Agreements and Understandings

In any relationship it is essential that we have the capacity to come to an agreement. This is an essential aspect of what it means to resolve a conflict. So let's look at some aspects of what we might mean when we talk about forming an agreement.

Jane has seen how angry Joe can get sometimes when Jack is not obeying him so she has spoken to Joe about her concern that they respect and "validate" the feelings their children have. She asked him if he also believes that validating the boys' feelings is important and he shrugged and said, "Sure." "And", she added, "I think we should check in with each other when we are disciplining the boys so we know we are on the same page." Again Joe shrugged, "Of course."

Early one evening as Joe was just getting home and Jane was working with Jesse on his homework, Joe finds himself irritated that Jack is playing a video game instead of doing his own homework. When confronted Jack states, "It's done. I did it all at school."

Joe goes into the kitchen to hang up his keys and notices that the trash is overflowing. He calls to Jack and tells him to take out the trash now.

"As soon as I finish this level," replies Jack.

Joe storms into the front room where Jack is playing and demands that he put the game controller down this instant and take out the trash.

"Dad, I'm almost to a save place. If I quit now I will have to start this level over," pleads Jack.

Jane appears at the doorway and says, "Joe, honey, can we talk?"

Jane is both angry and scared about what she sees going on with Joe and Jack. She is afraid of how this may escalate but she is angry because she feels as though Joe is violating their agreement. When Joe realizes that Jane is angry at him, he becomes angry at her. As far as he is concerned, she is violating their agreement.

Jane thought they had an agreement that they would be sensitive to the feelings of their sons and would let the boys know that what they are each feeling matters. They would not just run roughshod over them insisting on them being who they as parents want the boys to be. Further, she can see that Joe is about to impose consequences on Jack but she knows they haven't spoken about it and Joe hasn't invited Jane into the process.

Joe thought they had an agreement that it was Jack's chore to take out the trash when it was full and that they wanted the boys to learn personal responsibility and to set aside their immediate gratification for the welfare of the household. Further, he thought that he and Jane had an agreement that they wouldn't undermine each other's authority with the boys. Her choice to speak to him in the middle of his intervention with Jack does just that.

The process of constructing power with others is essentially a process of coming to an understanding of who we are to each other, what we are trying to accomplish together, and what we are going to do to create what we all need. We create these understandings casually and formally.

I recently had a stretch of fence in my back yard replaced. In order to get permission to do this I had to apply to the city for a building permit. I filled out a form, took and submitted photographs, and paid a fee. I received a form in return that allowed the work to proceed.

When the workmen showed up to do the work it was immediately clear that they knew what they were doing and took pride in their work. While they conversed with each other they did not need to talk about the job. With a glance of the eyes or a nod of the head they spoke to the one at the other end of the board or the one with the nail gun. They understood what they needed to do and they did it. It was poetry in motion.

Coming to an understanding between two (or more) parties requires certain things of the parties. Each makes requests about what they want to have happen and each makes promises about what they are willing to do.

I made a request of the city to get permission to replace the fence and promised to have it built in compliance with the plans I submitted. The city requested detailed plans and a fee and promised to allow the construction if it met the promised design. We formalized our understanding with a permit.

I made a request of the builder to get a certain style of fence built and he promised to build it. He made a request of a fee for the work and I promised to pay. We formalized our understanding with a contract.

The construction crew made a series of promises and requests to each other as they worked together on the job. Their understanding was created and carried out with no formal structure. It was not just unwritten, but, as nearly as I could tell, it was not even spoken.

In some circumstances, as we try to construct an understanding (thereby creating power with another) we find there are power imbalances. This imbalance disrupts our ability to create and maintain a stable understanding. If one party to the understanding feels less powerful in the relationship this imbalance may hamper the ability of the relationship to sustain power with and it will degenerate into power over.

If one who is perceived to have more power makes a request, it may be experienced by the other party as a demand. In that case, the response of the lesser party may be more about compliance than a promise.

We may be unaware that the understanding was hampered by the power inequities until we find that the understanding doesn't hold. We find that our expectations are not being met.

Jane says to Joe, "I thought we agreed we would validate the boys' feelings."

"Validate their feelings? What do feelings have to do with this? Jack has a chore to do and he hasn't done it. I thought we had an agreement that he was to take out the trash?"

"Yes, it is his job to take out the trash, but when you come down on him with both feet like that you are treating him like his feelings don't matter. Didn't you agree that we would respect the boys' feelings?"

"I remember you telling me that you wanted us to validate their feelings. I understand that is important to you. But I had no idea that meant that I was supposed to let him play his game when he has chores to do."

"If you weren't sure about what we had agreed, why didn't you come talk to me? You knew I was in the dining room helping Jesse with his homework. Didn't we agree that we would work together when disciplining the boys?"

"What? I need your permission to ask our son to do his chores? If I had come and bothered you about this, you would have been angry with me for interrupting and then you would have taken it over and handled it your way. You never consult with me about how you deal with the boys."

As Joe and Jane discuss this situation they discover just how far they are from having an agreement. There are multiple layers of misunderstanding. What might it mean to validate the boys' feelings? How do they check things out with each other when they are in the midst of addressing issues with their children? Do they have a genuinely mutual relationship around child-rearing or do they each see Jane as the primary care-giver and, therefore, the one with ultimate authority to decide what they will do?

Building durable agreements is very important for the health of relationships of whatever kind, and it is very hard to do. We are looking at some specific tools for doing this as we explore more of the Disciplines, but, for now, let's identify some characteristics of a durable agreement.

  • It must be created in a context in which both parties are committed to having power with the other. Even in a fiduciary relationship there can be a commitment to power with if there is a wish to build durable agreements.

Jack has much less power than his parents and they have a fiduciary responsibility to be sure he grows into an adult who can know and meet the expectations of others. Having him do chores in the household is a way for him to learn responsibility. But for Jack's part, does he want to be someone who contributes in a meaningful way to the welfare of the family and the household? If he doesn't, then there is a bigger problem here than taking out the trash.

If Joe and Jane approach Jack by saying that he has to carry his weight and he has to take out the trash or else it is likely he will be resentful of their power over him. But if they wonder with him whether he is mature enough to begin to help out in the household and see if he thinks he would be able to take out the trash, he is likely to say, sure, he can handle that. Then the chore is evidence of his maturity, not of his servitude. They are constructing power with instead of power over.

  • It must be created in a context in which both parties are clear about the requests and the promises of the other. In some cases this may be formalized in a written document, but more often it is simply a verbal confirmation.

When Jane asked Joe to agree to validate the boys' feelings, he had no idea what she was talking about. He knew that he wants them to know they are important to him, and he wants them to know and express their own feelings. But he hasn't a clue how this might translate into how he deals with them when they are ducking their responsibilities.

  • And, it must be created in a context which appreciates the difficulty of maintaining agreements and knows that they will have to be repaired, perhaps many times. Not only do we not know what the other is requesting or promising, we don't know that we don't know. We assume we are fully clear until our expectations are not met.

Joe and Jane will have to consider how they want to handle these situations in the future. This is certainly not the last time any of these issues will arise for them. They will have to value the agreement and its capacity to build power with more than their wish to be right, to blame and shame each other, and to fall back into power over.

While we can construct our relationships any way we choose, there are some structures which build durable and satisfying relationships, and there are some which are fragile and frustrating. However we decide to construct our relationships, they will be highly conflicted if we don't agree on the structure.

Some of the elements in the structure of any relationship include the ways that power is distributed, especially how we share rights and responsibilities, and how we make decisions. When we believe we have an understanding but we find that we are still not acting in keeping with each others' expectations, we may need to do some careful work at creating and repairing durable agreements.

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