The Relationship Contract: How Being Systematic and Intentional can Benefit Your Relationship

Mandy Len Catron (who wrote one of the most-shared articles in The New York Times’ Modern Love section, To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This) is back with another must-read: To Stay in Love, Sign on the Dotted Line. I love it.

Before I slather on the praise I want to make one observation: A lot of people like to say that love should be effortless and shouldn’t take work. Yeah, those people are probably single. Love, in all its manifestations, takes effort and work. And, the closer you are and the more you depend on each other the more effort you put in. Sometimes you don’t want to rub your mom’s feet, but do it anyway because she’s had a much harder day at work than you. Sometimes you don’t want to put money into your kid’s college fund because you could use it this month for something more urgent. Sometimes you don’t want to visit your in-laws, but you do it because it matters to your partner.

The relationship between two romantic partners is as good as the effort either person puts in. I like to say, “You gotta put it in to get it out.” If you don’t invest in your relationship you can’t expect to have an amazing relationship. I think all things being equal, each person has to put in the same-ish amount of effort because a one-way relationship is no relationship at all.

Anyway, back to Ms. Catron. She melted our hearts when she told us how she and her boyfriend fell in love. In case you’ve not read it, they asked themselves these 36 questions and stared into each other’s eyes for four minutes. This was a very novel idea because most people don’t take a systematic approach to get to know a potential mate. And it was then that we realized: There are many benefits to being systematic.

Now, fast forward a few years and she’s written another piece that is different because she and her BF are in love and living together but similar because they’re still taking a systematic approach.

So here’s the deal: They have a relationship contract. It’s “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.”

Does that sound lame? Rigid? Perhaps old-fashioned?

I think it’s quite modern. In the past, heterosexual relationships were pretty binary. If you were a woman you knew what was your remit and the same for the man. Now, everything is more fluid and if you have to figure out who does the dishes every night or who puts out the recycling every week, the relationship is going to sag from the weight of all those discussions of the responsibilities that come with the territory. (Shahin and I talked about this in a recent episode of our podcast, Love & the Modern Man.)

So why not do what Ms. Catron and her boyfriend do: Hash things out once a year?

She says being “intentional about love” has suited them well. I think being intentional will suit everyone well. Life isn’t just a random set of fleeting moments. It has its serendipitous moments, yes, but a lot of planning goes into it. You don’t throw your money into any old investment. You do your research, invest with someone you trust, and periodically check in on how the investment is growing. You don’t say yes to whatever job comes your way. You think about your career trajectory and then look for a job that moves you toward your goals. If you want to grow a garden you don’t throw seeds onto the grass in a haphazard fashion and hope for the best. You plan your garden to maximize the natural elements and you tend to it regularly so it grows the way you want it to. So why wouldn’t you take the time and effort to understand the dynamics of your relationship and have a sit-down with your Significant Other to figure out what’s the best way to make your relationship the best?

If you don’t want to take it from me or Ms. Catron, why not take it from Adam Grant? He’s a professor at Wharton Business School, author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (amazing book, BTW), and he co-wrote a book with Shery Sandberg (COO of Facebook) called Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, which is about resilience in the face of tragedy. He’s also a husband and dad, and co-wrote (with his wife, Allison Sweet Grant) an article called Is Swapping Date Night for Meeting Night the Secret to a Happy Marriage?

As you probably realize from the title, he and his wife now have a weekly Meeting Night where they go over the details that may have slipped through the cracks. They write, “Taking the time to schedule a regular, quiet, uninterrupted discussion to figure out who was doing what helped ease anxiety about household tasks and eliminated loose ends.”

They go on:

These meetings are not just about getting stuff done. Relationships are constantly falling out of balance— you get overwhelmed because your partner isn’t pitching in enough. But he (or she) doesn’t realize it. When psychologists put couples in separate rooms and ask them to estimate how much they each contribute to their relationship, three out of four couples add up to more than 100 percent. It sounds like ego, but it’s really about information. You just know more about your own efforts than your partner’s. You were there when you took out the garbage, went grocery shopping, and helped your kids with their homework. Your partner was none the wiser. The cycle of resentment builds.

Did you read the entire quote? I hope so, but if you didn’t please look at the last sentence: The cycle of resentment builds. This is why the marriage/relationship contract is so brilliant. It stymies the cycle from even starting.

Hopefully, Ms. Catron will update her article with a relationship contract template. If not, I’d be happy to draft something up for you.

xo MD

This article originally appeared on and is republished here with permission from the author.

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