy. Help each other get grounded. Try telling your partner something you appreciate about them, and why it feels important. That might be as simple as “thank you for letting me know how important this is to you, and why; I want to know you well, and this way I don’t have to guess what’s going on for you. Thank you.”
  5. Get curious about your own reactions. Ask yourself: why did this get under my skin so much? What does it symbolize or mean to me? This is an opportunity to learn more about yourself, too–and understanding more about what set you off in the situation will help you manage your reaction better next time.

This post is part of a series about navigating conflict in relationships. Check out last week’s post about timing out, or read about how I learned to stay steady in tough conversation with my partner.