Updated: 3 days ago
I write these blogs for therapists wanting to start working with couples. But there is also always a simpler take-away for couples too: couples must make sure that simple lapses to agreements happening in front of the partner don't start to look like betrayals. These could be called "daytime betrayals" and will undermine the relationship sometimes as much as betrayals committed out of sight of the partner.
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, the stepparent. 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. There are cascade effects from having their son up later, effects that don't seem to phase Max but definitely affect Max's partner.
• Max gives himself a pass on these, which he tells himself are harmless. But he shouldn’t. Max's actions are verging on daytime betrayals: violations of explicit agreements committed with no secrecy or hiding. What could be called nighttime betrayals, in contrast, involve secrecy and hiding. Envision the partner who agrees to limit their alcohol consumption to two beers a night, but soon after finishing them off goes walking over to the bar and pours a martini, then sitting down with partner to watch TV. That’s a daytime betrayal. It’s flagrant and challenging to the partner’s agency in the relationship.
• Failing to abide by agreements are not always night or 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 2 make an agreement on something fairly small scale, like adhering to "we discuss and agree before changing bedtimes." 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 acting in accordance 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, it may be a simple lapse. A sign of a lapse is that they catch it themselves take responsibility for it. Taking responsibility might include acknowledging the lapse, 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 the loophole for the future. It will be easy to treat these failures as lapses rather than betrayals, given the fairly minor consequences of the lapse and the response to it by the one who broke the agreement. (It should be noted that higher-consequence betrayals, those that, if they happen even once, severely disrupt the relationship, are a different animal and will be treated in a later blog).
• If the partner does not immediately take responsibility, or even renegs on the agreement after the fact, 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 take some attention.
• If there’s a neurological or other deficit that makes remembering or implementing the agreement in the moment a problem, workarounds can be part of the solution for lapses. For Max, who admitted to being flustered and anxious with his son’s requests, the couple developed some formulaic phrases to respond to their son's requests for a bedtime deal, such as “we’ll get back to you, we don’t make one-parent decisions.” This is an elegant solution, as the reminder to the couple's agreement is in the response Max agreed to use. Max's partner was skeptical at first but it quickly became automatic and in this case was what was needed to eliminate the failures and prevent them from being seen as daytime betrayals; Max having recognized in couple therapy the degree to which his lapses had become betrayals simply in their repetition and their effect on his partner. In the second case above, an addictive pattern seemed to be forming and the couple agreed together that 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), if any, 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;” failures will begin to function like daytime betrayals, undermining the agreements that couples must rely on for their safety, security & stability. Just as much as nighttime betrayals, daytime betrayals can severely undermine the relationship. The message is sent with every daytime betrayal 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: harness the power of 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 whatever is necessary ensure that they can abide by it in the future.