Title: Let’s Make A Deal: Family Communication & Negotiation in Recovery
Author: Sandra Inskeep-Fox
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Publication Date: February 2002
Catalog Number: 811

..Improving on Nature

Families squabble.
That’s a given throughout nature.

Orangutan families,
human families — even bunny families, for that matter — wherever
there’s a choice to be made and a family involved, you’ll find
a test of wills, if you look long enough.

Families that
contain a recovering person are no different. They have the same
stresses and strains and emotional bumps and bruises as families

Still, there
is a big difference, because there’s an issue on the line more
important than who gets to watch which TV show at 8 o’clock.
When a recovering person is in the mix, recovery itself can be
at stake.

Because relapse
is often linked to stress, reducing conflict at home can be critical
to long-term recovery. And the best — and simplest — place
to start is with family communication.

communication doesn’t just happen. People have to work at it.
And when it’s missing in a family, it’s often missing for a good
reason: Family members never learned how.

That’s the
purpose of this pamphlet: to help you transform a key area of
family communications — clearly expressing expectations and
commitments with other family members.

Because while
it’s true that all families squabble, most don’t have to do it
as much as they do.

And increasing
the peace pays dividends that can last a lifetime — lots of
them, in fact.

..Expecting Explosions

Most family
conflicts start when expectations aren’t communicated and aren’t

Then, we feel
angry or resentful, and often don’t deal with it honestly.

Such frustrations
can build up inside family members until the volcano explodes
— often all over the dinner table.

A main source
of conflict is expected behaviors: what mom and dad think the
kids should be doing, or what the kids complain that the parents
don’t do.

The real issue
underlying expectation-based conflict is simple: “How do
we behave in this family?”

But the issue
itself often gets buried in an endless game of blame and accusation.
Just listen:

“Sara, you forgot to clean
the iguana cage, again.”

“Whose turn is it to empty
the dishwasher?”

“But you said I could have
the car tonight.”

Verbal “understandings”
of who is supposed to do what, when (and who gets to do what,
when) can easily become unworkable, especially in busy families.
And what family isn’t, these days?

Verbal “deals”
are usually too vague to promote responsible   behavior,
and can lead to game-playing by family members who pretend that
they didn’t understand, hear, or mean what was agreed to. It
makes family teamwork almost impossible and family conflict a
virtual certainty.

Want an alternative?
Put expectations and commitments in writing.

Call it a contract,
if you want, but don’t call a lawyer to help you draw it up.

It works better
if everyone involved — kids and adults — actively participate
in specifying commitments they’re willing to make and keep.

It also enables
everyone to understand their role in the “business”
of making the family work for everyone.

And it will
work for everyone — if everyone makes it work for each other.

..The Art of the Deal

How do you
do that? It’s a good idea to start by going all the way back
to basics, including a discussion of the following principles:

Each member of the family is
necessary to the family’s well-being and survival.

All family members have something
to contribute to and gain from a smoothly running system.

Parents are chief executive officers
of the family. (Sorry, kids. Your day will come.)

Once a family contract is agreed
to, written, and signed, it’s family law.

Hammering out
a contract may take a couple of sessions around the dining room
table before everyone is comfortable with it. Set up a time when
the family isn’t likely to be disturbed for an hour or so, when
everyone can be present. Figure on two or three sessions to complete
the contract.

Things will
go smoother in the negotiating process if you agree to practice
good communication skills. Using “I” statements —
starting sentences with the word “I” rather than “you”
— puts the responsibility for the communication with the speaker.

Example: “I
think we should take rotating turns loading the dishwasher,”
may invite discussion, but “Jim never helps with the dishes
at all” may invite conflict.

You may want
to choose someone outside the family — maybe a counselor, friend,
or grandparent — to mediate when an issue seems impossible to
resolve. Or you may decide to work all issues out within the

Whatever you
decide, it’s useful to work out ground rules that specify how
you’ll arrive at final decisions.

..Package Deal

Every contract
should be a complete package, spelling out each of the following
areas: Responsibilities, privileges, and consequences for each
person in the family; a statement of agreement to the terms of
the contract; signatures, date of signing, and a date on which
the contract will be renegotiated.

Now let’s take
a closer look at the individual parts of the package.


This includes
three types of tasks that individual family members need to be
responsible for in their daily lives:

Chores or household tasks.
These are usually repetitive,
but necessary to maintain order in the home. Examples: running
errands, walking the dog, preparing meals, doing yard work.

School work or job-related
This category
should include homework and special projects that may come up
for both parents and kids.

Goal-oriented activities. These are tasks that need to be performed
to meet personal goals. Examples can include everything from
practicing piano to practicing meditation, even perfecting a
jump shot in the driveway after school.

It’s usually
a good idea to include all three types of responsibilities when
developing a contract.

Why? Because
when we’re each aware of other family member’s commitments and
responsibilities, we’re less likely to see our own as a special
burden (or Private Hell) and act accordingly.

some items here may also turn up later in the contract as “privileges,”
where their value can help determine priorities for assigning

When you sit
down to negotiate, make a list below the headings “Daily,”
“Weekly,” “Monthly,” and “Occasionally”
of all the activities that fall under points #1 and #2 above
— tasks necessary to maintain order at home and function successfully
at work and school.

Beside each
task, note the person responsible for completing it.

When the list
is as complete as you can make it, note who’s currently performing
each task. Then discuss how this pattern came about and how responsibilities
were assigned or assumed to belong to this or that person.

Is someone
doing more than his or her share in any category? Who has the
most — and the least — available time? How could tasks be assigned
more fairly?

After everyone
has looked at all the tasks that go into family life, and has
a clear idea of how different jobs are getting done, consider
which of your existing arrangements are worth keeping in the
new contract.

& Privileges

This area of
the contract package, while often the most important to the kids,
is sometimes the most threatening to the parents.

Still, keep
two things in mind here:

  • Everyone in the family will
    have privileges as a result of the contract (including mom and
  • Disputes over privileges usually
    aren’t the real issue in family conflicts.

Example: I
may be uneasy about J.J. driving the family car if I feel that
I can’t trust him. The issue isn’t the car; it’s trust.

If you find
similar issues undermining your contract talks, define what trust
is in your family, then decide if the person has earned the trust
that goes with certain privileges. If not, go back to responsibilities
and note areas that he or she needs to work on to earn that trust.

All kinds of perks and privileges can be addressed at this time,

  • Monetary privileges. Allowance
    or money for specific purposes, e.g. college tuition or expenses.
  • Time sharing. Mom and Dad may
    ask for time alone, or time with each of the kids alone.
  • Activities. A trip to the movies,
    dinner out, an overnight at a friend’s house.
  • Other. Fill in the blanks.


Spell out the
specifics of what will happen as a result of promises being broken.

This is important,
because it lets family members see consequences as something
other than punishment.

For purposes
of a family contract, it’s usually a good idea for family members
to link consequences with tasks assigned and privileges granted.

Example: Threatening
to ground my son for the rest of his life may help me let off
steam, but it’s not as helpful to him as a contract that spells
out what his options are when it comes to cleaning (or not cleaning)
his room. If he doesn’t keep it clean, then he chooses the boom
that gets lowered.

should be simple cause and effect, courses of action that go
into effect automatically when a person chooses not to behave
responsibly. That’s why they need to be clearly connected to
both a task and a privilege, and be specific and time limited.

..Sign on the Line

When all the
wrinkles above have been ironed out through negotiations, it’s
time to put the contract into writing.

You may want
to assign one or two members of the family to the task of dotting
all the I’s and crossing all the T’s.

But when the
contract is written, meet again as a group to finalize it and
agree on a date when it can be reviewed and reaffirmed or renegotiated.

That way, you’ll
be able to accommodate any of the possible changes in people,
places, and things that can influence family life.

..Fine Tuning

After you’ve
cut all the “deals” you need in your family, committed
the fine points to writing, and spelled out consequences for
contract violations, you may notice something that you might
not be fully prepared for: Peace.

Enjoy it. Make
it last.

conferences to fine-tune differences may be necessary from time
to time, and that’s fine — contract renegotiation is now as
American as baseball strikes and management lock-outs.

Just make sure
that the basic elements of the new deal get put down in black
and white for everyone to see, so all family members can support
each other in keeping their end of the bargain.

If you’ve gotten
this far, you’ve done a good job.

Reward yourselves.
When you’re ready to ink the deal, make copies for everyone and
take yourselves out to dinner or a weekend brunch to celebrate
the signing.

That way no
one has to do the dishes.

This is one in a series of publications
on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation.
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