The author reflects on the emerging practice of signing a so-called relationship contract, which reminded her of when her Muslim boyfriend proposed a “temporary marriage.”
Coming from a devout Catholic background, I felt a bit naive when I got into a relationship with a Muslim man while traveling abroad. He explained that his faith allowed for temporary marriages, which permitted physical intimacy without being considered haram, forbidden in the Islamic faith.
It was new to me, but I respected his beliefs and trusted him — and agreed to try it out.
During the ceremony, I was struck by the fact that we had to make explicit and agree on the specific terms and expectations of our relationship. We had the freedom to be as detailed as we wanted to be, covering topics such as exclusivity, communication and financial agreements.
It seemed both premature and overwhelming, but I realized that it took a significant weight off my shoulders: I already knew that this person wanted to be with me, and how he wanted to be with me – and what I could expect from him. It was a mutual agreement that eliminated doubts and ambiguities.
I ended up wondering why this type of pact wasn't more commonplace.
From a Brazilian writer in 100 Fronteiras, I later discovered the idea of a contemporary, secular “relationship contract,” which at its root is not so different from what I had experienced in the temporary Muslim marriage.
These relationship contracts, which thus far are not legally binding, cover everything from boundaries and responsibilities, to commitment, finances and future plans. They appear as the latest novelty in the ever-evolving definition of how humans love.
Every relationship is contractual; we're just making the terms more explicit.
The idea of what relationships can indeed look like is undergoing a transformative shift. Heterosexual marriage rates are declining sharply – down by 60% since the 1970s in the U.S., as same-sex weddings begin to blossom around the world. Meanwhile, traditional ideas are increasingly being challenged by diverse relationship styles, including throuples and polyamory.
A relationship contract is a verbal or written agreement that aims to set expectations and boundaries.
People are redefining the boundaries of what a partnership can look like. The shift is part of a broader acceptance of diverse relationship styles – but it also emphasizes the importance of the basics of any modern relationship: communication, consent and respect.
For some people, relationship contracts could be a way to do that. Done right, they can be a tool to let people express their needs and boundaries clearly and openly – and they can offer a framework for dealing with problems.
Mandy Len Catron, author of critically-acclaimed essay collection How to Fall in Love with Anyone, talked about her own experience with relationship contracts: "Every relationship is contractual; we're just making the terms more explicit."
This may sound like a buzzkill to some, but it can actually be liberating.
What is a relationship contract? Essentially, it's an agreement between people in a romantic relationship that outlines their expectations, boundaries and commitments. Though there is no established legal precedent for them (so far, at least!) It's a way to establish clear communication and avoid misunderstandings or unmet expectations.
It can be as detailed or as simple as the couple wants it to be, but it typically includes things like:
- Communication: How often will you check in with each other? What's the best way to do that? How will you handle disagreements or conflicts?
- Boundaries: What are the limits in terms of physical intimacy, emotional intimacy and time spent together, and how can you respect them? What are your boundaries as a couple?
- Responsibilities: Who will take care of what in the relationship? Who will plan dates or do household chores?
- Commitment: Are you monogamous? What does commitment mean to each of you? What counts as cheating?
- Future plans: What are your goals as a couple? Do you see yourselves getting married, having kids, or making a big trip around the world?
- Financial expectations: How will you split expenses? Will you have joint bank accounts or keep finances separate?
Parts of this might be covered by a cohabitation contract, or a domestic partnership agreement – a legally binding document outlining financial and legal obligations of two people who live together. It's often used by couples who aren't married but want to protect their assets and establish legal rights in case of a breakup or other event.
When each partner knows what the other expects, there's less room for miscommunication or disappointment.
A relationship contract can be a helpful tool for building a strong and healthy relationship.
A relationship contract, on the other hand, is a verbal or written agreement that aims to set expectations and boundaries, rather than defining legal and financial obligations.
Is a relationship contract legally binding? That's a bit of a gray area. In most cases, no – a relationship contract is not legally enforceable. A verbal or written agreement between two people in a relationship does not carry the same legal weight as a formal cohabitation or prenuptial agreement.
For some, a relationship contract can be a way to foster communication and build trust. People can express their needs and make sure they’re on the same page as their partner. It also encourages accountability – if someone violates the terms of the contract, it's easier to address it.
Of course, some people may be hesitant to create a relationship contract, worried that it will take the romance out of the relationship. But when each partner knows what the other expects, there's less room for miscommunication or disappointment.
It can be a helpful tool for building a strong and healthy relationship, or it can be a source of stress and contention. If the latter is the case, be sure your contract also includes a clear “out” clause.