Covert contracts – expectations in marriage

Jay Dee

Covert contracts – expectations in marriage

Aug 22, 2014

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

Covert ContractsIn 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.

Your Turn

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?

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17 thoughts on “Covert contracts – expectations in marriage”

  1. Pastor Paul Onyango says:

    This is agreat teaching that makes family live with understanding .

  2. FarAboveRubies says:

    I’ve always believed that communication is so important in a marriage. Even after a quarter of a century, I still talk with my spouse all the time. When communication is good, so is the relationship. And with that, everything is negotiable.

    1. Dan says:

      Especially for a planner. 🙂

      1. FarAboveRubies says:

        Doesn’t everyone love a planner? 🙂

        1. Dan says:

          Especially one who negotiates.

          1. FarAboveRubies says:


  3. Jimmy says:

    In my experience I create these covert contracts because I have a better chance of them being fulfilled than if I verbally state them. Most of the time it seems if I verbally state my expectations of sex it seems to completely shut her down

  4. Jason says:

    Thanks for sharing. This is common in all walks of life, and I call it Pork Barreling Desires…

    1. Jay Dee says:

      True, it is. Pork Barrelling?

  5. Dan says:

    I have been doing a series and the “romantic” part of it is going to address this in relation to fantasies. Much the same thing can happen when a spouse agrees to engage in the others fantasies. Because one agrees, the other has visions of certain long-anticipated expectations being met and does not consider there may be boundaries the other is not ready to cross. There is, in effect, a covert contract that only one party is privy to. It’s sad that we insist on assuming compliance and being disappointed rather than openly discussing our expectations and establishing guidelines. After all, shouldn’t they be able to read my mind after all these years.???

  6. EssentiallyJess says:

    More often than not I find the contracts are what I think he expects of me, and I work myself up because I can’t get everything done, and he didn’t need it anyway. Communication is definitely a good thing!

  7. Jacob Finely says:

    You are reading my mail!!! Thanks… JF

  8. El Fury says:

    What I’ve found is that if Sexy Corte and I just happen to do something the same way a few times in a row it’s likely that at least one of us will assume that it will always be done that way. If both of us make that assumption and we’re cool with it, then great! “Of course we’re having wine after the kids are in bed, it’s Monday!”

    But if only one of us observes and desires the emergent pattern we’re likely to end up with frustration. “Why didn’t you park on the left? We *always* put in the van on the left!” \ “We do? I parked on the right so I could unload groceries. Who cares which side the van is on?”

    So, keep an eye on the patterns you build and be intentional! If you’ve done something the same way five times (or two, if you’re OCD) then your spouse may be expecting the same thing next time.

  9. Ritter says:

    I never would have thought about covert contracts until I have read your post. Something to think about for me. Thanks for posting – Ritter

  10. butterflywings says:

    Is it wrong to assume that having sex in marriage is an overt contract rather than a covert one? And same with spending some time together? I have just found there to be a disturbing trend, even some professionals, for people to say that expecting regular sex (at least twice a week) is not something that should be assumed and that it’s wrong to push for it, even when your spouse is mentally and physically healthy, has had no bad previous experiences to put them off sex and has been raised in a household with a healthy christian view on the importance of sex in marriage. And I’ve also been given the same attitude about insisting on spending regular time together as a couple and as a family (and I’m talking about wanting just one afternoon on the weekend for a few hours for family time, especially when my husband doesn’t even work full time and rarely goes to church, and one night a month for a date night just the two of us).

    I mean, when a man can find 12+ hours a day on his three non working days, and 6+ hours a day on his four working days for computer games, surely he can give up 30 minutes of gaming time twice a week for sex, 3 hours on the weekend for family time, and 3 hours once a month for couple time? Is it that unreasonable to ask that?

    According to my husband it is. And sadly according to some of the people I’ve spoken to, it is unreasonable to ask that, and in fact, I’ve been put down for having asked my husband for that. Even saying to my husband “For every 2 hours of computer game time, I expect you to spend at least an hour on family time, couple time or sex time”, has led to my husband telling me I’m being selfish and unreasonable and certain people in our lives attacking me over it. At the moment, I’d say for every 20 hours of gaming time, we might get one hour of family or couple time – and that’s me being generous. It’s probably a lot less family/couple time compared to gaming time.

    1. Jay Dee says:

      No, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to request that. In fact, I think if you’re not willing to provide that, you shouldn’t get married. The problem is that people these days don’t like being told they are expected to do something. They just want to be selfish and live their own life, doing what they want, when they want it. No responsibility, no obligations, no duties or vows. We have a very selfish culture.

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