We humans

Creating a contract — yes, a contract! — could help you get what you want from your relationship

Feb 2, 2023 /

Real-life love isn’t what you see in fairy tales — as most of us know, even the right partner doesn’t mean a “happily ever after” is a given. You have to work to make a great relationship last and make sure your needs are met (and vice versa). In her TED Course, author Mandy Len Catron explains how to set intentions and communicate priorities in your love life, among other topics and tips. Sign up for “How to flip the script on love” today, and read below to learn about one unusual relationship tactic that she uses.  

When my partner Mark and I first considered moving in together — a year and a half into dating — we both felt a little apprehensive. We worried about the pressure that a shared domestic life could put on our relationship. We knew that being in love wasn’t, in and of itself, enough to make things work. 

To make the process more intentional, we decided to make a relationship contract.

The idea was that we’d consider all the important parts of our life together, including housework, money, sex, leisure, health, even the dog. And for each of these, we’d talk through our expectations and write out a shared set of goals. 

For example, we agreed that we’d split the rent and the groceries but we’d each get the chance to treat the other to dinner when we were out on a date. We assigned ourselves dog walking days, but — since the dog had been mine for years — I wanted to be the one to take him to the vet and pay the vet bills. We listed all the chores we could think of and agreed on who would do what — and how often.

And we wrote that we’d prioritize our sex life and be emotionally and physically monogamous. We didn’t want to take anything for granted. 

A relationship contract might not be right for everyone, but for us, it was an important tool. There is something powerful about naming your desires and insecurities, however insignificant they might seem. The process made it clear that what we each wanted from the relationship mattered.

We decided to make our contract renewable after six months, and by that time, me paying all the vet bills seemed silly. Roscoe no longer felt like my dog, but ours. So we changed that part. This openness to change made our relationship feel dynamic and genuinely collaborative.

We’ve turned the process into a yearly ritual, updating the contract to meet our evolving needs. It has helped us get more comfortable — and more skilled — at talking through difficult things. 

Last year, Mark and I had twins. We definitely did not sit down to talk through who would empty the diaper bin and who would warm the bottles — because we were too busy emptying the diaper bin and warming the bottles. But I was grateful for the years we’d spent negotiating and renegotiating our relationship. Even when we were arguing in the middle of the night about why we weren’t getting more sleep (probably because we were arguing instead of sleeping … ) — we knew we were on the same team. 

Sometimes, when I talk about our contract, people have strong negative reactions. I think, for some, the word “contract” just sounds too clinical and calculating. 

And I want to clarify that, for us, there is no reward or punishment, no repercussions for not holding up your end of the deal. It’s really about setting aside time to make the collaborative part of our relationship visible and deliberate.

I’m not suggesting that what works for us is right for everyone. But it’s worth figuring out what you and your partner really want from your relationship. And then designing rituals that can help you feel like you’re creating something exciting together.

Join Mandy Len Catron’s TED Course and gain useful that can improve your relationship. And take a look at our other new TED Courses, where you can learn how to take control of your time by slowing down (with author Carl Honoré) and how to reinvent yourself and adapt to life changes (with author Bruce Feiler).

Watch her TEDxChapmanU Talk now: