Some confront big questions that might test the couple in the future: What if you land your dream job across the country? Picture: Pexels

Washington - Rachel Sibley and John Meyer had been dating four months when they planned out a night to reflect on their relationship. They dimmed the lights, lit some candles and turned on a little soft music.

And then they drew up a contract.

"Both of us very much understand the value of a strategic plan," said Sibley, a marketing director for a company that makes virtual reality headsets, who splits her time between Austin, Texas, and San Francisco. "A contract is just so clearly the way to optimize happiness and clarity in a relationship."

Sibley and Meyer are part of a growing millennial trend to contractual-ize romantic relationships: to sit down and discuss relationship goals and expectations, then write them up in a shared Google doc. 

Particularly since writer Mandy Len Catron extolled her own relationship contract in a 2017 installment of the New York Times' Modern Love, a weekly essay series on love and romance, the practice seems to have exploded in popularity among both married and unmarried couples, several relationship experts and dating coaches said.

"Young people today have more expectations for what they want in a partner," said Vicki Larson, co-author of The New I Do. "The contract helps them define that for themselves, and for each other."

There is no one way to write a relationship contract. In length, they can range from a few brief bullet points to - like one by a 29-year-old woman based in Washington, DC - 14 pages, single-spaced. 

Unlike a traditional prenup, a relationship contract is generally not legally binding, and deals primarily with how to create and maintain a relationship, rather than the financial fallout when one ends. While the topics covered are usually specific to the couple, Larson said, the majority touch on the subjects most likely to cause conflict in a relationship: money, sex, chores, child care.

Some confront big questions that might test the couple in the future: What if you land your dream job across the country? What if my aging parent needs to move in? What if you cheat?

In the template dating coach Logan Ury uses for her workshop on relationship contracts - which she's held for packed lecture halls at SXSW and General Assembly San Francisco - Ury includes a "self-reflection worksheet," where individual partners separately consider their own values and relationship needs, and a section where they come together to draft a shared agreement. 

"It's about being really intentional about how you approach relationships, from how you approach yourself to developing skills for creating something with another person," said Ury, who transitioned to this work after leading the behavioral economics team at Google.

The concept of "intentional love," Ury said, dates back to psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, author of the 1956 book, The Art of Loving, who famously argued that "love" should be considered an action, rather than a passive state of being. 

"Love isn't something natural," Fromm wrote. "Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn't a feeling, it is a practice."

Of course, relationship contracts aren't for everyone. When her Modern Love piece came out, Mandy Len Catron got a fair amount of pushback. To some, she said, the concept of a "contract" felt corporate and supremely unromantic, set up to drain a relationship of its natural spontaneity. 

Others questioned what would happen in the (fairly likely) scenario that the contract is breached. "They saw it as a legal document, where if you didn't keep up your side of the bargain, you would be punished." Seen that way, a contract might make a relationship a little too easy to end.

But maybe "contract" isn't the right word.

"It makes this sound unnecessarily legal, when that's not really the point," Ury said. More important than the document, she added, are the conversations sparked by the process of creating it - and by revisiting it, to gauge progress and make changes, once a year. (She suggests an annual "state of the union.")

Ury tells couples to make a special evening out of it, like Sibley and Meyer did.

"There is nothing more romantic than being intentional about your relationship."

The Washington Post