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Two Career Families - Contracting for Intimacy

The days of single model for marriage are over. Now there are multiple models. No longer is it the rule for the man to bear the sole responsibility for bringing home the proverbial bacon while the woman is responsible for caring for the home and children. In some marriages it is the woman who is the primary wage-earner while the man assumes the role of homemaker and primary care-giver. As women's roles changes in our society so does the nature of marriage change. Therefore, alternative models to the traditional one where Dad brings home the bacon and Mom is the one who takes care of the home had to evolve.

The most common model alternative is the two-career family. In this model both the husband and wife have committed themselves to the pursuit of a career. Television's The Cosby Show, depicting a lawyer/wife and physician/husband, has replaced Father Knows Best. Two-career families are different from the families where women have worked to help with the family finances. In the two career family it isn't only necessity that places both husband and wife in the market place, but choice. Each partner chooses to follow a career to rake a job to achieve both financial rewards and personal fulfillment. In many instances financial necessity has no bearing on this choice.

With the change in models also comes a change in the family structure as well as a host of matrimonial and familial problems that need to be addressed. New "job descriptions" must be developed. It is no longer viable to assume that traditional descriptions of the role of husband and wife will suffice. It is not possible for the woman to assume the role of homemaker, primary care-giver, and cook while trying to hold down and executive or professional position. It is no longer sufficient for the man to bring home a paycheck, take out the trash, and merely help around house. We need an equal division of labor to make the two-career family work.

When working with couples where there are two careers and/or the merging of two families, I often suggest that the couple spend some time developing an intimate contract or marriage handbook. In developing these handbooks or contracts as much attention is paid to the process of communicating and negotiating as to the content of the contract.

Marital Agreements

All couples can benefit from an intimate contract. Even couples who have been married for many years. After years of marriage, it is often necessary to renegotiate the marriage to keep it vital and relevant for current circumstances. The same roles may not be appropriate after the children have left the nest or after retirement. After years of marriage, as people grow and change, so do expectations and desires change. The marital contract can revitalize the marriage. It can facilitate dispute resolution and communication, reduce misunderstandings, and free individuals to deal with each other's feelings more directly. More often than not, marital disputes begin as an argument about some issue that can be negotiated. The content of the argument is less important that the feelings being expressed. When couples learn to negotiate disputes, and contract for settlements, they are then free to deal with the underlying feelings and emotions.

Prenuptial Agreements. The preputial agreement can be a very valuable tool for couples. It can provide a vehicle for spelling out the couple's philosophy of marriage. The prenuptual agreement is an opportunity to articulate implicit and explicit expectations. Most marital conflicts occur because of the hidden expectations each person brings to the marriage. These expectations often are not met leaving at least one party disappointed, hurt, or resentful. The focus during the negotiating of a prenuptial agreement should be on each person's beliefs, expectations, and values regarding marriage, themselves, and their partner. Implicit expectations should be made explicit. Frequently it is not until after marriage that each finds out their partner has a host of unexpressed expectations, often referred to as a "hidden agenda".

I encourage my clients to include all aspects of the relationship in their pre-and post-marital agreements, everything from child-rearing and religion to whose responsibility it is to take out the garbage and finances. Particularly when both spouses work full-time, an accord should be reached in advance over such mundane items as: whose job it is to walk the dog, to pay the bills, wash the laundry, cook, grocery shop, etc. It is surprising how emotionally charged these simple issues can be, simply because one assumed the other would do this or that; bringing everything out in the open eliminates these assumptions. Financial matters are often the most difficult. Therefore, I suggest that they should be saved until last, when both parties feel a vested interest in the success of the negotiating process.

Family Contracts. The entire family, including children, can be included in the contract. Two-career families need to negotiate a realistic contract based on mutual respect and cooperation to run smoothly. Therefore, children should be included in the negotiation. This goes beyond the assigning of chores and responsibilities. Children, especially adolescents, can negotiate for privacy, telephone time, transportation, alone time with parents, and so on. When children feel a part of the negotiations they are more likely to follow through with their agreements. When children can levy consequences against parents for violations (as in failing to pick up a child on time or not showing up at a soccer game) they have more invested in making the contract work.

A Model of Communication

The process of negotiating agreements serves as a model for learning how to negotiate within the relationship; it can be a very intimate process. Indeed, learning the process of developing an agreement can be the most important outcome. During the negotiations the couple learns to compromise, listen, communicate, and understand. The agreement can serve to increase the probability that the couple can at least be friends "until death do us part" if not lovers. Through negotiating a contract various issues which couples have to face can be brought to the surface before the event actually occurs. More importantly, through developing the contract the couple learns the process of negotiating which can only help them during those periods of conflict.

Attention must be paid to what the underlying concern might be for each item being negotiated. There may be undisclosed reasons for wanting a particular item included in the contract. Frequently motives are unconscious and require even more skill to uncover. Without such exploration, however, negotiations often fail. There may be a hidden dynamic operating between the couple and unless this dynamic is brought to light negotiations may come to a halt. Let us consider the couple who is discussing financial issues. Often the concern has more to do with issues of trust, love, independence, power, security, control, and fear than with the finance. There may be historical antecedents for wanting a particular arrangement. If the underlying reasons are not explored, negotiations may be hampered.

Everyone enters marriage with hidden expectations - often even hidden from oneself. Consciously or subconsciously, these expectations and beliefs affect every aspect of the relationship, and insofar as they can be made explicit - and communicated - the relationship automatically improves. Each person comes to understand exactly what the other believes about marriage and why a particular item was included in the contract. It is easier to accept a spouse's desires when you understand the importance he or she attaches to them. I guide people through the process with the goal of improving communication, which is the most important component of any successful marriage. With effective communication and listening skills the couple can negotiate out of clarity rather than fear.

A Foundation of Understanding

Each contract has a preamble that sets out the general intent of the agreement rather than plunging into the specifics. The intent of the marital agreement is not for planning a divorce, but rather to smooth the way for future discussions. It is an opportunity to openly discuss issues in an atmosphere of caring. It is essential that considerable time and effort be spent building a foundation of trust and understanding. This phase of the negotiations can serve to set the overall tone and intent of the agreement.

During these negotiations a great deal of information is revealed. Frequently this information would not be revealed until many months or years into the marriage. Often religious values, male and female roles, attitudes toward work, recreational time, and money would not often be discussed until there is a conflict. By that time the argument has already begun. During developing a contract many of these issues are resolved paving the way for fewer and less intense arguments later.

All close relationships have intimacy and organizational aspects to them. Lovers are primarily concerned with the interpersonal issues while roommates may be concerned with the maintenance issues. Marital relationships involve both sides, business and interpersonal. The business or organizational component of a relationship deals with those everyday issues that give continuity to the relationship without having to spend endless time and energy dealing with the details of living together. Once these issues have been agreed to the couple is free to spend time and energy deepening the relationship.

Most of us were taught that love conquers all. It was on this basis that many people married. It was not until afterward that we realized that "love alone is not enough." We found relationships to be hard work not only in developing good communication but also in learning how to live together.

Frequently I have observed that the strain of dealing with the business side often has caused a breach in the relationship. Living with someone in a love relationship is very complex to begin with. Modern life is not simple particularly when people are trying to balance two-careers, child-care, romance, day-to-day home repairs, social life, and some personal time. Therefore, it is necessary that the relationship be given a great deal of attention and planning in all areas.

Often couples argue about concrete issues such as who take out the trash or who is the bigger slob as cover-up for some other emotional issue which one or both parties are unwilling to confront, e.g., not feeling loved or appreciated. Sometimes the underlying issue is obscured by anxiety or is even unconscious at the moment. The concrete issue becomes a convenient focus for letting off steam without directly addressing the real issue.

Similarly many couples find that a "nuts and bolts" issue such as neatness or punctuality or not fulfilling promises can equally affect their feelings of affection. However, since some day-to-day issues appear to be petty the individuals choose to cover them up rather than confront them. Such covering of apparently petty issues often leads to larger issues that can affect the very core of the relationship. Couples can make significant progress toward resolution of many of these conflicts by approaching them in a direct way thereby clearing the path for examining any underlying issues. If couples learned to negotiate the business issues they would then be free to discover and work through the interpersonal issues. It is difficult to feel affectionate toward someone when you are feeling taken advantage of or are angry about the amount of time your lover spends in the gym or on the phone. These issues can be negotiated.

Developing the Contract

These are some of the most important purposes of the contract:

  • learning how to negotiate
  • separating business from interpersonal issues
  • listing responsibilities
  • defining interpersonal needs
  • developing child-care philosophy and responsibility
  • negotiating consequences in case of default

In my work with couples I suggest that they begin by listing all of their expectations of the relationship and of their partner. They are instructed to include their entire wish list in attempt to make all the implicit expectations explicit. The list should include all the little boy and little girl fantasies that they each had regarding marriage.

During the development of this list it is important for the participants to question (not challenge) each other as to the basis of the request. If we can understand the intent of the request, or what the request means to the other person, we are more likely to find various methods of dealing with the issue. It is easier to agree to something if we understand the underlying intent, reason, or motivation.

Once this list is prepared we can begin developing the contract. The intent is to develop an agreement that will serve as a personal manual or guide for dealing with various aspects of the relationship. Its purpose is to make it easier for the relationship to flourish even when difficulties arise. By learning how to negotiate a contract and by having the basic issued articulated the couple can resolve issues and even prevent discord.

Once the business side of the relationship is negotiated we can examine, and subsequently negotiate interpersonal issues. While we cannot control or contract for feelings, we can negotiate for time and activities that allow for the interpersonal growth and intimacy. Remember: feelings often follow actions as well as precede them. One can negotiate the amount of time spent together. One can negotiate for special time during the week, say a date for dinner alone mid-week. A decision can be made that each evening the couple will go for a walk together to discuss the day's events or share feelings. Vacations can be negotiated, whether they are a short camping trip or a longer one. The time that one retires in the evening and how long one spends at work, as well as whether work is brought home, all are open for negotiation. Once these issues are brought to the table and discussed agreements can be made which, when followed, can appreciably enhance the quality of the relationship.

Consequences of a Breach. All contracts should be entered with good faith. Each party should be committed to fulfilling his or her agreements. However, human beings, being what they are, may violate their agreements. Therefore, consequences should be included in the contract. These consequences become part of the negotiations. Consequences for violations can range from the personal to the financial. For example, one couple included in their contract that if the husband violated a particular clause he would have to wash the wife's car. Another contracted a massage as consequence. Consequences can include personal favors, chores, or money. One husband "fined" his wife $1.00 for each article of clothing left in the living room. These consequences are greater for more egregious violations ranging to division of household effects in case of dissolution of the marriage. For the most part, however, consequences serve as reminders that the violation took place and that the contract should be taken seriously. Failing to take the contract and its consequences seriously may portend difficulty ahead.

Negotiating contracts, whether by couples or families, can be challenging, fun, and rewarding. Couples who have experimented with the contract have found that the process of working on the contract brought them and their family closer. With greater intimacy, the dynamic life of the two-career family becomes an exciting adventure. The development of the contract and making it work can become a family project to which all members can commit.

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