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Thursday May 26, 2011

Flirting with the Social Contract

Like any agreement, a relationship is bound by rules. This is true of all kinds of relationships, whether between friends, family members or lovers.

FORMING relationships is easy. Maintaining relationships is not so easy. Ending relationships is hard.

Whenever we check in at a restaurant or bar, or log in to Facebook, the Social Network lies before us in all its majestic splendour. Like butterflies flying from flower to flower for a taste of sweet nectar, we roam around meeting friends new and old.

But free and limitless as the Social Network may be, it is not thrown into chaos, as may be feared from the flapping of butterfly wings. Instead, there is balance and order in the Social Network, woven by invisible rules.

Like butterflies following their migration flight patterns, we waltz through the Social Network not with reckless abandon, but to our own tune and steps.

It takes two to tango. A relationship, whether casual or intimate, blossoms only when two persons genuinely agree to keep in touch with each other. This is true of all kinds of relationships, whether between friends, family members or lovers.

And like any agreement, a relationship is bound by rules. Welcome to the Social Contract.

The first stage of the Social Contract is the formation stage. Certain elements must be present before a relationship comes into being. There must be offer and acceptance, which can be as simple as an exchange of mobile numbers or acceptance of a “friend” request on Facebook.

But we must be sure that there’s an actual offer on the table, and not merely an invitation to treat. And even if there’s an offer, we must be clear on the exact terms of the offer.

As Martin Solveig cautions, there are people who could stick around and get along with you, but it doesn’t really mean that they’re into you. Always take care to know what kind of relationship you’re getting into.

The next crucial element is consideration – the legal jargon for what’s in it for me, and what’s in it for you.

As a consideration to enter into a new relationship, most people look for good company, character and connection from the other person. But sometimes, people enter into a relationship looking to fulfil less abstract desires, such as money, sex or fame by association.

There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as everyone is on the same page, reads the fine print, and there’s mutual disclosure and understanding of expectations.

A bad romance, morally wrong it may be, is still a relationship.

After the formation stage, we enter into the performance stage. Parties work towards sustaining and making the best of the relationship they signed up for. But relationships are never static. They may gradually die, or change form over time.

A minor change to a relationship merely involves a variation. This means that the original contract remains, with some terms altered.

For example, an inclusion of a new Clause 56 which states: “Both parties shall avoid meeting, communicating or physically coming within a 10m radius of their respective ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends (for the avoidance of doubt, their names are as listed in Annexure 1)”.

Or sometimes, two hearts may erupt like a neutron star collision. A casual relationship transforms into an intimate one, bringing about a new relationship and contract altogether.

The third and final stage is the termination stage. Breaking up is always messy and complicated, whether between good friends, family members or lovers. The reasons to end a relationship are aplenty, but they can be classified under a few types.

In law, any contract made under a mistake, misrepresentation and fraud is void ab initio, that is, that there was no contract to begin with. Likewise, there are times in life when we enter into a relationship under a false belief.

An extreme example would be if you discovered your lady was once not a lady. Or if someone told you that come what may, they would love you till their dying day, only for you to discover after marriage that it was just for convenience, for your spouse to avoid a potential workplace transfer to a backwater place like Grik.

Of course, there will be bitterness and tears. It’s painful being cheated to enter into a false relationship. But quickly get up when you’re down, and keep on moving.

Tell yourself, next time, there won’t be a next time. Burn those bridges from shore to shore. Don’t dwell and feel too much for a relationship that never really was.

Termination due to fundamental breach is more painful. That’s when the parties have agreed on the “Do’s” and “Don’t’s” of their relationship, and one party later breaks an express promise.

Not every broken promise justifies termination, but only if the promise is fundamental to the relationship or the effect of the broken promise causes irreparable harm to the relationship.

Between lovers, a breach of Clause 56 generally is not a fundamental breach, unless the wrongful party is a repeat offender.

Cheating on your lover is generally a fundamental breach, unless there is a rare non-exclusivity clause stipulated somewhere. As between good male buddies, cheating with your best friend’s girlfriend is definitely a fundamental breach of the “Bro-Code”.

Terminating a relationship that is real in every aspect is a tough call to make. Emotions run high, optimism in life runs low. We start to question our ability to sustain relationships, and sometimes, even our self-worth. Nevertheless, although at first we will be afraid, eventually we will survive.

But ultimately, the Social Con-tract only guides us on how we think about our relationships, and not how we feel. Sometimes, we can’t help ourselves from falling for someone whom we know to be a heartbreaker right from the start. It’s because the law of attraction is driven more by what we feel than what we think.

So don’t feel bad about falling in and out of relationships. It’s all part of the social cycle. It’s all good. For, like butterflies, we flutter from flower to flower, in search of the sweetest things in life.

The writer is a young lawyer. Putik Lada, or pepper buds in Malay, captures the spirit and intention of this column – a platform for young lawyers to articulate their views and aspirations about the law, justice and a civil society. For more information about the young lawyers, please visit