What is Your Relationship Contract?

Written by Dianna Palimere, PhD, LCSW .

Living Well with Health Relationships

On any given day, we engage in a number of activities which require us to agree to the “Terms and Conditions.” We enter into contracts with apps, cell phone providers, utility companies, banks, credit card companies, landlords, doctors, pharmacies... We have warranties and insurance policies on the goods we buy; which stipulate the terms and conditions for the care or replacement of said items. Just about everything in an American life has some kind of contract or agreement.
Like most things, our relationships have contracts—

Though they tend to be covert or unspoken. Even with married couples, who recited specific vows at their wedding, many still have unspoken agreements in their relationship that weren’t included in their vows. I am aware that there are legal marriage contracts, drawn up by lawyers; however, those are not the types of contracts I’m talking about here. These are more about the day-to-day relationship agreements that a couple adheres to in the creation of building and living a happy and fulfilling life together.

 

In learning about relationship agreements in graduate school, one of my professors handed out “marriage contracts” and had us complete them individually. However, before we’d known what we were about to do, we were told to choose anyone in the class to pair up with for an exercise. Naturally, most people picked a close friend. I don’t remember exactly what was on them, but in general, it had things like the following:

Expectation of the type of relationship
(e.g., monogamous, polyamorous, open, etc.)
Geographic area where I’d like to live _____
Where I work and hours per week at work _______
Expectations of partner working inside or outside of the home _____
Who I expect will primarily handle paying the bills, finances, etc. _____
What kind of lifestyle we live (e.g., modest, lavish, frequency of vacations and travel, etc.) _____
How frequently do I expect my partner and I will interact with friends, both individually and as a couple _____
If children are desired, how many _____
What, if any, expectations are there about frequency of sexual intimacy _____
What a partner can do that makes me feel most loved and cared for in a relationship _____
What kinds of activities do I expect my partner to join me in doing ______
What hobbies do I expect to enjoy on my own ______
What type of self-care activities do I need throughout the week; what type of self-care activities do I expect from a partner throughout the week _____
What is my retirement plan, including location if applicable _______

After we had all completed the document, we were then instructed to get together with the person we’d chose, and negotiate a working “marriage contract,” based on the answers we’d given to those questions. In my case, I had picked a very close male friend, who happened to also be gay. After much compromise and discussion, we did come up with a Marriage Contract; however, it certainly did not look like many of the more “traditional” agreements from others around the room! Unfortunately, there was one issue that we just couldn’t seem to come to an agreement on...you guessed it—he wanted to retire to the mountains and I wanted to retire to the beach. We decided to have our fictitious retirement homes in both locations.
Like most things in life, I believe that the “terms and conditions” of these kinds of contracts are a bit fluid, and they can (and do) change over time. In general, I would suggest reviewing and revising your agreements every 6-12 months, depending on how long you’ve been together and various life events; which may impact the relationship. Regardless of decisions to revise, I think it’s wise to keep it in a location where will be seen from time to time, as it’s always good to have these reminders.
Writing a relationship agreement can be the catalyst for some much needed open and honest communication about personal and relational needs; including one’s sexual needs or desires. In the creation of a contract or agreement, I encourage couples to not just think about the “obvious” things—like sex, kids, religion, and money—but the less commonly discussed topics as well—like how to handle disagreements or arguments; emotional fulfillment, and meeting the other’s needs. Depending on your personal needs and values, some things may be much more important than others.
My question for any who are currently in a relationship and reading this now is, “What’s in your relationship contract?” What have you and your partner verbally or nonverbally agreed to? If you’re married, what were your vows? Do they accurately reflect the expectations you have of yourself and your partner in the marriage? If not, in what ways do they need additions or revisions?
Are there consequences for breaking an agreement in your contract? This is a great question for couples to think about. I encourage couples to view the contract as more of a set of intentions, guidelines, expectations; and yes, a few may be deal breakers. As with any deal breaker, there should still be a set of expectations of how the couple would handle that, together.
Finally, I would highly suggest making this activity a fun and creative one! Some couples choose to print out their agreement on nice paper, frame it, and hang it somewhere they’ll be reminded of it regularly. Be creative! There are many websites online with samples and templates, for additional inspiration! For more ideas, see my list of additional resources below.

Additional Resources:
Book:
Relationship Agreements: A Simple and Effective Guide for Strengthening Communication, Reducing Conflict, and Increasing Intimacy to Design Your Ideal Relationship. By Eri Kardos
Website:
https://www.jordangrayconsulting.com See Blog for “How to write a relationship contract”
Sample Agreements and Templates:
http://www.templateswift.com/relationship-contract-templates.html
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