One of the biggest problems I see people in relationships of all kinds facing is miscommunication. This takes many forms: people not saying what they mean because they’re afraid to be that vulnerable, one person saying something but their partner hearing something else, total communication breakdowns where no one’s even trying, and so on. In this post I’ll focus on what I’ve named the misagreement, wherein one party thinks that there’s an agreement in place, but not everyone’s on the same page about it.
I’m defining a misagreement as a type of miscommunication wherein an agreement was not actually agreed to by all parties. This might’ve happened because it wasn’t clearly articulated, or because both parties thought they were agreeing to something different, or because one party thought there was a concrete agreement in place where the other didn’t. I know that different folks use different language in their relationships, but here I’m using “agreement” to mean a concrete, actionable request or goal that more than one person has consented to follow.
Examples of relationship agreements might include:
- A spouse lets their partner know before inviting people over for dinner
- People in an ethically non-monogamous relationship always use condoms when they have sex with others, but are themselves fluid-bonded
- A couple has a date night once a week
If we twist each of these into misagreements, however, we might get:
- One spouse thinks the dinner guest rule is universal and permanent, while the other thinks it only applies when both spouses are in town (hence the universal-leaning spouse comes home from a business trip to find the kitchen still a mess from a dinner party, and gets upset)
- One non-mono partner thinks the condoms-with-others rule covers all genital contact, and the other thinks it’s only for penetrative sex (hence one partner gets upset when they discover they’ve been using barriers for oral sex too and feels like it’s been unnecessarily imposed on them, while the other partner hasn’t been; there might be a differential assessment of STI transmission happening here too)
- One partner believes that date night must happen every week regardless of what else is going on that week, while the other believes it can be canceled once in a while if things get really busy (the result being hurt feelings when one partner expects a date night, and the other is nonchalant about skipping it that week)
Misagreements are tough to handle because they’re not products of malice or manipulation (if they were, they should be called those things, or more precisely, they should be called emotional abuse). There are, of course, people who utilize ambiguous areas as a form of abuse and/or manipulation. This would be particularly effective as a form of gaslighting, and what would distinguish the two would be intention: in theory the people experiencing a misagreement are not intending to manipulate or abuse one another. Thus, misagreement is not a concept to help out in those situations, as it requires an assumption of goodwill and the intention to thrive, not abuse.
I think the key is for both people to first identify what’s happened as a misagreement (or whatever language they want to use) in order to assert that this was an unintentional misunderstanding of an agreement. Why this first step? Well, we’re not really taught good communication skills in our culture, so I believe it’s important to name what’s going on in order to then address it. It’s an obvious first step, but one that’s often neglected. This is similar to how my colleague Charlie Glickman recommends that people learn to state when they’re having a shame reaction, in order to then deal with those feelings in a helpful way.
Then the people having the misagreement should restate what each one thought the original agreement was. This alone might clear it up, since if one person thought there was an agreement in place and the other didn’t, that points to the problem. If both acknowledge that there was an agreement, then they should go through the details of it in order to figure out where the discrepancy lies. If appropriate, one or both might apologize to the other, and then make a clearer agreement to follow in the future.
I’ll give a personal example of a misagreement that caused me some angst, but wasn’t ultimately anyone’s fault. This is a simplified version of the narrative, but essentially, I was sharing a hotel room with some people at a conference, and I thought we had a roommate agreement in place that we’d all text each other if someone wanted to party in the room at night. They thought I’d expressed a preference, and that they hadn’t actually made a concrete agreement with me. When I returned to the room one evening, tired and wanting to crash, I dismayed to find a jovial room party underway. My disappointment was palpable enough to pretty much kill the party, and by that point, I wasn’t the only one who was cranky. We managed to talk it out the next day, and locate the source of the conflict: me thinking we had a concrete agreement in place, and them not thinking that at all.
This is complicated by the fact that every group unit (in folklore terms, a folk group; in relationship terms, a dyad if we’re talking about a couple) uses its terminology and concepts differently. One person’s preference (a stated desire for something that is optimal but not binding) may be someone else’s boundary (something that’s ideal, and that they’ll enforce if they have to, but prefer not to). Thus, I recommend that people in whatever kinds of relationships – romantic, sexual, familial, platonic, etc. – figure out their shared vocabulary.
My hope, as always, is to give people conceptual tools to help them improve their relationships and hence their lives. We all make agreements, whether or not we call them that, and I suspect we all experience miscommunication specifically related to agreements at one time or another. Have you experienced a misagreement before? Let me know in the comments!