The Marital Contract
As couples try to avoid a relationship defined by gender, they have been advised to formalize how they relate to each other with a contract. Such contracts outline how and when to do nice things for each other and how to share the household and parenting tasks fairly. These contracts can spell out everything—sex, chores, finances, etc., assigning who is responsible for what. The idea behind such contracts is the idea of reciprocity. If I fulfill my part of the contract, you will fulfill yours. You can find hundreds of ways in which to create these kinds of contracts online.
“His” and “Her” Needs
Transactional relating is also based on the notion that what we want from each other is expressed as “I need.” Marriage is the way we get our own, individual needs met. The basic idea is “You satisfy my needs, I satisfy yours.” This approach weds the transactional/reciprocal nature of the relationship with the idea that human beings are motivated mostly, if not entirely, by their own self-interest.
Assessing Your Relationship
Researchers and clinicians working with couples have found that marriages oriented around reciprocity are less successful. Deal making, contracting, and quid pro quo arrangements inevitably cause couples to “keep score” on how much each does compare to his/her spouse. Do you find yourself feeling “entitled” to certain responses from your spouse? For example:
- I work longer hours than you do, so you should _______________.
- I said ‘I love you’ several times, and you haven’t said it even once.
- I go along with what you want most of the time, now I want you to do ______________.
“Fulfilling each other’s needs” is such a popular idea that it has become marital dogma. However, transactions defined in terms of “needs” have toxic effects on a relationship:
- Needs become demands that we feel entitled to have fulfilled.
- Needs require reciprocal arrangements (“I’ll have sex with you if you will spend more time talking to me.”).
- Not having needs fulfilled is justification for infidelity and divorce.
- Here is no end to things you can identify as your needs.
3. Interacting Collaboratively
In my work with couples, I promote negotiating the things that are important for each partner to flourish in life—fundamental wishes and wants (in contrast to “needs”)—in a collaborative manner. This approach requires partners in a relationship to maintain a simultaneous perspective of themselves both as individuals and as a couple; they must have a sense of “being in this together” while also having individual life plans.
Wants and desires that flow from individual life plans are not “entitlements” that must be fulfilled. Wants or preferences are things that you value but are willing to negotiate, in good faith, with your spouse or cohabiting partner.
Collaborative negotiation is not the kind of “tit for tat” negotiation one sees in business in which each partner gives to the other with the expectation of a return—it is not a transaction.
Collaboratively negotiating means each partner values the other in the same way they value self; neither partner seeks to “privilege” their wants and desires over the other’s (e.g. because of gender or a superior wage); each partner is aware of the impact of their actions on the other; and the couple develops a strategy for negotiating wants and desires that honors each partner by creating win-win approaches to individual wants, issues, concerns, and complaints.
Being collaborative in collaborative negotiation means knowing that:
- Collaborators are equal—collaboration requires sharing authority, accepting responsibility and negotiating in good faith.
- Collaboration is not capitulation—true collaboration protects individual autonomy.
- Collaboration is not cooperation—collaboration is about the process of working together; cooperation is about the result of working together. (I can cooperate with you by stepping aside while you do what you want.)
- Compromise can also be stepping aside while your partner does what he/she wants.