Rewriting Marriage Contracts

Fresh Options for Ambivalent Couples

Magazine Issue
May/June 2023
A couple on the couch with a laptop and paperwork | Photo by iStock/Pixdeluxe

I’d been a couples and family therapist for several decades when I first invited an ambivalent couple to design a different future for themselves by rewriting their marriage contract. By this point in my career, I’d taken mediation courses and educated myself about the variety of avenues to divorce and divorce laws in my state, and I was adept at helping partners draft separation agreements—which cut down on attorney’s fees and made for better divorces.

But unlike many of the separating couples I saw, Mark and Sylvia, who were in their 50s and had been married for more than 20 years, treated each other kindly, with a great deal of civility and respect. They gave me my big aha moment. Rather than helping them draw up a separation agreement, what if I could help them draw up a new marriage contract, one based on an understanding of their changing needs? Might there be therapeutic value in creatively rewriting their old expectations of marriage in service of a new reality?

This idea emerged unexpectedly during a session as Mark and Sylvia were agonizing, as they often did, over whether to remain a couple. Sylvia didn’t share Mark’s obsession with visiting historical battlefields, and Mark tended to tune out Sylvia’s stories about her siblings, friends, and job. The chemistry they’d once shared as a scrappy, adventurous couple had weakened as their lives had reached a pinnacle of normalcy that often felt deadening to them. They both freely admitted that they weren’t sexually attracted to each other anymore, and neither of them expressed a desire to rekindle that spark.

But moving ahead with a divorce had never seemed like the right option to them. After all, they shared a commitment to care for their daughter, Marly, who was struggling with cognitive delays and learning challenges. Marly was having a rough time as a sophomore in high school, and they were focused on getting her through it together. Admittedly, they told me, they were stuck and didn’t know what to do about their marriage.

“What’s the worst that would happen if you did get divorced?” I asked them one day.

Sylvia, who’d ruminated over this for months, moved forward in her chair. “Marly would have to go back and forth between two different houses,” she said. “That would be hard for her.”

Mark added, “Neither of us want to lose time with her.”

“Besides,” Sylvia said, “Mark and I are friends. We get along as coparents.” As Mark nodded his agreement, they turned to each other and did something no other couple had ever done in my office: they gave each other a fist bump.

In my experience, this sort of comradery in a couple thinking of splitting up is a rarity, and I found myself moved to ask, “Well, why do you have to dismantle it all? What if, instead, you just got rid of some aspects of your marriage?”

They both stared at me for a moment before Mark cocked his head and asked, “What do you mean?”

“Well,” I said tentatively, knowing that I was stepping into uncharted territory, “we can think of a marriage as containing several interrelated but different contracts: some expectations and agreements involve your finances and parental responsibilities, some involve meeting sexual expectations and emotional needs, and some involve the friendship, the roommate, and the relationships-with-in-laws aspects of being married.”

They seemed to be following my line of thinking, so I went out on a limb and suggested, “Maybe you can just dismantle one of the contracts and not the others.”

They looked intrigued.

The Initial Agreement

Sylvia, Mark, and I ended up creating a one-year agreement that made explicit what they were already implicitly doing—maintaining their commitment to stay together in order to care for Marly. This “parenting-marriage agreement” ended the struggle over whether to divorce, at least for the time being.

“If the arrangement works for you,” I told them, “you can extend it year by year until you feel like ending it. If it doesn’t, we can go back to the drawing board and rework it.”

The agreement stipulated that they’d continue therapy with me and not engage in sexual activity with each other during the term of the agreement—which had the immediate effect of ending their relational ambivalence and freeing them from the pressure of sexual expectations. Once sex was off the table, they were free to reengage in physical affection like hugging, kissing on the cheek, and sitting next to each other on the couch to watch TV—all of which they enjoyed and had been missing.

They decided that seeking out other partners during the term of this agreement might complicate the situation, and that it was best to avoid that, for now.

This wasn’t just a verbal agreement. I wanted Mark and Sylvia to create a written agreement, framed with a personal mission statement from each of them. The document would serve as a guide to help protect them from their own negative impulses during challenging moments and get them back on track if they strayed from their vision.

To get them started, I asked them to answer the following questions:

  1. How has your relationship contributed to the person you are today? (You don’t need to corrupt good memories of the relationship in order to create the space you want now.)
  2. What kind of a person do you want to be in this process? List the strengths and talents that you bring to this project.
  3. How do you want to handle disagreements? Which of your habitual and reactive behaviors do you want to change or curb?
  4. How would you like to set up each of the following during this time: living arrangements, children’s schedule/responsibilities, frequency and type of contact with each other or with the family, finances, family/friends/pets?
  5. What are the main fears or concerns that you have about staying together in the same household? Make this list extensive. Start with nonfinancial issues and save finances for the end.

Living under the terms of the agreement, they’d have to practice their communication skills. Mark recognized that he could be stubborn when dealing with disagreements, and Sylvia figured out that she was prone to passive-aggressive behaviors, so we used a dialogue tool to help them take turns initiating and listening to each other while focusing on what they identified as some of their many strengths as a couple, including honesty, tolerance for differences, hard work, and a heartfelt involvement in Marly’s life.

Sylvia was worried about the inevitable criticisms from her siblings and parents when they found out about their agreement to “stay together but not.” Mark’s main concerns were about his friends; he thought they’d tease him for “wasting his time in a loveless marriage.” We dealt with their concerns by role-playing various scenarios and rehearsing responses to the criticism.

As Mark and Sylvia began writing out the contract, they found that their biggest challenges were deciding which one of them was going to move out of the bedroom, and what to tell their daughter. Eventually, they decided Mark would move into the guest bedroom. They agreed to eat dinner together as a family several nights a week, and to continue to spend holidays and family vacations together with their in-laws.

We worked on the details of this agreement over several sessions, and once it was ready, I typed it up and they signed it. Each of us got a copy for our files.

Revisiting the Agreement

Mark and Sylvia sometimes vacillated on whether they could maintain their arrangement. Frequently, I’d remind them that disagreements were a given in any relationship, whatever the boundaries, and that we had a template in place for approaching them constructively. Then, about six months in, Mark announced, “I’ve changed my mind about what I can live with. I want to date other people.”

Sylvia sat back in her chair and blew out a big breath. I thanked Mark for being clear and honest about what he wanted and acknowledged how challenging this might be for Sylvia to hear. It was the perfect time to refer to their mission statements about how they wanted to show up in these moments and to remind them that the agreement allowed for any of the parties to bring forth a change if needed.

As we talked this out in session, they agreed that they still didn’t want to get divorced. But Sylvia realized that if they were going to revisit the part of the contract about dating other people, then she wanted to revisit the part of the contract about living under one roof. At this point, we put all possible alternatives on the table: a nesting agreement, where Marly would stay in their current home while the two of them would alternate between being there with her and a separate apartment they’d rent; an open relationship, where they’d stay under one roof; moving to two different homes; or buying or renting a duplex so Marly could move freely between the two spaces.

For the time being, they decided to rent a studio nearby. That way, Marly could stay in the house with little disruption to her schedule, and Mark and Sylvia could move in and out for one week at a time. When one of them was on deck at the house, the other could come by for dinners and homework help as needed but still have some privacy.

They decided to try this nesting arrangement for six months. During this time, they continued to see me, went on a family vacation, and spent the holidays together. It worked so well that they decided to extend it for another six months—and for two years after that. Mark and Sylvia had decided, for the time being, to inconvenience themselves instead of inconveniencing their daughter. Eventually, by the time Marly had finished high school and they’d found the right college for her, they decided they were ready to get divorced.

Expanding the Choices

It’s important to note that not all couples are suitable for these kinds of arrangements. For instance, I wouldn’t recommend this course of action to partners who have high-conflict, blaming, or disrespectful attitudes. But after Sylvia and Mark embarked on their journey, I started noticing just how many of my therapy couples with relational ambivalence were good friends and decent coparents. When their feelings and needs shifted, they thought they only had the one, binary choice: stay together or divorce. But my work with Sylvia and Mark helped me say to them, “Sometimes divorce is a good option, but sometimes it isn’t. If you’re interested, I can help you design your own future, with creativity and openness, based on decisions that fit your concerns and your family configuration.”

For those who I believe are ready to explore ways to rewrite a marriage contract, I focus on what would make the minutiae of day-to-day life easier for each of them and their children. I may say to them, “You can live under the same roof, you can live next door, you can parent simultaneously or take turns, you can keep the summer home and the business. The possibilities are endless.” Inevitably, they’re surprised, but the curiosity in their eyes tells me that they think we’re onto something worth trying.

No More Roommates

Laura and Beth, a couple in their early 50s with two teenagers, were referred to me by Beth’s attorney. They presented with relational ambivalence, shame about the societal taboo against staying together for the sake of their children, and fears about disrupting their children’s lives. Laura was a stay-at-home mom, and Beth was the primary breadwinner. Both bristled at the possibility of repeating their respective parents’ divorce stories from the ’80s.

When I asked them why their attorney had referred them to me, Beth said, “Apparently, he thought we weren’t ready to get divorced.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“When we had to file, I got cold feet,” Laura said. “Beth sees the children so little. I wouldn’t want her to lose even more time with them.”

“If we get divorced,” Beth added, “Laura will have to work, and I don’t want that for the kids. When my parents got divorced, I lost not only my dad, who moved away, but also my mom, who had to work an extra job to make ends meet.”

“So which of the marital contracts aren’t working for you?” I asked them.

Laura took a few moments to think and then said, “Honestly, I don’t think I want Beth as a roommate anymore. She’s a total slob and acts as if she lives alone. She comes and goes as she pleases, and travels too much for work. Sometimes she drinks too much. When she’s home, our lives get chaotic. When she’s traveling, I can orchestrate things the way I want and I’m happier.”

To her credit, Beth agreed with that description of herself. “The ideal scenario would be that we could find a way to keep the family together, but not live under the same roof,” she said.

The three of us designed a parenting agreement that didn’t stray far from what they were already doing. Laura was to continue to be the full-time, stay-at-home mom. They rented a second apartment in their current building, which Beth moved into. The arrangement eased their mutual resentments and helped them get a break from the hovering disappointment of their unfulfilled relationship expectations.

They’ve continued to spend dinners, holidays, and family vacations together. The last time I saw them, there was a new sweetness between them. They confessed they were dating each other and felt closer than ever, while living apart.

Open Relationship Agreements

Some of the contracts I’ve worked on have involved opening the relationship to other sexual partners from the start. Clients may say things like, “If he’s not attracted to me, I don’t see why we’d resume our sex life. I’m not saying either of us would go actively looking for it, but if the opportunity presents itself, well, why should we say no?”

Once I have an idea of the clients’ fears, longings, and guilt regarding their sex life, I help them articulate their wishes and we write them into an agreement.

The wording for Oslo and Jonine was specific. Jonine, after an initial reluctance to disclose her wishes, said that while she didn’t want to have sex with Oslo anymore, she didn’t want to live without sex. By the time the contracts were printed and ready to sign, both of them were okay with the open-relationship agreement they’d come to, but it took about a month of weekly sessions to get us there.

Everything is on the table. The truth about your wishes will make it easier to negotiate and compromise. You may want different things because you’re different people. I repeat these messages often to my clients, and we process the feelings they elicit. Ultimately, the agreements reflect the aspects of the marriage that are working and the ones that are no longer working.

Jonine was interested in occasional sexual encounters if someone “became available” when she traveled for work. Oslo was amenable to this plan, if he could do the same thing and any outside partners lived out of town.

Preparing Couples for a New Contract

Nesting, parenting, open relationship, or separation arrangements created in therapy are often temporary and require careful planning and crafting. Although more and more clients are hearing about them and asking to discuss them, not many couples therapists I know are willing to experiment with them.

I get it. It’s not easy helping people figure out what they want, honestly and openly, when they rewrite their marriage contract. The process usually involves both joint and individual sessions. I don’t tell couples what they ought to do, but I do share the kinds of arrangements that other clients have designed with my help, so they can get an idea of their options. I see my role as a facilitator, creating safety for them to accept and express their wishes, longings, and fantasies. This work involves helping people tolerate the anxiety of thinking their partner’s wants may differ from theirs. It’s a process—but only after each person’s wishes are clearly expressed can partners start crafting an agreement that works for both of them.

Through this process, some couples figure out how to restore their connection and go back to a traditional marriage arrangement. Other couples move on to get divorced once their children have grown older. If you find yourself working with couples willing to be collaborative and creative in designing their future, ask a lot of questions, stay open to different possibilities, and expect this work to deepen your understanding of what it means to help two people find a unique, evolving path that’s right for them.

Photo by iStock/Pixdeluxe

Sara Schwarzbaum

Sara Schwarzbaum, EdD, LMFT, LCPC, is founder of The Academy for Couples Therapists, an online training program, and of Couples Counseling Associates in Chicago, where she currently practices. Her numerous publications include “One Size Does Not Fit All in Couple Therapy: The Case for Theory Integration.” Email her here.