The question: I'm hearing more and more about relationship agreements – like the one between Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his wife – in which partners commit to certain behaviours in a formal document. Do you think this is healthy for a relationship or is it just weird?
The answer: Virtually every type of relationship – whether it's romantic, a friendship or one between a parent and child – has a set of norms. These are implicit or explicit "agreements" that usually develop naturally over time.
For couples, these agreements may include such things as who is responsible for which chores, how much alone time/couple time they spend, who handles the finances and so on. These agreements are usually implicit; they tend to be more explicitly articulated when things aren't working well in some areas. This often manifests in the form of conflict, disagreements or arguments.
Healthy couples will, throughout the course of their relationship, negotiate and renegotiate their terms depending on what is happening in their individual and collective lives. For example, when a couple has a baby, often there is a dramatic shift in roles and responsibilities, and a natural and organic shift in relationship "agreements."
These norms or agreements are a healthy part of a relationship. All of us value some element of predictability and control in our lives, and there is something to be said for having relationship expectations articulated, assuming that they are fair, acceptable and demonstrate respect for each partner.
The notion of a formal relationship document – a written contract that sets out these details – takes the notion of informal agreements to a whole other level.
Certainly the increased complexity of relationships and their configurations necessitates the growing use of written, legally binding documents (i.e., cohabitation and prenuptial agreements) to protect respective partners' interests in situations of a dissolution, divorce or death. With the divorce rate being as high as it is, couples meeting and and living together or getting married in older age, and the increasing prevalence of blended families, having these types of agreements is prudent – not doing so can have a significant impact on the financial situation of one or both parties.
But formalizing in writing the very natural parts of a relationship adds a clinical, cold level to the natural fluidity that can make relationships so wonderful.
Drawing up formal relationship agreements is really a statement that speaks to the importance a couple put on one another. But how is this executed in real life? Consider the much-publicized requirement that Priscilla Chan put on Mark Zuckerberg to commit in writing to one date night and 100 quality minutes together a week out of his apartment or Facebook office. What happens if one person is in the hospital for pneumonia for a week? What if a family member dies? What if there is an urgent, non-negotiable work or personal commitment one week? Does 400 minutes one week cancel out what is required for the remaining month? Can you "bank" relationship commitments?
Although relationship agreements may work for some couples, articulating roles, responsibilities and each others' expectations is likely much more effectively done the good old fashioned way – over time and through discussion.
Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or The Globe and Mail website. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.
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