Covert contract: a term that is not used much when it comes to relationships, yet at some point all relationships experience covert contracts without realising it. The word “covert” as defined by Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries means something “secret or hidden, making it difficult to notice”. So, it follows that a covert contract is an arrangement that you believe exists between you and your partner, even though you have not made your partner aware of such an arrangement. This gap in communication almost always ends up becoming an issue that a couple needs to address. Here are some examples that will give this clarity.
V and M, a couple I am working with, have been married for three years. They love each other. However, they come to me with something left unaddressed. Almost like, “we love each other…but”. As I nudged them with questions, this is what came to the fore.
V has always been a vegetarian. He knew from the time they met that M eats non-vegetarian food. It was not an issue for V at all and he did not even suggest that M should become a vegetarian. M comes from a family where most men were alcoholic abusers – including her father. The trauma of the abuse is something that is extremely disturbing for her. Before they decided to tie the knot, M had requested V to give up drinking alcohol. He had graciously accepted that he would. Three years later, it comes up in our session that V expected M to give up eating non-vegetarian food, since he had given up drinking alcohol for her. He says every time he sees M enjoying meat, his blood boils. At that time V feels like ordering a whisky for himself, to get back at M. I can see that this is the first time M is hearing what V shared. M had no idea that her ask was needed to be met with her complying with one of his own. She’d had no idea that V would have liked her to turn vegetarian.
This wasn’t the only covert contract in this couple’s marriage. M had made great efforts to entertain V’s siblings every time they visited, with the unstated expectation that V will do the same when her siblings visited. V was not aware of this either. Another example is that V stopped playing Jazz around the house as M is not very fond of the genre — he’d hoped that M would stop playing Bollywood music in return, as he does not have an ear for film music. Again, M had no idea that V was accommodating for her dislikes and that he wanted something in return.
The nature of all relationships is predicated on what the other person does to, and for us, and what we do to, and for, the other person. That is healthy. What is not healthy however is to not communicate any expectation with your partner, especially those that come from you doing something for them. Nobody can read your mind. And like I always recommend, communication of such matter should be done in a manner that will be productive and received well by your partner.
For example, V could have brought up having a drink once in a while, perhaps after spending a pleasant evening together with M. To build M’s confidence, and to ease her worries given her past traumas, V could have also added that he will have a single drink and see how it goes. If it had still made M uncomfortable, he will could go back to the arrangement they’d had. And, if M had agreed to him having an occasional drink, that would have been the end of the covert contract.
In the event that M did not agree however, he’d have to wait for another conversation to bring up his discomfort about her eating non-vegetarian food — he’d have to find an occasion to calmly talk about food preferences; he could give his reasons for discomfort with her food choices, or perhaps request that she have non-vegetarian food when she’s not with him. Especially since he’d had no problem with it before getting married, it would be unfair of him to demand flat-out that she stop. Even if M did not agree immediately or ever, the fact that V communicated this to M will help him handle the situation in a more effective way.
Regardless of the issue, whether big ones like food preferences, or small ones like the genre of music, you have to be honest with your partner. Have the conversation sooner than later, especially when you realise you want something in return. A word of caution here: do not make it seem like a quid pro quo or a threat. If, for example, V wanted to listen to Jazz, he could have easily asked M, if they can listen to Jazz on some evenings and Bollywood music on others, so that both their interests are accommodated for.
In my experience, most people are fair when we communicate appropriately with them. What is unfair is having your partner be unaware of the covert contract they’d never signed up for and can’t do anything about. If not addressed in time, such covert contracts will weigh very heavy on a relationship. Such weight is best avoided in any bond.
This is a limited series by Simran Mangharam, a dating and relationship coach, who can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org