Following the Policy of Joint Agreement
When You're VERY Incompatible
Introduction: Almost everywhere you look in this web site, you'll find some reference
to the Policy of Joint Agreement. I've found it to be the most important concept in
marriage counseling, because through it, you eliminate most of the problems couples face.
However, everybody that's tried to implement it knows that it's easier said than done.
The more incompatible a couple is, the more difficult it is to follow, particularly at
first. This week, I will provide some encouragement and suggestions to those who have
decided to use it to create compatibility, but have found serious obstacles.
I've written an article on a related subject entitled "How the
Co-dependency Movement is Ruining Marriages". The title of the article may not seem to be
related to the Policy of Joint Agreement, but after you read it,
I think you'll see what I mean.
Dear Dr. Harley,
I can see how a couple will develop a more compatible relationship if they follow your
Policy of Joint Agreement for a while. But, as you warn, the first few weeks would be
particularly difficult due to "giving up" the things we have done that please ourselves.
If both spouses are not in agreement on an issue, according to the Policy, they are not to
do anything until they can agree. But that's not entirely true. One of them will not be able
to do what they want, and that will make that person very unhappy. The more important
the issue is to one of them, the more unhappy that one will be if they are forced to do
nothing. Do you have any advice on how to deal with these disappointments during the
beginning stages of following the policy.
You're absolutely right. The first few weeks of following the Policy of Joint Agreement are
definitely the hardest, because that's when incompatible habits and activities are first
identified for termination, and that's when the termination begins. As a couple takes a
critical look at their entire lifestyle, evaluating which elements of it are not acceptable to
one of them, they may find fifty or more problem areas. Sometimes the results of that
early analysis seem so overwhelming that couples don't know where to begin. Then,
when they tackle the very first item on the list, the resentment you speak about rears its
ugly head. You're right, when couples first tackle their incompatibility head-on, it can
seem very discouraging.
First, let me review how incompatibility is created. It begins when one spouse does
something in his or her own best interest that's not in the other spouse's best interest. An
example is having an affair. People have an affair because it meets their emotional needs
and makes them feel good. The fact that the affair hurts their spouse does not deter them.
An affair creates instant incompatibility because as long as it's tolerated, there's no way
that a couple can live together in harmony.
All other acts of self-interest at the other's expense also creates incompatibility in various
degrees. Incompatibility, therefore, is simply the accumulation of thoughtless habits and
activities. The more of them a couple tries to tolerate, the more incompatible they are.
Most marriages start off with very few thoughtless habits because successful courting
usually gets rid of them. Couples who are considering marriage go to great pains to
behave thoughtfully because, if they don't, they won't get to the altar.
But after marriage, thoughtless behavior usually begins to grow. In the name of personal
freedom, private interests and expanding horizons, spouses develop habits and activities
that do not take each other's feelings into account. Before long, they are no longer
The bottom line is that couples need to eliminate behavior that is good for one and bad for
the other, even if it makes the one eliminating it feel bad. Truth is, it should never have
been there in the first place, and all you're doing is eliminating a bad habit. It's like telling
a child molester to stop molesting children. It may make him feel bad to stop, but he
should never have gotten started in the first place.
Now I'll get to your question, how should people deal with the disappointments of giving
up thoughtless behavior?
The more pleasure a spouse gets from his or her thoughtless behavior, the more difficult
it is to eliminate. Affairs, which are usually intensely pleasurable, are very difficult to
eliminate because the withdrawal symptoms are so severe. A spouse having an affair goes
through deep depression when he or she tries to leave the lover. Even every-day
pleasurable activities, such as Monday Night Football, can leave a husband depressed if
his wife puts it on her termination list. The truth is, whenever we try to stop doing
something we like, we miss it, and experience some sadness in its wake.
Having spent some of my life helping people overcome addiction (when I operated
chemical dependency treatment clinics), I am very aware of how difficult it is to give up
something that gives a person considerable pleasure. The procedure we used was to
provide emotional support to help people keep the commitment they had made. Since I
operated outpatient clinics, our clients would call all hours of the day or night when they
were tempted to start drinking again. The worst of it was during the first few weeks of
sobriety, but as time passed, it was easier and easier for them to remain sober.
I believe that the same principle applies to overcoming very enjoyable but thoughtless
behaviors in marriage. At first, you may need support from someone who can not only
provide emotional encouragement, but also accountability. Sometimes a pastor
or good same-sex friend can fill the bill. If none of those people are available, a marriage
counselor provides that support and accountability as part of his or her job. In the most
serious cases, I go so far as to recommend anti-depressant medication to someone who
experiences severe withdrawal symptoms.
As time separates a person from the enjoyable habit, the depression and resentment
subside and he or she returns to normal. But if a slip occurs, and the person returns to the
habit, in many cases the process of withdrawal must begin all over again. This is most
obvious when working with alcoholics and those having an affair. One drink or one
phone call to the lover is all it takes to plunge the person back into the captivity of their
In your letter, you were probably not referring directly to alcoholism or affairs. You were
probably referring to simpler but nonetheless troublesome behavior that you can avoid,
but leave you feeling somewhat depressed and resentful. My advice in such situations is
to give it three weeks. At the end of that time, most people find their negative feelings
turning around. Besides, if both spouses are abandoning thoughtless behavior, their
improved lifestyle more than makes up for trivial losses in selfish pleasure.
As a couple identifies and eliminates thoughtless behavior, the withdrawal they experience will cause some unhappiness at first. But it doesn't leave a void -- couples are not left with
nothing to do. They replace their thoughtless behavior with new thoughtful activities that
give them a solid marriage, love for each other and much greater happiness than they ever
could have had with all their thoughtless activities combined.