Entry 9

Mysterious Emotional Contract

Anyone looking for the keyword “emotional contract” on the Internet today will mainly find two categories of application: On the one hand contributions dealing with problems about family issues concerning the parent/child relationship, mainly due to uncertain bonding experiences during adolescence. Or it is utilised in work-related contexts regarding the “emotional connection” of employees to their employing company – most often with references to the most extreme consequence of it: the dreaded “emotional resignation”.
The fact that in both cases an “emotional contract” is mentioned, which obviously is in a state of some crisis, seems to be no coincidence. And equally obvious, in both cases, there seems to be a kind of “invisible contract”, to which the concerned parties have consented somehow implicitly. Which means in the language of the law: “If someone tacitly expresses his will and the honest recipient of this may conclude on a legal will, so that a contract can come about without explicit declaration of will.
This definition, however, points to the inherent problem of the two applications mentioned above: For there is hardly any tacit expression of will by a child by which it agrees to be an emotional and educational object of its parents, nor an implied right of employers to any emotional (and thus difficult to verify) corporate ties of their employees.
And here my topic for today comes into play:
Because not only the parent-child-relationship or an employment-relationship are based on such an implicit invisible “emotional contract”, but strictly speaking almost every relationship.
That is why it is important to make this phenomenon as visible as possible in our loving relationships, especially in non-monogamous multiple relationships, so that all those involved are able to recognise it and to participate in it.

Why do I use the term “emotional contract“? To this end, I would like to show first of all with help of the definition of the German Wikipedia, what a (legal) “contract” is – and surprisingly, some formulations already sound almost oligoamorous there:

A contract is a legally-binding agreement which recognises and governs the rights and duties of the parties to the agreement.

A contract coordinates and regulates social behaviour through a mutual commitment. It is voluntarily arranged between two (or more) parties. In the contract, each party promises the other to do or refrain from doing something specific (and thereby to provide a performance desired by the other party). This makes the future more predictable for the parties. If one party cancels the contract, this may release the other party in whole or in part from its obligation to perform the contract.

The content of the contractual agreement must be understood by the contracting parties in the same meaning. Otherwise, there are different interpretations of the contract, and the purpose of the contract, the coordination of future behaviour, may fail. Therefore also deceptions of the other party, concerning the agreed, are inadmissible.

The self-obligation by promise presupposes that the party concerned is of age with respect to the subject matter of the contract and can speak for and decide for itself, meaning the party in question must be legally competent. A person of legal standing can make an effective declaration of intent and participate in business transactions. A person incapable of doing business can not make an effective declaration of intent. Each party must also be capable and entitled to act as promised. In this respect, the parties must be correspondingly autonomous and entitled to dispose.

If the services of the parties are provided at a later stage, the party who is making the advance input must be confident that the other party will still meet its obligations, otherwise there is an advance risk. Since no one will conclude a contract without a basis of trust, it is important for the parties to have a good reputation as reliable contractors.

In the meantime, if the agreed benefits extend far into the future, unforeseen events may occur which render the intentions of the parties in the contract null and void (discontinuation of the business basis). In this case, it may lead to a cancellation of the contract.

The content of a contract is negotiated by the parties. The final agreement depends on the interests of the parties, their options and their negotiating skills. In principle, each party is free to pursue their interests freely within the given legal framework. So the parties will only conclude a rational deal that puts them in a better position than without the contract.

Between the point where a contract becomes beneficial to the parties and the point where it becomes detrimental, there is more or less room for negotiation. The bargaining power of the parties may be quite different, depending on how urgently they might need the contract.

Most of my readers will probably consent, if I call the participants of a loving relationship “legal subjects” , for in the language of law they are literally the often quoted “mutual consenting adults”.
What is exciting above all concerning the aforementioned definition is that on the entire (complete) Wikipedia-page, there is no mention at all of conclusive or tacit contracts: So contracts seem to be from their basic conception thoroughly conscious and comprehensible agreements for all parties involved(!).
However, it becomes interesting when we touch the question of the “object of agreement” – that is, what the contract was concluded about: Everybody knows from everyday life, that this can be a tangible item (for example a loaf of bread) or a measurable action (for example a car wash).
The concept of the “emotional contract” in loving relationships may therefore seem misleading at first because “love”, “affection”, “feeling for one another”, “tenderness”, etc. are neither tangible nor measurable (e.g. like the emotional attachment to the employing company in my first paragraph).
According to this “love” certainly cannot be an “object of agreement”. However, in a narrow sense, it certainly plays a role, as I am hopefully able to show.

The reality is that “emotional contracts” are usually by no means “consistent declarations of intent after responsible contentual negotiation” – and thus puts most emotional contracts, even in loving relationships, in the rather sad society of my two initial examples.
For emotional contracts are – and this, too, contributes to the very term – almost always highly subjective, “felt” arrangements of giving and taking (or gentler: of contribution and enjoyment) in human relationships.
And just this “giving and taking” is almost always a one-sided subjective – and therefore often emotionally influenced in terms of quantity and quality – view of those tangible items, measurable actions and, yes, especially the emotional engagement in the relationship and for the relationship.

If we join in loving relationships, we will get the quicker into trouble and conflict the more unconsciously we behave towards the phenomenon of “emotional contract”. For most suppressed topics will rot under the carpet and lie there waiting for the opportune moment where they may cause the most unpredictable damage.
For former residents of the “Old World of Monoamory” like me, this could have and does have very far-reaching consequences, since very often even the choice of the relationship-model itself was affected by this unconsciousness (and often enough this is the reality for many young people to the present day).
I like to compare this to our behaviour when buying a car: We see a certain model with a certain (standard)equipment everywhere in the streets, the thing is obviously proven and all other users are mostly satisfied with it. Accordingly we, too, decide upon such a car, tick off the general buisness terms without reading them (all the others seem to be fairly carefree, too, and obviously reach their destinations – so there probably won’t be any pitfalls in the fine print …) and – well, then there we are with our car and may already recognise medium-term that the thing does not fit our own needs…
In many cases, we behave when entering into loving relationships that often will have long-term effects on our entire life, as sloppy as while being engaged in online shopping.
Who then, for example, even married in terms of civil status has even entered into a very real contract that contains enforceable pension and property law consequences

At this point, it seems important to me to declare that I am in no way advocating the drawing up of marriage contracts in the sense of American movie stars and multimillionaires (which are correctly termed “prenuptial agreements” in English-speaking countries). On the one hand, these regulate mere material eventualities, on the other hand, they may never be suitable for covering the flexibility and changeable nature of the inner dynamics of loving relationships.

Equally questionable, in my opinion, would be any reciprocal evaluation or even a summation of the “pending benefits” concerning the emotional contract: How often putting the children to bed equals an afternoon’s work in the garden? Does the number of working hours during the spring cleaning match the three-day personnel-management training? Are the qualifications and achievements of the people in the relationship linearly comparable at all?
The dangers of such a reckoning will be higher for love than the actual benefit (of equity): There is a risk that eventually all tasks in the relationship may be given a nominal exchange value (parents of adolescent teens probably can tell a tale…). Thus, the door will be opened to a purely calculatory distributive justice, to the point of absurdity that sooner or later “accounts” are kept, which balances are scrupulously observed and demanded.
It is easy to see that such arrangements, which are more reminiscent of a War of the Roses or divorcing couples in dissolution, are neither lovingly nor humanly advised.

The multiple intertwining of voluntarily tasks, engaged self-commitments, and quasi-charitable favours at numerous levels is usually enormously high in loving relationships.
This intertwining is so proverbial that Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert called the pending chapter in their very extensive book “More than Two” on the subject of Polyamory “Sex and Laundry” – and started that chapter with the pun that the most frequently asked questions to people involved in multiple relationships are usually “Who sleeps with whom?”and “Who does the laundry?”.
In particular with regard to multiple relationships, a more or less “unconscious dark field”, concerning an emotional contract left to itself for a long time, has the potential to turn into a dangerous social incendiary agent. In my experience especially the following two constellations need our attention:

1) Existing relationship as residual burden of the past:
It would be a pretty ideal if, from now on – and because we all took note of this excellent bLog-entry – in case of the possible development of any future relationship, we would consciously take notice of our own material, mental, and emotional resources, to employ them by then with a high degree of integrity in that evolving relationship – and the same would apply to the other potential parties involved.
Alas, even this ideal case would only exist if we were single at that moment and would face the possibility of a new relationship at that moment.
More often, however, it is rather the case that we are already in an established relationship (and inhabitants of the “Old World of Monoamory” usually still with an old-fashioned monogamous standard-contract including a load of carelessly signed terms of business on top of it…).
Actually I do not want to choose such supposedly derogatory words for an already existing loving relationship, because – emotional contract or not – these can be in their manifestation wonderful, long-term and all-round fulfilling connections, though.
However, precisely because of the “unsubstantial nature” of emotional contracts, it may well be that one or more people are thus in a close-knit relationship, where fundamental views regarding the very nature of the relationship, concerning entitlement, viability, needs and desires of the participants, differ surprisingly strong behind the scenes nevertheless. And this poses a problem precisely in such cases, when different pace of development, divergent views or simmering conflicts suddenly pull the deeply buried emotional contract into the harsh light of the day.
Accordingly I urge in case of such residual burdens to check them together well in advance and on a sunny day – instead of being overrun by them on a bad day unprepared on a rough relationship-sea (Some helpful oligoamorous insights regarding that I will put into my last paragraph)

2) Resource management in (multiple) relationships:
Even for a well-established relationships-networks – whether containing “only” two or more participants – every “conversion moment” (moment of change) when another relationship(person) appears, poses a real challenge.
And this too is mainly related to the mode of the underlying emotional contract. I say “mode” because multiple relationships immediately crystallize in such a moment, whether a (multiple) relationship tends to have more of an oligoamorous structure (with a “mutual we” at the centre), or whether it is rather an affiliation of mostly autonomous individuals (the latter might occur in open relationships, polyamory or relationship anarchy).
But if there is a “mutual we” – meaning that not every person is running their own resource-management, in which they contextually decide on their own how much commitment they wish to add to the companionship – then a new relationship(person) will always instantly touch the core of the existing overall relationship – and thus the overall resources(!).
This is exactly the point where it becomes apparent how important the highest possible transparency and honesty are in such moments, because every newcomer immediately affects the existing relationship both with his “energetic signature” (as in the “Tale of Anday and Tavitih“) as well as with his or her actual material needs.
This shows that this also demands a new approach to the distribution of the previous resource management. And this is more likely to become an opportunity and a gain for all, if
a) all parties are informed from the beginning and
b) in this way willingly activate their potential concerning participation.
With respect to the above mentioned circumstances it becomes quite obvious that at least with considerations about and the engagement in multiple relationships a thorough raising of conciousness regarding the emotional contract is of utmost importance: The “opening-up of a marriage” contains usually in the medium-term so much dynamite, because the existing “inmates” often have not clarified in any way the nature of their intertwined relationship and the allocation of their (material and emotional) resources, so that when another person is added usually this whole delicate structure is overstrained – and more often than not the surprised victims of such an event will find themselves being scattered abroad in different directions in short order.

The emotional contract – definition – and (a little) support:

Emotional contract:
“Implied acknowledgement and agreement – as a result of a mutually established emotional close-knit relationship – regarding the totality of voluntary yielded obligations, self-commitments and care which have been reciprocally contributed and are potentially enjoyable by all parties involved.”

(© Julius Otto Röber, Oligoamory.org)

First and foremost – as I have already suggested with the two initial examples above – the most important thing is to realise that there is a tacit emotional contract in almost all cases concerning relationships. This gained consciousness is literally more than “half the battle”, because it is the basis of all further achievable personal self-efficacy and creative capacity regarding that notorious “invisible agreement”.
And because we humans tend to worry about such “invisibility,” it’s also a good idea to reassure ourselves about its non-disclosure. For this sounds more complicated than it is, and in our everyday lives we practice it regularly without worrying about it: For example, if we allow the bakery saleswoman of our favourite stand-up café to recommend a new treat based on our well-known preferences to us (by which, for example, we impliedly ratify the new GDPR).
Moreover, it is good to realise that even an implied (tacit) consent (of an adult!) is usually a genuine expression of will; according to the motto “A decision for something is always a decision against something else (whether pronounced or not).
In this way, by taking up a (loving) relationship, we always express an explanation of our will/intent to be involved (in this relationship).

With this explanation of our involvement, a playing field, a creative space arises, which is often left fallow by unconsciousness or (so far more often) overwritten with traditional conventions.
That is why it is so important to work together predominantly on the concious conduct and cultivation of the relationship behind which the emotional contract rests. For this means activity and participation on all sides and obtains the opportunity to participate in the configuration for everyone.
The whole thing becomes “oligoamorous”, if we do not regard our relationship as a mere game of strategically calculating parties (see Entry 8 – “Check, dear mate!”), but if we perceive it from the outset as a project of togetherness, as a joint effort to achieve our “mutual we”.
Thereby, the “values” of Oligoamory are available to us as tools, in particular the topics of committment (especially in terms of integrity and predictability), entitlement, honesty, identification and sustainability (described in my blog in Entry 3 and Entry 4).

But how to deal with the all-too-human desire for recognition and being seen, which nevertheless arises someday in almost any relationship? How can we reduce the risk that someday we will try to outbid each other with our “great sacrifices” that everyone contributes to maintain the relationship?
Expectations towards other participants are always problematic, as is the expectation of recognition.
In affectionate relationships, we can make use of something like a “mirror tactic,” which Marshall Rosenberg called “Celebration of Life” in his “Nonviolent Communication“: Instead of emphasising loudly “Look, I do that and that …” (which would surely open a general debate), it is much more effective to recall those topics in a conversation, by which the others contribute to your own well-being (and to the progress of the relationship).
If we have recognised that emotional contracts are highly subjective matters simply because of the nature of their occurrence, then we can make use of this in terms of assuming responsibility by ourselves – as much as possible and of our own accord – for exactly those things which we regularly (already) contribute. And by doing so we keep in mind that “the others” might conceive our commitment differently than we do. If we nevertheless proceed with commitment and integrity (I recall: acting in perpetually maintaining agreement with the personal value system), we will show ourselves to the people in our relationship as predictable and reliable contributors.
So, if our relationships are no one-way streets, then such a “Celebration of Life” can also turn into a moment when it literally becomes apparent how “yours,” “mine”, “his” and “hers” evokes an “our” – a “mutual we” eventually.
In any case, a moment of renewed awareness arises, which always also contains the opportunity for communication or possible (new/re-)negotiation of shares, commitments and resources – thereby making the whole emotional contract not so mysterious anymore.




Thanks to Michael Henry on Unsplash.com for the great image.

One Reply to “Entry 9”

  1. Ich möchte noch eine Kategorie zur Bewusstwerdung des vorhandenen Emotionalvertrages beitragen: die “Sprache der Liebe”, aus der “Imago”-Technik zur Beziehungsarbeit. Ich persönlich finde den Begriff zu blumig, und würde eher “Sprache der Anerkennung” dazu sagen. Es geht um die Fragestellung: Was kann mein Gegenüber tun, damit ich mich von ihr*ihm angenommen fühle? Und für das Gegenüber: Will ich das tun? Wie weit / wie viel davon? Und wenn ich das gar nicht tun will, finden wir Alternativen?
    “Sprache” bezeichnet dabei alles, was Botschaften übermittelt: Eine Person ist zum Beispiel sehr ordentlich und möchte, dass alle Dinge an ihrem Platz sind. Ihr Gegenüber in der Beziehung flätzt Dinge gerne in die Ecke, weil sier sich nicht ums Aufräumen kümmern, sondern lieber entspannen möchte. Nun fühlen sich beide deswegen vom jeweils Anderen ungeliebt und nicht (genügend) wertgeschätzt. Bleibt diese gefühlte Vernachlässigung unbewusst, kommt der Ärger anderswo unter dem Teppich hervor: “Um nix kann ich dich bitten! Alles ist irgendwie und ich kann dann wieder den Dreck wegputzen!” – “Ich geh heute noch mit meinen Freunden fort, zuhause werd ich eh nur angemeckert.” usw. Durch eine Gesprächstradition über eine Sprache der Anerkennung könnte dann ein Mittelweg entstehen: Der Chaot strukturiert sein Chaos anders, und der Ordnungsliebende muss nicht ins Neurotische abgleiten.

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