The Horrifying Rise of the 'Relationship Contract'

There's a new trend in relationship management, and it's called the "relationship contract." How fun does that sound?

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There's a new trend in relationship management, and it's called the "relationship contract." How fun does that sound? As proof that this is a verifiable trend, it appeared as a plot device in the CBS show The Big Bang Theory, in which one nerdy character "ramped up his courtship," per The New York Times, with another nerdy character by way of a relationship agreement in which the rights and responsibilities of boyfriend and girlfriend were listed and agreed upon. That, essentially, is a relationship contract. Everyone (or, like, maybe six or eight or ten people) is doing it!

In the Times piece, Jan Hoffman writes, "Such agreements are hardly common. But many couples do make contracts, written or oral, delineating the idiosyncratic needs of their relationship: how much time they need to spend together and apart; who cooks and who cleans; who feeds the fish." (If the thought of someone putting your required fish-feeding schedule in writing and asking you to sign it makes you want to remain safely single and free from such harrowing enterprises forever, you would not be alone.)

But, actually, this may be less terrifying a prospect than it sounds at first and more a semantical matter. Haven't people, after all, been forming "relationship contracts" (and thankfully not calling them that) for years, simply by having relationships and figuring out what works for them and how to make them continue to work—and talking about it? It's the official signing of a piece of paper, the commoditization of something called a "relationship contract," that turns what is simply "A RELATIONSHIP" into something icky and nerdtastic (and not particularly romantic, for that matter). There's nothing wrong with discussing your expectations of a relationship and how you'll generally divide up duties and such before you, say, move in together. That's actually wise. But does the relationship contract itself actually serve to help in this cause, or is it more of...well, something handy as a New York Times trend piece, in which a writer can allude to such things as the long-told anecdote involving the now-married Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan—the one in which Chan required Zuckerberg to put in writing his commitment to spend one date night and 100 minutes together a week, "not in his apartment or at the Facebook office"? Oh, Chan. Oh, Zuckerberg.

But what's great about Chan and Zuckerberg is that they are not us, and what's right for one couple, as we well know, is not right for everyone. So how do you know if you need to put things down in writing, in your very own relationship-killing relationship contract? The Times has this to offer:

Ken Altshuler, a lawyer from Portland, Me., who is president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said that in one cohabitation agreement he drafted, a partner prone to seasickness allowed his partner to take one cruise-ship vacation a year, alone. In return, the seasick-prone partner could not “berate or complain” about cruises, including such digs as blasting the theme from “The Love Boat.”


An agreement might stipulate, for example, that if one partner sets aside graduate studies to work to support the other while finishing up school, then eventually they must reverse roles.

According to a Manhattan therapist, the rise of the relationship contract (and the fact that we're calling it that) is because women aren't just going to wait around and expect things; we want things in writing, on paper! There's no explanation of why having something in writing makes it more real than, say, something said in a conversation, or even better, expressed in action. Nor is there an explanation of why the relationship contract is attributed to women when at least two of our examples involve men pushing said contract.

According to The New York Times, the rise of the relationship contract is because of cool acronyms the kids are all using on the Internets these days (trends!): "Relationship agreements also have contemporary currency because they can be used to 'dtr,' texting shorthand for 'define the relationship,'" writes Hoffman. "And once a couple has worked out their latest terms to 'dtr,' they can post a status update on Facebook." Ah, there you go, now we're getting to it: That's the primary thing we want in our relationships, the ability to post status updates! 

But according to us, the rise of the relationship contract is, at best, a faux trend, and something that might help you in your particular relationship, if you're the type of person who likes to write things down and is dating someone like you. At worst, it's something someone's going to wave in front of you and point to when you do anything wrong. And where, exactly, do you store it? Future trend piece suggestion: How to display your relationship contract without appearing to live an over-propped life. We need that. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.