If you are having a conflict with your spouse, it may be time to look at the expectations of your invisible marriage contract.
As noted in last week’s post, Marriage’s Invisible Contract, when we agree to marry or to live together, we all have expectations concerning what we’re willing to give our partner, as well as what we want to get from him or her. Whether verbalized or not, these assumptions fall into three general categories that frequently are sources of marital and personal trouble if they aren’t understood by both people.
You can play the Marriage Contract Game by printing two copies of this page and having each of you look carefully through the sample statements and questions, exploring which ones are part of what you each believe is in your contract. Especially notice the ones about which you feel strongly, as they are ones most likely to cause trouble if they conflict with the expectations of your partner.
Incidentally, if your partner isn’t willing to play the game, you can still benefit by playing a solitaire version. In sharing what you “think” you’ve both agreed to is the basis of your relationship — and asking your partner whether he or she knows you feel that way — you will undoubtedly uncover some areas of disagreement. While uncomfortable, this is actually a good thing because then you’ll know where the quicksand is hidden and get help in avoiding it. And you may also be relieved to find there are some areas in which you’re in total agreement, although those were things you had previously been embarrassed to discuss.
Remember, the primary purpose of the game is to raise your awareness of what is “written” in your invisible marriage contract and what is in your partner’s. It is not to make anyone wrong about their point of view. We all have expectations! There is no way we can’t. So if you want to have a satisfying relationship, it’s a good idea to know what expectations that relationship is based upon. You don’t have to agree, but simply knowing what each of you expect can help you avoid many conflicts.
Expectations based on what you want out of the relationship
These expectations arise from thousands of observations of our parents as we were growing up and unconsciously deciding what makes a happy relationship work and what creates unhappy relationships. We also draw conclusions from observing the parents of our friends and listening to the bitterness of a thrice-married cousin whose husbands were always unfaithful. If you add the ideas we get from advertising and the latest magazine article, it’s not surprising we all have different concepts of what marriage means, whether our ideas would be considered by others to be highly idealist or pessimistic.
- My partner will be loyal, loving, and exclusively devoted to me
- Our marriage will provide a panacea against tribulations and a refuge from the rest of the world
- Marriage ensures I won’t be lonely.
- We will maintain a close relationship until we are parted by death.
- With marriage I will have legally sanctioned and readily available sex.
- We can have children and create a family of our own.
- We will create an extended family that includes my children, both sets of parents, close friends, etc.
- Marriage will give me respect and social status.
- Together we will create an economic unit.
- Together we’ll work to build and create a respectable unit recognized as a couple belonging together.
- Marriage will allow me a place where I can direct my energy and give nurturance to others for the good of the family.
Expectations based on psychological and physiological needs
These expectations concern such aspects as how comfortable you are in feeling close or distant to others, how independent or dependent you like to be, whether you prefer being dominant and controlling or submissive and passive, how emotional you become when you are upset and how you react to anger or disagreement, and how comfortable you are in your sexual identification. Although many of these may be hidden from your awareness, thinking about how you would answer these questions if you needed to explain your answer, will help you become more aware of your true feelings.
- How much do I want to take care of myself and how much do I want my partner to take care of me?
- Can I survive without my partner?
- Do I need my partner to initiate plans and make decisions for me?
- Does my partner’s attitude toward me determine my sense of worth?
- Do I expect my partner to set the standard for our style and tastes?
- Do I exercise veto power but not take part in decisions?
- Am I comfortable in exposing my feelings, limitations, and “childish” attitudes to my partner?
- Do I avoid or encourage closeness?
- Can I share power or do I need to be in control?
- Can my partner and I resolve problems without one feeling dominate and the other submissive?
- To what degree does my love for my partner arise from fear of being on my own?
- Am I able to freely allow my partner to make decisions about matters outside our relationship without feeling threatened?
- How much does the way I express myself when I’m upset affect our relationship?
- Am I secure in being male or female?
- What am I willing to ask my partner concerning sex?
Expectations that arise from the dynamics of interactions between you and your partner
Here are expectations that often erupt into the kinds of conflict that bring people to counseling and cause many marital arguments. This is probably because they frequently aren’t openly explored and discussed because they deal with “sensitive” areas. As you read each question, notice if your relationship has a problem in that area. If so, consider carefully what your assumptions have been concerning what “should” happen but is not.
- Do we openly and clearly communicate?
- Do we really talk and listen to one another?
- Are there important intellectual differences between me and my partner?
- Are there significant differences in the level of energy each of us brings to the relationship, for example in terms of intensity and enthusiasm?
- Am I afraid of living up to the image my partner has of who I am?
- Do we live parallel lives, only meeting superficially?
- Are there areas in which we have major differences of opinion?
- Are we comfortable in dealing with each other’s family?
- Are either of us dependent on our parents?
- Are child-rearing decisions easy for us to make or is one of us permissive and the other a disciplinarian?
- Is the person who is in charge of paying the bills seen as the one who has the power?
- Are we satisfied with the amount of work each of us does around the house, such as cleaning or shopping, or does one person feel overburdened?
- Do we generally agree about basic values, such as religion, politics, ethics?
- Do we feel we both must be interested in the same things or we aren’t compatible?