• At least twice a month, Max makes a bargain with his 8-year old son: getting his room clean or doing his homework early in exchange for a later bedtime. So far so good. However, Max does this without consulting his partner, Max’s stepmother. Over the course of two years of all three living together this amounts to about 50 unilateral decisions of his. It’s a prima-facie violation of the couple’s explicit agreement not to make unilateral decisions that affect them both. Resentment has been building in her as her reminders, now complaints, continue to have no effect.
• Max gives himself a pass on these, but he shouldn’t. He’s committing daytime betrayals–violations of explicit agreements committed in the light of day with no secrecy or hiding. Nighttime betrayals, in contrast, involve secrecy and hiding. Envision the partner who agrees to limit his alcohol consumption to two beers a night, but soon after finishing them off goes walking over to the bar and pours himself a martini, then sitting down with partner to watch TV. That’s a daytime betrayal. It’s flagrant and challenging to the partner’s sense of agency in the relationship.
• Failing to abide by agreements are not always daytime betrayals; they can also be simple lapses. Here’s how not to waste time trying to figure out which one it “is”: Partner 1 and Partner two make an agreement. Because agreements sometimes commit us to working against automatic habits, both partners know at the outset that they may have to remind or cue each other to the agreement until adhering to it becomes the new second nature. When one of the partners fails to abide by an agreement because of forgetfulness, automaticity, or simply lack of skill, a good sign is that they catch it themselves take responsibility for it. Taking responsibility might include acknowledging of a failure, identifying the cause of it and putting in place guardrails so that it doesn’t happen again. If they don’t catch it themselves, a simple cue from the partner should be enough to stop them in their tracks and close off any loopholes. It will be easy to see these as unintended lapses and to move on.
• If the partner has not immediately taken responsibility, something has gone wrong and the failure will begin to look and function not as a lapse but as a daytime betrayal. Sometimes this is because a partner was not actually on board with the original agreement; here it’s necessary to take another look at it and ensure that no one was run over in the agreement and both are on board. Another possibility is that there is a legitimate misalignment around what counts as the behavior that is being changed. Some agreements thus need refinement around the details and what it looks like to abide by it in different circumstances. Depending on how subtle the behavior is, arriving at mutual understanding here may take some time and attention.
• If there’s a neurological or other problem that makes remembering or implementing the agreement in the moment a problem, workarounds are possible. For Max, who gets flustered and anxious easily with his son’s requests, the couple developed some formulaic phrases for Max, such as “we’ll get back to you, we don’t make one-parent decisions.” The reminder to the agreement is thus in the response Max memorized. It became a mantra and in this case was what was needed to eliminate daytime betrayals. In the second case, an addiction was at issue and it was necessary to not keep extra alcohol in the house, thus changing material circumstances to make the behavior impossible. The couple agreed that only whatever alcohol would be drunk that day (two beers) would be brought into the house at a time.
• Multiple workarounds might be necessary until the new behavior becomes second nature. But if reasonable cues, workarounds or negotiation around what counts as the behavior to be changed don’t work, it matters little what they “are;” any failure will function like a betrayal, undermining the agreements that couples must rely on for their safety, security & stability. Just as much as nighttime betrayals, daytime betrayals will undermine the relationship. The message is sent with every betrayal of either kind that a partner can do what they want and their partner can’t stop them. Such couples are living on borrowed time.
• Don’t live on borrowed time, partners: harness the power of your two brains/minds to establish, refine and cue agreements. The right response to a friendly cue is to immediately change course and implement the agreement, and if it’s already too late, for the erring partner to acknowledge the failure and find and implement ways to ensure that they can abide by it in the future.