Recovering After a Broken Agreement

Apr 28, 2022

We all know the sinking feeling when we realize we’ve messed up and now it’s time for a tough conversation. Here’s my advice for handling the situation as well as you possibly can.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been writing about relationship agreements in the context of non-monogamy. So far I’ve been focusing on how to avoid pitfalls and set yourself up for success. Now I want to turn to a more challenging topic: what do you do when you’ve actually broken an agreement? 

Deciding to open the conversation

Maybe there was no secrecy about it, and your broken agreement was obvious to all involved, in which case your job now is participating in a conversation about what went wrong and what you can do to make things work better next time. It is also possible that you are now holding a secret that there was a broken agreement. In that case, the first step is to make a decision to open the conversation, rather than waiting for the broken agreement to be discovered in some other way.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being a therapist, it is that secrets have a way of surfacing, sooner or later. And secrets cause their own pain, which is often more upsetting to a partner than the broken agreement itself. While it is very difficult to admit your mistakes, I strongly recommend it. For one thing, carrying a secret takes energy you would probably prefer to spend in some other way. Secrets also cause a lot of damage; the impact of keeping secrets is often more painful and complex than the original issue of the broken agreement. 

Because polyamory is based on transparency, you are in the ideal situation to choose honesty over secrecy, because you know that everyone involved values honesty. That points to another reason to disclose the broken agreement right away: honesty, especially in tough situations, builds trust. Opening hard conversations and disclosing information your partner isn’t comfortable with when that is necessary is one of the best ways to build trust. While this conversation may be challenging right now, in the future your partner will be able to relax, rather than worrying that you’re holding a secret. Ultimately, knowing that you’re up to the challenge of telling the hard truth will be a weight off their mind.

Get honest with yourself

Give some serious thought to what actually happened. Were you clear on what the agreement was? Would your partner agree with you about what the agreement was? Do you still think it was a good agreement at least in theory? Why or why not? How and when did you decide to break the agreement? Was this a conscious choice? If not, how did it come about beneath your conscious awareness? Did it occur to you to renegotiate the agreement instead of breaking it? If not, think carefully about why this didn’t occur to you. If it did occur to you, think carefully about how you decided not to do it. Were there some points during the unfolding of events when you wish you would have made a different choice? Why or why not? 

You should plan to discuss all of these questions with the partner with whom you had the agreement, because really understanding what happened and how, on your end, is key to the process of evaluating the agreement to see if it needs revision or clarification.

Preparing for the conversation

Now that you have decided to open the conversation about the broken agreement, or disclose it if your partner isn’t yet aware of it, you will want to take a few minutes to get your head in the game. Think about how you want to show up for this conversation. What kind of partner do you want to be? Why is discussing a broken agreement important to you? 

Get in touch with your best self. Keep your values at the forefront of your mind as you and your partner move through this material together. It might take just one conversation to iron things out, or it might take many. Cultivate an attitude of curiosity about what your partner experienced, while staying honest about your actions and taking responsibility for your choices. This process is complete when both of you feel confident about your agreements, and trustful moving forward. However much effort it takes, make an agreement with yourself that you will stick with the process, show up in accordance with your values, and reap the reward of closure as a result.

Prepare for some discomfort

There are a lot of factors that will go into how your partner may respond to this conversation–for instance, how serious the broken agreement was, how important this agreement has been to your partner, and whether or not you kept it secret. They may be very hurt, or they may take it in stride. In any case, it will help a lot if you have taken the above steps to prepare, but you also should prepare for some discomfort on the part of all involved. Your partner might be hurt, angry, disappointed, resentful, disbelieving, curious, matter-of-fact, or anything in between.

If your partner is in a lot of pain, taking responsibility for your choices and your actions that resulted in the broken agreement will be key. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen, or minimize the importance of a broken agreement. Acknowledge that you could have made different choices. Honestly assess how things unfolded, what you wish you had done differently, and identify how you would actually do it differently in similar circumstances. 

It may be very challenging to hold steady for these conversations. Nonetheless, stay with it. Stay in touch with your values, and take breaks if you need to in order to not shut down or get defensive. This is all leading to you and your partner understanding one another more deeply. And that sets the stage for making better agreements in the future.

Ask warm and genuinely curious questions

Part of your goal is to try to get to the point where you can fully understand your partner’s experience. Ask plenty of questions: What hurt? What was hard? What wasn’t so hard? How did your partner perceive events? What interpretation did they put on those events? How would they prefer for you to have handled the situation and why? Try to access curiosity, and do your best to learn as much as you can about what your partner is feeling and thinking, and what they experienced.

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to make your experiences correspond exactly. Your version of history and theirs will never match, so focus instead on what they perceived, and how they made meaning from what they perceived. Express your appreciation of them for sharing their truth with you. See if you can slow down and be grounded enough to access empathy for their experience without having to make it match yours.

Make a plan for the future

I think it is fair to say that nobody’s goal is to break an agreement. To this end, think about what you would do differently if a similar situation arose in the future, and ask your partner for their feedback about what would have worked better for them. What do you wish you had communicated about? What emotions led up to the situation, and how would you like to handle them in the future? Were there any loopholes in your relationship agreements? Do you need to revisit any of those relationship agreements and make sure you’re on the same page? If you don’t feel comfortable with the previous agreement, now is the time to revise it.

It’s extremely important to avoid the urge to assuage your partner’s fears by making hasty promises. If you’re not actually sure that you would do things differently in a similar situation, don’t promise that you will. Think how much more uncomfortable and painful this conversation will be if you break the agreement again! Don’t set yourself and your partner up for failure. Instead, hold steady, and gently and warmly tell your partner that you’re not ready to make that agreement because you don’t want to make any promises that you’re not certain you can honor. If possible, offer them an alternative–for instance, “I can’t promise that I’ll never end up staying away later than planned, but I can promise that I’ll contact you when my plans change so that you’re not left wondering where I am.”

A Path Forward

You should also know that even if a conversation is difficult in the moment, honesty is very likely to pay off in the long term. Your partner will be much more likely to trust you if they know that you don’t whitewash the truth or avoid tough disclosures. The intimacy and vulnerability that honesty makes possible are what keep a relationship vibrant and alive in the long term.

Consider enlisting a therapist

Making good agreements and accomplishing a repair are both quite challenging. If you find yourself really struggling at any point, consider seeking out a professional for help. An individual therapist can help you prepare for the conversation, assess what happened for you, and give you strategies for holding steady emotionally throughout. Additionally, if you and your partner need some support in navigating the repair process together, or negotiating agreements, a relationship therapist can be an essential support.

The blog was originally published in Psychology Today.

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