Sinead was absolutely furious with Kevin, her husband of two years. Tears flowed down her face. “I can never forgive you for choosing this car for me.” Kevin had just purchased a Toyota Rav4 as a surprise birthday present for his wife. In being extra attentive, he had enlisted the advice and support of Sinead’s sister Niamh to accompany him in making this decision.
“So you don’t like the car?” he asked. “The car is beautiful and you know it’s what I always wanted,” Sinead replied. “Clearly, I made a mistake in surprising you like this,” he queried. “No, I love surprises, you should know that,” she answered. “Maybe it’s the colour,” he ventured? “No, you know very well that’s my favourite colour,” Sinead retorted. “Please tell me then, why are you so angry,” Kevin pleaded. “You chose Niamh, and not my mother or brother to help you make this decision. You have destroyed a special bond between us.”
Kevin was now perplexed and queried further, “But Niamh is your only sister, your bridesmaid, and you two are so close together?” Sinead answered, “But I had expected you would not choose Niamh, her of all people, in something as important as this for me.”
Kevin had just discovered the power of the world of expectations. Unaware of the depth of sibling rivalry that had never once been voiced or intimated, he had unwittingly violated Sinead’s world of expectations in that her sister should be excluded from the intimacy of decision making within their relationship. Sinead, for her part, felt angry and betrayed, not because Kevin had been ungenerous or treated her badly, but because he let her down in that he was unaware of her expectation (albeit he knew nothing about it) that their relationship was forbidden territory for her sister.
Within our world we are all aware of contracts, both verbal and written, that contain the agreements, rules and procedures that will guide us in particular situations such as employment, buying a home or forming a partnership. This is called the overt contract, but even within these contracts there is a hidden dimension that contains our assumptions and expectations of what this means for me. This part of the contract remains unspoken or unnegotiated and is sometimes called our ‘psychological contract.’
In many respects contracts are like icebergs in that the formal, agreed contract is the part of the iceberg seen above the water. The unseen, unspoken, psychological contract is the part beneath the water, and the part most likely to cause us future conflict.
Recognising Psychological Contracts Within Relationships
Every relationship contains psychological contracts in that in our heads we work out agreements with our partner, or have expectations they should behave in a certain manner within certain conditions. We then expect them to mentally sign this agreement, and we fully intend to hold them to it. So how do we recognise the contracts and expectations we have created? To achieve this we need to listen into and reflect on the language of our everyday encounters:
- But I had expected you to do this…..
- I thought we would do this…..
- I understood this to mean….
- I never anticipated you would think that’s what I wanted…
- Now anyone can see what should be done in this situation..
- I can’t understand you didn’t see what I was going to do…
- I believed this was the only sensible solution….
- Look, I assumed you would know what I was thinking here…
- I expected you would accept my interpretation of this…
Identify openly with your partner how many of the above assumptions/ expectations are native to your relationship. Then allow your partner to identify how many times he/she has addressed issues in this manner! Then together reflect on the unspoken expectations that exist for both of you within your relationship!