Love is exciting and fulfilling—at least, until the dishes and laundry start piling up. Before you know it, the honeymoon is over on your new relationship and you’re arguing with your partner over chores, finances, and general responsibilities like everyone else. Enter, the relationship contract. It might sound a little stuffy, but according to sociologist and sex therapist Sarah Melancon, all couples have some variation on one.
What is a relationship contract?
“The ‘what are we’ or ‘DTR’ (determine the relationship) conversation is a casual version of a relationship contract,” Melancon says. “Similarly, many couples discuss basic issues, such as religious preferences or desires to have a family, which typically lead to agreements about how such issues will be addressed.”
However, Melancon says, a relationship contract, which is a written or verbal set of agreements and boundaries around how the relationship is to function, can be even more purposeful and make sure all of the bases are covered.
“Creating a relationship contract is essentially an exercise in honest communication and teamwork, both of which are necessary for any longterm relationship to thrive,” Melancon says. “This may include practical issues, such as who handles what housework or childcare, how finances are managed, the type of house you want to buy, where you’d like to live, preferences for cell phone use, or how often you have a date night.”
But your relationship contract can also address more emotional concerns, such as expectations for emotional or social support, commitment to personal and relationship growth, addressing conflict, and how you prefer to have challenging conversations. It might even address monogamy and what both parties are interested in exploring outside of the relationship.
“The primary benefit of a relationship contract is that both partners are on the same page,” Melancon says. “This provides assurance you’re both in the same relationship, and that no one is being misled or left behind.”
What are the drawbacks of a relationship contract?
“Many of us carry the fantasy that we’ll fall in love with the perfect partner and everything will work out magically,” Melancon says, “so having to actually talk about your relationship’s boundaries can feel unromantic or artificial.”
Relationship contracts may also unintentionally pressure certain behaviors because the “contract says,” rather than out of a sense of love, support, or commitment.
“When one or both find it a struggle to be themselves, the contract will reflect that discomfort,” Melancon cautions. “However, since contracts are flexible and meant to be updated, the contract can grow as the couple does.”
When should partners consider creating a relationship contract?
According to Melancon a relationship contract is helpful to (re)negotiate at any major turning points in your relationship, such as commitment, moving in together, becoming engaged, getting married, or when a new child is born. Other significant life changes, such as starting a new career, making a major move, or becoming a caretaker for an aging parent may also warrant changes to your contract.
Melancon says reviewing your contract annually can be a good idea, to ensure you’re both still comfortable with the terms, “because people’s needs change throughout life, your relationship contract should be re-negotiated as you both grow and change.”
Areas to consider in your relationship contract
If you’re looking for some inspiration on what to include in your relationship contact, Melancon says to consider the following areas of your relationship.
Sex and intimacy
“Sex and intimacy are important, so [they] would rightly belong in a relationship contract. However, it is not a good idea to “require” a specific frequency or acts from your partner. This can put undue pressure and lead a partner to have sex out of obligation, rather than desire.”
Instead make a statement such as, “We value sex and intimacy, and agree to prioritize intimate connection. We similarly agree to actively work through any issues that arise in this area.”
“Whether you are monogamous, swingers, polyamorous, or any other form of ‘open’ relationship, the degree of exclusivity needs to be agreed upon,” Melancon says. “If you are monogamous, what do you consider to be the boundaries of monogamy? Some couples may consider their views on pornography, masturbation, or other solitary sexual activities, especially given these can be highly sensitive areas. Also, if you or your partner are having sex outside of the relationship, what are your boundaries around safer sex?
“Who pays for what? What are your plans for saving or investing? Is money earned yours individually, or is it community property? Are accounts separate or shared?
Household tasks, childcare, and/or pet care
“Consider the most important household tasks for each of you, and why they matter,” Melancon says. “Agree on who handles each task, and how often they should be completed based on your preferences. Childcare is a common area of contention for couples with kids. Make sure each partner has adequate time for themselves, their work, and self-care.”
Pet care may not sound like a big deal, but Melancon says it’s a good idea to discuss who would hypothetically to take the dog to the emergency vet on a Wednesday afternoon, not to mention who is responsible for walks, litter boxes, or feedings.
How to handle negotiations
Because it’s a contract, it’s natural that you’ll enter negotiations with your partner. When approaching sticking points, Melancon says it’s key to remember that you’re on the same team. “This isn’t about being right or winning, but coming to an agreement that works for you both. Aim to understand first and foremost. This will help your partner feel seen, heard, and valued, as well as provide practical information to help you better come up with a solution that works for everyone.”
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