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Marriage as a Social Contract

It may not be romantic, but it’s practical and it’s real

In every relationship, including marriage, we have a social contract. By that we mean we have a set of rules, expectations, and boundaries that define that relationship. The standards of our contracts can vary, depending upon the type of relationship. The contract we have with a spouse would be very different from one with a friend, and that contract would be different from one with a casual acquaintance. The contractual aspects of our relationships have implications for how we interact and communicate with others.

Social contracts specify our rights and responsibilities. For example, when interviewing for a job, we ask about the responsibilities, that is, the tasks we’re expected to perform, and about our rights, that is, the benefits and compensation. We then make an informed judgment as to whether we want to make the commitment to that job. If we made the correct assessment of our rights and responsibilities, we’ll like it, but if we’ve made the wrong assessment, we’ll soon be back in the job market.

While romantic ideals make it hard to think about intimate relationships in contractual terms, the same rules apply. If we keep in mind that many problems in marriage spring from unmet needs, taking a contractual approach means we know exactly what we want and expect from our relationship, and we’re aware of what we will be expected to give in return. You may find, for example, that you are being asked to agree to do things that you really don’t want to do. Or you might discover that you have some needs that your partner may not be aware of, and others that they’re not capable of satisfying. It’s best to get all this squared away before you marry, but if not, late is better than never.

Assessing the rights and responsibilities of a contract requires that we know our personal agendas. We all have an agenda, that is, a set of wants and needs, and there are certain things we don’t want or need from a relationship. Understanding our agenda and using that as a framework for evaluating a relationship simply means we’re operating with our own best interests in mind. Unless we’re fully in touch with our own needs and desires, we cannot work at having them fulfilled. In other words, we can’t have a beneficial relationship if we don’t know the exact terms of the contract that we are agreeing to.

Discovering our full agenda may not be as easy as it might seem, because we may not be conscious of all the things we really want or need. For example, most of us want the love and approval of others, but this may not be something we’d put on our list. Some might escape our consciousness because they’re threatening. We may not want to recognize certain goals and desires because we believe we don’t have a right to ask for or want them. This can stem from a lack of self-confidence or a belief that they’re beyond what we’re realistically entitled to. There may be others we’re conscious of, but we tone down their importance for fear they may lead to rejection or ridicule. You may be highly ambitious but will downplay that because you believe it makes you appear conceited or opportunistic.

Just as we have unconscious aspects of our personal agenda, we can have unconscious aspects of our marriage contract. These unconscious aspects often involve negative behavior patterns, which are motivated by inappropriate negative emotions. Rather than risk harming the relationship, we prefer to keep them out of our conscious thoughts. Or they may things we’d rather not admit to ourselves because what they say about who we are. However, because they’re associated with negative behaviors and emotions, they’re often at the center of problems. Here’s an example of what we mean. Let’s say we look down on our partner because they’re too dependent on us. However, we may be a cause of their over-dependency because we strive to dominate and control them. Every time they try to act or think independently, we lash out at them, so they learn to be dependent. We would have to admit that we have a need to be in control, possibly because we’re afraid they will leave us unless we force them to stay.

Getting a full understanding of our own agenda requires self-reflection. Spend time thinking about what you really want from your relationship, remembering to be completely honest with yourself. Along with spelling out your agenda, you can use self-reflection to discover the less obvious contract terms that might be destructive. You can then try to replace these with more positive thoughts and behaviors that are healthier for your relationship. Following up from the above example, we can try to put aside our insecurities that lead us to dominate our partner, and allow them to think and act independently.

To have a contract that’s complete and truly meaningful, we also need to understand what’s expected of us, that is, we need to know our partner’s agenda. Discuss with your partner what they want and expect to get out of the relationship. That’s a conversation that won’t be completed all at once. It might take some time for both of you to bring out all the elements of your agendas. Yet this will be time well spent, since armed with such knowledge, you and your partner will have a better chance of meeting each other’s needs.

Knowing each other’s full agenda also lets both partners know what their relationship may not provide. It’s an extremely rare marriage that can satisfy all the needs of both partners. As we’ve mentioned, sometimes we may not want to do some of the things that our partners expect of us, or our needs may run counter to those of our partner’s. For example, one partner might like to spend a lot of time with friends while another prefers to stay at home. While it may be unpleasant, still both of you are better off knowing what needs might not be met, so you can adjust your expectations or decide the relationship cannot work for you.

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