In marriage many arguments and hurt feelings are based on expectations. These expectations can come from a variety of sources and can present in a variety of forms. Expectations aren’t necessarily bad, but unspoken expectations are dangerous, particularly when you believe there is an agreement in place, or an understanding about expectations. One form of these is the so called covert contract.
What is a covert contract?
A covert contract is an agreement you haven’t actually made, but which you believe to be solid. Covert contracts occur when you have a plan in your head, some sort of trade, but it is never explicitly stated, so when it comes time for “payment” and it falls through, you feel cheated, but your spouse is oblivious.
We have many covert contracts in marriage: You take your wife out for Valentine’s day, you expect sex. You buy a nice present for your anniversary, you expect sex. You survive another year, and you expect birthday sex. Now, I’m not saying these aren’t good times to have sex, but I am saying that the expectation without communication is dangerous.
For example: you plan a vacation, you go through the trouble (expense) of booking a three bedroom suite so the kids can have their own bedrooms. You get there and then a series of things make sex undesirable for your spouse: The 18 hour drive, or a sunburn, or the baby took a long time to go to sleep or just the stress of managing the kids swimming in the ocean. You initiate and get “Oh… do we have to?” In your mind, you had a deal: vacation = sex. Perhaps over the course of the vacation you manage to have sex once, maybe twice over the week, but its vacation, in your mind all this expense and time should reap daily sex! That is the covert contract: you expected vacation in exchange for daily (or at least higher frequency) sex, but because you didn’t express that expectation, in your mind there is a contract that is broken. In your spouse’s mind you’re grumpy for no reason, which is probably going to gain you less sex, not more.
For example, my wife and I are away this weekend with the kids in cottage country. Of course, in my mind, vacation = sex. In my wife’s mind, vacation = sleep. See the potential problem? I could have a covert contract in my mind thinking “I agreed to this vacation, you owe me sex”, and she could have a covert contract in her mind thinking “I agreed to this vacation, you owe me sleep.” So, how do we avoid conflict? It’s pretty simple really: communicate more!
Christina – “I’m going to need a nap this afternoon.”
Jay – “I expected that. I’m going to need some sex this evening.”
Christina – “I figured that.”
Now, it happens to be that we both expected the other’s expectation (this isn’t our first vacation, and this has been a point of contention in the past), but explicitly stating it means there is no room for hurt feelings, unless the expectation is broken, but then we’ll both know exactly why there is conflict and we can address it like adults instead of bickering children (“it’s not fair!!!”). There’s no room for ambiguity: she wants a nap, I want sex. She has a nap, and we have sex.
Now, of course, this isn’t a simple business transaction. I want her to feel rested so she can enjoy her vacation, and she wants me to … well … have sex … so I can enjoy my vacation (and she enjoys it too…. frankly, I think she gets the better end of this trade… but I’m not complaining, I mean, I really like sex). And there will be times where the explicitly stated contract is still broken (sickness, unexpected interruptions, whatever), but then you have to fall back on your objective independence skill (more on that in another post) and on your relationship being able to bear the glitch. Marriage is a relationship much more than a legal institution after all, at least the way Christian marriages are supposed to be.
We are constantly getting comments, emails, survey comments, etc. from spouses who basically say “I do all this stuff, but my spouse won’t do [blank].” But if you ask them, most of the time there was no explicitly stated expectation. They never said “I want you to do [blank]”. They just expect it to happen, because, well, they fulfilled their end of the (covert) contract. Of course, a marriage should not be based on a contract (covert or otherwise), they should be based on covenant, but it’s going to happen during the course of your relationship that you are going to build up these small little contracts, it’s just the way we humans are. Until we get to the point that we are truly living in a covenant relationship with no expectation of return (I’m not there yet), we can at least do our best to ensure that the contracts we do make with our spouse are clear and defined, so we can limit the tension that will always exist in such a deep relationship.
Do you find your marriage has a lot of covert contracts? Do you think you could move to more explicitly stated contracts? Do you think this would solve a lot of your conflicts?