Couples Therapy

Making successful agreements in relationships

14237839666_0fd61552d4_zMaking great agreements is an art form. Trust is built or broken around agreements that are kept or not kept. Whether or not we keep our agreements is quietly (or sometimes noisily) noted by those around us, who view our character through the lens of Do we do what we say we’re going to do? Do we not do what we say we’re not going to do?

What I’ve determined, after some years of working with agreements between couples, is a great agreement is one where both parties get everything they want.

Making great agreements where each person gets everything she wants creates the foundation of a relationship. On the other hand, relationships end over poor agreements. As couples weave their relationships over time, from dating to living together long-term, there are thousands of agreements that each person must feel good about. From time agreements to household chores to money to sex to in-laws to child-rearing to free time to friends (and of course, the all-important agreements about the toothpaste tube and which way the toilet paper hangs), making great agreements will lead either to fulfillment and flow or resentment, power struggle, and deadlock.

Splendid agreements are the result of both (or all) people believing that their desires, as well as fears and sadnesses, have been heard and attended to.

On the other hand, broken agreements generally occur for a host of reasons. Here are some of those reasons:»One or both people were half-hearted while making the agreement.

»One was placating the other to avoid a fight or to go do something more fun than sitting around processing.
»There are hidden resentments.
»There are power dynamics coming forward (i.e., the one experiencing low-power isn’t saying what he wants, or the person in the high-power position is demanding she gets what she wants).
»Wheedling, cajoling, criticizing, browbeating, eye-rolling got the other person to give up what he really want?

Do you want an amazing relationship that neither one of you would ever want to leave? Here’s how to do that: make sure you both get want you want. Do you want a relationship where one or both of you gets sick of the whole thing? Here’s how you do that: rely on short-term strategies to keep the peace without taking the time to sort through how to ensure each person gets what he or she wants.

Have I convinced you to try a new way of making agreements? Then, here we go.

The process of coming to a successful agreement can be one of the most co-creative of a relationship, as the big, interesting question is,


How can we both get everything we want?

25453446826_874a3f169e_zDoes that sound wacky? I expect it does based on the pretty consistent reactions I have gotten in the past when I proposed this idea. People are just not used to a co-creative mode of relating, where we get to be equal partners in creating new ideas and solutions. Welcome to this new world!

Let me walk you through some important ideas about making really great agreements, the kind that will support both of you to express your full selves and thrive together.


Delete the Word Compromise from Your Brain

OK, I know it isn’t quite that easy. But this persistent relationship ideal of compromise gives people the message that they should give up half of what they want and be happy about it. That’s a short-term strategy that leads to long-term resentment and a life that is half lived. As you learn the process below, you’ll see that if you put the tools you’re learning to use, it really is possible for everyone to get everything they want. And that leads to terrific, fulfilling relationships.

Take a moment and really try out the following idea in your body. It might sound strange, especially if you’ve ever had the experience of having to fight for what you want. Here it is:


So long as you got everything you want, would it be OK with you if your partner got everything she or he wants?

Another way of putting this might be: as long as my fears and worries were taken fully into account, and I was helped by my partner to deal better with, or more creatively with these, I would be happy if they got what they wanted.

Read that through again. Talk to your body about it. Feel the relaxation that can come with the idea of you getting everything you want, of all your fears and worries connected with whatever issue you’re dealing with, being heard and fully taken on board. Breathe into the spaciousness of realizing you don’t have to compete or compromise or give up or give in. Instead, your task is to stay in the expansiveness of Creative Brain until you find the new idea, the one that you each like so well that it’s easy to agree to and implement.


Making Agreements Is a Team Sport

14945156677_5725994b93_zEach person is 100 percent responsible for making a great agreement. That means that strategies people have traditionally relied on to get our way (whining, cajoling, demanding, wheedling, pressuring, withdrawing, stonewalling, “forgetting,” going dumb, resisting, manipulating, bargaining, arguing, giving up) aren’t actually useful here. In this new world of great and successful agreements, finding what works for both people is the team goal. That requires each person to show up, be clear, be unarguable, and follow through with what she or he agrees to.

So let’s get to the nuts and bolts of making a great and successful agreement.

There are two ways to doing this, both of which we can work with in our sessions. For some agreements, particularly those where the background to the situation is quite complex and has a “history” behind it of hurt and worry, it is often best to do some Self-led Dialogues around the hurt and worry before coming to the agreement itself.

(More about Self-Led Dialogue here:

For less knotty problems, first, notice the signs that an agreement is necessary. These might include resentment, frustration, confusion about expectations, and an overall sense of spinning your wheels.

Then, when preparing to make an agreement, take a moment to ground yourself. Breathe. Be in your body. Move around, flap your arms, wiggle your hips. Ground yourself in Creative Brain, generating a sense of expansiveness and possibility in your body. Remind yourself that the goal is not for one person to win and the other to lose, but to co-create a wonderful new way of being that reflects both of you and the best of your relationship.

The first step in making a good agreement is for both people to state the bottom-line quality of exactly what they want

»not what each thinks the other wants or does not want,
»not what each thinks the “right way” is or should be, and
»not what someone else wants.

but the bottom-line quality.

13930297671_720644b16f_zGetting to the bottom line is the key step. It can take some time to get to what this is. For example, “I want to paint the house green” might shift to “I want to look at our house and feel soothing inside.”

“I want you to help around the house” might become “I want to be your equal and teammate in our relationship.” “I don’t want to do any stupid chores during my free time” could be “I want to feel free to make my own choices about how I spend my time.”

The next step is for each person to speak the unarguable truth about the issue. This is not about justifying a want. (“Because I want it” is really the best reason there is.) It is about trying to be clear about what is going on, so the other person can understand.

The unarguable truth (sensations, emotions, wants) around agreements might sound like this: “When I look around the house, my body feels tight. I feel scared that I’m alone in making sure it is orderly. Oh, even more, I’m afraid of other people’s judgments when they come inside. What I really want is to be your equal and to know that we’re on the same team. And I want to feel peaceful and calm.”

The other person’s view might be: “As we’re talking about this, my stomach feels tight and my jaw is clenched. I feel scared about having a fight with you about this. And I’m afraid of giving up what I really want. And I feel angry about how I’ve been doing that in my life in general. What I want is to decide how I want to spend my time. And I want to feel connected with you.”

Do you see how dropping into the unarguable truth starts moving you both onto the same team?

Once it is clear to both what each wants, the fun part is brainstorming a list of creative solutions, which is the next step. When you come up with a solution that is big enough for both of you to get most of what you want, you’ll know it, because:

»you’ll be able to breathe,

»it will feel like the solution is part of the flow, and

»your body will be relaxed and open.

When you come up with a possible agreement, check: Can you both hold yourselves fully accountable to following through with it? If so, agree to it. Appreciate yourselves for your creativity. Throw in a high-five!

Here’s an example of this process at work (though it’s almost never this linear):

Peter: “When I look around the house, my body feels tight. I feel scared that I’m alone in making sure it is orderly. Oh, even more, I’m afraid of other people’s judgments if they came inside. What I really want is to be your equal and to know that we’re on the same team. And I want to feel peaceful and calm.”

Chris: “As we’re talking about this, my stomach feels tight and my jaw is clenched. I feel scared about having a fight with you about this. And I’m afraid of giving up what I really want. And I feel angry about how I’ve been doing that in my life in general. What I want is to decide how I want to spend my time. And I want to feel connected with you.”

Peter: “I want that, too.”

Chris: “Yeah, I want to be equals and teammates, too. And I like the peaceful and calm thing.”

(Note that when you get to the bottom line, both people almost always want the same thing.)

Peter: “So, how can we both get what we want?”

Chris: “Now that we’ve talked about it, I feel a lot better. I think that I was just avoiding thinking about housework so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. And, now that I think about it, I want to have more fun with you. I have the story that our lives are full of ‘shoulds’ and not so much about being creative.”

Peter: “Yeah, I notice that I’m more relaxed just talking about it. Maybe what I really wanted was just to connect with you, to know we’re in this together.”

Chris: “OK, so what I really want is to have more fun and see what happens with the housework.”

Peter: “I appreciate how you bring up the fun thing. I want to have fun with you. And I plan to just do what I want and stop policing what you do. And I want to be more creative in my life in general.”

Chris: “OK, good. How about our agreement is that we plan some fun this week, and see what happens with the housework?”

Peter: “Yes! Let’s play around with creating that backyard art we’ve been talking about.”

Chris: “Yes! I’m there.”

What I find is that this process is necessary to just determine what the real problem is. For Peyton and Chris, it actually had nothing to do with the housework; it was an issue of fun and creativity. When I work with couples, I avoid even talking about solutions until they’ve used the unarguable truth to get to what is the real issue to be solved.


But What about Really Big Agreements?

24802579596_5229ba72b7_zHaving a baby. Moving for one person’s job . . . again. Having family move in. Selling everything to live on a sailboat. How does this process work for the really big decisions?

The process itself is the same. Each person takes time and space to get down to the bottom-line truth about how she feels and what she really wants, and then using Self-Led Dialogue, we slow down the process of sending and receiving so that both parties can really get a handle on what is being felt, as opposed to being said.

The difference for really big decisions is that it might take longer to get there: more wandering into old patterns that are apt to be clouding up the conversation; more time to feel to the very core; and more space to remember that you are allies on the same team. Give yourselves space to seesaw back and forth, letting each person try on the other side of the coin. Build in a whole lot of breathing, moving, and wondering, until your body tells you the whole truth and you’re able to openheartedly hear your partner’s.



Practice going from what you think you want to the bottom-line quality of what you want. Start small; as you get better at this, you can go bigger and bigger and find out what you really want.


I Think I Want Bottom-Line Quality
A sandwich for lunch. Something I feel satisfied by; something that I can chew.
A vacation to Hawaii. To feel warm and spacious, expanded and relaxed.
An open relationship. Do what I want to do when I want to do it.

Now you try it. Get out your journal and make two columns and fill them in.

-I Think I Want

-Bottom-Line Quality

To end where we began: great agreements are an art form, one that you might never even have seen before. Give yourself and your relationship team time and space — to become impeccable with your agreements, to use this process, to fail, and then try again. These skills build over time. Eventually, you’ll find the confidence that comes from knowing that you can trust yourself and each other. That will be wonderful, solid ground that you can stand on. Together.


11296631613_f988134438_zThis tool contains everything I’ve been walking you through, so give yourselves plenty of practice with it. Take it slowly. And when you can get all the way through the steps, please celebrate — you’ve just crossed the bridge to a radically alive relationship!

1.Take a moment to breathe and remind yourselves that the goal is to come up with a really creative solution that reflects the best of both of you and in which you can both get everything you want.

2.Person 1 states the bottom-line quality of what he wants and the unarguable truth about the issue. Then Person 2 does the same thing. Make a list of all of these qualities.

Stop the process if either of you goes into Reactive Brain (i.e. you find yourself blaming, getting angry, jumping into the Boxing Ring of the power struggle). Use Emotional Shift tool (Steve will work with you on this if not covered already) to get back to Creative Brain/Self. Do this as often as is necessary.

Take your time in getting to the bottom line. It will be worth it.

3.Brainstorm a list of creative solutions that incorporate the qualities of what you each want. Push yourselves to come up with some that might seem crazy or off-the-wall so you can really stretch out into the wide expanse of Creative Brain. Have some fun with this.

4.Decide which solution is big enough for both of you to get what you want. Can you both breathe? Do your bodies feel expansive? Does this agreement seem to be easy to carry out?

5.Check this solution: Can you both hold yourselves fully accountable to following through with it? If so, bravo! You’ve made a great agreement.

6.Writing your agreement down can be very helpful, especially for the stickier issues. (You may want to have a Relationship Agreement Journal to track what you’ve come up with.)

Once you’ve tried out the agreement, it may need to be modified. Like an engine that is designed in the lab but then needs to be taken on a test drive, adjustments and tweaks are inevitable. It is the responsibility of each person to ask the other to renegotiate the agreement if it needs to be adjusted (which could be ongoing, as even the most carefully constructed agreements can run aground when put into practice). To keep the power of agreements alive in a relationship, both people must agree to any change (versus what people are tempted to do, which is to simply say to themselves, “I never liked that agreement anyway, so I’m just not going to follow it”).

(Bottom-line agreements adapted from, Chapter 14)