In every relationship and in every interaction of every relationship there is a contract. Sometimes the terms of the contract are explicit, for example, when we buy something we are asked to confirm that we have read the terms and conditions of sale. Sometimes the terms are not explicit. Whether made clear or not, each party brings to the relationship their idea of what the terms of the contract are.
Take a contract of employment. Typically, this will contain provisions about working hours, about salary or other compensation, a description of what the job entails, together with specific provisions relevant to the particular organisation and the work involved. Typically, a contract of employment is drawn up by an employer, and in many cases the employee may have little input to its contents. However, in addition to the provisions set out in the contract, each side may also have expectations of the other that are unspoken. For example, prior to the recent financial crisis, many employees may have had expectations that their employer would continue in business for the foreseeable future, although this is unlikely to have been expressed. Some of pain and disappointment felt by employees when businesses close down relates to the expectations that their employer would continue to employ them. An employer might also have expectations of an employee in times of hardship, that they might be willing to change their terms of employment in order to help the business to survive.
In personal relationships too, there can be unspoken elements of the contract. Most relationships develop organically, and each brings to the relationship their expectations that the other is operating according to the same contract, although they may not be.
How we interpret the actions and behaviours of others can colour our perception of whether the contract is being adhered to or not. It’s often in what has not been expressed, and in which the partners or friends have different expectations, that conflicts occur. For example, many people expect fidelity from their partners, though this is often not expressed.
When people come together for the first time later in life, each will have established relationships with family and friends, and as the partners establish a new intimate relationship there will be a resettling of existing relationships as everyone finds their new place in the order of things. This can be stressful and in some cases, cause conflict.
Our idea of what any relationship contract includes is shaped initially by our experiences in our family of origin, and refined later in life as we develop our own sense of what is important to us. We learn to relate in our earliest relationships, and we carry with us the imprint of what we learnt before we had the language or understanding to filter it. We carry that imprint into every subsequent relationship, personal or business, and that is the lens through which we view the world. How we interact with others will be shaped by that imprint: how we see others, how we relate about money, about sex, about security, and about every aspect of our lives.
What might be in our contract? Typically, we will see ourselves as bringing certain attributes to the table, and in turn we will have expectations about what others might bring.
We may be offering our love, our caring, our support. We may be bringing our abilities (in the home or elsewhere), our financial resources, our sense of humour, we may be bringing our strength and persistence, our tolerance, our willingness to learn and grow. We may be bringing our vision of the future, our solidity, our groundedness. We may be bringing our intellect, our interests and our skills. We may be willing to offer our loyalty, our companionship, our intimacy, and our friendship.
And what do we expect in return? Do we expect others to bring the same things? Or do we expect them to fill the gaps we might have? Are we looking for excitement, for peace, for kindness or integrity? Are we looking for commitment, for structure, for holding? Are we looking for them to provide security, to help us to feel good about ourselves, or to make us the centre of their lives? Are we looking for someone to play a role we have imagined for them, or are we really seeing them as they are, with all their flaws? What do we want the other to be, do or have?
Only by looking at what our unwritten contracts might be saying, can we really begin to understand what is being negotiated between us in our relationships.
Jude Fay is a counsellor and psychotherapist at AnneLeigh Counselling and Psychotherapy, Naas and Celbridge, Co Kildare.