Judging from the media’s reaction to the news that Mark Zuckerberg and his now-wife Priscilla forged a written “relationship contract” in which they each spelled out what they wanted and were prepared to give, you’d think it was the worst thing to hit relationships since Facebook itself. Says Jen Doll at the Atlantic Wire: “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.” According to Doll, putting such needs and wants onto paper turns a relationship into something “nerdtastic and not particularly romantic,” as if the only things that people ever fight over are inconsequential issues like chores and takeout preferences.
In a perfect world, of course each and every couple would truthfully lay their neuroses and peccadilloes on the line from the beginning in a tough but enlightening conversation, and the partners would choose carefully whether they wanted to proceed. That’s in the perfect world; maybe Jen Doll lives there. In the real world, however, that’s not exactly how it goes. People make short-term compromises, long-term patterns get forged, resentments build, and eventually the couple is in a(nother) knock-down-drag-out fight, with one person yelling You’re such a workaholic! And the other yelling, You knew that before you married me!
Take it from a married person—this sort of thing is exactly what those open and honest discussions are supposed to prevent, and too many couples never have them. If making a makeshift “contract” or “agreement,” as silly or nerdtastic as it may feel, helps prevent those arguments, then believe me, it’s worth it. Because it’s a lot easier to hash these things out at the beginning, when the parties are only minimally invested, than it is to reconcile them once there’s been a marriage, a child, a home purchase, or a dog.
My parents tell a great story about their own courtship: Before they married, my father said to my mother, “I play golf every single weekend. I always have, and I always will. You can either accept that and not complain, or you can learn to play and come along. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
In their case, my mom learned the game, and now they play together every weekend and are quite happy. But what if they had never had that conversation? Maybe he would have tried to cut back on the golf, spending his Saturdays mowing the lawn and quietly resenting his wife. Maybe she would have assumed that he’d eventually cut back, and then been hurt when he didn’t. They might have ended up divorced in five years, after one too many arguments where one person shouts, I thought this would change once we got married! By putting his expectations on the line, my father enabled my mother to make the best, most informed decision.
When you think back to failed relationships from the past, how often do you think, I wish I’d gotten out sooner? Do you acknowledge that there were red flags from the start—conflicts of values or priorities that could never, ever be satisfactorily resolved—and that you should not have invested so much time? What if, instead of spending five years in a relationship that ultimately failed, you had sat down and written out your must-haves with your partner, discovered that you were fundamentally incompatible, and sadly gone your separate ways? Which outcome is preferable?
That’s what these relationship contracts are all about. Of course, relationships are built on compromise and discussion and flexibility. And of course, people change, along with their priorities and needs. But when it comes to closely held values that won’t change, whether it’s a need for five hours of alone time per week or a staunch refusal to take ski vacations—it’s only fair to lay them on the table. Reportedly, when Priscilla Chan was contemplating moving to Palo Alto to be near Mr. Zuckerberg, she demanded one date night and 100 hours of time together away from their apartment and his office every month. Standing up for what she expected from him doesn’t make her nerdy or unromantic—it makes her smart, realistic, and put her on equal footing in her relationship.
Sure, a mention on The Big Bang Theory and in a New York Times trend piece don’t always equal a full-blown cultural phenomenon, but written “relationship contracts” are far from the romance-destroying, spontaneity-crushing internet scourges that they’re made out to be. They help people develop relationships on their own terms; ones they can live with. They give couples a framework in which to have those difficult discussions. They set a benchmark for both partners to aspire to. And they’re an insurance policy, for those fights that invariably end in an exasperated, You knew what you were getting into with me. Because when there’s been a relationship contract, the answer is always, Yeah, you’re right. I did.