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  • Kate Engler

Broken Contracts

In every relationship, implicit contracts form very early on and in a mostly unconscious way. These contracts go on to dictate the overall dynamics of the relationship, but if you don’t know you’re in it, much less the terms, chances are good you’ll end up feeling like the puppet in a play you didn’t sign on for.



Imagine, you wake up one day to find that the several of the most important aspects of your life are in turmoil. You want to understand why, so you do a little digging and come to find that the reason for the current misery is an old contract. You are shocked to learn that the terms laid out in this document perfectly describe the shit show that is currently your world. Naturally, you think to yourself, “This is ridiculous! Who would agree to this?” but as you reach the last page you catch your breath because there, at the bottom, is your signature. You flip through the files in your brain and nowhere in there is a memory of signing it or even reading it, but somehow you agreed to all of this.


I know. I know. You’re probably thinking. You get what you deserve! What kind numskull signs a contract without reading it?!


Guess what…if you’re in a relationship…you are that numskull.


Wait, actually we are all that numskull!


No, no, no—what we all are is human.


Relationship contract? Huh?


It is rarely discussed in this way, but part of being in relationships, any relationship, means getting involved in a contract, some of which your have more control over than others. Regardless, the dynamic of the relationship, is largely dictated by these contracts and if you don’t know you’re in it, much less the terms, chances are good you’ll end up feeling like the puppet in some play you didn’t sign on for.


We all understand the basic concepts of a contract, right? It’s an agreement between two parties that outlines what each will provide to the other. What comes to mind first for most people is a business contract, something formal and enforceable; e.g., I, a graphic designer, will create ten posters for your doughnut festival, and you will pay me (preferably in doughnuts) for my creative skills, time, and materials. Pretty straightforward.


While some relationships may have formal contracts in place, most of the contracts are implicit. In economics, implicit contracts refer to “voluntary and self-enforcing long-term agreements made between two parties regarding the future exchange of goods or services.”


Relationships are clearly in a different category from economics, but their definition comes pretty close to defining the types of contracts we enter into with our boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, and family members. The only real difference between these two types of contracts is that while economic contracts trade in goods and services, relationship contracts trade in things like, emotions, caretaking, warmth, safety, connection, security and other less tangible, but important elements.


How Are Implicit Contracts Formed?


Implicit contracts usually form very early in a relationship and are created in a mostly unconscious way. Let’s take Tom and Suzy’s relationship, for example. (*Tom and Suzy are not real people. They are an amalgamation of several different clients in my therapy practice.) Tom and Suzy are a heterosexual couple who just happen to be married, but you could switch out either person for someone of any other gender identity or sexual orientation, married or not, and the implications on the relationship contract would be the same. These implicit contracts stretch across all boundaries.


Tom grew up with a narcissistic mom. She lived for drama and the spotlight, and had a way of sucking the air out of every room she ever entered. As a kid, he thought she was exciting, but as he got older, he found it much less amusing. Her self-absorption meant that he never came first and she required his undivided attention at all times. She rarely made it to any of his games or activities because she was busy with “her stuff.” During his teen years he would be get annoyed when she would plop herself down with his friends and regale them with her stories and in his 20s he was mortified when she would actually hit on his college friends who came home with him for visits.


During Suzy’s early years, she longed for her parents’ attention for other reasons. When she was four, her older sister was diagnosed with a chronic illness that required multiple surgeries and hospital stays each year. Her family struggled to keep up with the caretaking and financial burdens. Her parents were often away from the house at work or doctors’ appointments with her sister so they rarely made it to her volleyball games or speech competitions. Suzy worked hard to be extremely helpful with her sister and the house. She knew not to ask for too much, lest she add more to her parents’ already overflowing plates. Her parents moved through life in a haze of exhaustion and sadness, but they were grateful to Suzy and told her over and over what a good, sweet girl she was and how she made all of their lives so much easier.


Tom and Suzy met at a mutual friend’s party near their college campus. They were both smitten immediately. Tom was drawn to Suzy’s sweetness. He observed over the evening that she always seemed ready to help anyone who needed it, but cringed sheepishly if anyone tried to acknowledge her. Suzy was struck by Tom’s gregariousness and good nature. When she spoke to him, he focused all his attention on her, as if she was the only person in the room. She couldn’t believe he was interested in her and she was surprised to find his curiosity intoxicating.


Tom and Suzy went on to live together and eventually have a family of their own, but the main tenets of their contract were formed the night of that very first party. Their implicit agreement went something like this:


I, Tom, agree to be happy all the time, pay attention to you, and focus most of my energy on you, even when we are with other people or have important issues occurring in our lives. I will provide financial security and assure you we have no money worries. In exchange, I Suzy, will never seek out attention in any public sort of way and will allow you to the “star” of the family. I will be sweet and helpful, and I will put your and our children’s needs before my own.


It is highly unlikely that Tom and Suzy knew this contract was created, especially that early in their relationship. Had I shown up at their door a few weeks in, contract in hand, and asked them to read and sign it they both would have probably thought this was ridiculous. And yet, they voluntarily entered into this implicit contract and over the years, the dynamic of their relationship reinforced the terms over and over again.


Why Implicit Contracts Are they Formed?


Most often, implicit contracts are formed as a reaction against or a repeat of some particular behavior, attitude, belief, or issue that showed up in our early lives. It may be something that a parent did or didn’t do. However, siblings, grandparents, other caretakers, friends and schoolmates can just as easily impact us in such a way that later in life we unconsciously act in ways that are modeled after those same ways of being (repeat) or very intentionally take action to do the opposite (reaction against).


In the case of Tom and Suzy, both members of this couple have a bit of both reacting against and repeating what was modeled in their youth. Their contract formed as an effort to prevent previous painful and/or unhappy experiences from reoccurring in their relationship. For Tom, he was determined never to be in the shadow of someone as selfish and self-absorbed as his mother. This occurred on a more conscious level. Less in this conscious awareness was Tom’s desire to be the person getting all of the attention, to have someone totally devoted to him and his happiness. His mother’s narcissism left him feeling unloved and alone and he wanted to prevent those feelings from ever happening in his relationship with Suzy.


For Suzy, her desires were mostly unconscious due to lingering guilt about ever wanting anything, but what she did want was to be seen, have the undivided attention of someone who loved her, and not have to worry about heavy issues like money and healthcare. At a conscious level though, Suzy always knew she wanted to be with someone who was happy and carefree.


In same the way that the graphic designer’s skills are the perfect fit for the doughnut maker looking for posters, Tom’s life experiences had given him the skills (undivided attention giving, focusing energy on one person) and qualities (gregarious, good natured) that perfectly matched Suzy’s needs; and her skills (helpfulness) and qualities (sweetness, selflessness) matched up perfectly with Tom’s needs. Ta-da! What could possibly go wrong?


Implicit Contracts in Practice


Implicit contracts usually work well in the beginning which helps to solidify the terms. It’s also why people say things like, “I found my missing piece” when they are newly in a relationship. (That’s also because your brain is functioning in the same way it does when you are high on cocaine, but that’s another blog.) Sometimes, these contracts can go on working just fine for years and years and that’s great. If it works for both people in the relationship, yahoo! Like any other contract that’s working well, no need to change the terms if all parties keep agreeing to them.


However, as people change over the years or things in their lives change (kids are born, jobs are lost, parents die), the terms of the contracts often don’t work anymore. Here’s the really tricky part through—remember when I said that most of the time we don’t know that we are even in these contracts? Well, because of this, all we know is that things start to feel really shitty in our relationship. Some of us might start to look at our partners and think, “When did he/she become such a jerk!?” Others might grow depressed, wondering why they just don’t feel happy anymore.


With Tom and Suzy, the terms of the contracts no longer worked once they had kids. In keeping with the terms, Suzy agreed to quit her job once the kids came along (fulfilling the “I will put Tom and the children’s needs first.” ). While she loved her children and her spouse, and was happy to be there for them, she also loved her career and the full personal life she had created. She grew restless, tired and depressed, and eventually realized that putting everyone else's needs before hers just did not work. As she started making more time for herself, reconnecting with old friends and hobbies, and discussing going back to work, Tom grew resentful. His anger confused them both. For him, intellectually, he understood that it was reasonable to do all of these things, but he couldn't help but feel wounded by Suzy's choices. Suzy was confused by how withdrawn and sullen Tom seemed to be. They both found themselves thinking, "this is not the person I married."


That very phrase is a giant, waving, red flag announcing that an implicit contract has been broken. When we say to ourselves or to our partners, "But you were always so ____________ (fill in the blank with the desirable character trait that appealed to you in the beginning) and now you are so __________________ (something negative and opposite of the original trait), what we are really saying is, "Wait, you agreed to always act in a way that allowed me to avoid feeling a particular kind of sadness/pain and now you aren't acting that way and I am feeling it and I don't like it. YOU BROKE OUR CONTRACT!" It is at this point that your partner will look at you and think "WTF?!?"


Renegotiating Contract Terms


The beauty of a contract is the opportunity for renegotiation when things aren’t working. Viewing relationship issues as a need for renegotiation rather than a failing on the part of you or your partner feels a whole hell of a lot more manageable.


In order to lay out new terms, you first have to recognize that the contract even exists. Sounds simple, I know, but it isn't always so. A good starting place is to go back to the beginning of the relationship and think about the things that initially attracted you to your partner and/or the way that they made you feel. In my own relationship, I really liked that my husband had his own thing going on and respected that I did as well. He didn't seem needy and never pressured me to "take care of him." I know that he felt pleasantly surprised by my level of independence and was attracted to that. In our earlier lives, we both had to manage some pretty big stuff on our own without the support we needed and had developed our super powers of not needing anyone except, to a degree, a core group of friends. His M.O could be described as, "I'm cool on my own." Mine was a little more intense, something like, "I don't fucking need ANYONE."


Because you are so smart, you have probably already guessed that our contract was basically: I won’t have any needs and you won’t have any needs; we will be independent of each other and not be vulnerable or rely on each other for emotional support or fulfillment.


Once you’ve begun to get sense of the genesis and the terms of the contract, the next step is to think about when the contract worked, what that looked like, and when it stopped working. Really think about the specific issues that showed up that indicated the terms of the contract had been broken.


The initial contract my husband and I had worked brilliantly for years. We lived what I call, "parallel play." We mostly functioned as independent people in our day-to-day lives, working and doing things we loved. Then, because we genuinely enjoyed each other's company and had many of the same friends, we would come together on weekends and other times to hang out and have fun. Occasionally, things would blow up when one of us actually did need some sort of emotional support. Mind you, we never named it as such. We just got irritated or passive aggressive about other stuff. The main reason we never got to the heart of the issues was because we didn't know we had a contract.


Our contract blew up in a pretty epic way during the year that we had our first son, both had parents suffer health crises, moved across country (from a warm place to a cold and gray place), I suffered from post-partum depression, I couldn't find a job, and he started traveling weekly for work. Truth be told, I am the one who broke the contract. I was a hot mess and needed to be taken care of in a way I never had before (or at least acknowledged). I knew I felt furious and hurt about something. I was certain he was to blame and yet, I also never asked for what I actually needed. When I did, we were already down a deep rabbit hole and my husband didn’t know what to do. I had renegotiated the terms of our contract, but I had left him out of the process and he was understandably clueless.


Once you discover when the terms of the contract were broken, you begin the renegotiation. To do so, you must take a hard look at yourself, your relationship, and the environments in which you exist and then determine your needs. It is then the responsibility of each partner to be very honest about their needs as well as what they can give. This process can be a dicey one because sometimes just allowing yourself permission to have needs feels so vulnerable it’s excruciating, then taking a risk to ask someone to meet them and risk being disappointed?!? Ha! Forget about it! Trust me, I get it. However, this step is ESSENTIAL. You cannot skip it. You cannot half-ass it. And you cannot be anything less than 100% honest.


In the midst of our contract meltdown, I was learning to become a therapist. The combo of those life experiences I mentioned and my deep dive into learning about relationships led me to disassemble and then rebuild myself, brick by brick. This meant I had to get real clear on who I was and what I needed. It took my husband a little longer to sort things out. For us--and I don’t necessarily recommend this path--it took a relationship crisis and 18 months of separation before we fully renegotiated our contract, but what we both came to understand is that we actually do need and want emotional support from each other. It looks different for each of us and so the terms reflect that. Probably the most important aspects of our new contract are: 1) It is no longer implicit. It’s existence and its terms are very intentional. 2) The contract is more fluid and is revisited regularly. Ideally, a relationship contract’s terms and their functioning become part of an ongoing dialogue, but at a minimum contracts should be made explicit and revisited once a year.


Examples of Implicit Relationship Contracts


Contracts vary as much as people do and there is no one formula, but here are some examples of some common terms I see in my couples therapy practice:

  • I will take care of you so that I can feel powerful, competent, and worthy; in return, I will always be weak and needy so that I can feel cared for for the first time in my life and so your fragile ego can remain intact.

  • We agree to never discuss difficult topics in order to avoid acknowledging any of the pain we re experiencing, thereby allowing ourselves to live the myth that we are ok.

  • I will pursue you for sex, but avoid emotional closeness; and I will pursue you for emotional closeness, but will withdraw from physical contact; we will both refuse to budge from our positions.

  • I will bend over backwards and exhaust myself to make everything perfect so that I will never have to feel uncertainty or chaos; in return, I will barely participate in our relationship to make sure that you never get too close and I can feel safely disconnected.

  • I will never ask for my needs to be met; and I will never seek to find out what your needs are; we will both remain distant and resentful of the each other, but will self-righteously take heart in the belief that the other person is the problem.

  • I will find you boring and not particularly attractive; while I will be totally devoted to you and allow you to feel safe from any abandonment or betrayal.

  • I will hold all of the worry for both of us to the point I become massively anxious and will manage the shit out of every element in our lives; in return I will be the laid back one, pretending not to be bothered by anything as a way of avoiding my own anxiety and allowing you to feel competent by taking care of everything.


What are the terms of your implicit contract?

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© 2019 by Kate Engler