For all the emphasis we place on romantic relationships, they seem to involve a lot of guesswork.
Look at the language we use to describe love: Instead of choosing to love someone, you fall for them. When you’re attracted to someone, you say you’re into them, or you’re feeling it. Spontaneity is key too — one partner is expected to initiate sex and marriage proposals when the feeling is right. They’re not things partners sit down together and plan.
Relying on intuition and surprises can be romantic, but that also creates ripe terrain for miscommunication in a relationship. In a recent New York Times “Modern Love” column, writer Mandy Len Catron wrote that she and her partner have found a better way.
It involves something she calls a relationship contract.
For the last two years, Len Catron and her boyfriend have signed and dated a four-page, single-spaced document titled “Mark and Mandy’s Relationship Contract.” Inside are stipulations on everything from how long house guests can stay to who’s responsible for paying a certain bill.
“Our contract addresses much of what must be negotiated in any relationship,” Len Catron wrote.
While it might not sound as fun whimsical as most conventional approaches to relationships, being more active and collaborative could have a range of positive results for some couples.
Studies suggest that couples who make big choices as a team, for example, are happier individually, feel closer to one another, and stay together longer. A report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia looked at more than a thousand adults, and found that couples who took time to talk through big decisions together were more happy later on. In contrast, couples who slid through relationship milestones were more likely to feel dissatisfied and break up.
“Deciding rather than sliding revolves around commitment — not just to each other, but to the decision itself,” Galena K. Rhoades, a University of Denver psychology professor and licensed marriage counselor who co-authored the report, wrote in an article for The Atlantic.
Two years ago, Len Catron wrote an article titled “36 questions to make you fall in love with anyone.” That article was based on a 1997 study by Arthur Aron, a psychologist at the State University of New York. Aron split pairs of people into two groups, and gave one group increasingly probing questions to ask and answer in order to see if they’d feel more intimate at the end of the session. (They did.)
Initially, a lot of attention Aron’s work received focused on whether his question method could be used to make people fall in love. But several of his questions are pretty similar to what couples getting ready to make big decisions together might do.
One question on Aron’s list, for example, asks couples to “Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it.” His findings could therefore also be seen as support for the idea that an active approach to relationships can make both partners more satisfied in the long term.
Ultimately, it all comes back to seeing love as a choice or action and taking responsibility for building and maintaining a relationship. That’s precisely where Len Catron says her marriage contract comes in.
“Writing a relationship contract may sound calculating or unromantic, but every relationship is contractual; we’re just making the terms more explicit,” she wrote. “It reminds us that love isn’t something that happens to us — it’s something we’re making together.”