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

There are many myths about marriage and there’s a lot of bad advice about marriage, but one thing is true: modern marriages would benefit from relationship contracts. So I was truly surprised to read an article by John Gottman and Christopher Dollard of the Gottman Institute, Five myths about marriage, claiming it’s a myth that relationship contracts benefit marriages because “there’s no basis in science.”

Sorry to disagree, Gottman Institute; having a relationship contract is all about communicating goals and values, and clearly expressing expectations — for yourself and your partner — so there will be no, or at least fewer, assumptions, and trust me, there’s a lot of science supporting that.

In their article, the two men refer to (and discard) Mandy Len Catron’s contract, which she wrote about in a Modern Love essay and in her book, How to Fall in Love with Anyone, which is based on the contract in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, as well as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s contract.

Here’s what they have to say:

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’

Except … a relationship contract isn’t a vehicle to “keep track” of anything or a way to “expect something equally nice in return” if you do something nice for your partner or doing anything in order to “win.” It is, as I state above, about clear communication and agreements — and science indeed backs that up.

They continue:

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.

Yes, chores are a huge source of strife for couples, as is child care. However, not everyone can afford a cleaning service (which is typically done by women, especially women of color, which then becomes a social justice issue) and … then what? Are those couples doomed to conflict? Nah.

A relationship contract is a healthy way that a couple can express their compromises — here’s what I’ll do, here’s what we agreed you’d do, here’s what we’ll do — which then gets revisited as life changes, as it inevitably does. A relationship contract is not a mandate, something the Gottman Institute seemingly misunderstands.

What is your marriage for?

Here’s the thing: since no one needs to marry anymore — not for sex or having kids or to live together or for financial security — then what is marriage for? Why do we want it? What do we hope to have happen in it? How can we create a partnership that values each person’s contributions and is transparent about each person’s needs and goals?

The way to figure that out is to have open, honest conversations about all that and more, and create a mutually agreed upon plan of action that you revisit from time to time — no mandate involved.

Let’s be real: marriage already is a contract, a legal one, often packed with many gendered expectations. Many people get prenups to deal with their finances; why not a prenup for your day-to-day living? (Actually, in The New I Do, we refer to relationship contracts as a prenup or a marital plan.)

Women want better partners

Relationship contracts aren’t necessarily about having an egalitarian marriage; any partnership — even more traditional breadwinner/homemaker arrangements — can come to agreements about potential sticky areas. While women have typically not gotten the best deal in marriage, which is why they are the drivers of divorce across the globe, some women may not actually want a more equitable union. Still, women today are demanding (rightfully so) better partners. The beauty of a relationship contract is that each couple gets to decide what’s in it based on their values and goals, no one else’s.

Young people hunger for ways to have better relationships. What worked in the past is probably not going to be as productive nowadays, when most couples are older when they wed, and already have full, rich lives and experiences that they bring into a marriage.

You bet a relationship contract benefits a marriage. After all, you don’t want to just create a life with your partner; you want to create a specific kind of life. Your kind of life. And that’s not a myth.

Want to know how to create a marital contract that fits your goals and values? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

Originally published at

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

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Vicki Larson

Vicki Larson

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

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