To Stay in Love, You Need a Contract
Mandy Len Catron’s Modern Love essay on how using a contract helped her cohabit happily upset some readers. Here’s what they don’t understand
As a writer, nothing is more satisfying and affirming than when your writing positively impacts another person. Of course, the entire reason for writing The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels was to impact people — to make them think consciously about their romantic decisions. Which is why Mandy Len Catron’s Modern Love essay last week was so gratifying — the University of British Columbia professor and author of the just-released book How to Fall in Love With Anyone, used our renewable marriage contract when moving in with her romantic partner.
As you can imagine, it got a lot of comments. Many were negative — but I would expect that. Trying something new and different is scary. Nevertheless, that’s what I wanted to address.
The contract reminded some commentors of the Roommate Agreement that Sheldon Cooper, of the popular TV show Big Bang Theory, created with Leonard Hofstadter that detailed their rights and responsibilities as friends and roommates, and that Sheldon attempted to create with his girlfriend, Amy. I never saw the show, but since that episode aired in 2015 and The New I Do was published in 2014, perhaps the show’s writers were inspired by our book as well. No way to know. In any event, the idea of a marriage contract dates back to at least the 1850s and they were always insisted on by the wives (and any woman who has ever lived with a man probably understands why).
It can’t shield you
Will your contract include what will happen when one of you loses a job, or has to deal with taking care of a sick parent, or gets cancer and faces insurmountable bills? Don’t get me wrong, communicating your expectations is a wonderful thing in a marriage, but you suppose everything you will deal with will be a routine matter, which can be solved by rational discussion. My marriage was tested when our first child died. There is no contract that can shield you from having to weather what life throws at you.
Alexandra is right — there indeed is no contract that can shield anyone from having to deal with whatever life throws your way. But that isn’t what the contract is for. It’s not a shield; it’s a baseline. So I answered her this way (which is similar to the way we address dealing with the unexpected in the book):
As the co-author of The New I Do, I understand exactly what you are saying, Alexandra — nothing prepares you for what life throws at you, and we mention that in the book. Much of life is unexpected. That said, having a baseline makes it that much easier to deal with the unexpected because you already explored it and perhaps agreed on a certain path, etc. When a crisis hits, no one even knows where to begin — it’s overwhelming. But a couple can certainly entertain the worst — what would we do if one of us becomes sick/disabled (open up our marriage, allow affairs, etc.? Would we have another baby if something happened to our child? What would we do if one of us lost his/her job and couldn’t find work? Exploring hard topics together is a great way to know your partner, and yourself, better.
Even if a couple discusses such things and puts it in writing, it still won’t guarantee anything. The contract isn’t a guarantee. But, because the contract needs to change as your life situation changes, it would, at the very least, force you to discuss the hard stuff. There’s no down side to that.
Sticking to the contract
Which leads me to Carmine. She writes:
Friends of mine had a marriage like this, everything spelled out and equally shared (especially finances.) Then they had children. After a few years, for various reasons, she realized that she needed to stay home with the children for a while. He insisted on sticking to the contract (especially about finances.) The divorce was very messy. Life is not always as rational as you would like it to be.
As I mentioned above, the contract must be tweaked as life situations change. The biggest life change in many couple’s lives is becoming parents. There’s so much to be discussed before you actually even start to get pregnant that there’s an entire chapter on it and a huge section in the prenup — I prefer to call it marital planning — chapter in the book. Carmine’s friends may have been able to avoid divorce, especially a messy one, if their contract detailed who was going to care for the kids. Believe me, that matters!
It’s not romantic
Jack’s comment names perhaps the biggest obstacle to creating a relationship contract: Romance. He writes:
I don’t think I could do what Mandy and Mark do, probably because I view it as unromantic and, frankly, it sounds a lot like Sheldon’s roommate agreement on The Big Bang Theory. But I developed a simple test for myself when I met a woman I really cared about. What drove me was the desire to be the best version of me I could be, to make her as happy in the relationship as I could. So I constantly ask myself one simple question: “Is this the best I can be?” Sometimes I simply have to admit that it’s not and change what I am doing or how I am doing it. So far it seems to be working. Or she is just a saint, sent down to save me.
Oh, Jack! I love romance, too! I’m really romantic, but to tweak a Tina Turner song, what’s romance got to do with it? I like that Jack is inspired to be the best person he can be for his partner; I believe that’s one of the best parts of having a happy, healthy relationship — being the best you you can be, not because you have to but because you choose to be. But that has nothing to do with romance. I want to be the best person I can be for my children and my friends, too. Because I care about them and love them. Romance, if we want to define it by the dictionary, is “a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love.” I love excitement and mystery, but when it comes to committing myself to someone else, I will choose clarity, mutual consent and transparency to the day-to-day details that often destroy a relationship and leave the mystery to the parts that keep you attracted to him or her.
A woke relationship
That said, many readers got it. They understand how the good communication we always hear a relationship should have often gets misunderstood or ignored, and that just leads to frustration, disappointment and anger.
Zarvora wrote, “If I had read this when in my twenties, I would have dismissed it. At the age of 57, it sounds like genius.”
FirstTimeCommentor wrote: “A list is a clear way for both partners to know what’s most important for the other. Maybe it’s not romantic. Falling in love is romantic. Staying in love takes effort and communication is key.”
The Lorax wrote: “I find this incredibly romantic because it is way more dedicated to living with conscious commitment to each other every day than any artificial construct created by the wedding industrial complex.”
And Tom wrote: “I think their approach is brilliant. I too have been married 30 years and know from experience that mismatched/misunderstood expectations are the source of many conflicts. Often neither party knows what their own expectations are. Having a format and writing it down forces each person to think about what they really want, need and hope for longer term, beyond the heat of first love.”
Yes! To the readers who get it, thank you. To the readers who question the idea of a contract, well, it should be questioned. Everything related to love, romantic relationships and marriage needs to be questioned because, as the Lorax writes, questioning means you’re being conscious about what you’re doing. And that’s exactly what we ultimately want — to live and make decisions consciously. I don’t know any other way to do that other than questioning what you believe, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and exploring whether you’re doing it because you think you should instead of consciously choosing to do it.
What about you?
Want to learn how to create a relationship contract? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.