Could a Contract Make Your Marriage Happier?

What’s the purpose of your marriage? Are you and your spouse meeting each other’s needs? Are your goals right for this stage of life? What can you do to improve your relationship? If answering these pointed questions feels awkward and unromantic, consider this: Approaching your marriage more like a business partnership might make it stronger.

We have this idealized notion of what marriage should be – a pair of loving, faithful soul mates raising a family and living in harmony ‘til death do them part. In reality, many couples’ relationships aren’t like that, which can make spouses feel ashamed or deficient. Susan Pease Gadoua and Vicki Larson, co-authors of “The New ‘I DO’ – Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” want to put an end to those feelings of shame and failure by giving couples tools – and permission – to create modern, satisfying relationships outside the traditional mold.

Both authors have been criticized for their own marital choices – Gadoua, a therapist, for marrying later in life and not having children, and Larson, a journalist, for two marriages that ended in divorce.

“The problem with the current culture is the harsh judgment that comes if someone does something different,” says Gadoua.

Many couples stay together for reasons other than romantic love – like raising kids, companionship, security, money, sex, travel or spirituality – but they keep their unconventional arrangements under wraps. These are perfectly valid reasons to be married, say the authors, and it’s tough for one person to satisfy their partner in all those areas anyway.

“We’ve raised the bar so high, no one can meet it,” Gadoua says. “People feel like failures.”

Gadoua and Larson believe a marriage based on a common purpose and similar expectations is more stable than one based purely on love. But, coming to agreement requires couples to do some soul searching and negotiation.

“People don’t understand going in that marriage is a business transaction – they only understand that when they go through a divorce,” Gadoua says. “We want couples to make the institution work for them, rather than following some outdated model.”

Gadoua and Larson call for “renewable marriages,” in which couples regularly revisit their goals and commitments and adapt them to different stages of their lives.

In their book, the authors describe a variety of alternative marital arrangements that already exist in our society: The Starter Marriage, Companionship Marriage, Parenting Marriage, Long-Distance Marriage, Covenant Marriage, Safety Marriage and Open Marriage. Gadoua recommends each partner consider the options individually to determine what’s right for them before opening the discussion with their mate. Reading through the descriptions of the various marriages is eye-opening and a little scary. You’ve got to consider some tough trade-offs in terms of intimacy and freedom, stability and support. I asked the authors – doesn’t this process open a can of worms and undermine the relationship by suggesting it might fail?

“If you don’t talk about it, what happens?” asks Larson. “It leads to deception or unhappiness. Marriage gives the false illusion of security – you think nothing bad is going to happen. But there’s always the specter of divorce.”

Betsy and Warren Talbot, a freewheeling couple who blog about their relationship and world travels at Married with Luggage, also recommend a strategic approach to marriage. They’ve created a “Love Contract,” which they revisit on their anniversary and decide whether or not to commit to each other for another year. After nine years of using the contract, they say they are happier than ever, and they point to improvements in their heath, finances and sex life as benefits.

The ability to recreate and recommit to your relationship on an ongoing basis is an exciting, liberating way to view marriage, but it takes courage.

“A marriage license doesn’t say you have to live together or have kids or even be monogamous,” Larson says. “You, the couple, have the freedom and right to determine what your marriage looks like. You don’t have to have a marriage that anyone else has.”

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