Sign on the dot­ted line

It may sound cal­cu­lat­ing or un­ro­man­tic, but ev­ery re­la­tion­ship is con­trac­tual, writes Mandy Len Ca­tron

New Straits Times - - Pulse -

Many of us don’t no­tice the ways ro­man­tic love acts as an or­gan­is­ing force in our lives, but it’s pow­er­ful. Some use the term “re­la­tion­ship es­ca­la­tor” to de­scribe the way we tend to fol­low fa­mil­iar scripts as we pro­ceed in a re­la­tion­ship, from ca­sual dat­ing to co­hab­i­ta­tion to mar­riage and fam­ily. These scripts that tell us what love should look like are so ubiq­ui­tous they some­times seem in­vis­i­ble.

In my last re­la­tion­ship, I had spent a lot of time wor­ry­ing about whether we were mov­ing up the es­ca­la­tor. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted, but try­ing to fig­ure that out through con­ver­sa­tion seemed ter­ri­fy­ing. In­stead, I picked fights, about money or chores or how to spend the week­end. If I was an­gry, it was some­how eas­ier to be hon­est.

With Mark, I wanted to do bet­ter.


Our con­tract ad­dresses much of what must be ne­go­ti­ated in any re­la­tion­ship, es­pe­cially when co­hab­i­tat­ing. It be­gins with our rea­sons for be­ing to­gether: “We as­pire to help each other be more eth­i­cal­ly­minded and gen­er­ous friends, com­mu­nity mem­bers and global ci­ti­zens.” I know it sounds ide­al­is­tic, but I’ve had re­la­tion­ships that left me feel­ing lonely and small. This time I wanted to be more in­ten­tional about look­ing out­ward as much as we look in.

The terms range from the fa­mil­iar to the fan­ci­ful. We have a house­guest sec­tion and an item that deals with Mark’s sweaty run­ning clothes. We agree to split the bill when eat­ing out with one ex­cep­tion: “Spe­cial meals will not be split so one per­son can treat the other.”

It’s amaz­ing how em­pow­er­ing this can feel: to name your de­sires or in­se­cu­ri­ties, how­ever small, and make space for them. It’s such a sim­ple thing, but it wasn’t easy. I wasn’t used to know­ing what I wanted in a re­la­tion­ship, much less say­ing it aloud. Now, I have to do both.

Our con­tract isn’t in­fal­li­ble, or the so­lu­tion to ev­ery prob­lem. But it ac­knowl­edges that we each have de­sires that de­serve to be named and recog­nised.

As we con­cluded the re­cent re­newal of our con­tract, Mark typed a new head­ing near the end: Mar­riage. “So what do you think?” he asked, sit­ting back as if he had just asked where I want to get take­out.

I stared into my beer. This wasn’t the first time we had talked about mar­riage, but now, with the con­tract open, it felt of­fi­cial. I squirmed, know­ing that part of me wanted to say, “Let’s do it,” while an­other part wanted to re­ject the in­sti­tu­tion al­to­gether and do love and com­mit­ment on our own terms.

“What would mar­riage of­fer us that we don’t al­ready have?” I asked.

“Good ques­tion,” he said.


I know that a life­time com­mit­ment is sup­posed to in­volve a sur­prise pro­posal, a tear­ful ac­cep­tance and a Face­book slide show of happy self­ies. But if it’s the rest of our lives, I want us to think it through, to­gether.

Fi­nally Mark typed: “We agree that mar­riage is an on­go­ing topic of con­ver­sa­tion.” It seemed a triv­ial thing to put in writ­ing, but talk­ing — in­stead of just wait­ing and won­der­ing — has been a re­lief to us both.

As I type this, Mark is out for a run and the dog is snor­ing at a vol­ume that is in­or­di­nately sweet, and I am at home in the spa­cious­ness of my own mind. I have failed at my goal of lov­ing more mod­er­ately, but for the first time in my life, I feel as if there is room for me in my re­la­tion­ship, and space for us to de­cide ex­actly how we want to prac­tise love.

It may look as though we’re rid­ing the re­la­tion­ship es­ca­la­tor, but I pre­fer to think we’re tak­ing the stairs.

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