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They’re sometimes called contingency contracts: brief agreements between parties that describe the conditions under which each will perform a required action.

If you’re dealing with an active addict, such contracts can be a real asset. That’s because alcoholics are prone to make promises they can’t or won’t keep.

Such agreements tend to follow a simple ‘if-then’ model. “If you do X, then I promise to do Y.” The converse is also true: “If you don’t do X, then you can’t expect me to do Y.”

A variation: “If you don’t do X, then I might decide to do Z.”

Here’s Rafael’s father dealing with his son’s request for money to repair his aged but much-needed vehicle. Rafe insists that a mechanic friend will repair it for $600, as long as it’s in cash. That’s a significant discount, but the father has been down this road with his son before, and suspects some of that money will wind up as a kickback to Rafe, who will spend it on drugs. Picking up their conversation:

Rafael: “I really need the car, Pops. I’ve got classes, I’ve got swim team, I’ve got a chance to work some shifts over at the coffee shop… I can pay you back. “

Dad: “I’m sure you need the car, Rafe. Tell you what, I’ll get Tony to look at it. He’s been our mechanic forever. He’ll give us the best deal.”

Rafael: “But my guy already has it at his shop. I’d have to pay for a tow.”

Dad: “I thought I was going to pay.”

Rafael: “Yeah, but, it’s like you don’t trust me.”

Dad: “I trust you, son. But I don’t know this mechanic. I know Tony. I know the quality of his work.”

Rafael: “This guy’s good, too.”

Dad: “You let him work on it before?”

Rafael: “No, but everybody says…”

Dad: “That’s not the same thing. Tony works on it, we know it’s fixed. Here’s my offer: Tony sends the truck to pick it up, I pay him directly, you get the car back with a 90 day warranty.”

Rafael: “Yeah, but I need it right now.”

Dad: “Sorry. That’s the deal.”

Rafael’s father backs up his argument with solid reasoning, leaving his son little choice but to agree. Both sides actually profit. Rafe gets his car fixed; Dad gets confidence in the repair plus the knowledge that he didn’t inadvertently feed into his son’s problems. Rafe is unhappy at not getting his way, but he can’t feel abused or resentful about it.

The contracting above is informal, meaning unwritten, but you can also use more formal agreements to buttress your respective positions. And big issues often require formal contracts. For instance, Marie. Coming out of a treatment program for young adults, she meets with her mother to discuss her return to college.

Marie: “I can’t wait to get started next week.”

Mother: “I’m happy for you, honey. But we should settle a couple things.”

Marie: “Like what?”

Mother: “Well, you’re going to be enrolled in counseling too, right?”

Marie: “I was thinking about that, Mom. Like, I’m doing well. And I’ve had a lot of counseling, more than I probably needed, and I thought maybe I would take a break for a while. Focus on the important stuff, like school.”

Mother: “I was thinking along different lines, dear. You realize how expensive college is. So I thought I would pay for your expenses a semester at a time. As long as you stayed current with your grades, and are still in counseling and doing what’s required of you, I would continue paying.”

Marie: “I don’t need the counseling, Mom.”

Mother: “The doctor told me it was really important that you stay in treatment.”

Marie: “I need to put that behind me and get to working on my future, Mother.”

Mother: “I fully support college. I just want to know you haven’t dropped out of treatment.”

Marie: “You never stop trying to control my life, do you?”

Mother: “Just doing what the psychiatrist recommends, Marie. I’d feel silly having paid her all that money just to ignore her advice.”

Marie: “I won’t do it.”

Mother: “Well, I can’t make you.”

Marie: “So you won’t pay for college?”

Mother: “Of course I will. So long as I know you’re in treatment. It’s really up to you, darling.”

Marie: “I guess I don’t have any choice.”

Mother: “You always have a choice. I’ve written out this agreement between us…”

Marie: “What? You want me to sign something?”

Mother: “The counselors recommend it. They say it makes things clear between us, and you always said that’s been a problem in the past…”

Marie: “I can’t believe this.”

Mother: “I guess it’s a change. But a lot of things needed to change, and this is just one of them.”

You should expect the alcoholic/ addict to test the agreement. It’s only natural. They need to see if you really mean it, or were just blowing smoke. If you stick to your guns, they’ll abandon the challenge.

Please note that in both examples, the contracts were fair to both parties. That limits the amount of resentment that can be generated.