9 Steps for Having an Accountability Talk with a Partner When Things Go Wrong

It's a yellow poster board paper. In the center in large letters is the word "Accountability." It also says (moving from top left and moving clockwise): "stay on course," "walk the walk," "reflect and grow," "consequences," "This dog has teeth!" "be real - not fake," "stand and deliver," and "keep your commitments"
Image by United Workers / CC BY

In “Poly Road Testing for Responsible Travelers,” I covered a few things you can do before you open up your relationship that’ll make it go a little more smoothly.

I’ve also previously written about best practices for negotiating polyamorous relationship agreements as well as how to manage things if you find that you need to renegotiate your relationship agreement (a very common scenario once the agreement has been “road tested”). That piece focuses on changing your agreement because it works out differently in theory than in reality.

But what if your partner has violated your relationship agreement? Maybe they agreed that they would see you once a week and you haven’t seen them for ages. Or perhaps it’s more serious than that. What if they’ve lied, cheated, or broken your trust in other ways?

How do you address that?

In those cases, I’ve found the framework in Crucial Accountability (by Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillian, and Switzler, yup 5 authors, it’s just that meaty) to be especially helpful.

Because like most things in life, when polyamory is good, it’s great. But when it’s bad? It’s horrid.

Here are 9 steps for having an accountability talk with a partner when things go wrong.

1. Choose What and If

The first step in having an accountability talk is figuring out what the core issue is. What bothers you the most? Especially when we’re upset, it’s easy to generate a laundry list of concerns.

If a partner doesn’t follow your agreed-upon sexual safety rules, you’ll likely be upset that they put your health at risk. Or perhaps you’re most upset that they broke the promise and violated your trust. Or maybe they lied to you about it after it happened, and that’s the core issue.

Dig deep. Sometimes the most important issue isn’t the first one you think of.

As much as you may want to address each and every one of these issues in depth with your partner, accountability conversations go better when you have a single issue you’re focusing on. It’s difficult enough to address violated expectations without the other person becoming defensive, shutting down, and leaving the conversation. If you approach your talk with 12 concerns? Yikes. You’re basically guaranteed an unproductive talk. Avoid doing that. Focus on the most important one.

And once you’ve identified what that issue is, the next step is to identify if you want to have the conversation. If it’s a clearcut case of bad behavior (such as lying and/or breaking a relationship agreement), this could be an easy yes. Especially if there’s an established pattern.

In some cases, however, it might be a bit more ambiguous. Returning to the issue of the partner who seems to be ignoring you, there could be good reasons for this. Maybe it’s a fluke. An unprecedented level of busyness. And maybe the problem will self-correct.

How do you tell if you should speak up in this circumstance? If you find yourself acting out in other ways or suffering from a nagging conscience, then it might be time to speak up.

2. Master Your Self-Story, Watch Out for the Fundamental Attribution Error

As you approach your partner, you’re likely to have all sorts of negative emotions surrounding the violation. So before you open your mouth, get your own head on straight first. You have one shot at opening a new conversation, and first impressions count.

Think through the situation in a way that’s as compassionate as possible to your partner. Pretend that you’re them. What are some reasons why someone who is a reasonable, rational, decent human being would act that way?

Consider interpersonal, social, or structural obstacles like lack of resources, time, or knowledge. What other people could have influenced them? Do they have the tools to actually keep the commitment? Is there some knowledge gap? A miscommunication?

While we are often rightfully ticked off when people break their promises, it’s important to be mindful of the fundamental attribution error.

The fundamental attribution error is a cognitive bias that virtually all human beings share in which we tend to explain other people’s behavior in terms of their personality and underestimate the role of situational factors affecting them.

So when someone is late to our dinner date, we’re more likely to default to thinking of them as disrespectful, irresponsible, or disorganized when in fact there may have been a 7-car pileup on the freeway. Or they were dealing with some emergency (for example, taking a friend to the hospital who had no other way to get there).

3. Describe and Focus on the Gap Between Expectations and Reality

In order to create safety, have the conversation in private and one on one. And get their permission to speak about it. No one likes having a big talk sprung on them when they don’t have the time to really address it.

Start the conversation with your partner by plainly and simply describing what you expected to happen and contrasting it with what has happened.

“I expected ABC to happen and XYZ has happened instead.”

Do this in as non-blaming a way as possible. Whenever you can, establish common ground. Talk about the values you share. The things you both want.

Avoid drawing harsh conclusions or making personal attacks. Focus on you and your feelings of disappointment surrounding the gap.

Even if you feel the other person has been selfish or reckless, it rarely goes well to tell them that. It’s nearly guaranteed to make them defensive. And avoid calling them any names.

You want to discuss the situation and the behavior as the problem, and not them. As soon as they feel like you’re defining the problem as them or their character, conversations usually take a turn for the worse.

4. Motivate Through Consequences (Especially Natural Ones)

Once you’ve described the gap between expectations and reality, explore the consequences of these behaviors. Especially natural ones. Focus on establishing outcomes you both want. And avoiding ones you would both like to never see happen.

What these consequences are will vary depending on the nature of the violation.

But whatever you do, be firm but also be realistic. This isn’t about threatening to punish someone. This is about talking about the likely negative effects if this pattern continues.

If this unwanted behavior continuing is likely to lead to your breaking up, it’s okay to share that in a level-headed way. But this is not a time to threaten ultimatums that you have no plan of carrying out. If you say that this pattern of behavior is likely to lead to your breaking up, then you had better mean that. (And yes, the most serious violations of trust undoubtedly qualify.)

5. Identify Potential Barriers to Keeping Agreements

Wanting to keep a promise and being able to are in fact two different things. When someone hurts us, it can be easy to confuse them with each other. When speaking with your partner, identify any barriers that might have interfered with their ability to keep the agreement, ones that you came up with in step #2, when you prepared for the conversation by trying to take their perspective.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt where you can goes a long way into actually coming up with ways to correct the behavior. Especially if this is the first violation, or at least the first time you’ve brought up the issue.

6. Solicit Their Feedback on How to Eliminate Barriers

As you identify potential barriers, solicit their feedback. Ask them why they think these undesirable behaviors happened. What sort of obstacles did they encounter?

You don’t need to have the whole problem worked out before approaching them. And being open to their side of the story is an important element of making them feel emotionally safe and part of the problem-solving process (which increases the chances that they will actually follow through).

7. Stay Focused on the Topic at Hand

Of course, as you’re discussing the topic at hand, you may find that you get off topic.

Don’t allow minor tangents to stray the conversation from the main point.

If a worse issue does emerge and you have to address that, set a reminder regarding the original problem so you can return to it later. And once you’ve dealt with the emergent issue, return to the original one.

8. Be Firm,Yet Flexible

As you talk through the issues, let your partner know that you don’t expect perfection, just their best effort. And part of communicating this meaningfully is remaining flexible.

How can you stay flexible while being firm? The authors of Crucial Accountability advise this statement “If something comes up, let me know as soon as you can.” And offer the following example of how this can fit into a larger conversation:

“I want you to live up to your promise. Please don’t unilaterally break it…At the same time, I realize that the world can change. Things can come up. Many of these barriers will negate your existing promise. If something does come up, let me know as soon as possible so there are no surprises and so we can decide together how to best handle the situation.”

Set up conditions where it’s not a simple win/lose. Perfection or atrocious behavior. Give them ways to do better, even if they screw up.

9. Agree on a Plan and Follow Up

And as the final step, agree on a plan to improve the behavior. It could be formal or informal. Many of the best practices for negotiating a relationship agreement apply here as well. Be clear. No tricks. Maybe even write it down.

As part of that plan, it can be helpful to establish check-in times to revisit the discussion. Again, this can be formal or informal depending on the way you both work best and the size of the violation.

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For more examples and in-depth instruction on ways to implement accountability, please see Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior.

It was some of the best money I ever personally spent.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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