John and Kim came into therapy due to financial differences. Partnered for many years, they kept separate bank accounts. John always thought they would join their bank accounts but Kim assumed they would always keep finances separate.
Sara and Joe were married for three years and had an active sex life during courtship. Sara particularly enjoyed receiving oral sex from Joe but shortly after getting married, Joe stopped performing it. He claimed he didn’t enjoy it, despite having performed it numerous times prior to marriage.
Betty and Bob had a planned pregnancy after partnering for 5 years. Bob always thought that Betty would be a stay at home mom. A successful sales woman, Betty assumed that the baby would to go daycare and she could return to work.
Kate and Meredith finally had the baby they always wanted. Kate looked forward to nurturing their trio but Meredith wanted her mom, Phyllis, over every week so Phyllis could bond with her grandchild. Kate had a different postpartum vision.
Vinnie and Maria both grew up in Italian families. Vinnie assumed that once they were married, they would cook Sunday dinner for the extended family weekly. Maria worked 60 hours per week and had no intention of hosting elaborate weekly dinners.
What do these five couples have in common? Each couple experiences a disruption in their contract. When a couple commits to a long term relationship, each individual holds certain expectations. When stated out loud, couples may find agreement or work out their differences. However, all couples also carry unspoken contracts or expectations. When these are not met, the unspoken contract becomes a wedge in the partnership.
In couples therapy, we help to unpack the various levels of your unspoken contracts. Whether we discuss money, sex, religion, extended family, family planning, employment or parenting, our work focuses on helping you find a way to bridge your contract differences.
Communication prior to moving in together certainly helps uncover these unspoken expectations but will not catch them all. Some of your expectations are not fully known to you. They often relate to the dynamics in your family of origin – the contract being to replicate those dynamics or to create the opposite dynamic.
If you currently experience a wedge between you and your partner, consider what’s in your unspoken contract that has suddenly emerged.
- How does this expectation tie back to your family of origin?
- By holding this expectation, what are you trying to avoid?
- By holding this expectation, what do you want to replicate?
- Were you aware of this prior to committing to your partner?
- Did you ever discuss this with your partner?
Once you answer these questions, discuss your responses. Ask your partner to answer the same questions. Once you’ve discussed your differences, you must ask:
- Can I be flexible?
- What would happen if I flexed my expectations?
- What scares me about being more flexible?
For some partners, their expectations leave no room for negotiation. Your partner needs to know this so he/she can decide whether they have flexibility. If not, hard decisions must be made. For this phase of the conversation, I encourage you to search deeply. What are you holding onto?
A friend of mine once told me that his relationship success is due to not having expectations. I do not believe that to be true. We all hold certain expectations and expect our partners to fulfill our contracts. We just may not realize we have them.