The contract

Marriage 101 ~ THE CONTRACT

I met my wife when I was a lecturer at university. Well, technically she met me, I recall meeting her for the first time on the beach later the same year – although this is a story for another day… I have been married for just over 2 years now, and recently acquired this piece of marriage wisdom from a good mate who followed the good advice he got from another good mate, the circle goes on and you get the picture. In years gone-by these stories were passed on from generation to the yonder around a campfire in-between tales of hunting and survival, I am sure. Though times have changed, one thing remains certain: Every marriage has a contract.

No good sir, not as in the contract you sign before you marry your beloved, you know, “in community or out of, with accrual etc etc”. Let me explain it this way: Ever come home two hours late and receive a disappointed look from your wife (or girlfriend for the guys reading this in preperation – good on YOU mate BTW)? It’s because you broke the unspoken clause in your contract where you value each other’s time… Or this example: Ever felt like you want to pop a vein when your better half spent R1000 on shoes?  You see, whether you care to admit the fact or deny it, your unspoken contract has a limit on the amount she is allowed to spend on shoes. You know it, she knows it, you will push each other’s boundaries until the rules are established. Do you see the obvious weakness in this statement?

The problem is, more often than not, that you have no idea what your better half’s contract contains, because you haven’t laid the rules out clearly (you may have, in which case this article may not be for you, but statistically the odds are small). It may sound straightforward, but I am sure there must have been at least one occasion where your wife was upset by something you said or did and you had NO DAMN CLUE that you did something wrong. She will most likely hoard these small events untill they burst out in a fit of rage leaving you perplexed and confused. The answer lies in the contract… Any marriage with two separate contracts – especially two unspoken contracts – is going to experience significantly more tension than the marriage where husband and wife have brought their separate sets of expectations to the table and hammered out one unified, co-equal contract designed to strengthen the marriage by expressing expectations, respecting expectations, and desiring peace. So, in the interest of being intensely practical, let’s break down some of the issues surrounding The Contract:

What is The Contract?

The contract is quite simply a set of rules and expectations what both of you sit together and compile. It may sound silly, but you won’t believe the results you can achieve by taking an hour out of your life and doing this. Try it, we dare you, Seriously, shout at us if it doesn’t work, but if you are going to go through the trouble of reading this you surely have to go over into action and try out what we propose, otherwise you are wasting your own time right now right? If you’re doing it right, is an agreed upon set of guiding principles that both people understand ought to serve as a guide in how they treat each other:

Eg: “We agree that in private conversations, we are safe to be completely honest and vulnerable and express any concerns we have; however, we agree that publicly rebuking or correcting a spouse (about significant issues) could undermine them and cause others to respect them less. So, we’ll reserve strong criticism for a private setting.”

This is a universal statement, unbiased, not aimed at any of the two parties. When applied both parties will be better off, – THIS IS THE KEY. Just imagine how much strife you both could eliminate if you agree to this.

What is The Contract not?

This is really very important, just trust me on this one – The contract is NOT a written document.Its a talk that you need to have before you marry, or as soon as you get the chance if you are already married (as in my case).

It is NOT a chores list or a honey-do list. You don’t control each other (unless your surname is Grey – then you may stop reading) and is rather a set of rules which preserve the feelings of both parties involved.

It is NOT a guilt-trip or a black-mail weapon. You don’t get to use this to punish the other person for violating the contract. It is NOT a scorecard either; don’t be a petty jerk. Nothing is more immature than recalling past arguments. You’re not perfect either.


What should The Contract Cover?

There’s no set list of “must agree upon topics.” Each person brings their own needs and personality to a marriage. I’m just assuming that things like “Don’t cheat on each other,” “Don’t hit each other,” “Don’t abandon each other” are assumed – seriously now. Beyond that, personalise it as much as you can. A golden rule is the “how I feel” principle. This is good in all arguments too, by the way, and something that I have found seriously useful on many occasions.

For example: “When you interrupt my sentences it MAKES ME FEEL that you are not listening to the point that I am making”. This is like saying “You never listen”, however, the former is something that no-one can counter argue (you can’t help how you feel) whereas the latter is a stupid statement which will likely end up with your better half remembering ONLY THIS part of the conversation. So the golden rule is to think of “HOW I FEEL” situations and make rules around these. They can be generally accepted concepts: Eg.We agree that financial decisions of a certain magnitude should be joint decisions since they impact the whole family.

But What About…

Q: What if we don’t agree on a certain topic?

A: It really doesn’ need to. Thing is, the whole point of THE CONTRACT is that you take the time to explain to your better half the rules of your rulebook and HOW THEY MAKE YOU FEEL. Remember, you can’t (always) control how a situation makes you feel, this is an opportunity to share htis. ex. (from my marriage:) My wife is free to get as mad as she wants to that I forget to offer to clean up a table after a meal. I grew up never thinking about this, my mom used to do the cleaning up. This doesn’t mean what I am doing is RIGHT, however, and when I am lazy about this it upsets her. Our rule is thus, that she REMINDS me to help clean up dishes, tables etc. especially when we visit other people. I might not necessarily agree with her and have my own male-infused point of view, however, the fact that I now know this rule means that I can avoid upsetting her in the future through something small and by now being aware (although I still CONSTANTLY forget this – old habits die hard).

Q: Why shouldn’t it include specific tasks?

A: It shouldn’t include specific tasks because that lends itself to one party attempting to exert control over the other. Rather than eliminating tension, it creates additional conflict. ex. Didn’t we agree that you would take out the trash by 7PM every Wednesday? This is really stupid and TRUST me, this will result in a counter-argument of what the other party “should have” done and “is still to do” – NOT NICE… Always remember: you’re fighting on the same side – to strengthen your marriage!

Q: Well, are you saying we should never discuss practical issues?

A: Of course not. But chores should not be elevated to the level of the core principles that guide your marriage. Your contract should cover how you handle discussions of tasks, etc. ex. We agree that it’s important to keep our promises to each other. Therefore, since I was the last person to get out of bed, I will make it up.

Q: What do we do if someone violates the contract?

A: There’s a couple of things. First, stop keeping score dumbass! You’re going to make mistakes too. Remember this. Calm down, NEVER discuss anything when you are emotional. High emotion = low clarity. Low emotion = high clarity. Respond with grace. Secondly, you’re right; it’s not kosher for one person to step outside the bounds of your agreement. This is why you have the contract. If people didn’t make mistakes – or act like jerks – we wouldn’t need contracts. With The Contract, you have an impartial arbiter that says, “we agree to this, but you did that.”

Hopefully, you can move directly to the forgiveness and restoration phase and skip any defensiveness and blame-gaming. And remember to discuss this only in private rambo, NEVER EVER mention THE CONTRACT in front of other people.

Always remember: you’re not fighting against each other. You’re fighting on the same side – to strengthen your marriage! THE CONTRACT is that unspoken set of rules which have now been spoken, they are set out and in the light… Go ahead and try it tonight. Mention this article, break the ice, test your better half’s openness to something like this. BE AUDACIOUS!

By the way, the KETUBAH is the oldest form of this type of contract that I could find. Its REALLY INTERESTING and is basically the same thing, its just actually written down by the bridegroom before marriage and actually STUDIED by the bride-to-be for a full year before marriage. Check it out!

What about you? What are some of the unique features of your Marriage Contract? Tweet to us or comment on our Facebook wall.

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