Two-Career Families: Contracting for Intimacy

It's no longer 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 change in our society so does the nature of marriage change.

By Edward A. Dreyfus, Ph.D.
Updated: March 18, 2015
Dating after Divorce

The days of a single model for marriage are over. Now there are multiple models. It's no longer 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 change 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 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. 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 or take a job to achieve both financial rewards and personal fulfillment. In many instances financial necessity has no bearing on this choice.

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 re-negotiate 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 prenuptial 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 to spend considerable time and effort building a foundation of trust and understanding. This phase of the negotiations can serve to set the overall tone and intent of the agreement.

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.

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.

Developing the Contract

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

1) learning how to negotiate

2) separating business from interpersonal issues

3) listing responsibilities

4) defining interpersonal needs

5) developing child-care philosophy and responsibility

6) negotiating consequences in case of default

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 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. 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 couplee coupheeee 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.

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.


Dr. Edward A. Dreyfus is a Clinical Psychologist, Divorce Mediator, and Life Coach, whose goal is to help people maximize their potential and achieve their goals. He is a licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist, and licensed marriage and family therapist. He has been in practice for over three decades with clinical specialties in sex therapy, divorce and relationship counseling, individual and group psychotherapy. His recent books, Someone Right for You and Keeping Your Sanity are available through Amazon.com. He can be reached ead@docdreyfus.com; visit his website at www.docdreyfus.com.

The above article is excerpted from Dr. Dreyfus's book Keeping Your Sanity which is also available directly through www.xlibris.com/keepingyoursanity

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April 28, 2006

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