Consider these scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: Your partner tells you that they you want to show you something in the garden, and you say that you’ll be there in five minutes. Five minutes later, you’re still finishing up that email… just a little while longer. 15 minutes later, you finally show up, with some excuses about the delay.

  • Scenario 2: You’re supposed to walk the dog in the mornings, but the night before, your boss throws a work meeting on your calendar at the last minute. You ask your partner to cover for you – they acquiesce, but silently resent that it throws their entire morning routine off.

Do these sound familiar? During the course of a day and the course of a relationship, partners make deals with each other. The deal can be a response to a bid (like in the first case), or a long-standing agreement about how household responsibilities are shared (like in the second). As our examples show, not every deal is a big deal – deals can be big or small, and implicit or explicit. No matter what shape or form they take, it’s exhausting to be with someone that is repeatedly breaking deals. And over time, it erodes the sense of trust, security, well-being that we have in the relationship.

If you find yourself being the deal-breaker in these situations, there are two alternatives:

  • Mindfully abstain from making a deal
  • When it becomes clear that you can’t honor it, re-negotiate the deal

What would this look like in each of the above scenarios?

  • Scenario 1

    • Abstaining: You tell your partner that you’ll come out when you’re done with the email, and you’re not sure when that’ll be (maybe 10-20 minutes?)
    • Re-negotiating: When it becomes apparent that it’ll take longer than your initial five minute estimate, you take the effort to let your partner know that you’re running late and that it’ll take you about ten minutes longer.
  • Scenario 2

    • Abstaining: Knowing that you frequently have last minute meetings come up in the morning, you avoid committing to the morning walks. You and your partner instead work out a different way to get the dog walked – perhaps by outsourcing the task to a neighborhood teen.
    • Re-negotiating: Before accepting the meeting invitation from your boss, run it by your partner. Explain to them why it’s important that you take the meeting, and ask them if it would upend their day to cover for you. Only accept the invite if you can find a mutually agreeable alternative with your partner (i.e. a successful re-negotiation). Otherwise, push back.

Note that re-negotiating doesn’t necessarily involve a back-and-forth discussion or elaborate compromise. It can simply involve informing your partner that your situation has changed. In many cases – especially when it comes to casual daily micro-deals – that’s all it takes.

While these techniques may seem heavy-handed, they’re almost intentionally so – they make us more conscious of when we’re making and breaking deals in our partnership, big or small. And if we can adopt the alternative behaviors instead, there’s a much broader reward we reap: living with integrity and bringing that integrity into the most important relationship in our lives.