Most couples who seek counseling are not doing well at all. Need I say that? They are both struggling greatly. There is no safe ground, no neutral territory. They cannot build good memories together because they fight over everything, even things meant to be healthy and good. Options are very limited. In such a situation, sometimes a couple contract may be one of the few options left.
What the contract is
The couple contract is exactly what it sounds like. Spouses literally negotiate for what they need from each other and what they are willing to do for each other. This can almost never be done without a counselor or other skilled third party, because in spite of its potential, it is a disaster waiting to happen. The therapist will need to keep the couple on track and help them define their terms as clearly as possible. The couple is responsible for telling each other what they need, but it’s up to the therapist to make sure this is written down in terms that each party can actually follow. It must be clear and measurable. “I am willing to be more supportive” will not work, but “I am willing to ask you twice a day if I can help you with anything” will work just fine.
Who the contract is between
The contract is between the two partners in the relationship. It has nothing to do with the therapist or counselor they may be working with. The counselor makes no promises of any kind, ever, as to whether or not the relationship will work out. Everything the couple agrees to in therapy, they do for one another.
What the contract does
Above is a set of rules I have written up for when I do couple contracts. I pass these out to the couple at the beginning and go over them because this is structured time where we are seeking to accomplish a specific task. There will be no time for arguing and blaming. This session isn’t about feelings, either. It is about action, and that is what a lot of marriage counseling never gets around to. After rules are established, one spouse starts, telling the other spouse what one thing they could do that would make the greatest difference in how the first spouse feels about the relationship. The spouse who has just heard this has a chance to clarify, ask questions, and even negotiate down if they feel the request is unreasonable. On the other hand, the counselor must continually remind both partners that whatever they agree to, it is only for ten days. Obviously this situation is far from ideal. The ultimate goal is for them to be able to work through problems on their own. But the contract, if executed skillfully, gives both partners a chance to a) verbalize exactly what they want the other spouse to do; and b) know as clearly as possible what they are being asked to do by their partner.
Where the contract leads
As each fulfills the commitment they agreed to, the other partner is pleased. Each has an opportunity (though not an obligation) to go above and beyond, which of course is a chance to learn grace and gratitude. Each knows they will be held accountable by the therapist for doing what they said they would do. When they return to therapy after they have tried the contract, it gets tweaked, changed, and rearranged. Each time the bar gets a little higher, meaning the contract becomes less like rules and more like relationship. When a wife who has not felt able to trust her husband in years sees how easily he does exactly what he promised he would do, she begins to question her negative assumptions about him. When a husband who believes his wife takes pleasure in emasculating him sees how willing she is to do what he needs her to do, he has to rethink his opinion of her. The notions both spouses have that the other is to blame and completely at fault are seriously challenged. They may even begin to wonder what they were fighting about.
The brilliance of the marriage contract is that it’s something partners can DO, and a skilled therapist will introduce it at the time when partners are desperate and willing to do anything. It’s not a cure-all by any means, but it may give struggling couples what they need most — a chance.