From Housework to Sex, Here’s How Relationship Contracts Can Help Couples

Our language surrounding romantic love often portrays it as something beyond our control: we are passengers on a fast-moving train headed towards an unknown destination, victims of a contagious and all-consuming disease, or helpless against an unstoppable force.

However, love in today’s world should be an active choice – something that we nurture and develop together with our partners, rather than something that simply happens to us. This is the perspective that writer Mandy Len Catron discovered while researching for her book, How To Fall in Love With Anyone.

Catron is also the author of the widely-circulated and highly-praised New York Times article, “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love,” as well as its less popular counterpart, “To Fall In Love, Sign On The Dotted Line.”

something that we nurture and develop together with our partners

While the former offers readers a potential key to their own happily ever after, the latter presents a practical – though seemingly unromantic – solution for maintaining love: relationship contracts.

“I think people have this idea that you’re going to print it out and be like, ‘You said that you were doing the laundry this week!’ ” says Catron, but that’s largely missing the point.

“Every relationship is contractual, we’re just making the terms more explicit,” she says.

What is a relationship contract?

Although it may sound like a legal document, a relationship contract is not a legally binding agreement. Instead, it serves as a tool for couples to communicate their needs and collaborate to establish the guidelines for their unique relationship journey. These guidelines can cover a wide range of topics, from health and household chores to sex and intimacy.

it serves as a tool for couples to communicate their needs and collaborate to establish the guidelines for their unique relationship journey

“If you instead reframe it as an agreement or goal setting,” stresses Catron, “then it’s really just a way of saying …’I’m invested in this relationship and this person. Therefore, I’m going to do my best to do it.’ “

The power of this exercise, says Catron, is that it steers couples away from those problematic, passive notions of romance and toward agency and thoughtfulness in our love lives.

Read on for tips and takeaways for creating a relationship contract from our interview with Catron. Alternatively, you can listen to the full episode at the top of the page.

Get a handle on your expectations

With the influence of various societal factors, sociologists and psychologists have discovered that our expectations for our romantic partners are higher than ever.

“We are really looking for not just someone who’s going to split the load of paying the bills and raising children,” according to Catron, who references the research of Eli Finkel in his book The All or Nothing Marriage,”But we’re looking for someone who is going to be a great domestic partner, a great sex partner, someone who’s our intellectual peer, someone who’s going to help us become the best version of ourselves.”

That’s an incredibly tall order! But so is deprogramming that thinking, she says.

“I think we live in a culture and a time that has these values. It’s very hard to let them go. It’s very hard not to want so much from your partner,” says Catron.

One way to correct for this heavy burden is “to distribute the load a little more evenly,” says Catron.

One way to correct for this heavy burden is to distribute the load a little more evenly,

That could involve seeking emotional support from friends in addition to your partner, or involving other family members in child-rearing responsibilities when you are overwhelmed.

Set parameters that work for you

According to Catron, there should be no restrictions on what can be discussed. You and your partner should determine what topics should be included in your contract and how frequently you should revisit it.

Catron suggests considering both the minor and major aspects of your relationship. This includes discussing your expectations for daily life, as well as more significant topics such as defining intimacy and your personal and professional aspirations.

Feel free to embrace idealism in certain aspects of your relationship, such as discussing goals like making a positive impact in your local community or working towards financial freedom together. At the same time, it’s also important to be practical and address more mundane matters, such as evenly distributing household chores or determining who is responsible for taking out the trash on Tuesdays.

Catron and her partner initially created a six-month contract based on the inspiration they found in the book “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists, and Rebels.” They now make it a point to revisit and revise their contract on an annual basis.

Write it all down

Catron emphasizes the importance of expressing your thoughts and emotions on paper because it allows you to revisit them later. She believes that it is beneficial to check in with yourself and your partner after six or twelve months to determine if your goals and needs have changed, which is inevitable.

Having a contract also provides a convenient opportunity to have open discussions with your partner about what is and isn’t working in the relationship. It eliminates the feeling of being nitpicky or nagging and instead creates a space for constructive dialogue, negotiation, and even creativity.

When drafting your contract, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Catron and her partner, for instance, have a section dedicated to leisure activities, including a monthly date plan and an acknowledgment that they both require and deserve alone time.

By verbalizing and documenting these small but significant aspects of your needs, you can minimize guesswork and reduce friction in your relationship.

It’s about agency, not perfection

A relationship contract isn’t going to solve all your problems. “There’s not always going to be a perfect middle ground” for every topic on your list, and you’ll probably find some areas more uncomfortable to talk about than others.

Sex and finances, for example, are common sticking points for many, says Catron. But the beauty of a relationship contract is that it provides a safe space for you to voice hard-to-discuss wants or fears that might otherwise just go assumed, unsaid or unresolved. There’s a lot of power in that.

Sex and finances, for example, are common sticking points for many, says Catron.

Being open and honest with your partner is not always a walk in the park. However, the outcome of such transparency is the creation of a stronger bond between two individuals who are able to truly understand and support each other. This was the case for Catron.

“It really made me feel like a co-creator in this process, as opposed to someone who is just sort of sitting back and letting the relationship go wherever it’s going to go and hoping for the best,” she says.

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