Studies suggest that when couples break up or divorce, the most common reason given is a gradual loss of affection and esteem. 

When your relationship was new, there was spontaneity and excitement in learning about each other. Over time, many couples lose these feelings. Partly, this is a natural “settling in.” Jobs, kids, other things need their space. 

Another factor plays a role in these changes. Partners settle into routine ways of relating. I call these “relationship contracts.”

Contracts in a partnership can be useful, such as an agreement that one partner will be home early enough to supervise kids after school. Many other contracts are assumed and not stated. They evolve from expectations about how each person will behave. Below is a sample contract regarding conflict management between Harvey and Adele.

Covenant for managing conflict:

Adele will behave with little emotion while Harvey will be overemotional. Adele will rarely raise her voice and will withdraw if conflict becomes too intense. Harvey will become demanding in a conflict situation. Adele is allowed to accuse Harvey of being irrational. Harvey will be allowed to accuse Adele of being uncaring and not loving him enough.

When you put this relationship contract in writing, it sounds ridiculous. Yet couples behave under these contracts much of the time. In effect, the couples have assigned (and accepted) roles as if their relationship were a stage play. The price is a loss of spontaneity, playfulness, and the ability to solve problems. 

What can a couple do? First, be aware of the signs of restrictive covenants in your relationship. Here is a partial list:

A feeling of “here we go again” (this same thing keeps happening)

A sense of not being treated fairly or not being heard

Thinking my partner has little regard for my concerns

Fear of mentioning certain subjects

Ongoing difficulties with problem solving (because a contract limits your choices)

Think about your family of origin. How did you parents behave toward each other? We tend to repeat what we learned in childhood about relationships.

If you recognize that you and your partner have a behavior contract that is hurting your relationship, talk about it directly. Say, for example, “I notice that when we argue, I talk a lot while you tend to be quiet. Have you noticed that?”

Be prepared for possible resistance from your partner. Relationship contracts serve a purpose. They make the relationship more predictable and, in some ways, comfortable. Challenging the rules can feel risky. 

The reward for recognizing these contracts can be a revitalization of your relationship and a new awareness of what you loved about your partner in the beginning. 

Charles Hughes is a counselor in Oak Park and blogs about fear, anxiety, depression and relationships.

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