Couple's Recovery Workshop

Healing Contracts

Healing contracts can be very effective tools in helping a partner regain control and stability in their life. It can be just as effective for those in recovery who need time to safely build the initial foundation they will use to transition their lives from addiction to health. Healing contracts establish a list of known value conflicts, the boundaries that exist to manage those conflicts and the consequences that are applied upon the violation of such a boundary. Their purpose is to remove the intense emotions that are often associated with early value conflicts at a time when both partners may be struggling with their perceptions, judgment and ability to productively manage their emotions.


Consider the following situation:

Last month, you discovered that your partner had been viewing graphic pornography and engaging in online sex with multiple partners on your home computer. After admitting that he had a problem, your partner has been in active recovery for a month and by all accounts, this recovery has gone well. You are both motivated to continue reconciliation, but then you discover a Penthouse magazine hidden in the back of the closet. What do you do?

If you're like most, you'd likely become angry and confrontational. You'd feel deceived. You'd feel hurt. You would obsess and/or be overwhelmed with anxiety about what other hidden items may be around. What other lies he might be telling. Or, you might minimize the incident, believing that it was just a small, relatively harmless slip. When you confront him, you are hit with one or more of the following explanations: "It's just a magazine — I'm not having an affair." "It was left over from before I started my recovery." "I forgot that it was there." "I only looked at it once and felt guilty. It actually served as a breakthrough for me."

If pornography wasn't the issue, substitute an affair. And rather than finding a magazine, imagine you discovered that he had recently talked to the person on the phone. What would you do? How would you confront him? Would the consequences of his actions rely on how he explained himself? If he said things like: "I was just calling to tell her not to call me anymore." "She called me, I couldn't just hang up on her." "She was really upset and I was trying to calm her down."...would it matter in terms of the consequences for his actions? It shouldn't — not when you have developed an effective contract.

Emotions, Perceptions and Consequences

Relationships that have experienced the ongoing and complex deceit that comes with addiction will face many value-conflicts throughout the recovery process. When are they telling you the truth? When are they telling you only part of the truth? When are they outright lying to you? This, in contrast to their value of wanting you to develop trust in them. To be put in the position of having to use your gut instincts to determine what the truth is is unfair. To expect you to believe them because they sound sincere or because what they are saying makes sense is also unfair. They had been given the right to be trusted and lost it with their previous lies. And until significant, long-term changes have been made to their lives, they should not get that trust back. So where does that leave you? More importantly, where shouldn't it leave you? It shouldn't leave you stuck wading through a puddle of possible lies. Of trying to read through what may be defensiveness and what may be reality. Such situations create emotional confusion that leads to chaotic resolutions.


Consider the following situation:

For the past three weeks, you have poured your heart into building a healthy foundation for ending addiction in your life. You have accepted the mistakes you have made, realized the pain you have caused and have made a sincere commitment to rebuilding a healthy life. To become a person grounded in value and purpose — rather than one balanced by deceit and illusion. In this transition, you have abstained from all overt sexual behavior and, though you continue to struggle with more subtle urges involving fantasy, you don't act on these. You recognize that these urges stem from years of ingrained addiction, rather than from your current desire. You also recognize that while you may not be able to control these urges, you take personal responsibility for controlling your response to them. And to date, that response has been to act in accordance with your values.

Then last night, while out to dinner with your wife, you catch yourself sexually objectifying the waitress for a brief second. This occurs not through intentional scanning for such stimuli, but spontaneously. You recognize it and immediately create your break (for those already at this point in the individual workshop). You immediately return your focus to your wife, but it's too late. She witnessed this 'look' that you engaged in and is livid. She dismisses the entire past three weeks as a fraud. She berates you publicly and privately — offering no recognition for the real changes that have been taking place in your life. You begin to question your own sincerity and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness appear.

For you, a healing contract will anticipate such value conflicts (you valuing the sincerity of your commitment and the willingness to act on the experience of a spontaneous ritual; you partner valuing respect and attention from you) — and provide a more productive means for managing them. One that will take into account both sides of the equation and not just the emotions of one or the other. But note, these contracts don't exist to ease your responsibility or accountability. Quite the opposite. They exist to afford you the opportunity to heal in an environment of action and transparency. And so, in the situation listed above, such a contract might protect you from your wife's immediate emotional wrath; but it would also require you to take full responsibility for your actions.

(SA & P)

Ideally, the more emotions you remove from how you perceive any given situation in early recovery/healing, the better. The more objective you can become — separating yourself (and even your partner) from the actions — the better. The more you can suspend 'real life' in favor of creating a bubble for personal development, the better. But, this is ONLY to establish safety in early recovery/healing — until proficiency has been achieved with the more advanced skills involving communication, emotions, conflict resolution, etc. Establishing healing contracts provides you both with the opportunity to deal in certainties relating to what is expected; as opposed to emotions when those expectations are realized. And certainties are much easier to manage than emotional conflict. They eliminate the gray areas that are at the root of most sabotage and destruction in early couple's healing. And because healing contracts, if they are to be effective, are based on your values: they serve as a fluid means for healthy behavior management.

What is a Contract?

Everyone knows what a contract is. It is an agreement between two or more people (or in recovery/healing, it can even be an agreement with yourself) that lays clear expectations (e.g. boundaries) that cannot be crossed without consequence. This is exactly the definition that we will use here. An agreed upon set of boundaries that will not be crossed without repercussion.

How are they best used in a relationship? This gets a bit tricky. On the one hand, healthy relationships are natural entities where issues like honesty, respect and intimacy occur without rigidity and structure. They occur free-flowing and are motivated by the natural consequences of being in a relationship with such values attached. A healthy relationship has no need to manage such values via written contracts. On the other hand, a relationship in which addiction is present is not healthy. Nor is a relationship where one person is in active recovery from addiction. Can it develop into such a free-flowing partnership? Absolutely. But it is not there now. And so, to avoid the conflict that invariably invades the healing process, it becomes necessary to clearly document your existing values, your expectations (aka boundaries) and preferably, agreed-upon consequences for the violation of those boundaries.

Do note, in the next lesson of the Couple's Workshop, such contracts will be used in the development of a more flexible, abstract, comprehensive guide to assist your relationship in its transition to a healthy, intimate partnership. But initially, we are not talking about the shared values and shared boundaries of the relationship, we are talking about you. You as a partner in healing. You as a person in recovery. What you will accept. What you need to see happen. Or, not happen. We are talking about documenting your boundaries and laying out what you will do should those boundaries be crossed. That is the contract you will be developing here. Your partner will have little to do with this process (though ultimately, the more they are involved in implementing the contract the more effective that contract will be). But at the same time, with this contract, they can just as easily be irrelevant.

Developing the Contract

I. The first step in developing a healing contract is to clearly document your existing values and boundaries. Again, these are your values — not your partner's and not your relationship's. If you aren't clear what these are, simply list five to ten areas of your life that you value (your values) and ways that you will protect those values (your boundaries).

II. Next, put aside your list and allow yourself to think about the following questions in relation to your partner:

  • What behaviors would you find completely unacceptable in your partner?
  • What behaviors would cause you to worry about your partner's overall balance?
  • What behaviors would symbolize a return to their addiction and/or a detriment to their own healing?
  • What healthy behaviors would you like to see from your partner in response to what has been identified above?

In general, we are talking about behaviors related to past destructive patterns, though you do not have to limit yourself to this. Document the behaviors you have come up with.

III. With the above steps completed, your final task is to determine an appropriate response that you will take for each behavior — should it be observed. Be careful here. Ideally, you will be completing this task with an objective eye and with your values guiding your thoughts. The worst possible contract is one that is based on overwhelmed emotions where all consequences are extreme and all behaviors rigid. Think rationally. Think objectively. For example, if your consequence for catching him in a lie about leaving the toilet seat up is to immediately end the relationship, the contract will not be effective in bringing about healthy change. Likewise, if your contract for managing snooping behavior from your partner is to establish password-protected directories and secret accounts, the contract will not be effective in bringing about healthy change.

No one is perfect. And those in recovery and those in healing — simply by the nature of one's immaturity and the other's trauma — will be far from it. So try to structure your consequences to be both fair and firm, but realistic. Progressive consequences work best, but only for mild violations. Extreme and immediate consequences work best for extreme violations. It is a very good idea to review your contract with an objective person whose input you value.

Once you have gathered the above information and have documented it in whatever format you are most comfortable with, it is time for implementation. Again we will speak in ideals, and ideally, your partner would review this document and agree to its contents. Having expectations is healthy only when those expectations are known by others. This is something that must happen in the next lesson involving the Partnership Contract.

Effective Contracts

In an effective contract, your values will be represented by a general application of your boundaries to your partner's anticipated behavior. Can all conflicts be addressed in this contract? No. It is impossible to anticipate all the nuances that can occur in even the simplest of actions. A lie, for example. Developing a single contract to address all types of lies could take weeks...and still, it will not be complete. There will always be those behaviors that fall in between the situations that you have envisioned. And so, one of the most important issues relating to the use of this contract is your willingness to see it as a living document that changes as your values change. That grows as your experiences grow. This means you must commit yourself to reviewing it frequently and modifying it as necessary.

Another aspect of effective contract use is your willingness to abide by what you have written. Will there be exceptions? Most likely. But for the majority of conflicts, the documented consequences must be the ones that are enacted. These are the consequences that you have determined best represent the violations in question. You created them at a time when you were logical and rational — and not influenced by the emotional impact of the conflict. To wait for the discovery and adjust those consequences based on your emotional reactions is to openly invite confusion, manipulation and further chaos into this and all future events involving value conflicts. Be fair, be firm. And have a very, very good reason for making any exception.

Using the Contract

A value conflict arises. Let's use one from earlier in the lesson: after a month of what seemed to be the building of a solid recovery, you discover a Penthouse hidden in the closet. Without a contract in place, this situation is a potentially devastating one that can throw your life into complete turmoil. What should you believe? What if you're wrong? Were the consequences too hard? Not hard enough? Forget all that. It is energy being spent unnecessarily.

In your contract, you have it clearly stipulated that you will accept no pornography in your home. Pornography was found. The consequences are then engaged. It doesn't matter why the pornography was there. It doesn't matter if it was an accident. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. Pornography was found in your home — a direct violation of the boundaries you have set. Consequences must be engaged. Period. Do not allow your boundaries to be violated...ever. For any reason. Do not soften the consequences...ever. For any excuse or any rationalization. Do not allow yourself to be placed in the position of judge and jury. Let the objective facts speak for themselves. Let the contract do its job.

Exceptions and Alterations

Obviously, situations will arise that you are not prepared for. The role of the contract is not to take over your own decision-making skills or use of common sense. It is merely to guide you in that decision-making process by reducing the influence of extreme emotions over that process.

Exercise Three

1. Both of you will take some time to create an individual list of perceived value conflicts that focus on your values that are being or may likely be violated by your partner's behavior. Use the outline shared earlier in the lesson (e.g. Developing the Contract) to establish awareness of all major conflicts. Note that we will not be addressing all of these conflicts in detail, only establishing that they exist. Additionally, we will begin to define the values and boundaries that are at the core of these conflicts. And an initial probe into the severity of each conflict (as dictated by the consequences). Post them into your Couple's Healing Thread.

2. While you are free to read your partner's proposed contracts, DO NOT judge them, criticize them, correct them or in any way allow yourself to become emotionally upset by them. This is a baseline of information that we will then evolve. You both must be free to create and express your thoughts in a safe environment — no matter how warped those thoughts and perceptions might be.

3. If you are in Couple's Coaching, schedule an appointment with Coach Jon to review these contracts separately. Note that we will not be implementing these contracts as is. Instead, we will be evolving them and including them in the Partnership Contract to be developed in the next lesson.

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