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Five Reasons Agreements Fail

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[NOTE: This article is an excerpt adapted from my Agreements Workbook Series (aka "KISSable Agreements) to appear later 2013. If you'd like to get word as soon as it becomes available, feel free to join my list by downloading one of the free tools on my website (remember to give me a valid email address, and to confirm that address, or I won't be able to send you the tool!)

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~♥ Dawn Davidson

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Five Reasons (Most) Agreements Fail

So here you are, with your brand-new, shiny Agreement. That’s great! Having an agreement is a good thing. As I discussed at the beginning of this KISSable Agreements Workbook, Agreements are "a tool for establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries between or amongst individuals." They can help increase intimacy, support feelings of safety, provide structure and support, and serve as a memory aid. Simply going through the process of figuring out what your needs are, and making an Agreement (even if you choose not to write it down) can often clarify things for the individuals, and help create harmony and trust in a relationship.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is:  Nobody’s perfect! At some point your Agreement will likely fail. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad or tragic thing.  It just is. Agreements are iterative, which means that it is normal to engage in “trial and refinement” a few times before you get it right. Often, all that needs to happen is a slight adjustment, a little re-negotiation, and you’re back in business. The good news is that — so long as you've checked your caveats and assumptions, and everyone is being an adult and negotiating in good faith — there are only five main reasons that things don’t go right.  Here’s what they are, and some ideas of what to do in each case.

1) Simply Forgetting

Especially when we’re learning new behaviors, we human beings have a tendency to forget things. For some folks this is more true than others, but even for people who have good memories, it can take a while to get used to something new.  In general, if someone forgets an Agreement once or twice, it’s no big deal.  If, however, this “forgetting” turns into a pattern, then it’s more likely to be a symptom of something deeper, and/or perhaps one of the other Five Reasons.

Even enlightened bonobos sometimes forget their Agreements!

What to do?

Practice compassion and forgiveness. Remember that no one is perfect (including yourself.)  If this is not the first time that this particular Agreement has been forgotten, then consider looking deeper into the other Five Reasons, or the Caveats and Assumptions. Is there something else going on?  Consider re-writing or clarifying the Agreement, or brainstorm ways to support memory (e.g., do you need a reminder card? A shareable website? To write your Agreements in Limerick form?) Check the Learning and Memory section of the References/Resources [in the workbook, TBD] for a few suggestions on where to start learning more about memory and learning (e.g., http://www.brainrules.net/the-rules)

2) Missed Contingency

A “missed contingency” means that something came up that should have been covered by the agreement, but wasn’t. Maybe you didn’t foresee this particular set of circumstances, or didn’t anticipate the particular outcome.

“Life is what happens to you while you're busy making
other plans.”

John Lennon, in “Beautiful Boy
(Darling Boy),” released 1980

What to do?

Revisit the Agreement.  Decide whether you need to add something specific to it, or change the wording. Remember, though, that you still need KISSable Agreements, so don’t make things more complex than necessary!

3) Differing Interpretations of the Agreement

Sometimes you think you have an Agreement, but you really don’t. It’s like the classic situation portrayed so ably in Woody Allen’s 1977 film, Annie Hall [see Table below.]

Alvy [Woody Allen’s character] and Annie [Hall]  are seeing their therapists at the same time on a split screen
Therapist: How often do you sleep together? Therapist: Do you have sex often?
Alvy Singer: [lamenting] Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week. Annie Hall: [annoyed] Constantly. I'd say three times a week.
—Woody Allen, in Annie Hall (1977). From IMDB “Memorable Quotes,” 2/11/13

Sometimes you’re even using the same words, but to each person they mean slightly (or radically!) different things. Perhaps you’ve found one of your ambiguous terms (see Tip #2a), or perhaps you and your Agreement Partner have different Secret Rulebook entries [see RelationDancing: Consciously Creating What You Really Want In Your Relating, by Mark Michael Lewis] Whatever the case, these sorts of fundamental misunderstandings do sometimes occur, even when everyone’s doing their best.

What to do?

Again, the action to take is most likely to revisit the Agreement, renegotiate it with the new information, and possibly clarify or change the wording. Other things that might be helpful are practicing compassion, assuming positive intent (and/or good faith), and remembering that different is not necessarily better/worse.

4) Agreement Was Not Additive

Remember that in Tip #3 (Make Additive Agreements) we discussed creating Agreements that gave new behavioral options when encountering old situations. So rather than agreeing to “stop spending too much money on your other partner/s,” you might wish to agree to “only spend $x on each partner per month.” The second option gives a concrete alternative to the behavior that’s being changed. Failing to provide a replacement behavior is one of the main reasons for an Agreement to fail, in large part because humans are creatures of habit, and habits are notoriously hard to break, once formed [e.g., http://www.spring.org.uk/2010/07/how-to-banish-bad-habits-and-control-temptations.php].

What to do?

By now, you know the refrain!  Go back to your Agreements with the new knowledge.  What sort of replacement behavior might work for this situation? Perhaps you need several options? (Remember to make the Agreements KISSable, though!) And remember that everyone involved needs to own their part of the Agreement. Scapegoating isn’t additive, either.

5) Agreement Simply Can’t Work

Sometimes, even if you’ve tried as hard as you can, checked all the assumptions, looked at all the options, reviewed and brainstormed, and generally done everything in your power… sometimes you discover that there’s some reason that the Agreement simply cannot work. Maybe there’s a pre-existing commitment standing in the way.  Maybe you were trying an experiment, and you’ve discovered something new that tells you it just isn’t going to work. Maybe it’s just more effort than you’re willing or able to put in, for not enough return.  Whatever the reason, sometimes, you just can’t.

What to do?

So what happens then? First and foremost, practice compassion. Finding out that an Agreement can’t work is a piece of data.  It might have been a mistake, it might have been a failed experiment, but in any case,  an Agreement that can’t work isn’t a judgment on any party to the Agreement, nor is it necessarily an indication of moral failure, nor the imminent demise of the relationship.  People make mistakes.  Sometimes people make big mistakes.  Remember that mistakes are part of learning.  Have some compassion for yourself and your partner/s, take a breath, and don’t panic.

Oops! Road sign

Next, do what you always do for a broken Agreement, just on a slightly bigger scale. A small amount of tweaking won’t fix this one, unfortunately.  Is there a different Agreement, or set of Agreements, that you can make? Do you need the help of a mediator, a counselor, or a physician? Evaluate the situation as clearly and calmly as possible, and see if there are clear next steps.

Sometimes those next steps might mean writing new Agreements… and sometimes they might mean changing the form of the relationship.  If you suspect that there’s something in need of fundamental change in your relationship, you might want to consult Appendix C (Is It Over?), or check with a counselor, therapist, or mediator (see the suggested Resources.)  In any case, remember that just because an Agreement or a relationship needs to change or end, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a failure… it could mean that, as Richard Bach says, you’re ready for graduation.

∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥ ∞ ♥

[© 2013 Dawn M. Davidson]

[See the Table of Contents for the Agreements Workbook Series]

[See the first text entry in the Agreements Workbook series]

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