The relationship contract

The landscape of intimacy is littered with relationships that have been destroyed by hidden expectations and assumptions. Most couples who are unhappy in their relationship feel disappointed, if not outright betrayed, that what they expected to find in the relationship either hasn’t happened or has stopped happening. It’s as if they have signed an invisible contract early on (“I agree to do these things … I expect these things of you … I believe you expect the same things”) and their partner has failed to honor it.

A relationship is, after all, a series of expectations. Problems occur when two different sets of expectations (beliefs, habits, preferences) collide or when expectations change. When you entered the relationship, for example, perhaps you had time for romantic interludes and leisurely dinners. Then you chose to share your lives, and with increasing demands of career, family, and household, time came at a premium. In effect, the terms of your initial contract were modified. If as a result one or the other of you felt rejected and decided to look elsewhere for companionship, you may both have ended up feeling betrayed.

A behavioral contract has explicit agreements between two people. Since hidden expectations often determine your reactions and interactions with your partner, there is a need to be explicit and arrive at a behavioral contract that is mutually agreeable (about who will do what and under what circumstances).

For some it is useful to write it down, especially in those areas where there have been conflicts and disagreements.  It can be useful to write it down and review it after a period of time. This is a time to use all of your relationship building skills tools to surface hidden expectations and come to new understandings regarding issues that have been getting in the way of the relationship: speaking in your own behalf, empathic listening, shared meaning, fair fight for change, caring behaviors, surfacing hidden expectations, identifying issues of concern needing negotiation.

This mutually accepted behavioral contract is flexible. It is understood that these behaviors and agreements may need to be renegotiated through time as changes occur in circumstances or personal growth.

It is important that these changes not be made arbitrarily but are again explicitly acknowledged, discussed and agreed upon.

As you begin the work of contracting — clarifying and articulating your expectations — keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Nothing is off limits. It’s the things we don’t talk about, not the things we talk about, that cause trouble in relationships.
  • Talk about specific, concrete changes; this will be more helpful. You may be thinking, “I feel trapped! I don’t count!” but you’re more likely to get somewhere if you say, “I’d like it if you would agree either to take care of the kids every Tuesday evening from 7 on, or to be responsible for getting a sitter, so I can count on getting to my exercise class.”
  • Talk in a place where you feel safe, yet aren’t distracted by the demands of others. Don’t try to negotiate the big issues in your marriage when you know that people will be making demands on you. Leave your children with friends or relatives, if you can, and get yourself off to a cabin, hotel room, or a far corner of the local park, where you won’t be interrupted by untimely phone calls, visitors, or requests for peanut butter sandwiches, or where you won’t feel embarrassed that someone might see you burst into tears over a tough issue.
  • Believe that contracting is for “us”. That we’re in this as a team. On the other hand, don’t assume that your happiness depends entirely on what you do together: you can’t satisfy each other’s every need, nor should you expect to.
  • Realize that what at first seems a concession will probably benefit both of you. In a two-career family, for example, if the wife has to do all the housework, she has no energy left for the relationship; if the husband helps, she not only feels good that he participates but has more energy left for them together. And the woman who expects help in the kitchen and laundry room can be equally willing to learn how to handle traditionally male jobs: minor plumbing repairs, for instance, car maintenance, and yard work.
  • Use your contractual agreements as a positive guideline, rather than as an excuse to attack when your partner errs. Acknowledge that although you agree on the principles, you may mess up at times, and that doesn’t invalidate the agreement.
  • Whether you do one long agreement, or a series of mini-agreements, give each one a trial period of several weeks or months, and then discuss how it has worked out. Remember that the “contracts” can always be renegotiated.

~ Lori Heyman Gordon