Forget the prenup. Can your relationship benefit from a set of emotional and behavioral rules?
When Madonna and Guy Ritchie split at the end of 2008, the tabloids rejoiced. What fodder to keep churning out rumor after incredulous rumor. The most salacious of them all involved what the media called a "marriage pact." Supposedly devised by the couple's marriage therapist, the contract of sorts was meant to solidify their bond and open up communication. But what it did, in fact, was send the tabloid world into a tailspin.
"Devote time to our sexual expressiveness."
"We will not use sex as a stick to beat one another."
"If we are arguing, I will not shout, but instead look you in the eye and say: 'I understand that my actions have upset you, please work with me to resolve this.'"
Only Madonna, Ritchie, a marriage therapist (and perhaps a therapist's nosy administrative assistant looking to make a few bucks) will ever know whether these tenants truly existed between this former husband and wife. But it does perk our interest. Should we all have one of these? Are they only for the rich and famous? With the right guidelines, do they work?
"Contracts are a common tool used by many couples therapists to help address issues of conflict and compromise," says Lee Crespi, a New York psychotherapist with more than 30 years of experience in relationship and marital conflict. "Oftentimes they are used in relation to concrete issues such as sharing of chores and responsibilities in the relationship, such as household chores and parenting responsibilities."
Hmmm... somehow, I think Guy and Madonna fights did not revolve around who's turn it was to scrub the tub or clean out the fridge. Even those who have hired help to keep up the house (or houses) and tend to the kids may benefit from a contract. Unwritten and unspoken contracts naturally arise in a relationship, but some couples need to use explicit, written structures when working through rough patches.
"For couples who have issues of trust, it may be necessary to have a contract rather than relying on a mutual understanding of each other's wishes and vulnerabilities," says Crespi. "Hopefully, over time the need for the structure will fall away and the ability to allow for each others needs will come from trust and caring."
So, the question is, do they really work? Or will they suffer the same fate as the other trends we voraciously scoop up then abandon? (New Year's resolution, anyone?) "Our contract revolved around time management and to creating individual space for ourselves. That's the hardest part of parenting small children," says 39-year-old Holly Carpenter. "It's so hard to have an independent life simultaneously with a family life," The Portland, Oregon, resident and mom of two drew up rules with her husband at the suggestion of their therapist about a year after they separated.
Their therapist suggested that the contract serve as a means to not just a patching up of the old relationship but the pathway to a new one. "[Our therapist] suggested it because I was terrified that along with giving up my new autonomy, returning to the relationship would eventually result in me giving up myself," adds Carpenter.
"I think that couples can benefit from the use of contracts as it helps articulate their needs to each other and makes the commitment to the relationship clearer and less threatening," notes Crespi. Picture it: You and your significant other with a third, neutral party helping to negotiate the rules. The very process of developing the contract could be thought of as therapeutic.
According to Crespi, each partner identifies what it is that he/she needs from the other and then the other partner examines whether and how she/he can meet that need. If there is disagreement, the therapist helps each partner clarify and explore what the obstacles are to agreement until the two partners feel comfortable and clear about the expectations of the contract.
For Holly and her husband, writing the rules down was key. "We came up with a verbal agreement together, but I thought it would be a good exercise for us to get it down in writing. You know how memories differ. With us, and I suspect with many people, we come away from a conversation with very different things," she explains.
And what were Holly's sticking points? If she were to return to the marriage, she needed time built into their schedule just for her. "We agreed to a weekend day for me, that is mine to do whatever I chose—usually it's just work time," she adds, but she can make plans with friends or just disappear for the day—without scheduling, juggling, and explaining.
And even if you're relationship isn't in need of immediate repair, love contracts can serve as maintenance. Something as simple as "agreeing to spend a certain amount of time per week just talking and connecting [can keep the relationship running smoothly]," says Crespi. "Or a common one for busy couples who tend to neglect their sex life is having a date night—which they set aside to make love (sex is not mandatory but the conditions for it are made available)."
One couple Crespi worked with set up a system based loosely on a contract, setting aside a time each week to talk, using a clock to limit the time, and addressing whatever might be bothering them or feeling good using the same kind of guidelines that they had in therapy, for example, "active listening."
Holly stands behind the contract wholeheartedly. "I think it would be a great exercise for all couple before marriage or living together to define their needs and expectations in a contract," she says. "It's not an absolute, but it's a great starting place. Really I think it fosters better communication and forces each person to be more sensitive to the other."
Did it work for Holly and her husband – did they reconcile? Yes, they did, and according to her, the contract was integral. "It allowed me to clearly define what I needed in the relationship."
Because, if not a contract, then what is a marriage? The vows you spend time customizing to your relationship and commit to, the witnesses, the signing of the license: sounds an awful lot like a two sides of a corporate merger, when you think about it. Maybe this contract business isn't so crazy, after all.
Crespi says it best: "Remember, the marriage vows themselves are a contract which include many of the important issues that couples want. My favorite is 'for better or for worse.' To me that means, 'Even on days when I can't stand being around you, when you're in a foul mood or are otherwise unpleasant, when I wish I had married someone else, or feel like I'd like to kill you, I will remember that I love you, and am committed to you and will allow these bad times to pass - trusting that we will find our way back to the place of love and connection that brought us together in the first place.'"
Photo: Splash News