Central to the theory of Transactional Analysis is the idea of contracts. It’s what is called a contractual therapy.
Two definitions of a contact:
Berne - A contract is an explicit bilateral commitment to a well defined course of action
James & Jongeward - A contract is an Adult commitment to one’s self and/or someone else to make a change.
I have a problem with these in some ways. My definition of a contract would be:
A contract is a statement the client makes to self about how they will behave, think and/or feel in the future.
This statement is often made in the presence of a counsellor but it is a statement that the client is making to self. It only involves the counsellor as an outside person who can report back to the client about incongruencies in making the contract, self sabotages that may exist in the contract or other issues such as the lawfulness or morality of making such a change.
A contract is made from the Adult ego state of the client along with consultation with the Parent and Child ego states in the client (and in the therapist). The contracting transaction could be drawn as such. As one can see it is quite complex process
1. Client thinks of a contract
“I will finish my assignment by Tuesday.”
2. Parent ego state of the client gives its view on the contract
3. Child ego state of the client gives its view on the contract
4. Client makes the contract from Adult with the views of the Parent and Child ego states taken into consideration. The transaction is drawn as coming from the client’s Adult ego state and returning to it. That is, the client is making a statement to self rather than to the counsellor. However the client is stating it in the presence of the counsellor because she wants the counsellor’s thoughts on the contract. She is letting the counsellor listen to it but it is not being made to the counsellor.
5. The counsellor’s Adult ego state hears and understands the contract.
6. The counsellor’s Parent expresses its thoughts on the contract to the Adult of the counsellor.
7. The counsellor’s Child expresses its thoughts on the contract to the Adult of the counsellor.
8. The Adult of the counsellor assesses the contract in their Adult with the views of the Parent and Child ego states taken into consideration and reports to the client what his thoughts of the contract are.
With a contract like, “I will finish my assignment by Tuesday.” there is unlikely to be many problems reflected by the Adult, Parent and Child ego states of both the client and the counsellor. However there maybe if it is what is called a magical contract. If it happens to be Sunday and the client still has to read 5 research papers and write 20,000 words then it cannot be completed in two days time. It is simply not possible to do and thus it can be seen as a magical contract by the client.
If the Adult of the client does not realize this anomaly then the Adult, Parent and Child ego states of the counsellor is more likely to. Thus one can see the usefulness of having an outside person looking in on the contracting by the client. However it still remains that the client is making a statement of the contract to self but can refine the contract with the help of the counsellor. The contract is not made to the counsellor nor is it a bilateral commitment between the two of them as Berne’s definition of contracting states.
Every contract a client makes reflects a state of ambivalence in them. The Free Child wants to make the change and the Adapted Child does not want to make the change and will set about sabotaging the contracting process. This diagram is seen to show how the ambivalence exists in the personality.
In any contracting these two forces in the personality will be involved and thus you can again see the necessity to have an outside observer who can identify when the AC is sabotaging the contracting process. If the person 100% wanted to change then they would already have and wouldn’t need a counsellor. If they 100% did not want to change then they would not come to counselling in the first place.
For example the AC can interfere and influence the Adult to construct what is called a change others contract. The client may make the contract:
“I want my husband to show his love”
“I want my kids to behave at grandmas house”
A change others contract is not uncommon for a client to present. It can never work because the husband and kids are not in the counselling session and thus they cannot change. In this sense it can also be seen as a magical contract but the client’s Adult does not identify it as so because the AC is working unconsciously in the background sabotaging the contracting process. The counsellor’s Adult will hopefully see this and suggest the client alter the contract so it is not a change others contract.
Parent ego state difficulties with contracts
In my new book Working with drug and alcohol users, I describe a therapeutic procedure called the harm reduction contract. This is where the drug user makes a contract to behave in a more safe way when they take drugs. For example if a heroin user recently almost died from an OD he may make the contract to only use heroin when he is in the company of others. Thus reducing the chance of fatal OD.
However using heroin is illegal and some have a moral problem with assisting clients to take drugs more safely. They believe the client should abstain and then there is no reason to have a harm reduction contract. Or they believe there is a moral issue in working with a client who is contracting to do something illegal. Hence we can see how the Parent ego state of the counsellor could influence the Adult response to the client not based on a Child magical thinking contract but because of a disagreement from the Parent ego state.