Relationship contract – what to consider

“Falling in love is easy; being in a relationship is work. When you understand how to balance emotion and commitment – then you’re ready to build with someone else. Until then build your own castle.” Malanda Jean-Claude

To some it might sound odd to talk of contracts in relationships, while to others it makes perfect sense. However, a contract is exactly what we enter into when we form a relationship. No relationship is perfect, but having a good contract can enable it to flourish through good times and bad, or reveal when it can or should be ended. In this blog, we look at this topic in more detail from the perspective of intimate relationships.

Eyes wide open – explicit contracts

The best contracts are those where all parties enter a relationship with a clear or ‘explicit’ understanding of how it will help them to thrive and survive. Explicit contracts are formed by people equipped with equal amounts of rationality and emotionality. They are excited at the possibility of forming a relationship, but equally happy to walk away from it, if agreement and clarity are not reached on matters of importance.

What might an Explicit Contract cover?

  • Do’s and don’ts
  • Acceptable and unacceptable behaviours
  • Ethical and moral matters
  • Sharing of responsibilities
  • Acceptance of the other – similarities and differences
  • Needs and wants such as levels of intimacy and individual autonomy
  • Ongoing commitment to review and update contract BECAUSE PEOPLE CHANGE

While no relationship is perfect, explicit contracts can make them stronger because their very existence is based upon an ongoing commitment to ensuring mutual agreement of the above.

Hidden from view – implicit contracts

An implicit contract is one in which matters of importance are to varying degrees hidden from view. As a rule, implicit contracts tend to end badly because they are based on misplaced assumptions and erroneous beliefs. Disputes and disagreements arise unexpectedly when one person says or does something the other assumes, they know not to say or do. But of course, they don’t ‘know’ this, because it’s never been discussed. To them, they were just being themselves, which until the argument they assumed was ok.

‘Innocent’ implicit contracts

An ‘innocent’ implicit contract is one where both parties unintentionally mistake the tip of the iceberg for the iceberg itself. Such contracts form for very understandable reasons. People are deeply in love and as the saying goes ‘love is blind’. Or they lack experience forming relationships, meaning they proceed more in hope than expectation. A more concerning if understandable reason why someone might not explicitly contract, is because of a difficult relationship history. If a new relationship makes someone feel safe, who can blame them for overlooking whether a new partner is right for them.

Making the implicit, explicit

When problems arise, the implicit is being made explicit, meaning more of the iceberg is above the waterline. This is invariably a ‘good’ thing because it means all parties get the chance to address issues that were always going to undermine the relationship. Given the innocence with which the relationship was formed, both parties are likely to be reasonable in how they respond to any ruptures. If the relationship survives, it is strengthened because the contract is now more explicit. If it ends, any understandable sadness can be softened because both parties know more about what they need from any future relationships.

Manipulative implicit contracts

A ‘manipulative’ implicit contract is usually where one party agrees to an explicit contract, they have no intention of fulfilling. It is only once the relationship has become established, that the explicit contract is shown for what it is: implicit. The other person, sometimes immediately and sometimes gradually, finds that the explicit contract they thought they had established, is not worth the paper it was written on.

The degree of conscious or unconscious intent is important when it comes to manipulative implicit contracts. If someone is conscious – or can be made conscious of – of what they are doing, they can at least be challenged by partners. Sometimes this can result in a positive ‘re-contracting’ as the manipulator, possibly shocked at who they are or have become, agrees to establish an agreed, explicit contract.

However, it is possible that someone can impose such a contract without realising it. When this scenario occurs, it is never positive. The other person, now aware that their partner is not the person they thought they were, will find that any reasonable challenge to their contract is met with incredulity. How do you raise self-awareness in someone who has – no self-awareness? When someone discovers they are in a relationship based on an unconsciously imposed manipulative contract, they are best advised to leave it. The most severe forms of such contracts are abusive ones.

Maintaining and breaking

The point of a contract is that it provides a reference point. At any given time, one or all parties can ask themselves whether the relationship is helping them to thrive and survive. The more explicit the contract and the earlier it can be formed, the greater the chance the relationship will survive. However, a relationship that transforms an implicit contract into an explicit one regardless of when that happens, will similarly stand a good chance of surviving.

A relationship based on a manipulative implicit contract more often than not can’t be saved. This is because one party has built into it the impossibility of it ever becoming explicit. When this happens, the other person needs to break the contract and leave the relationship – however hard this might be.

Further information or support

If you are forming a new relationship and want to give yourself the best chance, or are in an existing relationship that you wish to recontract and strengthen, or are in a relationship that isn’t working for you – please get in touch, as we’d love to hear from you.

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