Making Relationship Agreements That Support Growth

I’m a big fan of the trend towards couples writing their own marriage vows. When a couple writes their own vows, they are opening up an opportunity for a series of differentiated conversations about what kind of relationship they want to build.

Here are some examples of what differentiated marital agreements look like:

  • “I commit to support your growth.” (Because I don’t believe in holding you back.)
  • “I commit to do good in the world in partnership with you.” (Because together we can do more.)
  • “I commit to be honest with you.” (Because I believe in transparency.)

These agreements are lovely because they embrace the fact that both partners are likely to change and grow over the course of a relationship. They leave room for the flexibility that resilient relationships require, and they challenge both partners to bring their best selves to the table. They also related to beliefs and values that aren’t dependent on what another person does, or on external circumstances.

To make a differentiated agreement, both partners need sufficient internal space to figure out what they actually think and want, and both partners need to be able to hold steady as they have a conversation about their preferences and desires, some of which might not be so easy to hear, or to reveal. Consider traditional wedding vows. Which do you believe in, and which don’t feel like a good fit for you? For example, traditionally we promised to “honor and obey.” Many people have re-written that vow to better fit their values. How about the other vows?

One example of a kind of agreement that is often glossed over without discussion is a fidelity agreement. Partners may assume that they know what the other person means by “fidelity,” or by “forsaking all others.” Also, we all know a discussion about fidelity might be a little uncomfortable. How many people ask themselves, “What do I believe in, what am I willing to forsake, and what if anything do I believe in asking my partner to forsake?” How many couples ask each other, “What does fidelity mean to you?”

I think it’s important to have a really good conversation about what fidelity (and any other kind of agreement) means in your relationship. That’s the best way to avoid inadvertently hurting your partner, or being hurt yourself, when later it turns out you weren’t on quite the same page.

Unclear agreements crop up when partners aren’t able to navigate a tough conversation and remain simultaneously loving towards their partner and grounded in themselves. Very often one person wants a particular agreement, because it would make them feel more comfortable and assuage their fears, and the other partner agrees in order to avoid conflict. That’s completely understandable, and also a set up for misunderstandings, resentment, and/or broken agreements.

As a therapist, one strategy I use is to keep an eye out for missed opportunities for differentiation. By this I mean noticing when someone makes an assumption about what their partner thinks or believes, halting the action, and supporting them in checking it out. It means helping clients ask questions of their partners rather than putting words in their mouths. It also means stepping in and helping someone take a minute to look inside themselves for an internal sense of knowing, BEFORE they speak. I say, “Don’t answer yet. Slow down. Go inside. What do you think? What do you believe? Are there feelings there? Are you of two minds? Or are you clear? If you are of two minds, state them both, not just the one your partner will agree to”.

I love helping couples form agreements because the process is such a rich opportunity to build skills for strong relationships BEFORE trouble starts. I try to slow the process down and make room for each person to consider what they think, feel, believe, and prefer, separate from anyone else. Only then can the deeper conversation happen. I let my clients know they don’t have to agree to anything they don’t want to agree to, and if they are interested in trying something that feels a little uncomfortable, they might approach it as an experiment that they will re-evaluate after a few months.

For more about making and keeping relationship agreements, check out these earlier posts:

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

Rules for Poly Relationships? It’s Not That Simple

Why I Hate the Concept of “Compromise”

Should polyamorous couples share everything?

Sometimes couples considering a poly relationship are told the only way to make non-monogamy work is to share every detail of every outside encounter with their original partner. In this way of thinking, not sharing everything inevitably leads to jealousy, deception, and resentment, threatening the relationship.

This advice, though well-meaning, can be misleading. The truth is, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for how to do poly right. What works for one couple won’t necessarily work for another. Every couple and group needs to negotiate their own boundaries, on their own terms, according to the reality of their own experiences and feelings, as things unfold.

In my practice, I’ve worked with many poly couples. There is tremendous diversity in what these couples are comfortable with. Some share absolutely everything, but many, perhaps even the majority, prefer not to know details of encounters with other partners. I’ve also worked with people who don’t want to know anything at all about their partner’s outside relationships, and that’s perfectly fine, too.

There’s a reason people give well-meaning but misleading advice like this. It’s much easier than exploring the complicated truth of relationships: that there’s no one template, no script, no guidebook to follow that will guarantee success. Every relationship has to be negotiated, and nothing is set in stone.

Moreover, it’s very likely that the boundaries of your relationship will change and evolve with time. In the transition to a polyamorous relationship, people are often surprised by what they discover about themselves and their partners. Maybe one partner was certain that she wanted to know everything about every encounter, but now she’s obsessing over the details and wishing she hadn’t heard. Maybe another partner thought that learning what happened would make him jealous, but now he’s curious about what his partner experienced, and wants to learn more. These partners will have to keep talking, keep negotiating, and keep learning. Just as what works for one couple may not work for another couple, what works for one partner may not work for another partner. A relationship is not a set of rules, but a continuous conversation.

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all relationship. A relationship is something that people create. It is remade, in every moment, by the unique and complex individuals within it. Its rules are whatever you agree on. There is no one right way, only the way you discover together.