Why My Partner and I Signed a Love Contract
Patricia Chan shocked the nation several years ago when a few fringe media outlets picked up on her requirements of Mark Zuckerberg, her now hubby, to sign-off on a pre-marital agreement with clearly defined guidelines of what “quality time” meant to her—100 shared minutes per week to be spent outside of Mark’s apartment and Facebook’s headquarters, in addition to one date night per week. Relationship agreements exploded into mainstream consciousness when Sheldon of “The Big Bang Theory” shared his comically absurd 31-page relationship terms with Amy, his newly minted girlfriend, and anyone who had access to basic cable. Amy’s reaction? “It’s so romantic,” to which Sheldon casually replied, “Mutual indemnification always is.”
For a long time, I scoffed at the idea of having a relationship agreement. Being a closet-case hopeless romantic who grew up in the age of Disney’s fairytale love stories and someone who tends towards following my heart rather than mind, a relationship agreement was the antithesis of romance. In true love, I felt and thought, soulmates—two people who are meant to be together, who experience a connection so powerful, it’s almost divine—would be so in sync in their feelings, thoughts and understanding of each other that words would hardly need to be spoken. There certainly wouldn’t be a need for a written agreement—the least romantic gesture of them all! To distill love into a business-like transaction and a set of do’s and don’t’s? No way. Soulmates just get each other.
But as I went through one failed relationship after another, fell in and out of lust and love with men whom at one point or another I ascertained were my soulmates, as I felt the gradual fade of fiery passion in the early days of a relationship transition into a sort of complacent companionship a few years in, where I would find myself disproportionately upset about socks left on the floor and remnants of beard shavings around the sink, I began to question and doubt my naive conception of true, romantic love. I began to wonder if true love existed, and if I would ever find it. In each of those relationships, I’d checked out and cheated the moment the relationship began to plateau, the moment my brain’s dopamine levels stabilized and returned to normalcy, the moment the relationship grew “boring.” While I believed in the truth and power of unconditional love, I began to wonder, could there be more to staying in love and a lasting intimacy than just, love?
Around this time, I met Jeff (my now boyfriend of five years). Jeff is tall, light and handsome. He looks like a thinner Thor (especially since he started growing his hair out). Jeff was (and still is) “perfect” on paper and in real life—ambitious, successful, great sense of humor, kind, patient, humble. When we met, I didn’t think of him as a soulmate, I still don’t; perhaps because I’m no longer sure I believe in the idea of soulmates in the traditional sense, but I digress. Perhaps it is because I met Jeff, who operates on a much more pragmatic, rational, systematic, data-and-mind driven frequency than myself, or perhaps it’s because of living in San Francisco, where people, ideas and trends tend towards practicality and optimization, that the idea of a relationship agreement slowly found its way once more into the forefront of my mind and began to percolate there.
I sat with it for a long time, going back and forth on whether or not a relationship agreement was necessary, whether Jeff and I needed it, especially as we began to date more seriously. We communicated well from the get-go, even on difficult, sensitive and deeply intimate topics, and never blew up on each other or went to sleep angry. It wasn’t until a year ago, after having lived together for about two years, that we finally bit the bullet and moved forward with a relationship agreement. It wasn’t because things had started to go South in our relationship, on the contrary, things were going great. I think relationship agreements are more effective when birthed at a time when things are stable and going well in your relationship. After all, a relationship agreement isn’t a band-aid solution for problems; instead, it shines a light on things that may go awry in the future.
Jeff and I didn’t need a relationship agreement, but it was a nice-to-have. Outside of my own baseless, preconceived judgement of it being unromantic, I couldn’t find any downsides to the exercise of drafting one. I’d reflected on my past relationships, how my previous partner(s) and I had taken each other for granted and “let ourselves go,” expecting the other to stay in love with us no matter what we looked like, said or did. I thought about how over time, I’d slowly come to resent one of my ex-partners for not recognizing or appreciating the “emotional labor” I was carrying and providing the relationship (without realizing it at the time, and this was no fault of his). How each of my significant other(s) had grown to become more like a roommate, a brother, a best friend, rather than someone I’d lusted after or desired in a sexual way.
I care about my relationship with Jeff, a lot. For a long time, I sought out an impassioned, novel, and manic kind of love. But in more recent years, I’ve come to see how unsustainable and exhausting this kind of love is, and have since come around to value and seek the kind of beauty and freedom that can only manifest in long-term commitments, with the kind of “boring” love Kris Gage writes about so eloquently here. I’ve come to value, above all else, having one person with whom to live, share and explore my life’s story. Recognizing my failures from previous relationships, while acknowledging some things are unavoidable and outside of our realm of control, I knew I wanted to control for what I could to give this relationship a best chance at surviving and thriving. There are a lot of things we can control for—our reactions, whether or not we bicker, blame or badger. Some friction is unavoidable when two people commit to one another long-term, even more so when they make the decision to live together or marry, but if there is a way to draw awareness to and humble certain contentious behaviors, beliefs, topics and habits before they manifest as such, why wouldn’t I?
I didn’t (and don’t) want my relationship with Jeff to ever get to a point where we bicker at each other about trivial matters or resent the other person for doing or not doing something. Whatever the silly, small things couples bicker, blame and badger each other about, could there be a way to eliminate, or at the very least, lessen it? There might not be a way to get ahead of it, but is there a way to call each other out when it happens so we don’t take offense and react with defensiveness? How do we incorporate Kim Scott’s practice of radical candor in the workplace into our romantic relationships? How do we hold ourselves accountable for our own self-care, out of respect for ourselves and our significant others?
Relationship agreements (along with a consistent mindfulness meditation practice—this is important!) serve as a way to do all of the things I mentioned above and more. Many of us, upon entering into a relationship, have conversations around our individual values, boundaries, future plans and ambitions, perhaps even habits and quirks as they come up. Writing these out together is simply a more explicit version of these conversations. What makes a relationship agreement such a valuable tool in the relationship toolbox is the act and process of constructing one, coming together to discuss it and having regular check ins.
THE RELATIONSHIP AGREEMENT PROCESS
There are many ways to go about a relationship agreement, and a wide range of agreements out there ranging from highly abstract bullet-points like “we’ll love each other unconditionally” to painstakingly specific ones, such as who feeds the fish, how much and when. I knew I wanted ours to be somewhere in the middle—specific enough so we could hold ourselves accountable, but not so precise it’d be impossible to follow. The process I think works best (at least for me and Jeff) contains three main steps:
Individually reflect on and write out all that is important to you, including things you foresee becoming an annoyance down the road, on your own, without deliberating with your partner. Start high-level, with big bucket categories, which may or may not include household chores and day-to-day responsibilities, lifestyle, intimacy, self-care, quality and down time, vacation and travel, finance, communication, etc.. Once you have a few of those written down, begin to fill in each with more detail. If stray socks and beard shavings have bothered you in the past, write that down. If you’re the only one who ever does the dishes and you hate the dishes, write that down. If maintaining an active sex life is top of mind, write that down. Conversations around money and finances often turn contentious, so write down any questions and/or concerns you want more clarity around. If your partner shuts down or walks away whenever you’re sad or upset, which in turn makes you more upset, write it out.
This is an exercise of self-awareness, and precursory to drafting the relationship agreement with your partner. In some ways, this exercise is the crux of the entire process. There’s no need to get directive or specific here yet, that will come when you and your partner sit down together to share and discuss what you’ve each written. But please do choose your words wisely—this is not an opportunity to dump on, attack or blame your partner for never doing the dishes or putting their socks away. This is an opportunity to say, “I feel unloved and lonely when you shut down or walk away when I’m sad or upset, what are some ways we can navigate this moving forward?” Steer clear of adverbs such as “always” and “never.”
Once you’ve each had a chance to do step one on your own, come together and share what you’ve written with each other. If you’ve gotten this far, it means you care enough about each other and your relationship to hear each other out—so do just that. Let your partner have the stage. Practice those active listening skills. Try not to get caught up with every little thing he or she says, and resolve to adopt a future-and-solution oriented mindset. Listen, discuss, consider possible compromises and solutions, and meet half-way if and when you can. On some items, you may have to meet them more than half-way, and on other items, the reverse will be true. Go into this with selflessness and generosity, rather than an expectation of it being a one-for-one, tick-for-tack, “if you do this, I’ll do that” kind of exchange. Take notes. Once you’ve each exchanged piece of mind for peace of mind, you should have some semblance of a relationship agreement draft ready. Type it out, edit and refine as needed, print and sign.
Schedule time to check in with each other. Let your relationship agreement change and adapt with you and your relationship. Relationship agreements often have a bad rap because of how people leverage them and the expectations that often come with having one. If you use your significant other’s signature as collateral for him or her being human and fucking up every now and then, if you use the agreement as sanctimonious evidence to blame and guilt-trip your partner for forgetting to do the dishes, then you’ve missed the point of having a relationship agreement. A relationship agreement isn’t meant to be worn as a police badge for enforcing behaviors or penalizing the other person, it’s meant to be a set of intentions to guide behaviors. But we need to leave room for error—none of us are perfect and each one of us will fuck up, with or without an agreement. Think of a relationship agreement as an opportunity to hold yourself accountable, rather than your partner. Think of it as an opportunity for your own transformation, growth and expansion, and for someone you love and trust to help hold you accountable. If we approach relationship agreements in this way, I think our relationships (with ourselves and our partners) will be much better off.
One of the most important characteristics of a relationship agreement is its fluidity and ability to evolve with you and your relationship. It is not a legally binding, rigid, fixed contract between two parties. Schedule monthly, quarterly, biannual or annual check ins with your partner to see whether certain clauses in your agreement are still necessary, whether they’re serving or hurting your relationship, whether the wording or frequency needs to be changed. Self-evaluate, rather than evaluate each other. Use this as an opportunity to practice radical candor by giving your partner constructive feedback during his or her self-evaluation. The goal is to support rather than condemn. Make these check-ins fun and a part of something bigger—take a long weekend and travel somewhere new together, or treat yourselves to a staycation.
Let your relationship agreement change and grow or wither. There may come a day when it no longer serves your relationship, and that’s okay. But while you have it, use it as a starting point for conversations. So often, we stumble into deep, breakthrough conversations with our significant other and let those conversations slip into things of the past, falling back into old behavior patterns a couple of days later. These “openings” are optimal opportunities for transformation. These are the moments we want to double down on and incorporate into a relationship agreement so we can hold ourselves accountable.
Relationship agreements aren’t for everyone, and they certainly aren’t necessary in a relationship. But having something written out helps me put more conscious and intentional effort into maintaining my relationship and staying in love. Love might happen to us, but if we want it to last, we need to be much more proactive.
I know many couples who describe their first meeting as “love at first sight” or consider themselves soulmates—their connection with each other is so strong it transcends time and space, overwhelming and obliterating all senses. Because of this, many of them expect(ed) their relationship to be easy, including moving in together. Because they’re meant to be together, everything will just flow. At some point in human history, this might have been the case—when women had no rights and accepted their fate as householders, when “til death do us part” wasn’t just a nod to tradition but an actual law, when men were the sole financial providers. There wasn’t much to compromise on then. We had fewer things, fewer rights, fewer choices, less freedom, more religion, more dogma, more boundaries. These days, it’s hard and confusing to navigate our complex, modern landscape—with its insatiable appetite for optimization, optionality and blurred lines—as a couple, soulmates or not. A lasting relationship, now more than ever before, takes conscious, intentional effort. It’s no longer a default, a given.
Over the years, I’ve come to view relationship agreements as a grand romantic gesture (not unlike how some people view marriage proposals). It means I care about you and our relationship enough to bother taking the time to talk about it and write it out. It means I don’t take you for granted; I acknowledge you are your own separate being, with your own set of values, needs, desires, dreams, and habits, and these deserve to be heard and recognized. It means I respect you and our relationship enough to preserve my own health and hygiene as best I can to when I first “won” you over.
People have long praised journaling for its benefits—it being a wonderful way to track mental and emotional change and expansion throughout our lives. What journaling is to an individual, I think relationship agreements are to a relationship. As my relationship agreements shift and adapt, each iteration helps me see from where we came and in which direction we’re headed. It allows me to check in with myself and my partner every few months to see whether the things that were important once to me, him, us, a few months ago still are, and what new things have popped up since. Instead of waking up one day to find a “stranger” laying next to me, wondering how this person, my partner, someone I once knew so well, could have transformed into someone I hardly know or recognize, the process of developing and keeping a relationship agreement allows my partner and I to change, grow and expand together, to be a part of each other’s change, to recognize and acknowledge the changes as they occur, while we continue on this journey called life together.
OUR RELATIONSHIP AGREEMENT
If you’d like to check out a sample relationship agreement for inspiration, please fill out the form below for access to ours. (Disclaimer: there are some intimate bullet-points in there, the details of which I’ve retracted out of respect for my partner, but you’ll get the gist.)