Virtually every type of relationship – whether it’s romantic, a friendship or one between a parent and child – has a set of norms. These are implicit or explicit “agreements” that usually develop naturally over time.
For couples, these agreements may include such things as who is responsible for which chores, how much alone time/couple time they spend, who handles the finances and so on. These agreements are usually implicit; they tend to be more explicitly articulated when things aren’t working well in some areas. This often manifests in the form of conflict, disagreements or arguments.
Shaping and reshaping of agreements
Healthy couples will, throughout the course of their relationship, negotiate and renegotiate their terms depending on what is happening in their individual and collective lives. For example, when a couple has a baby, often there is a dramatic shift in roles and responsibilities and a natural and organic shift in relationship “agreements.”
These norms or agreements are a healthy part of a relationship. All of us value some element of predictability and control in our lives, and there is something to be said for having relationship expectations articulated, assuming that they are fair, acceptable and demonstrate respect for each partner.
The notion of a formal relationship document – a written contract that sets out these details – takes the notion of informal agreements to a whole other level.
To formalize or not to formalize?
Certainly, the increased complexity of relationships and their configurations necessitates the growing use of written, legally binding documents (i.e., cohabitation and prenuptial agreements) to protect respective partners’ interests in situations of dissolution, divorce or death. With the divorce rate being as high as it is, couples meeting and living together or getting married in older age, and the increasing prevalence of blended families, having these types of agreements is prudent – not doing so can have a significant impact on the financial situation of one or both parties.
So, should these relationships agreements be formalized in the way we sometimes see in the media?
Formalizing in writing the very natural parts of a relationship has the risk of adding a clinical, cold level to the natural fluidity that can make relationships so wonderful.
Drawing up formal relationship agreements is really a statement that speaks to the importance a couple puts on one another. But how is this executed in real life? Consider the much-publicized requirement that Priscilla Chan put on Mark Zuckerberg to commit in writing to one date night and 100 quality minutes together a week out of his apartment or Facebook office. What happens if one person is in the hospital for pneumonia for a week? What if a family member dies? What if there is an urgent, non-negotiable work or personal commitment one week? Do 400 minutes one week cancel out what is required for the remaining month? Can you “bank” relationship commitments?
Although relationship agreements may work for some couples, articulating roles, responsibilities and each others’ expectations is likely much more effectively done the good old fashioned way – over time and through discussion.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published as part of a Globe and Mail “Ask the Psychologist” column authored by Dr. Samra, and has been edited and updated.
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