Forget Romance: Relationships Need to Get Contractual

If your relationship cannot even withstand a discussion of responsibilities and shared expectations, you have no hope of surviving real challenges as they come your way.
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Couple looking at a map by Simone Smith

Modern relationships are plagued with too much romance and too little ruthlessness. Couples with unrealistic expectations and impractical plans would benefit from forced confrontations with stark realities before making significant commitments (whether they involve moving in with a partner, buying shared property, getting engaged, getting married, or having children). This is where the relationship contract comes in: a simple, actively-updated document that packs a truly practical punch.

Many initially see frank conversation and written contracts as the antithesis of an ideal relationship. Contracts hardly evoke images of Prince Charmings courting dreamy princesses. Of course, when you strip away fantasy and looks back at history's real royal courtships, you will find they are steeped in contractual agreements and careful negotiations. Romantic love did not play a significant role in relationships until quite recently. For most of our history, marriage was a very contractural- if not downright transactional- agreement. In many places, it still is.

Though it is lovely that most of us have the privilege of marrying whomever we like (and that many more are gaining that privilege every year), we might also want to bring back a bit of the old, practical model. Marriages in the past, though not perfect, benefitted from clear hierarchies, expectations, and responsibilities. Now that strong, uniform, and cohesive cultural norms governing relationships no longer exist, we need to establish norms of our own on a case-by-case basis. Relationship contracts are perfect for this purpose.

In addition to building a strong framework of shared expectations that modern relationships presently lack, relationship contracts offer the added benefit of encouraging couples of engage in equitable, active dialogue (something many marriages from the days of yore did not enjoy). Should you create your relationship contract using Google Docs or some other collaborative online platform, it can easily be updated, commented on, and revisited over time. Every time a new issue comes up or a couple realizes an aspect of their relationship is not adequately addressed, it can be discussed, then added to the contract.

What should couples address in relationship contracts? Everything that cultural norms no longer set in stone and anything that might lead to conflict.

Important starting points include:
  • Finances: Whether earnings are shared, how accounts are structured, how much goes toward savings, etc.
  • Living arrangements: How chores are handled, housing arrangements, levels of required cleanliness, agreed-upon temperature levels, etc.
  • Children: Whether to have any, how they might be raised, their education and religion, punishment, holidays, allowances, activities, schooling, financial support, etc.
  • Pets: Whether to have any, what breeds might be acceptable, how many might be owned at one time, etc.
  • Family expectations: When to attend family reunions, what to do around holidays, how to address sick and aging parents, etc.
  • Definitions of fidelity: Whether porn is OK, what counts as unfaithful behavior, etc.
  • Contingency plans for extreme events: Such as termination from a job, insolvency, sickness, disappearance, injury, etc.

If you would rather avoid creating a relationship contract with your partner because you fear it would bring up too much conflict, bear in mind that, for the most part, contracts help couples avoid strife. Instead of fighting over a hot button issue in a last-minute, rushed, and adversarial manner, couples can discuss it in a calm, safe environment and as a team, addressing the problem not from a "Me vs. You" standpoint, but from an "Us vs. This Issue" standpoint.

If you are in a serious relationship and contemplating marriage, I suggest that you put together a relationship contract. Relationship contracts don't exist to form red tape or cause conflict; they are designed to build a strong foundation that can help relationships weather the worst of storms. If your relationship cannot even withstand a discussion of responsibilities and shared expectations, you have no hope of surviving real challenges as they come your way.