Just for fun imagine that, after getting to know your partner well enough to recognize that you were interested in them, they told you they wanted to talk. Let’s create a couple for this imagination.
Meet Pat and Taylor. Feel free to assign gender roles as you wish.
A few weeks after Pat meets Taylor, they decide that things are starting to move in a more committed direction. Wishing to establish the rules of the relationship early, Pat asks Taylor if they can talk. Taylor agrees and Pat explains, “I like you. I can see us together as a couple. So, I have some rules and agreements to discuss with you. I just want to make sure my expectations are going to work for you.”
Pleased, because they feel the same way, Taylor encourages Pat to continue.
Pat lays it all out for Taylor. “If we’re going to be a couple, I want you to know that I will be responsible for how you feel, and you will be responsible for how I feel. If I feel bad, it will be your responsibility to make me feel good. And it goes without saying that if you feel bad, its my responsibility to make you feel good.
“Here’s how that will work. If I feel bad, I will expect you to make me feel better. I want you to know it’s alright for you to ask for reassurance that I still love you even if I feel bad. But I may not be able to comfort you because I won’t be able to. I’m probably going to continue to feel bad until you make me feel better.
“Since it’s my job to make you feel good, I will probably feel guilty for not being able to reassure you. When I feel guilty I get angry. So, don’t take it too personally if I snap at you when you ask to be comforted when you have failed to make me feel good.
“Is this all making sense?” Pat realizes they have said a lot and wants to be sure Taylor is keeping up.
Realizing that Pat is serious, Taylor says, “I mean, I understand what you’re saying. But…”
“Great!” Pat interrupts. “There’s more. If at any time you feel bad…which I don’t expect to happen because I’m really good at making the people I love feel good…but if you do for any reason feel bad, then I will feel blamed. I will know you are blaming me because it’s my job to make you feel good and if you feel bad, clearly, I’m not doing my job. So, of course you would be blaming me. And it feels really crappy to get blamed so I will feel guilty that you feel bad and I will feel angry and act defensive. I just want you to know so you can make me feel better. Until you do that, I won’t be able to make you feel better. So don’t blame me if I treat you badly because that would clearly be your fault.”
Of course, this would never happen. When we are emotionally immature, we don’t come into relationships fully aware of the rules and expectations that we have for the other. And like Taylor, if we knew we were getting into a relationship like that, we may have second thoughts.
As ridiculous as the story of Pat and Taylor sounds, many of us have or have had relationships where those rules and expectations were honored. These rules and expectations aren’t usually spoken, although they might be loudly proclaimed when things come to a head. The result of these covert agreements is that eventually the partners become enemies who occasionally remember why thy used to like each other.
What if you could negotiate a different agreement? If you find yourself in a relationship that tries to follow the rules that Pat described to Taylor, you don’t have to leave the relationship to find happiness and joy.
Let’s use Pat and Taylor again to imagine a different possibility.
Pat and Taylor have been getting to know each other over the past few months and it becomes clear that there is mutual attraction. They find themselves spending more and more time together.
One day, Taylor tells Pat, “I like you. I can see us being a couple. In fact it looks and feels that way to me now. Does it feel that way to you?”
“It does!” Pat agrees happily.
Taylor continues, “I’ve had some pretty unworkable relationships in the past and recognize that I contributed to the unworkability of those relationships. I don’t want to recreate that with you. So, I’d like to talk with you about some rules and expectations. Are you willing to have that conversation with me right now?”
“Sure!” Pat says, eager to hear Taylor’s ideas.
“Here are the agreements I would like to make with you. We can talk about each of them and I don’t expect either of us to do this perfectly, but these are my expectations if we are going to be a couple,” Taylor began.
“First, we agree that I am responsible for how I feel and you are responsible for how you feel. If I feel bad, it just means I have something going on inside that I am responsible to work out. Same for you. If you feel bad, it means you have something going on inside that you are responsible to work out.” Taylor paused.
“That makes sense,” Pat said. “So if I feel bad can I count on you to support me as I work it out?”
“Yes!” Taylor answered, “because if I’m not taking responsibility for how you feel, I’m actually in a much better place to support you than if I feel like I have to make you feel better or that it’s my fault that you feel bad.”
If Taylor and Pat can honor this agreement, there is a pretty good chance they can have a healthy, supportive, and loving relationship. The challenge, of course will be to work with any existing beliefs and expectations that argue with the agreement. If they don’t know how to do that, they may have to get some help from an Internal Family Systems (IFS) coach or therapist.
But the inner work required to address those counter-productive beliefs and expectations is well worth the effort. For those of us who have endured and survived a relationship guided by the first covert agreement, it’s a relief knowing there is another option.
A relationship guided by the second overt agreement creates a clean and safe space which can hold the capacity to love and be loved.
Would you like to learn more about creating workable agreements? Schedule a Free 30-Minute Discovery Session with Self-Led Coach Bill Tierney.