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6 Agreements for a Healthy Relationship
SIX AGREEMENTS FOR HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS
Move Expectations to Requests. Move Obligation Imagination to Commitments
Make any request you want to make
Say Yes or Say No
Accept Disappointment and Hurt
Watch for Power Differentials
MOVING FROM EXPECTATIONS AND OBLIGATIONS TO REQUESTS AND COMMITMENTS
Caitlyn: Mom, can I borrow your new boots?
Sherry: Sure honey
Later that day…
Sherry: Caitlyn is so annoying! I wanted to wear my new boots and she borrowed them!
Gabe: Without asking you?
Sherry: No, she asked. I couldn’t say no, because she’d be so disappointed.
Caitlyn: Mom, what’s the matter? Why are you acting mad at me?
Sherry: I wanted to wear those boots today! You are so selfish!
Caitlyn: Well soooorry! You don’t have to guilt me about it! You’re such an annoying mother. Fine. I won’t ask for anything ever again.
Does this sort of scenario feel familiar?
I call it “Obligation Imagination.” Sherry had an obligation imagination that she had to lend her boots to Caitlyn.
How about this?:
Me at a staff meeting: “Oh my god, that new young staff person, Colton, didn’t even offer to wash my dishes. He has no respect for his elders. I can’t believe he was hired!”
This anger and judgment is the result of my expectations.
Relationships based on expectations and obligations tend to be painful.
They assume that there exists a giant book of right and wrong, to which each of us has access, so that we can somehow know, and agree on, what is good, right, and appropriate.
They assume that disappointment is not OK. That if someone feels disappointment, then someone else is at fault. Instead of realizing that disappointment is the natural emotion one feels when one is bringing themselves into alignment with reality – that what they wanted isn’t going to happen.
Let’s look at what happened in these situations:
Caitlyn made a request.
Sherry, believing Caitlyn had an expectation to be given the boots, created in herself an ‘obligation imagination.’ Sherry felt obligated, like she ‘had’ to give Caitlyn the boots. So she said ‘yes’ when she meant ‘no.’
Sherry then felt resentment towards Caitlyn.
Sherry criticized Caitlyn to Gabe.
Sherry expressed anger to Caitlyn, implying Caitlyn did something wrong, and was at fault for Sherry’s disappointment. She threw Caitlyn the fishing line with guilt as bait.
Caitlyn bought into the implication, and bit the bait, and then felt guilty.
Caitlyn then blamed Sherry for ‘making her’ feel guilty.
Caitlyn solved the problem by disconnecting from the relationship. She said she wouldn’t make requests anymore because she can’t read Sherry’s mind and wouldn’t be able to trust the truth of Sherry’s yes’s.
At a staff meeting, I am the ‘elder’ of the group. I have an expectation that the young, newest staff member, Colton, will ‘show respect for his elders.’ What that looks like to me, is that he will offer to clean my dishes. I assume that Colton can simply check the big book of right and wrong, and know, that he ‘should’ clean my dishes.
What could occur is that this young man might happen to have the exact same obligation imaginations that perfectly match my expectations. Or possibly he could read my mind…I guess that could happen too? In which case, he will wash my dishes. The best that can happen out of this situation, is that I don’t get mad at him. That’s the best case scenario.
But more likely, he won’t happen to have the exact same obligations to match my expectations. Then I will be mad at him, judge him, throw him the guilt-baited fishing line, and ‘make’ him feel wrong and bad.
How could this look different?
To heal dysfunction in relationships based on expectation, simply speak your expectations as requests.
An expectation assumes the other person is obligated by moral duty. That they ‘should’ do it, and if they don’t they’re bad/wrong/immoral.
A request recognizes the other person’s intrinsic freedom, and acknowledges that if they do say yes, it is a gift to you, or a decision they made (maybe for a swap) from a place of freedom.
This opens up much more opportunity for autonomy, love, and appreciation in the relationship.
Caitlyn did make a healthy request.
Sherry said yes, but she meant no.
She could have said “No, Caitlyn, I was planning to wear the boots today,” or
If Sherry would feel happiness by meeting her own need for contribution by lending the boots to Caitlyn, then she could have said ‘yes,’ and enjoyed the giving of this gift.
Gabe could have said “If Caitlyn is disappointed, that’s OK. She’ll be fine. As of now though, she is the recipient of your criticism. I’d bet that she’d have preferred if you were honest and said ‘no.’”
Instead of Caitlyn buying into the implication that she did something wrong, or was responsible for Sherry’s disappointment by making the request, she could say, “Mom, when I asked for the boots, I would have been fine if you had said ‘no.’ I’d feel disappointed but only temporarily. I’d find a different strategy to meet my need. When I ask you in the future I will say ‘Mom, would it meet your need for contribution and make you feel happy to lend me your boots?’ Because that’s what my request really means. And I hope you’ll answer me honestly. If you won’t ever say ‘no’ to me, then I’ll never trust that your yes’s are true.
Many people hold obligation imaginations that aren’t even reflective of any expectation from another person. It is often helpful to verify the imagination, by asking the other party if they have a request they’d like to make. Maybe a mom is going to all kinds of trouble to make a cake for her child’s birthday at school, but the school doesn’t even want her to do it. She could check with the school before just assuming the obligation. And even then, she can say a free yes or no to the request.
Another scenario that might occur at the staff meeting is that I turn my expectation into a request. “Colton, would you mind washing my dishes for me? It would help me to be able to finish up this project I’m doing.” Then Colton, in his freedom, could say yes or no. If he says yes, I feel appreciation towards him, which he enjoys.
Or, yet another scenario, I don’t have any expectations of Colton. But maybe, he offers to wash my dishes for me. Then I get a little surprised, my eyebrows go up. Then I smile and I feel so much appreciation. He sees my eyebrows and my smile, and he feels happy. His need for contribution and connection is met. Double win.
2. MAKE ANY REQUEST YOU WANT TO MAKE
When it is agreed that a person can say no, this relieves a lot of pressure about request making. If you are afraid that the person will say yes when they mean no, then you might be afraid to make a request. But when you know they will take the responsibility to say no, you can ask whatever you like. “Will you lick the floor?” is a perfectly lovely request.
3. SAY YES (AND FOLLOW THROUGH) OR SAY NO (DON’T SAY YES, IF YOU MEAN NO)
Once a person makes a request, it is most helpful if the other person responds with a yes or no. Or with a suggested amendment to the request so that it meets their needs too. “Sure I’ll lend you the boots, but could you return them by 4pm so I can wear them to my evening class?”
Saying no is a perfectly lovely response to a request. Communicating why you are saying no, i.e. articulating what need of yours you are trying to meet that is getting in the way of you saying yes, is often helpful to soften the pain of the no. “I’d love to lend you my boots, but I plan to wear them this afternoon.”
If a person says yes, then this is a commitment. It is a great strain on a relationship if a person doesn’t follow through with their commitments. We all have unforeseen obstacles come up that get in the way of us following through on our commitments, and that’s fine. To stay in integrity with the other person, we’d just need to communicate with them as soon as possible, and to offer, to the best of your ability, to make amends.
And as we saw with Sherry, to say yes when you mean no, is not a gift to the other person.
Sometimes, you will decide to say yes, even though you don’t feel like granting the request. When your baby cries in the night, you might not feel like getting up, but you decide, in your freedom, to do so.
4. DISAPPOINTMENT AND HURT ARE HEALTHY EMOTIONS, BRINGING THE PERSON INTO ALIGNMENT WITH REALITY.
Every emotion has a helpful purpose. We feel disappointment when we are accepting the reality that we are not going to get something we wanted. We feel hurt when we are accepting that someone doesn’t like us, as much as we wanted them to. It is very important to allow this emotion to do its work, and bring us to a place of accepting the reality of our world.
These emotional experiences are temporary. They aren’t damaging. If we can realize this, support the person to accept the emotion, and provide an empathic presence for the person while they experience this temporary pain, we are doing them a much bigger service than to try to blame someone, to deny the feeling, or to lie to prevent the feeling from happening. It’s ok to feel. That’s what they are needing to know.
It seems that the fear of disappointment or hurt is what drives people into unhealthy relationship methods.
Another problem that drives unhealthy relationships is when we don’t respect each other’s no’s. The person saying no is blamed for the requester’s feeling of hurt or disappointment. As part of the six agreements, everyone has to agree that everyone is responsible for their own feelings, and to not take responsibility for someone else’s feelings. (Except for your dependents). By blaming the person who said no for your feelings, you are making it more likely that in the future they will say yes when they mean no, and then you will be subjected to their resentment, or them not following through, etc.
5. WATCH FOR POWER DIFFERENTIALS
In most of our day to day relationships, we can make these six agreements for healthy relationship, but it is also important to be conscious that in some relationships, the other party is unable/unempowered/ or has cultural taboos against saying no when they mean no.
In this case, you can make a very clear request, giving explicit permission for a free no. “Please say no to my request, unless it will benefit you in some way, or make you happy, to grant it. I only want you to say yes if this would be a memnoon.” A memnoon is a transaction that benefits both parties. A win/win.
Sometimes the other party can’t say no - such as Mother Earth, or animals, or young children. In this case, you can take responsibility to hear their no by whatever means is available to you, such as asking yourself, ‘If I were them, would I say yes or no?’
6. MAKE DEMANDS
In Nonviolent Communication, they talk about demands in a way that makes it seem like you’d want to avoid them. Here’s where my thinking differs a little bit. While I agree that making a demand, rather than a request, creates disconnect in a relationship, there are times where I believe making a demand is the healthiest way to go.
If the other person is choosing strategies, without considering your needs and thus they are doing/not doing behaviors that harm you, or prevent you from meeting your needs, then I believe that making a demand of that person is the course of action with the most favorable result overall.
By demand, I mean that you’d give the person the gift of information. You would be letting them know, in advance of them making a decision in their freedom, what you will do in your freedom in response to their choice. A demand follows an if you-then I, format. “If you choose to leave your dishes on the table, then I will choose to put them on your bed.”
Again, I would only use a demand if the other person is unwilling to dialog with you to identify both of your needs and find a strategy that meets both needs. Or, if the other person commits but makes no effort to follow through on the commitment. I believe it is better to take responsibility for your own needs, and to use what power you have to prevent yourself from being violated. This kind of situation is fairly rare, and usually indicates that the other person is in some sort of pain and in need of compassion and help. So after setting your own protective boundary, you might choose to offer them help.
What we are working towards in relationship, is called memnoon. Memnoon means that one person gives a gift to another, and by giving the gift, they become happy. So it’s a win/win situation. Like when Colton offered to do my dishes.
By consciously making these six agreements with the people in your life, I think you’ll find that much of the unnecessary strain of relationship will disappear, and you’ll feel more respected, and you’ll enjoy the beautiful people in your life to the fullest.