Out On The Couch
Helping Clients to Negotiate Intimate Relationship Contracts
It can be difficult to find guidance on writing effective relationship contracts, largely because the therapeutic community lacks consensus on the efficacy of such documents. Many clinicians believe that contracts serve the purpose of simply negotiating sexual acts and dynamics, and that by creating a contract, clients can sacrifice creativity and spontaneity in a relationship.
But this is a myth. Contracts can go far deeper than addressing what happens in the bedroom, serving as a viable and necessary tool for people in relationships to see and understand each other. Contracts can be created to help begin honest conversations about each individual’s wants and needs within a relationship.
I was first introduced to the concept of intimate relationship contracts in a college course on human sexuality. The version of the contract I initially saw is popular specifically within BDSM communities; it helps clarify the roles and responsibilities of each person in a relationship. When beginning to develop contracts in a clinical or therapeutic setting, you may find overlaps between versions of sexual and intimate relationship ones. An important distinction is that a sexual contract’s goal is responsible “play,” whereas an intimate relationship version strives for an honest and shared understanding of a relationship as a whole.
For an example from pop culture, we might look at the well-known book and film trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey (James, 2012). This provided, to many, an introduction to what an intimate relationship contract can entail. However, those who already had familiarity with contracts might view Fifty Shades’ portrayal as inaccurate and watered down. For example, in the film, only certain parts of the contract were portrayed; to some, these seemed to be the most risque components, which were used to surprise the audience. And in the book version, the contract and relationship overall were more about issues of control and ultimately dominance and submission. But most will find that in reality, relationships are more complex than that.
Note that intimate relationship contracts are not legally binding; there is nothing that the courts would be able to uphold in these documents. So think of these contracts as more of a tool for understanding a partner, setting boundaries, and laying out expectations in writing. The documents give each individual the opportunity to state their desires and interests, and if an issue or argument arises later, both sides can consult the contract to remember what was agreed upon in the beginning.
It’s also important to note that contracts are limited; they are not designed for negotiating every specific point of a relationship. If, during a therapy session, the contract starts to go in that direction, it’s a good time to stop and refocus clients on the reasons for using this tool as a way to get them on the same page.
What might an intimate relationship contract look like? Some contracts contain more sections and logistical information, while others may include more details about expectations. Either way, any contract should include at least several basic sections; these are outlined below. Note that those sections are conversation starters, intended to help your clients move towards more in-depth discussions of their desires and dynamics, and they by no means constitute a complete list of topics. I hope you will be able to use this template to dig deep into your clients’ communication with each other, and to get to the bottom of their preferences.
COMPONENTS OF AN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP/ SEXUAL CONTRACT
- Who is involved?
This question may seem obvious, but for couples who are consensually non-monogamous, involvement of other people can make or break the relationship. As a therapist working with couples, I have noted that when clients are connected in an intimate relationship, they sometimes assume they know each other completely, which will lead them to make decisions without consulting each other. This can contribute to confusion, jealousy, and sometimes the end of their relationship. So it’s crucial for clear communication to take place about who will be involved. Note that this of course doesn’t mean changes can’t be made. But now is a good time to discuss how modifications to the contract, like who is or is not involved, can be considered and accepted by all parties.
- What are your hygiene rituals?
This is another important conversation starter: discussing preparations for various sexual acts and for learning each other’s preferences. A person may learn that their significant other is allergic to or strongly favors certain soaps and perfumes. As a cultural norm, some people may bathe every few days, while others will shower daily. Communication about hygiene is key, and as a therapist, you can help address discomfort or shame that may emerge about discussing this topic openly.
- What are your fantasies?
Fantasies aren’t always purely sexual in nature, though this part of the conversation can certainly go in that direction. But your clients may go beyond sex on this topic: fantasies could entail thinking about extravagant dates, a day in which one partner is completely dedicated to the other’s wants and needs, a weekend without the children, etc. Remember that fantasies are thoughts or dreams, not acts in which we will necessarily engage. That is why fantasies change–while the thought of doing something can be interesting and exciting, actually following through with it might be too much for a client. This section can entail a simple conversation between two individuals if they are brave enough to venture through the topic on their own. Therapists can also provide exercises and worksheets to help clients further understand each other’s desires. I like to sometimes use a worksheet by Lisa Page (2010) that helps women in particular to explore and look at some of these desires. Some other counseling methods, like the Gottman method, EFT by Susan Johnson, and sex therapy techniques, among others, can help clinicians learn how to explore topics with couples clients.
- What are the things that you know you are okay with?
Fantasies are thoughts, so in this section, clients will consider actions. What have clients actually done that they enjoy and would like to continue? Again, it’s important for your clients to know so that they can relay this information effectively to their partner(s).
- Interests in exploration?
Another thing to remember about fantasies is that most of them are thoughts or dreams, not something the person has actually engaged in. And that is why fantasies change–because while the idea of something can be interesting and exciting, actually doing it or following through with it can be too much for some.
For components 3, 4, and 5, there is a helpful article on Autostraddle (Osworth, 2014) that describes how to talk to your partners about sex. It includes an excellent set of worksheets that I like to use with individuals and couples to help them learn about themselves in conjunction with their partners.
- Limitations/Hard Limits?
It is important to think about your hard limits, defined as those areas in which a partner is not interested and is not willing to try. Just as it is important to know about an individual’s actions–what they enjoy or are willing to do–it is important to know their boundaries: where they draw the line when it comes to their interests and exploration.
- Safe words/hand signs or gestures?
Sometimes things can get passionate and out of control in erotic situations. Safe words, signs, and gestures are ways of making sure that everyone involved stays on the same page, and that activities remain SAFE and CONSENSUAL. Consent, in this context, entails seeking permission or agreement for an act taking place, and the nuances of the definition of consent continue to evolve. It is important that, as clinicians, we encourage partners to continue to ask for permission, and to never assume that they have the right to do something with a partner because they “think” they know each other well enough.
- How often should sex happen?
A lot of couples can get stuck on the question of how often sex should happen; they might fear being completely open and vulnerable with one another in exploring this difficult topic. As a therapist, it is important for you to encourage a conversation about this. A couple may need to compromise on the frequency of sex in order to progress forward. It is essential for each member of a relationship to gain an understanding of their own sexual desire and libido, which can fluctuate and differ from those of their partners, and this will play a role in determining how often sex takes place. I find that if individuals don’t understand this in themselves, they will have a hard time understanding it in others, which is why it’s helpful to have a facilitated conversation with you as therapist present.
- Who initiates the act?
Who is dominant and who is submissive in the relationship? Does this dynamic apply? Are any of the individuals involved switches? This section can introduce a conversation about who feels most comfortable initiating contact, either in a sexual or an intimate context. By intimate, I mean affectionate, without leading to any sexual acts.
- What type of aftercare rituals are desired?
Aftercare is what an individual needs after a sexual encounter. For some it may be taking a shower, followed by cuddling while falling asleep together. Others may want to eat ice cream or have a smoke, while still others might just want to get dressed, eat something, and move on with life. Whatever the case, it’s important to know what each person seeks after an encounter so that wrong assumptions can be avoided.
Communication is the basis for working on these issues and concerns. In order to truly understand and know each other, couples need to be ready and willing to communicate and learn from each others’ wants and needs, and contracts are a vital tool to help with this process. By starting this conversation early in the relationship and continuing to have the support to discuss their desires throughout, clients may feel significantly safer about communicating openly in the future.
Learn More about working with Polyamorous Clients
Gray, J. (June 14, 2016). How to Write a Relationship Contract. Retrieved from www.jordangrayconsulting.com/relationship-contract/
James, E.L. (2012). Fifty Shades of Grey. New York: Vintage Books.
Osworth, A.E. (June 19, 2014). You Need Help: Here is a Worksheet to Help you Talk to Partners about Sex. Retrieved from www.autostraddle.com/you-need-help-here-is-a-worksheet-to-help-you-talk-to-partners-about-sex-237385/
Page, L. (2010). Sexuality and Fantasy Exploration Worksheet for Women. Retrieved from https://lisapage.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/sexuality-fantasy-exploration-workbook-by-lisa-page.pdf