Re-Writing our Marriage Contracts

I still remember the first time my wife and I went into counseling. Our counselor, having noticed that we sat on opposite sides of his couch, asked us if we still loved each other. “Sure,” I said “I love her, but I don’t like her.” My wife gave me a sour look only to communicate that she felt the same thing but wasn’t quick enough to say it. I have always been better with words.

Much to my surprise our counselor said, “That’s good, I think that’s really good.” And he added, “I can work with that.” He then began to explain how all married couples make their vows with a certain ignorance of who the other person is. Here’s what he explained.

The Old Contract

We basically stand at the altar and say to our future spouse: “The way you look at me, make me laugh, lift me up when I’m down, care for me—all that makes me feel really good. If you keep up this good feeling in me, I’ll sign this contract.” Of course the other spouse is saying the same thing: “The way you look at me, help me out when things get tough, how you touch me, talk to me and love me—it all makes me feel really good. If you keep up this good feeling in me, I’ll sign this contract too.” And off they go to their honeymoon, hand-in-hand, believing they have found the love of their lives and that their spouse will go on making them feel as good as they have been, until…

Why it Doesn’t Work

…one or both partners realizes they don’t feel as good as they used to anymore. Then they often blame the other for not living up to their end of the contract. You would rarely hear this said out loud but internally one or both of the partners is saying: “You used to make me feel good, but now you aren’t doing it anymore. Please live up to your end of the contract or I won’t live up to my end either.” And that’s when a couple will come in and see me for counseling.

Since my wife and I have been in this situation before, I understand what is going on with a couple in this state and I understand why my counselor so many years ago said: “That’s good. I can work with that.” If we are committed to loving the other and staying in the marriage, but we don’t like something or many things about our spouse, then at least we are being honest about how we feel. The contract isn’t working for the couple anymore and it needs to be re-written. \

Assessing the Damage

But before we can do that, we need to assess the damage done under the old contract. Instead of being overly hopeful and creating what counselors like to call a “win-win” situation, I like to create a “lose-lose” situation in which we account for all the things our spouse has disappointed us with over the years—a bad habit that seemed mild early on but has now grown into a full-blown addiction, the passivity and carelessness towards household chores, the lying, the lack of involvement with the kids, the disinterest in sex, the financial burden brought on by one or both spouses, the hurtful words said, the embarrassment—the list can be very long. 

But to properly re-engage in your relationship with your husband or wife, you need to make this list and have feelings about it. You will probably be angry, mad, resentful or bitter about how things didn’t turn out. Only after looking at these things and properly addressing them, can we grieve the loss of a marriage we thought was ours but never was. Only then can we work towards forgiveness, acceptance and repentance. Repentance, because your spouse has the same kind of list and is also working through their feelings of loss over a marriage that never was.

The New Contract

After creating the “lose-lose” situation in which we’ve properly dealt with our losses and have let them go (to the best of our ability), we can start looking at creating a “win-win” situation. Here we re-write our marriage contract to include the negative aspects of our spouse we didn’t think we’d have to live with. In this scenario we together as a couple find ways to overcome an addiction, work towards healthy financial responsibility, commit to being more involved with the children or help out around the home, have regular date nights and regular sexual encounters.

We re-write our marriage contract not by expecting our partner to make us feel good, but by making ourselves feel good by expecting to do the best we can. Then when your counselor asks you, you can say: “I love my wife and some days I even like her.” Or “I love my husband and some days I don’t like him.” This is a more realistic marriage and healthier one, too. As you begin living out your new contract, you’ll find that more often than not, you will not only love your spouse, but that you will like him/her too.

Trent