Relationship contracts

The Social Contract

The "social contract" was first described in the 1600s. A simple version of a social contract is the "golden rule", which says one should "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". This means one gives up violating other people's rights in exchange for them not violating yours. This rule is in an individual's self-interest to follow, since the alternative would be the "law of the jungle" (or "might makes right"); in that case, anyone who has the physical might to violate your rights is entitled to do so. That would make civilized society (and relationships of trust) impossible.

The Relationship Contract Model

Going beyond the basic social contract of the "golden rule", more complex social contracts can be found in every relationship. They exist between friends, parents and children, employer and employee, and any two people who have a relationship. A relationship contract is merely the performance each party expects from the other. A person may not have a clear list of their expectations in the front of their mind, but they generally are upset when those expectations are not met. The performance (or lack of performance) that caused the upset is a violation of the person's expectations.


Below are examples of mutual expectations between people which can be considered relationship contracts.

Identifying the Elements of a Relationship Contracts

In the business world, the elements of a relationship are often defined in a formal, written contract. Government Regulations also specify what to expect of some businesses (e.g. food from a restaurant must meet certain standards).

Personal relationships don't have regulations or written contracts to outline what to reasonably expect. In general, all relationships involve reciprocation; if you do your part, I must do something in return (and if you fail to do your part, I don't have to do my part). In personal relationships, a person might hold the expectation that if I treat you with respect, you will do the same for me. That would be one element of a relationship contract in a personal relationship.

The elements of a relationship contract, not being written, may have to be discovered by analyzing the relationship. Conflict can reveal the elements each person expects from the relationship, since when a person is upset, hurt, or disappointed, some expectation of theirs was not met. This uncovers what the relationship contract is, as that person sees it. This applies to business or personal relationships:

Disagreement About the Terms of a Contract

The two parties in a relationship may have different expectations, and disagree about what the contract between them is. In business relationships, contracts are often written out in great detail so there is mutual understanding and agreement about all the elements of the relationship.

In personal relationships, there is no written contract to go by, and disagreement about expectations seems to be a universal phenomenon. It is difficult enough to meet another persons expectations successfully; it's impossible when you don't clearly know (or agree with) what their expectations are.

It is mutually beneficial for two people in a personal relationship to openly discuss and clarify their expectations of each other. When their mutual of each other match, disappointment can be minimized. This is easier said than done, because discussing your relationship productively requires good communication skills.

Reciprocation in Relationships

If all relationships have an underlying contract (or set of expectations each has of the other), then relationships are reciprocal to some degree. The reciprocation can be equal and balanced, or unequal and unbalanced. Unequal relationships might be considered exploitive if one party cannot freely choose to enter or leave the relationship.

Even a party with very little power in a relationship, such as a slave, is entitled so some reasonable expectations. In the case of a slave, they can expect to be provided with food, since they otherwise cannot do their work as a slave (and will die). A prisoner would also reasonably expect to be fed, and only be held in prison for the length they were sentenced.

The more equal the reciprocation in a relationship, the more stable it tends to be over time. The relationship of employer-employee has endured, where slavery has not; the higher degree of equality makes the employer-employee relationship more desirable, and thus more stable (it's easier to convince someone to become your employee than to become your slave)

If equality in a relationship increases it's stability, it's mutually beneficial for relationships to be equal (assuming both parties desire reliability and longevity of the relationship). An unequal relationship might seem to be in the best interest of the person on the "winning" end of the equation, but both parties will loose all the benefits of the relationship when it ends (after the "loosing" party leaves).

Accountability for Fulfilling a Contract

Expectations are reasonable if you have the power to hold the other person accountable for not meeting them, and the other person is receiving a reciprocal benefit in exchange. For example, an employer expects an employee to show up for work, pays them to do so, and has the power to fire them if they do not.

In some cases, the only means of holding another party accountable is by leaving the relationship. This is often true in personal relationships.

"Workable" expectations

A workable contract is one which has expectations that are possible to meet. The expectations are reasonable, in that its within the power of the other person to meet them. An unworkable contract requires a person to do things that are beyond their control.

For example, a reasonable expectation might be to do everything in your power not to be late. An unreasonable expectation is to never be late...that is, if the road is washed out, the bridge closed, or any other extenuating circumstance makes you late, you violated your relationship with the other person. You are made to be responsible for things you have no control over, which will inevitably fail.

Another example: a reasonable and workable expectation (in a personal relationship) is that you make every effort to sincerely try to understand how the other person feels. An unworkable expectation is that you immediately and instantly understand how they feel, with little or no explanation, or that there are never any misunderstandings.

Personal Relationships

Personal relationships have contracts, but they are never written and are more likely to go unscrutinized. The marriage contract is an obvios example of a personal relationship that has a contract (the so-called "marriage contract"). Some elements of this contract are well-established, such as the requirement to be monogamous. However, the specific details may not be agreed upon between two spouses. For example, is being friends with a former girlfriend/boyfriend a violation of your marriage contract with your spouse? How much parenting and housework does each spouse have to do?

Personal relationships are where our social and emotional needs are met or not met. They are perhaps the single most important element in our quality of life. The contracts that exist in friendships and family relationships must have workable expectations and meet our human need for emotional support.

Friends can ideally depend on one another for emotional support -- to listen and try to understand each other's problems and feelings. If one friend never listens, the first might find themselves frustrated and disappointed, and stop making an effort to continue the friendship.

Example of Personal Relationship Contract

Below is an example of the mutual expectations that might exist in a close friendship. These expectations might never be openly discussed, but they exist in each person's mind and shape their behavior towards each other:

top -- communication -- relationship contracts -- emotional intimacy

This page last modified 2023-04-30