Having a Relationship Contract Saved Me From My Own Dating Anxiety

Photo: J.V. Aranda

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If divorce teaches you anything, it’s that paperwork won’t help you with matters of the heart. I’d signed the marriage license; I’d used that piece of paper to proclaim to my family, my friends, and the government that I knew what I was doing when it came to love.

Clearly, I was wrong. And even after the divorce was finalized, even after I decided I was ready to date again, even after I met Luke and began to think it might be something serious, the knowledge of my own wrongness nagged at me. As Luke and I talked about our respective divorces in the early days of our relationship, the conversations would always end the same way, each of us looking at each other with the same expression of fear mixed with hope. I felt it on my face; I saw it on his. “Will I be wrong about you, too,” those looks seemed to say, “or can it be different this time?”

My marriage lasted three and a half years, which is basically the honeymoon period and change. It was the longest relationship I’d ever had. As I signed the divorce papers my deepest fear was that it maybe the whole thing could be blamed on one fatal flaw in my personality — maybe I was just bad at the whole relationship thing.

We moved in together, but uncertainty loomed large between us. I felt it as I was hanging my photo of the Golden Gate Bridge on the wall of our new place, next to Luke’s guitar and his treasured picture of his grandmother. Still, we couldn’t help letting ourselves hope. The first month in our new place, we slept on a mattress on the floor until the bed frame arrived; it felt new, fresh, exciting.

That was where we were that evening when we decided, aided by a bottle of wine, to write down what we wanted from each other. We titled the list “Relationship expectations for the new chapter.” It was, we both understood without saying, a contract. Maybe this time, paperwork could keep us together.

* * *

It was my idea for us to write our lists separately, because I’ve learned the hard way that it’s all too easy to just pretend to go along with a partner’s wishes. “I like to go for long walks,” you may say to your prospective mate, picturing hiking gear and freeze-dried food, and they’ll nod in agreement when what they really want is a 20-minute stroll that ends at a bar. In my experience, people may like to be agreeable, but compromising only really feels easy until the crush wears off.

I’m not against being with someone who’ll introduce you to new things, as was the case when my ex encouraged me to buy a bicycle. He was one of those guys whose apartment had no soft furnishings but three dirty bicycles nudged up against the kitchen table (“That’s my mountain bike, that’s my road bike, and that old beat-up Scott is for riding around London as nobody will steal it”). I got pretty into the bike and even started commuting to work with it.

But I also never stopped hating how he kept wanting me to get up early on Saturday mornings to go on bike rides. You can only push yourself to do something you’re not that into so many times before your nature asserts itself. “I love that you don’t have this need to constantly DO stuff,” I wrote on my list for Luke, thinking about my ex and his weekend alarm clock.

When it came time to share them with each other, Luke read his list first. “No mind reading,” he said. “Just tell me what you want.” I nodded — more than one ex has accused me of being too blunt, so this felt like a relief. Luke continued: “I need the freedom to be my silly self.”

I read out my list: “I need long, winding and branching conversations.” Luke nodded — he’d written something similar. I continued: “I’d like to be able to geek out about stuff with you without feeling like it’s weird or that I’m weird.”

We merged our lists into an agreement, and added a few items we came up with together. The finished document probably doesn’t qualify as a proper contract, as it’s mostly wishes and intentions rather than details and consequences. Unlike more famous relationship contracts (Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Sheldon and Amy from the Big Bang Theory), ours has no mention of date nights nor their duration. There’s nothing in there about dishes or laundry, nor does it cover other common clauses like who pays for what, or which events necessitate presents. There is, however, a section on interacting with family, one on how often we’d like to travel, and one on how often we’d like to have sex.

We also covered the big picture things, like the fact that neither of us want more children, and where we’d like to live. There are attitude markers, like the fact that we both want to build for the future, and both of us want a great deal of personal freedom within a relationship; there are daily life details, like the fact that we both like sleeping in on Saturday mornings.

Luke and I recently celebrated our two-year anniversary, when we reread our relationship contract for the first time since we wrote it about a year earlier. It reminded us of some things we’d like to get back to, and showed us how we’ve both given way on others. Luke now texts me in advance when he’s going to be late, and I have come around on his request to “fight as friends.” I still have no idea how to make a relationship work, but I’m no longer worried that I’m going to tank this one just by being in it.

Luke’s marriage, unlike mine, stretched over a long period of time — 18 years, to be exact. No one’s ever doubted his ability to make something last. But as we completed our relationship contract, divided into needs and wants, it became clear that despite our different experiences we had something in common: We’d never experienced a relationship where we were both actively pulling in the same direction. While it was my intent to stay married, it never quite felt like teamwork — and somehow in this relationship, it does.

Having a Relationship Contract Saved Me From My Own Anxiety