What Is A Renewable Marriage Contract, And Should You Consider One?

"Right now, we just have this one-size-fits-all model ... Why can't we make marriage fit who we are?"

If you're thinking about getting married, whether it's sometime over the next year or the next century, you may want to consider a renewable marriage contract. Unlike prenuptial and post-nuptial agreements, this is an informal supplemental contract to a legal marriage license. In a renewable marriage contract, a couple commits to the relationship for a certain number of years with agreed upon terms and conditions. 

For example, a couple could create a renewable marriage contract lasting two years that lays out the marital duties (housekeeping, finances, childcare, shows of affection, etc.) each partner commits to during that period. At the end of the two years, the couple can choose to renew their agreement, adjust its terms, or dissolve their marriage.  

To learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of a renewable marriage contract, how it differs from traditional marriage expectations, and why it may be better suited for contemporary couples, we talked to co-authors of The New I Do, Vicki Larson and Susan Pease Gadoua, and Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. 

Larson and Pease Gadoua explained to A Plus that a renewable marriage contract allows long-term romantic partners to try marriage on for size with a "starter marriage," lasting anywhere from two to five years, so they can figure out if it's the right lifestyle choice for them. "... The idea of the contract is that the couple decides their goals and values, and they put that into the contract," Larson explained. "Right now, we just have this one-size-fits-all model [of marriage] that everyone's supposed to fit into, and if it doesn't work, then you have done something wrong," Pease Gadoua added.

“Why can't we make marriage fit who we are?”

Though Pease Gadoua and Larson especially recommend the "starter marriage" to childless millennial couples, Pease Gadoua said a renewable marriage contract can be applied to married couples at any stage. "It's mostly that the couple themselves decides what the length of that first contract will be," Larson added. "The beauty of why we love renewable marriage contracts … is that: 1. It codifies for [the couple] why they're getting married and 2. The only way to see a 'successful' marriage right now is longevity." Today's standard of marriage prioritizes quantity of years over the quality of life in those years — a long-held ideology Larson and Pease Gadoua hope renewable marriage contracts will challenge.

To further prioritize the quality of married life, Larson noted that the contract will help partners hold each other accountable for their short- and long-term contributions to the marriage so they couldn't become complacent in their relationship. "... I really believe it would improve the quality of the marriage while it was in place because people would be saying, 'Uh oh, there's an exit door, and I better really put my effort in this if I want to keep it,'" Pease Gadoa said. By keeping a deadline in mind, the co-authors believe couples would be encouraged to talk about what they're getting out of their marriage and what they would want to change more consciously. 

Having those kinds of conversations, whether they result in a contract or not, are extremely important to the overall health of a relationship, according to Solomon. "... Everyone who gets married ought to have an awareness that the rates of infidelity are really high, the rates of divorce are really high, a lot of bad stuff can happen," she said. "And in fact, it feels counterintuitive, but the more we talk about the bad stuff, the less likely it is to happen."

Solomon encourages all couples to try premarital counseling as a way to talk about marital assumptions and expectations in a collaborative, moderated space, and that they ask questions such as, "What are we gonna do if somebody is feeling attracted to somebody else? What are we gonna do if and when sexual desire starts to fade? How will we take care of our sexual relationship with each other?" Whether or not this conversation leads to an infidelity clause in a renewable marriage contract, or just generally helps a couple formulate a contingency plan for an evolving relationship, doesn't really matter in Solomon's opinion. The point is for couples to have the conversations that scare them because they're often the most necessary. 

Larson also recommends couples remain open to counseling throughout their marriage, if needed. After all, the renewable marriage contract is only as good as its implementation. Larson explained, "...We would hope that couples would discuss and include in their contract, 'Let's say we get stuck. At what point are we going to seek help, and what kind of help are we going to seek? Because what I have seen in my middle-aged marriages that ended in divorce is that one or the other person didn't want to go to counseling." By including that in a renewable marriage contract, couples can equip themselves to handle potentially divisive issues as a unit. 

The concept of a renewable marriage contract seems to Solomon "like the pendulum swinging all the way in the other direction from 'It has to be till death do part' to 'I don't know, I'm in it just for a short amount of time, and then we'll talk about it.' 

Rather than an all or nothing solution, Solomon says it's important to create a “space where we can celebrate all the romanticism of love while also making space to drop the shame that people experience when it comes to talking about all the pragmatics.”

A renewable contract is great for outlining pragmatics for modern couples who look very different from couples of previous generations. Solomon notes that marriage is no longer synonymous with a man taking care of a woman. Instead, she says, "It's them saying to each other 'What do we want to build together? How can we be interdependent? How do we make a marriage that doesn't look like our parents' marriages?'" This last question, she explains, comes from couples realizing their marriage can't look like their parents' either because the wife's job is more lucrative than the husband's and/or simply because they don't want it to. 

That's where a renewable marriage contract comes in handy as a progressive, egalitarian option. "A lot of women really resent the gendered assumption about who's going to do what without real, hard discussions about it," Larson said. "That leaves a lot of room for resentment to grow, and we don't really want that … So we really think the contracts would greatly alleviate the gendered patterns that we still see today."

"... I think, when it comes to marriage, we've gotten to the point where there's this very stable institution in a world when we have so many choices that we didn't have even 20 years ago," Pease Gadoua added. "... You want to provide kids with stability because that's when they do the best, but I think, again, that there are many ways and many studies that show that it isn't couples being married that makes kids happy, it's couples being stable and not fighting — that's when kids do best." By incorporating a contingency plan for childcare into a renewable marriage contracts, dual-working couples can collaborate on who's going to be responsible for managing extracurriculars, taking the day off to care for a sick child, helping with homework, etc. so that partners don't just assume, but actually know, they're both pulling their own weight.

Still, even as “relationships” in the broadest sense of the word have become less dependent on gender norms, many young couples still see marriage as an archaic, and unnecessary, institution.

"A lot of people are living together, and that's great, and a lot of people see it as an alternative to marriage but the reality is, the rest of the world doesn't quite see it," Larson said.

As someone who got married later in life at age 43, Pease Gadoua experienced that prejudice herself. "People didn't really recognize that I was in long-term, live-in, committed relationships prior to getting married, so it's definitely something that's a perception issue," she said. "But I will also say that, for myself, and I've heard this from so many people, I literally felt different as a married person than I did in my live-in [relationship]. I don't know exactly what it is, it's not something any of us can put our finger on, but it feels different." Part of that feeling, she acknowledged, did come from an increased sense of legitimacy bestowed upon her and her spouse's relationship from outsiders, but the other part was "intangible." 

"If more and more people do choose to live together, then the perceptions will change... but we're still not really there yet, because we still celebrate the weddings," Larson noted. " ... Having a starter marriage of 2, 3, 4 years, now you're really knowing what marriage is like. You're not gonna know it by living together; you're totally gonna know it by having a starter marriage because you are married."

While no couple needs to get married to prove their love for one another, it does have its perks. "Marriage provides some protections, and I think this notion of just completely rejecting marriage that we see a lot in the media is something that I just hope doesn't happen because I think that there are other ways," Pease Gadoua said. "It doesn't have to be either we marry or we don't. This is why, I think, we want to look at ways that we can tweak marriage to make it more appropriate for who we are today." 

Just like a"successful" marriage isn't one-size-fits-all, Solomon believes renewable marriage contracts aren't a perfect fit for everyone. Instead, she encourages couples to practice "relational self-awareness," which she describes as "an ongoing commitment to looking at yourself and how you're showing up for your relationship." That includes reckoning with how your past and your childhood affects your current relationship, how you're managing your emotions, and how you're viewing conflicts.

“When both people take that approach of just really being curious about how the choices they're making are affecting the overall relationship — when that's the stance, it sort of, in my mind, eliminates the need for a contract,” she said.

It's clear renewable marriage contracts aren't necessary or right for everyone. Some couples, for example, may be turning to a renewable marriage contract as a bandaid for a deeper issue. If such a couple came to Dr. Solomon, she would be hesitant to recommend it. "The thing I'd be curious about is 'Are you doing this out of love or out of fear?' " she said. If their answer was fear — of abandonment, of not measuring up as a partner, of choosing the wrong person — she wouldn't recommend a renewable marriage contract. Instead, she'd tell them,  "Let's do the work to help you understand where these fears come from and how the work you need to do to make yourself feel really sturdy and stable and ready to commit." 

On the other hand, if a couple came to her and said, "We are super excited about making this 'love classroom' where we can learn and grow from each other, and so we're making a contract so that we just can make sure we are checking in every X number of years and making sure that this really serves both of us." Then, the couple would be using a renewable marriage contract to be intentional about moving towards their goals and ensuring their relationship serves as a place of health and well-being for each other, and she'd be all for it. "Anything that will help a couple settle into understanding that healthy marriages, happy marriages demand that we're constantly willing to look at ourselves and create open conversations with our partners — whatever path that takes for a couple — I'm in support of," Solomon said. 

"... If there is a clear road map for the length of the relationship and the terms of the relationship, I think that helps everybody and it may even reduce people needing to go to counseling," Pease Gadoua said. Even if a couple eventually decides they're not right for each other, they have an established framework of expectations they can then use to settle a divorce in a more amicable way because they would've already discussed and agreed upon how they're going to divvy up finances, household goods, and even child custody. 

For couples embarking on second marriages, Larson believes a renewable marriage contract can be just as beneficial in helping guide them through late-life stages. "There's probably grown children, there's careers and/or retirement, there's caregiving ahead, and so I would say a contract, whether it's renewable or not, a contract talking about those really important issues is essential," she said. "... There's always expectations and assumptions, and so any kind of contract — whether it's for a second or a third or a fourth marriage — clarifies what we're doing and how we're going to do it because, ultimately, the contract is to set the couple up for success." 

As proponents of renewable marriage contracts, Larson and Pease Gadoua believe they're going to become increasingly mainstream as more couples gain awareness of these agreements and try them out for themselves. "Susan and I, just a few weeks ago, were at a session [at South by Southwest festival] that was talking about relationship contracts… so not even a marital contract, just like, 'We're in a relationship. We're a committed couple. What are we gonna do?'" Larson said. "... And the place was packed with 120 young people, and we thought, 'OK, this is a sign that this generation is really interested in that,' and so I think, for sure, this is going to happen. We're going to see this happen." She believes society is ready for renewable marriage contracts now because this generation of couples want to do things differently and design marriage in a way that they know will work for them. 

Comparatively, Solomon believes the bigger trend lies in the reason why people would consider a renewable marriage contract in the first place: to challenge what we think we know about romantic relationships. "I feel like there are a lot of millennials and young adults who are really curious about understanding relationships, and that, I think, is a trend that is exciting and hopeful because I think it's from … really wanting to be a student of love," Solomon said. "... That, to me, is more of the trend, and that, to me, is the path forward."

Cover image via Anne-Marie Pronk on Unsplash

More From A Plus

GET SOME POSITIVITY IN YOUR INBOX

Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.