Sign on the dotted line
It may sound calculating or unromantic, but every relationship is contractual, writes Mandy Len Catron
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.
SIGNING THE DOTTED LINE
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.