PQ 14.4 — What will happen if someone breaks the agreement? Do we have a path for reestablishing trust?
Consequences and Accountability
“I guess I just don’t see the difference between setting a boundary and making an ultimatum,” the young man says. He’s come up to me after the class I’m teaching.
You’ve clearly had experiences that make you feel that way, I think. Who hurt you?
“Oh?” I say aloud.
“The last girl I was with, she used boundaries as a weapon,” he continues.
“Well, the consequences for stepping over a boundary aren’t always that you’re walking,” I say.
“No? Then what else is there?”
“There are intermediate states — disentanglements, deescalation. Either temporarily or permanently. Places to start before whipping out the most dire consequences. There can be a process, a series of conversations and check-ins. Accountability talks. You might even go to therapy. Maybe the ultimate consequence eventually is that someone will walk, sure, if things don’t improve with time and effort. At the end of the day, everyone has walking rights. But the difference is you don’t start there. And you don’t say it unless you mean it.”
He frowns. Looks entirely unconvinced. “I don’t think there’s a real difference there.”
There’s a long line of people waiting to talk to me, about other things. And I know that he’s likely having trouble seeing past what has just happened to him. Generalizing that experience to everyone and every relationship he’ll ever have. While understandable, this outlook isn’t doing him any favors. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to make a dent in it, even if I spend 8 hours on him (which I don’t have).
I quickly recommend a few books and posts. He tells me he’s read them, that he’s conducted Crucial Conversations workshops as a trainer, and still doesn’t get the difference.
Then it’s clear that –for now at least — you don’t want to.
I thank him for taking my class and for the feedback and turn to the next person who’s been standing patiently in my peripheral vision for quite a long time.
Trust as Something Reparable
When I went to write this article, it was the second question that really threw me off guard: “Do we have a path for reestablishing trust?”
I took it to a few different people, to talk the subject over. And they all said the same thing: That I don’t really trust people. Not in the way that most people mean when they talk about it.
What I’ve always kept close to me is a deep trust that if something bad happens that I’m confident that I will be able to deal with it. Feeling that way, I haven’t really had to worry as much about whether people will stay on the level or do something hurtful. Because I’m certain I’ll figure it out. And survive.
“I’m probably the person you trust the most in this world,” my husband Justin said. “But I know you probably have a couple of plans in case things don’t work out. That’s just how you are.”
And he’s not wrong.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t open up, that I don’t get vulnerable. I do.
But I grew up in a house where trust wasn’t the best idea. And in a family where if I made a mistake, it was a forever crime. No way to really make reparations. No path back to okay.
I’m good with the little missteps. Getting back to okay after a stupid miscommunication that results in a fight. I want to forgive my lovers the little sins. And while some people make the argument that intent doesn’t matter as much as impact, to me, intent really does.
I care why my partner did the janky thing: Were they misinformed? Did they have a weak moment?
Is it a matter of not prioritizing me? Or something even more difficult, like a major conflict in values?
I’ve Rarely Been Surprised
The other piece of this, of course, is that I haven’t had a lot of times where I really felt like my trust was broken in a polyamorous context. People fucked up, sure, and did some really undesirable things. But usually it wasn’t surprising. And certainly not in a way that really shook the ground I walked on.
The closest I can really come is a breakup talk where the person I was breaking up with confessed to me that they’d lied about something earlier in our relationship. And it was funny — I had been about 95% sure at the time they’d told the lie that they’d been lying. I even told them they didn’t have to make the excuse they did, gave them an out, a way to tell the truth without penalty (I have the chat log where the lie was told and was able to review it). But they doubled down on the lie at the time.
And for some reason, they decided they’d take the breakup as an opportunity to fess up about the earlier lie.
Intent Matters to Me
I get that nearly everyone lies sometimes, in some way, shape, or form. What matters more to me is why. And what got me about this situation was just how unnecessary the lie was: They wanted to go on a date with someone else during our time but felt like they couldn’t be honest about it because they thought it would hurt me. So they pretended that they were too sick to see me and then fifteen minutes later let me know they were going out on a date with someone else during that time. Because “it’s new so I won’t kiss her, and I don’t want to get you sick.”
Turns out it wasn’t about being sick or not. Smooching or not. She was just hard to schedule with and prone to cancellations. And due to my having a flexible schedule and being very reliable, it would be an easy matter to find another time to see me.
And he insisted at the time that she’d asked him to go out after we’d already canceled (which he later admitted was not true, she’d asked him out before he canceled with me).
Broken Trust or Values Conflict?
In that moment, my thoughts weren’t that he’d broken my trust. That I’d been betrayed. But instead it was something a little more like this: Why the fuck would you do something like that?
Trust wasn’t the issue here but a clear values conflict. If you’re going to lie, only do it for a good reason. And don’t lie electively (I gave him outs, which he pushed past). And why tell me the truth now?
Perhaps it was to hurt me, as the breakup was hurting him. And in hurting me, that would make things fair. His stated reason for bringing it up as I was breaking up with him was that it was evidence that I am an incredibly insecure person. Because he felt like he needed to lie to me about prioritizing time with someone else.
First, I’m not sure this is the best case for me being insecure. He didn’t even try telling me the truth, for one. He was basing it on nothing. A hunch perhaps — but more likely on his fears. (I did check with my other partners about this Is Page Incredibly Insecure?” thing to make sure I wasn’t placing an undue burden on them and was told that, no, if anything, I’m more secure than the average person. I just tend to be honest about the insecurities I do have.)
And secondly, when someone cancels on a previous commitment to do something else that isn’t necessary, it’s pretty normal to be a little miffed. Insecure or not. Romantic context or not. Especially if it’s one-on-one plans (not just a party invite or something).
Putting on the Friend Hat for a Second
Let’s put on the Friend Hat here. If I had plans with one friend and then cancelled and said, “Actually I would like to see this other friend instead,” most people would dislike that. Unless it were important — say, your friend were in the hospital. Or they were from out of state and would only be around a little while. Extenuating circumstances.
It happens of course, people canceling one set of plans to pursue something else (sometimes for logistical reasons, sometimes for more selfish ones, because the other thing is more fun). But why would you turn around and tell that friend later? Especially after a long time of concealing it.
He picked perplexing times to be honest and perplexing times to be dishonest.
So in that moment, I didn’t feel like he’d broken my trust or that I’d been betrayed. I was instead extremely unimpressed with him. And like breaking up was an even better idea than I’d thought it was entering the conversation, because this odd admission of his underscored values conflicts that I’d seen manifested in other ways.
And sure, I left that conversation shaking my head. But I didn’t feel like knowing for sure that he’d lied to me that one time really changed anything. About him — or about other people. People were about as likely as always to tell the truth. Or not.
Perhaps trust is built on expectation. And if it’s one thing life is good at it’s keeping me on my toes.
What Makes Me Want to Rebuild
But to circle back around — to me at least, the emotional impact of mistakes is certainly mitigated if:
- The intent of the person seems benevolent and somewhat consistent with my own values system.
- They seem genuinely remorseful and accept responsibility for what they’ve done.
- They voluntarily accept the practical consequences of their actions.
- They’re committed to drawing up a plan with me to rectify the situation together.
- They follow through on that agreed-upon plan.
Otherwise, especially if it’s a large problem, I’m not inclined to take the path back to rebuilding.
Most of that is well within their grasp — it’s really only the values thing that I’ve found unworkable. That has less to do with trust and more to do with basic compatibility.
Please see my post 9 Steps for Having an Accountability Talks with a Partner When Things Go Wrong, for practical advice on how to approach these kinds of difficult conversations.