A few months ago my boyfriend and I poured ourselves two beers and opened our laptops. It was time to review the terms of our relationship contract.
Did we want to make changes? As Mark and I went through each category, we agreed to two minor swaps: my Tuesday dog walk for his Saturday one, and having me clean the kitchen counters and him take over the bathtub.
The latest version of “Mark and Mandy’s Relationship Contract,” a four-page, single-spaced document that we sign and date, will last for exactly 12 months, after which we have the option to revise and renew it, as we’ve done twice before. The contract spells out everything from sex to chores to finances to our expectations for the future. And I love it.
Writing a relationship contract may sound calculating or unromantic, but every relationship is contractual; we’re just making the terms more explicit. It reminds us that love isn’t something that happens to us — it’s something we’re making together. After all, this approach brought us together in the first place.
Two and a half years ago, I wrote a Modern Love column about how Mark and I had spent our first date trying a psychological experiment that used 36 questions to help two strangers fall in love. That experience helped us to think about love not as luck or fate, but as the practice of really bothering to know someone, and allowing that person to know you. Being intentional about love seems to suit us well.
In the past, expecting a relationship to work simply because the people involved loved each other had failed me. I spent my 20s with a man who knew exactly what he wanted and how he wanted to be. All I had wanted was for him to love me.
We were together for almost a decade, and in that time I somehow lost track of my own habits and preferences. If I wanted to split the grocery bill, he suggested I buy only things we both liked. If I wanted to spend weekends together, I could go skiing with him and his friends. And so I did. I made my life look like his.
It wasn’t until I moved out that I began to see that there hadn’t been room for me in my relationship. And not merely because my ex hadn’t offered it — it had never occurred to me to ask. I was in love, and love meant making compromises, right? But what if I had loved him too much?
Years earlier I had read Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” and thought I understood it, but I hadn’t. At 20, I gave myself over to love, and it wasn’t until the relationship ended, when I was 29, that I discovered what it meant to fully inhabit my days and the spaciousness of my own mind. It was such a joy to find that my time was mine, along with every decision from what to cook to when to go to bed.
I resolved that in my next relationship I would love more moderately, keeping more of me for myself.
When I met Mark, he fit into my life so easily it surprised me. My friends liked him. My dog, Roscoe, yelped with happiness at the sight of him. But when we started talking about living together, I was wary.
I worried that the minutiae of domesticity would change us into petty creatures who bickered over laundry. More than that, I worried I might lose myself again, to a man and a relationship, overtaken by those old ideas about how love conquers all.
Mark had his own reservations. “I don’t want to do it just because it’s what we’re supposed to do,” he said. “I only want to live together if it’ll make our lives better.”
We spent weeks anxiously enumerating the pros and cons of cohabitation.
Months earlier we had come across a book — “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels” — that recommends short-term marriage contracts. We liked the idea and realized we could take this approach to living together.
Many of us don’t notice the ways romantic love acts as an organizing force in our lives, but it is powerful. Some use the term “relationship escalator” to describe the way we tend to follow familiar scripts as we proceed in a relationship, from casual dating to cohabitation to marriage and family. These scripts that tell us what love should look like are so ubiquitous they sometimes seem invisible.
In my last relationship, I had spent a lot of time worrying about whether we were moving up the escalator. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted, but trying to figure that out through conversation seemed terrifying. Instead, I picked fights, about money or chores or how to spend the weekend. If I was angry, it was somehow easier to be honest.
With Mark, I wanted to do better.
Our contract addresses much of what must be negotiated in any relationship, especially when cohabitating. It begins with our reasons for being together: “We aspire to help each other be more ethically-minded and generous friends, community members and global citizens.” I know it sounds idealistic, but I’ve had relationships that left me feeling lonely and small. This time I wanted to be more intentional about looking outward as much as we look in.
The terms range from the familiar (“We will take care of each other when one of us is sick”) to the fanciful (“If we’re both sick, it’s all up to the dog”). In fact, Roscoe gets an entire section, detailing his walking schedules, vet visits and even how sweet we think he is.
We have a houseguest section (guests can stay for up to two weeks but must be mutually vetted) and an item that deals with Mark’s sweaty running clothes (“He agrees to hang these up in the spare room or on the back of the bathroom door but he wants Mandy to know that this may be a fairly common occurrence”).
We agree to split the bill when eating out with one exception: “Special meals (date night, celebrations, etc.) will not be split so one person can treat the other.”
It was important to me to eat breakfast together because this was something my family did growing up, so we put that in writing. It’s amazing how empowering this can feel: to name your desires or insecurities, however small, and make space for them. It’s such a simple thing, but it wasn’t easy. I wasn’t used to knowing what I wanted in a relationship, much less saying it aloud. Now, I have to do both.
We wanted to take nothing for granted, which has meant having the kinds of conversations I previously avoided. Under “Sex and Intimacy,” for example, we wrote that we agree to be monogamous because, right now, monogamy suits us. But we don’t assume it’s what we will always want.
Our contract isn’t infallible, or the solution to every problem. But it acknowledges that we each have desires that deserve to named and recognized.
As we concluded the recent renewal of our contract, Mark typed a new heading near the end: Marriage. “So what do you think?” he asked, sitting back as if he had just asked where I want to get takeout.
I stared into my beer. This wasn’t the first time we had talked about marriage, but now, with the contract open, it felt official. I squirmed, knowing that part of me wanted to say, “Let’s do it,” while another part wanted to reject the institution altogether and do love and commitment on our own terms.
“What would marriage offer us that we don’t already have?” I asked.
“Good question,” he said.
“It would be nice to hear our friends make funny and heartwarming speeches about us,” I told him. “But I don’t really want to plan a wedding, or pay for it.”
He agreed. And yet, we like this thing we have created.
I know that a lifetime commitment is supposed to involve a surprise proposal, a tearful acceptance and a Facebook slide show of happy selfies. But if it’s the rest of our lives, I want us to think it through, together.
Finally Mark typed: “We agree that marriage is an ongoing topic of conversation.”
It seemed a trivial thing to put in writing, but talking — instead of just waiting and wondering — has been a relief to us both.
As I type this, Mark is out for a run and the dog is snoring at a volume that is inordinately sweet, and I am at home in the spaciousness of my own mind. I have failed at my goal of loving more moderately, but for the first time in my life I feel as if there is room for me in my relationship, and space for us to decide exactly how we want to practice love.
It may look as though we’re riding the relationship escalator, but I prefer to think we’re taking the stairs.