The Benefits of Having a Relationship Contract Are Not a Myth

The Gottman Institute says it’s a myth that relationship contracts benefit a marriage. Here’s why the Gottman Institute is wrong

It’s important to do nice things for your partner and to do your fair share around the house, principles that an increasing number of couples have decided to formalize with a contract. … The concept, though, has no basis in science. In 1977, researcher Bernard Murstein found that marriages oriented around reciprocity were less successful. And from what we’ve seen in our clinical work, keeping track can cause couples to keep score, which can lead to resentment. Dealmaking, contracts and quid pro quo mostly operate in unhappy marriages. Criticism and contempt can arise from unfulfilled expectations, especially if those expectations are quantified. And when one partner does something nice for the other and there is a contract in place, they may expect something equally nice in return. That response may not happen for any reason — a busy week, forgetfulness — which can create resentment and an environment of trying to “win.”

Relationship contracts are not about ‘winning’

Consider one thing nearly all couples fight about: housework. A couple wants to have an even division of chores and responsibilities, so they make a contract. But a few months later, there’s a pile of dishes in the sink, and they’re fighting again. According to a study of 3,000 couples by Harvard Business School, the solution is to ditch the contract and spend money on a cleaning service. Why? So the couple can spend more time together having positive interactions and fewer arguments. Instead of a contract, it’s a compromise. … Couples need to act in kind and loving ways, intentionally and attentively, as often as they can. Some things simply cannot be mandated, not even by contract.

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Award-winning journalist, author of “Not Too Old For That: How Women are Changing the Story of Aging,” coauthor of “The New I Do,” mom