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The Verbal Contract with Couples

It doesn’t matter how small the request or commitment is, but when we agree to it, we are entering a verbal contract.  When you ask your teen to take out the garbage and they agree you are hopeful that it will get taken care of.  You may have to ask again.  And again.  And then you may approach with a tone by the fourth time asking and you get the “why are you yelling at me?” response.  We are angry because we asked and we were told that it would be taken care of yet we had to follow through many times. 

We expect to do some of this with our children, no matter their age.  Parenting can be a repetitive drudge with little reward sometimes.  The magic of bedtime when reading a book and having snuggles with your child is unbeatable.  That end of the day connection often does not happen with our teens.  We maybe stay mad a little longer and surely, we expect more of our teen children than our younger children, thus the increasing frustration during the teen years. 

But how does this play out in your marriage?  When we ask our partner to help with something and they agree but then don’t follow through, we can become very angry, even at failure of the small request being met.  Our anger however is often a direct result of a repeated violation of the verbal contract, based on issue or across issues.  Sure, I’ll take the dog out after work but then they are too tired.  Sure, I’ll get the trash to the curb but then they are running late for the office so they don’t take care of it….again. 

It seems silly to be upset about the trash not being taken out in the scheme of life and all that is going on our crazy world.  But day to day we live in our homes with our partners, not out in the all encompassing crazy world.  We need to be able to trust our partners are going to do what they say they are going to do.

I listened to a podcast once about a commune type of community in Virginia.  In addition to their parents, children were also paired with another adult mentor, an extra person they could call on if Mom and Dad were tied up with work, home stuff or other children.  It reminded me of a sticky note pad that I got for my friend with five children that said: I need a wife (my apologies to her husband who is actually an attentive and involved spouse and father – from the outside looking in. It was intended as a joke!).  The point, however, was well taken – how nice to have an extra set of hands.  Another person to help with the follow through of tasks that need to get done or children that need to be tended to. 

A nag is not born but created.  Why put your spouse in the position to have to remind you for something you agreed to do?  It is not relieving them of anything if they have to ask and ask and ask  And in all likelihood that person has already had to ask and ask a child to do something. 

In efforts to remedy this I do ask that partners consider their agreements as verbal contracts.  Contracts do get broken (and it’s not always the end of the world) and they can be renegotiated.  If you are running late, delegate the responsibility of taking the trash down to the curb by asking your partner with an olive branch reparation, ask a child or even ask a neighbor.  The point is to acknowledge you aren’t going to get it done but make a plan to take care of it.  If you are finding that being in charge of taking the trash isn’t working, ask to take something else on and swap out that chore.  Or don’t agree to the request in the first place if you are not going to follow though and propose an alternative.  Know that once you agree though, that task or request is yours to uphold.  A consistent letting down of these tiny requests leads to mistrust and resentment in a relationship.  Per usual, doing the work on the front end is almost always easier than cleaning up the mess at the backend.  Pay attention to the verbal contracts you make with the ones you love. 

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