Love Lingers Here: Intimate Enduring Relationships–VIII. Compatibility and Covenant
Given this primary emphasis on the complementarily rather than similarity among contemporary couples — at least in their early years together—then it is essential that something in the couple holds together these disparate values, perspectives and skills. We have found in our study that the differences among partners are balanced in an enduring relationship with an integrative component—something that we have identified as the couple’s “covenant.”
As we noted earlier, couples often help to form some of the paradigms or frames of reference that guide this couple in its interactions with other people and institutions in the world. One of the most important frames concerns the rules by which the two partners live with one another. Partners are influenced by their shared assumptions and frames of reference not only in their interactions out in the world, but also their interactions with one another. Furthermore, these rules regarding the partners’ interactions must meet all three of the criteria noted in an earlier essay. They must appear to come from the external world, rather than being arbitrarily created by the couple, they must be internally consistent, logical and coherent, and they must provide some stability for the couple as it faces unpredictable and changing conditions in the world. One additional criterion must be added to this list: the guiding rules for a couple are not subject to change.
What should we call this set of deeply based rules of conduct in a relationship? Some writers speak of a “contract” between the two partners. We think this is an inadequate term, for this set of rules is not a contract between two parties that is entered into, as in business, with the assumption of modification and flexibility. Rather, the couple enters into a covenant, in the Biblical sense, that is assumed to be fixed and sacred. An intimate relationship is considered a sacrament with spiritual underpinnings precisely because it is built on a covenant rather than a contract between the two partners.
What is the nature of the covenant that is established by intimate couples? A first “draft” of the covenant often exists in the founding stories that are told by partners not only
for the edification of other people, but also for each other. The founding story is often repeated many times by couples, both for the sake of other people and themselves, because it contains some important truth or a central set of commitments that have been made explicitly or, more often, implicitly by the couple.