Why write a contract with your significant other?

At the end of a scifi book (Heinlein.. which?) that I read years ago, one of the protagonists says to the other (they are in love), "Let's go sign a 5-year contract."
"Make it 10!" is the reply.

So I began thinking of generalisations to marriage. Why should marriage be such a black and white, sudden experience? What's wrong with committing to someone for only 10 years? Marriages don't always fit into the standard M/F roles and molds anymore. Couples have independent careers and may want to unite without having identical goals in life. Let them fabricate their own individual union -- a possibly more complex (or less!) agreement. Governments are steadily granting more relationships (domestic partnerships, etc) the benefits of marriage; I say "create your own terms."

In fact, marriage in our society is mostly about state recognition and benefits (especially financial). It's also partly religious. But as for personal commitment, marriage is just an instance of such an agreement. In particular, it is explicitly a lifelong commitment.

So why only consider the superlative commitment, when a more conceivable period is just as remarkable a declaration, but possibly more honest? If you want to live your whole life with someone, why not first spend 1 or 5 years with them, and then 5 more or 10 or 20 or forever?

It's tough to see more than a few years ahead, and most marriages fail, now that women have enough say to help call them off. For me, a contract with a significant other is fundamentally there to increase communication about the relationship and our goals.

Having a planned end date seems to me a profoundly innovative option for commitments. If at the end things are going well, it encourages reflection and renewal. If things are not, it encourages making the best of a partnership while you're together.

The concept is that a way to ensure both people want to renew the relationship or, earlier, to extend its horizon is to make sure to get the most out of (ie put the most into) it before it expires., i.e. having a horizon, or end date, will help to promote health and renewal.

Objections:

These "contracts" are irrelevant, just like marriage, to the loving commitment between two people.

So why is everyone marrying? Why are they signing "prenuptual agreements" of their own design? Maybe such agreements are irrelevant to love, but marriage is a practical arrangment, too. If you take the standard version of it without thinking critically about the implicit terms, you are agreeing about how to share money, provide for children, etc, etc. How can taking some time to think about and design these -- or, better yet, to add them to your romantic relationship gradually through successive increasingly close "agreements" -- be irrelevant?

Disgusting! That's so cold!! I don't need to sign any legal documents with the one I love! We just discuss these things!

You don't need to actually physically sign it if you prefer not to. Avoidance of the legal profession is one major reason for writing such "contracts" or agreements. One of the most important features of a personal contract for me is to have it accompanied by a list of each person's personal goals during the time you've agreed upon. I write a personal diary -- I don't just think the thoughts in my head. And this contract, with personal and joint goals attached, is part of a joint diary. Writing it down is good for thinking, for later reflection, and for progress assessment.

What about the hard times? A marriage commitment is there to take you through them.

Indeed; take this into account when you choose a duration for your agreement. During the "hard times" you might find that communication becomes a little scarce. I like to have regular assessments (go for a walk, discuss the goals we last wrote down in our "common diary") scheduled in the contract so that no matter what we take the time out for some constructive self-assesssment.

But it is also for this reason that I think the idea of having an end to the contract, rather than just a common diary, is key! The duration should be long enough that it is a real commitment, given how well you know each other, and that renewal is not a matter of course, but short enough that you can both work constructively to make the time the best it can be. This is the magic -- not all relationships work out perfectly. Unless it's terrible, you can focus on making the best of the time, and worry about assessing it overall at the end of the term. Hopefully instead it is wonderful and you are both working to make the relationship renewable at the end of the term. By choosing to agree on another, longer contract, your relationship will be all the stronger.

What about children? Marriage keeps parents together with their children.

Maybe sometimes that is good for the child, rather than painful. Certainly I think when people have children together, they should plan to be there for a full 18 years or so. So why not, when you get to that point, write a new 18-year childraising contract? This seems to me like a very different commitment than just sharing your own lives for some time.


Here's a simple vague example of (part of) a one-year agreement . It was accompanied by ideas of our goals for the year.



Christopher Barrington-Leigh, drafted July 1998

Last modified: Thu Nov 19 09:11:08 PST 1998