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Love That Lasts
Making a Personal Contract and Commitment
Marriage is a grand and historically valuable institution, but no religious or civil ceremony will, alone, keep partners faithful in a relationship. When the terms of a contract are imposed--by a judge, a priest, a father toting a shotgun, or three cows and a jug of honey traded between families--the two most important members of the union have little intrinsic reason to value each other or their relationship. They are being told how to feel; they do not, in common parlance, have "buy-in" to the relationship.
Government, god, and good-intentions create bonds as strong as a spiderweb: built to last--at least until a good storm, a rock, or some kid with a stick comes along and smashes the filaments.
In the face of the flimsiness of arbitrary, external, imposed rules intended to keep two people together (in sickness and in health or at least until the rent comes due), how can we cement our bonds to each other? What relationship re-bar can fortify the walls of our houses of love and keep us safe from the storms?
A personal contract and the truth.
Moments after demolishing the world in his poem "Dover Beach," Mathew Arnold proposes a way to rebuild. Arnold, speaking to his lover as he surveys the vast ocean spread out before him, melancholy and seemingly full of despair and grief, says,
The world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain....
In the presence of a divorce rate hovering around 51%, of nearly 35% of all marriages facing the catastrophe of affairs, of 25% of all marital court filings including the word "Facebook," of short-sales, stop-loss deployments, and a hundred minor betrayals from office flirting to skimming small amounts of cash from the family till, Arnold proposes a revolutionary idea: "Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!"
Not to god, not to your state court, your partner's parents, your boss--but to each other.
Let us be true to one another. Make your own contract, your own agreement, your own understanding of how life should be between you.
Only recently has writing unique marital vows come in vogue; until the 1970's, you took the church's words or you eloped. Writing unique vows allowed, within the church or civil ceremony, partners to express their unique sense of what was valuable to them and their relationship. A similar contract, hashed out in the morning over coffee or in the bedroom or while on a walk or sitting in the hot tub, should be spoken between any two partners who hope to keep their relationship fresh, functional, and loving.
Every relationship is unique; the agreement two people make should also be unique, dependent on their desires and needs--dependent on, ultimately, what each member agrees is reasonable.
I propose five concerns every couple should discuss--and articulate a position about--as they move to make more permanent their bonds to each other. You want to be true to each other? Spend some time deciding where the friction occurs and negotiate a better path around the tension:
1. Exclusivity of relationship and boundaries with other people. On a small key ring, perhaps the most important--the one you get color-coded for easy location--is the key that locks doors between you and people outside your relationship. You and your partner can haggle over who will be on the inside and who will be on the outside, but you'll want to be clear and certain: can I keep ex's on my Facebook friends list? What about the guy at work who clearly thinks I'm cute; can I have lunch with him at the corporate cafeteria? When I go out with friends for a beer, if three Hooters girls sit at the table with us, how should I respond? Will we have access to each others' email accounts?
You may want to have an open relationship (point: these never work. They might seem fun at first, and as partners you may agree in your contract to share each other sexually, but human nature abhors boundaries that are not really boundaries), or you may decide to stay at home in your cabin away from any potential interference (point: obsessive hoarding never works: seclusion or locks on the inside and outside of the doors might seem like a good idea at first, but human nature abhors restraints--and we automatically strive to break them), or perhaps you'll negotiate on a case-by-case progression--every personality and situation is unique and demands unique arrangement. The point, thought, is that you will need to be "true" to one another, and that means discussing what you want and agreeing on parameters.
The goal, ultimately, is to have a serious and clear discussion about what makes you comfortable or uncomfortable and to set boundaries, that you agree to respect and enforce, that keep your relationship insular enough to be safe but open enough to stay fresh.
You may discover a need to renegotiate the "boundary" clause in your contract as situations arise and as the world pulls you in different directions (another deployment? that girl moved in to the office next to you? who's "Billy" on Facebook?); be flexible but remember the goal: to help each other feel safe and protected.
2. Money. When relationships are fresh, money isn't an issue. As you move more closely together, tying yourself intimately to each other, the differential in power as that difference relates to money will become a driving force--either driving you down happiness boulevard or toward disaster cliff. You will need to have a discussion about how the money will be spent and what the money will mean. Decide and write down if necessary what "joint" expenses are and what "private" expenses will include; create at least three accounts--one joint and one private for each of you; create (again) boundaries that make each of you comfortable--a budget of "necessary" and "elective" expenses that you keep, roughly, as a road map.
In the old days, marriage used to mean pouring the family money in to a family pot, which is a reasonable way to handle income if everyone agrees how the money will be distributed from that pot (one ladle for you, two for you....). Certain struggles will inevitably result: I work harder than you; you own me because I don't contribute as much; why can't I buy that couch that I love so much with the poodles on it? A single pot means an epic struggle--and repeated conversations about the same basic issues. They will wear a relationship to the nubbins.
Instead, debate what is joint and agree to each contribute the same amount to that pot; the remainder is for the individual to use as discretionary--for the new set of golf clubs, to take everyone to Disneyland, to buy a wedding gift for a poker buddy, and even for that poodle couch. Or reach some other equitable position that (most importantly) you agree is equitable.
Most importantly, discuss openly and honestly about how the money needs to work and come to an agreement, make a contract, about how you will handle money so you won't have to encounter daily fights.
3. Sex. Well, yes--you'll need to negotiate sexual interactions at some point--though probably not in the first couple years! Much of the angst in sexual relationships emerges when one partner feels the other is asking too much or giving too little. The reality is probably far different than the feeling, but the feeling grows, and tension arises--emerging in the most unseemly ways (like investing in poodle spotted couches or blowing up at Olive Garden because you didn't, after all, want pepper on your salad even though you've always wanted pepper on your salad and why would you ask the waiter to put pepper on my salad when I could damn well let the waiter know what I want all by myself?).
Instead of carting around the noxious feelings, negotiate an agreement. Talk openly about your sexual needs--even if those needs are "three god-damned days without sex while I'm studying for my exams!" You might say, "Darling, I'm sensing you're not feeling very sexual lately. I'm feeling a little left out. Can we talk about our sex life?" The conversation will, most likely, be awkward at first, but remembering our goal--to be true to one another--empowers you to speak frankly about what you need, why you aren't feeling horny, what it will take to help you feel horny,and all the other sticky questions that can lead to more enjoyable sticky situations.
In a relationship, no one owes the other sex though sometimes our culture imposes that sentiment on us: do your wifely duty! not man enough to do the manly part of your obligations, eh? The truth is, sex is between our ears as much as between our legs, and feeling safe and heard and understood goes a long way toward making sex pleasant and regular. A clear agreement about what sex needs to look like (how many times a week do you feel is enough? Who should initiate the romance? Can we go somewhere special this weekend?) will help dissipate the corrosive feelings of disappointment and resentment.
4. Parenting / Time. Children ruin relationship. Yes, you can build a new relationship after the children (and during them, too), but face reality: sex isn't the same, money isn't the same, and the time you have for each other isn't the same. Negotiate a new relationship that defines, clearly, who will take care of what and when so you can each have free time, each have family time, and each find time for the other. Negotiate time away from the children--alone and with each other. Negotiate boundaries with the children: after 9, stay in bed; if it's an emergency, knock loudly at our locked door.
Again, talk with each other about what seems reasonable and necessary, about what you can do with and for each other to make parenting and loving each other work together.
5. Pleasure Time and Chores. After much discussion, you'll want to come to an understanding about how you will spend your leisure time and how you will divide the work necessary to keep the house functioning, from mowing the lawn to sweeping the tile floor to writing the checks to pay the bills. And you'll want to have a shared sense of how you'll spend your weekends, evenings, and rare moments of free time.
First, chores. The unpleasant part. Unless you're wealthy enough to hire a maid (and if you are, please donate some of your wealth to me!), someone will have to put the dishes away, wipe the table, and scoop the dog poop. And coincidentally, someone will say, "You never wash the floor boards! That's always my job!" If you negotiate, however, you can eliminate a significant amount of tension. You'll be surprised that you prefer vacuuming and hate yard work while your partner kind of likes yard work but would rather eat asparagus than vacuum. You will be able to find an arrangement that suits both temperaments and takes the sting out of a continual nagging or sense of resentment that builds when their is perceived inequality in the housework.
And now, leisure. She likes country music and zombie movies; he digs a rave and going out to eat: with only so many opportunities in a month to enjoy time together, who do you please? Well, if you establish an appreciation of what each other enjoys and negotiate and reach a contract that is comfortable, everyone gets pleased: he'll watch a zombie movie on Tuesday if, next week, they can try the new Caribbean seafood restaurant. You don't have to share the same desires and interests; or rather, the interests you share won't cause a conflict. But when he wants to watch his Oprah and she is desperate to go for a run, you can agree to be separate or agree this time to run, next time to Oprah.
THE KEY to the poem and to a sustained, pleasant relationship is lip flapping and clarity: you can't hint that you want to go the amusement park; you have to find the language that allows you to be authentic and kind: "Hey, I really want to go to the roller-coasters this weekend. I know there was the trout fishing tournament, but what if we hit the roller-coasters this weekend, and next we'll do whatever you want?"
Create a contract between you and your partner that the two of you negotiate, discuss, and otherwise wrangle--then, when the contract is solid, live up to your investment in the negotiate understanding. You're not asking each other not to eat shellfish (or maybe you are!); you're simply discovering, discussing, and making a mutual agreement about what is important to you in your relationship and what, if you follow the rules you create, will keep tempers cool and conflicts minimal.
What's in the settlement is, of course, important--the details matter--but more significant is the time you spend hashing out the ways you will navigate your life together. Only you and your partner can decide what is most fruitful for you and your relationship; work with each other to establish the ground rules for keeping your love flourishing.
Ah, love--let us be true to one another. Negotiate a contract and then stick to the contract. You may not be able to keep all your promises, and certainly not all the promises a god or a federal statute may place on you, but you can keep the promises you make with your partner when you work together to make decisions because you negotiated them.