Friday, August 19, 2005


Contracked, adj. (given to) excessive reliance on contracts, (person who) believes that verbal and written agreements are the only way to solve things

Was talking to a friend the other day about the importance of having the 'relationship conversation' - you know - the one where you agree that things are going to be 'exclusive' and 'committed'. Her point was that she wished she didn't have to make all of this explicit, but that she couldn't live with the insecurity of not having that verbal commitment.

Personally, I've never understood why people do this - what exactly do they hope to get out of such verbal contracts?

First, the contract can never be complete. I mean it's not like you can sit down and define exactly what each person will and will not do in every conceivable situation that presents itself. You're still going to have to trust the person, believe in their good intentions. And if you're doing that anyway, then what do you need some kind of verbal commitment for*?

On the contrary, I think part of the problem is that definitions mean different things to different people - the interpretation you put on the word 'boyfriend' for instance, may be very different from the meaning the other person ascribes to it - so that by scaffolding yourself to a definition you actually risk more confusion than you solve. It's like trying to walk across the country with a fictional map. If you didn't have the map you would take it slower, be more attentive to things around you and more willing to explore and discover the lie of the land. As it is, you're likely to go falling into ditches and then looking up in indignation to say "but that's not on the map!"

Second, it's not like the contract is enforceable. To begin with, just because someone says something doesn't mean they're actually going to stick to it. It always amazes me how people will not trust the actions of those they're in relationships with, but will trust their words - though you would think actions would be harder to fake than words. And it's not just that the other person might be lying to you - the point is that there's enough uncertainty in the system that the other person might not know either. What does it mean when someone says they will love you forever, or could never feel about someone else the way they feel about you? Only that they lack imagination.

Of course, the one thing the contract will give you is evidence of having been wronged, should things fall apart. And perhaps the satisfaction of knowing that it wasn't all about you deluding yourself - that at best you were not the only person deluded and at worst you were actively deluded by someone else. But this is a chimic pleasure, surely. First, being able to prove that the person claimed to love you / promised you commitment doesn't mean that you weren't wrong, only that your culpability is of a different kind - you're not self-delusional (thank God!), you're just a really bad judge of character! Second, if this is someone you truly cared for, then presumably the biggest problem here is the hurt of losing them - whose fault it was is hardly relevant (I wrote once: "Guilt is just another way of arranging the furniture"). If you've just been hit by a bus, is it really going to make you feel better to know that it was the driver's fault?

The key point, though, is that contracts cannot change how people feel. You cannot legislate desire, you cannot order the heart about. Loving someone is not like delivering the paper every morning - you can't say, "you promised to love me so now you have to". It's this ungovernable nature of human passion that is what makes all relationship contracts irrelevant.

Which brings me to the third argument I have against relationship contracts - even if they were enforceable in a superficial sense, even if you could somehow bind the person to you with a contract and make sure that they never left you, would you really want to? Do you really want the other person to be in a relationship just because he / she promised at some point and now HAS to comply, or would you rather that the other person was with you because he / she really wanted to be**? Even if you could legislate the fact of the relationship (and to some extent that's exactly what marriage - shudder! - does) you could not control its quality, so that you'd end up tied to a stifling and unhappy relationship where both people participated more out of a sense of duty (or pity) than out of any genuine desire for each other. People will argue that the fact that there are high exit barriers will pre-dispose you to make compromises and make the relationship work. Perhaps. But why would you want to compromise? I, for one, have no desire to coerce someone into loving me - I would be loved voluntarily, or not at all.

The problem with these contracts, I feel, is that they lull people into a false sense of security. This means both that they begin to take the other person for granted - feeling that they no longer need to put in the effort to make themselves interesting to the other person (and thereby lowering the chances of the relationship actually working) - and that they now have expectations about future security that leave them open to disappointment. You could argue, of course, that being in a relationship should not involve putting in effort in the first place, but this is just laziness, and it ignores the reciprocity of the argument - if you're not putting in effort for the other person, then chances are they're not putting in effort for you either - and that's something you're losing out on.

Another common argument that people make for relationship contracts is that the high exit barriers keep you from making rash / hasty decisions. This is true, but it's an argument for children. What you're essentially saying is that you're too irresponsible and immature to handle a relationship yourself, so you'd rather that society handled it for you***. But people who can't be responsible about their relationships shouldn't be in them in the first place. And again, one would hope that what would give you pause before doing something rash would be the value you place on the other person, not the value you place on some larger social norm / public opinion.

Understand that I'm not saying that one must avoid getting into contracts as a matter of principle. Only that one must recognise the contract as irrelevant and see beyond it. I can see why it's important to have a sense of security in a relationship that you're hugely emotionally invested in - the point is that for your own good you'd better make sure that that sense of security is based on more than some verbal agreement on the 'rules' of the relationship. Because the contract doesn't really mean anything.


* There's the seperate point here about why people (still) value sexual exclusivity over, say emotional or intellectual exclusivity, but that's another post.

** The answer to this could be yes, of course - given social conditioning / pressure, people may want to be in a relationship for the sake of being in a relationship and most of what I'm saying doesn't apply in that scenario. I just think that people are too needlessly afraid of being alone - and it saddens me to see people ending up in dead-end relationships simply to escape being with themselves.

*** It's also, of course, a great way of making society a scapegoat for your own bad decisions. Why admit that you didn't have the guts to break off an unhealthy relationship when you can blame society for it?


meditativerose said...

While I agree broadly with what you say, I think there is a reason why the relationship coversation is important (not a contract - I agree completely that is irrelevant). However we might intellectualize, if we care about someone, their actions will affect us. If the other person doesn't know this (and they might not - actions can be interpreted in different ways), they might inadvertently hurt the other person, even though they don't want to. For instance, there could be an action that has a small positive value for person A, but hurting person B has a larger negative value. Without the conversation, A might not realise that the action could hurt B, and so will go ahead with it, while if they did have the conversation, A wouldn't have any issues giving up that action. This isn't about legislating feelings or enforcing contracts, it's just about market information.

Falstaff said...

MR: I'm all for market information, and totally agree that the conversation is worth having from an efficiency stand-point. It's not just that the conversation may help unnecessary hurt, it could also reveal Pareto sub-optimalities - potentially both A and B could be better off if they had the conversation than they would be if they didn't have the conversation and didn't realise there was something that they both wanted.

Just as long as one is clear that having the conversation is not really increasing security. You're not 'safe' because you've discussed the relationship and agreed on it.

Itineranting said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Itineranting said...

Unfortunately, these conversations usually happen with this very agenda of increasing security. So once there is an imparting of knowledge of what may or may not hold a value, there is a presumption that conveying of the information will result in certain action or ommission to act. Which then may lead to a mismatch of expectation. For the average Joe/Jane.