Millennials are interested in relationship contracts, and it matters

Millennials may be ruining everything, from sex to cruises to golf (I’m with you on that last one, millennials), but there’s one thing they are actively looking to improve — their relationships, even if they are sidestepping or delaying marriage. Which is great because not everyone wants to wed but even if they do, marriage is a relationship — right?

Susan and I recently attended “Design for Love: Design Thinking + Relation-
ships,” a workshop that sought to apply design concepts to create a more conscious way of coupling. It was presented by Logan Ury, 30, a Harvard-trained behavioral scientist formerly with Google and Airbnb who is off to a three-month stint with TEDx in New York, and Hannah Hughes, a 20-something who leads global product marketing for special projects at Airbnb and has created a sex-positive app, Romp, which will be available this spring. The workshop was a practice run for their talk at SXSW at 11 a.m. March 11, and the room, which can hold 150, was packed with young people.

One of the first things discussed was relationship contracts — yep, the contract in The New I Do that asks couples to talk, agree to and write down how they want to structure their relationship based on their goals and values, the same contract that Modern Love essayist and creative writing professor Mandy Len Catron used when moving in with her romantic partner, Mark, and that she highlights in her book, How to Fall in Love With Anyone.

Their contract is almost up and they are now thinking about what their next contract will look like because their life is changing in significant ways: “Our next version will have a mortgage section, and questions about starting a family, whether or not we want to get married,” she tells the Telegraph.

It was incredibly validating for us was to see our idea of creating a renewable contract being embraced by — or at least sparking a curiosity in — millennials. Why? Well, you can read more here.

Is sex causing problems in your marriage?

If you can relate to any of the following, your marriage is probably in trouble:

You want sex twice a week but your spouse wants sex twice a year. You can’t remember the last time you had sex. You forgot what it feels like to have sex. You are starting to think about having sex with your co-worker. You are becoming more and more preoccupied with porn. You’ve started an emotional affair. Or, perhaps you’ve already crossed the line and you’re involved in a full-on mental, emotional and physical affair.

Whatever the specifics of your situation, when you and your partner are not on the same page in the intimacy department, one of the most pleasurable aspects of a relationship—sex—can become one of the most painful. In fact, the very thing that may have brought you together is now threatening to blow apart everything that you’ve worked so hard to build.

As potent as sex is in relationships, what makes it more challenging is not being able to talk about it freely with others. It’s embarrassing and humiliating for most to admit that things are not good in the bedroom. Yet, dissatisfaction is much more prevalent in couples the longer they are married. As Eli Finkel states in, The All-or-Nothing Marriage, How the Best Marriages Work, it’s really hard for couples to maintain the same level of interest and excitement with one person for years on end.

Vicki and I are not researchers, but based on responses to posts we have gotten to our articles (See “Why is Sex in Marriage Such a Big Deal?” and “Sexless Marriage or Cheating Spouse—What’s Worse?”), it seems that the subject of sexlessness in marriage strikes a painful chord for many.

Here are some responses we got from men:

  • “[Anyone] who knows both of us thinks we’re a normal married couple because this is something that you hide from people like you are living a lie. Basically my life for the last 20 years is a lie. I might be married on paper but not in reality.”
  • “[The] baby was born healthy beautiful and all was well…she was 41 and I was 37… That was the end of our regular sex life.”
  • “When I try [to initiate sex], she pushes me away, making that go-to excuse ‘I have a headache’ or ‘I’m tired.’ So I’m lucky if I get it once a month.”

And then there’s this, from “Sad in PA”:

  • “Well, I ended up in an affair and caught, too. Unfortunately it seems this is headed to divorce. Even though I want to fix the mess. All I wanted was to give my [loving] to MY WIFE.”

There is no shortage of men feeling rejection from their wives, but at least as many women feel spurned by their husbands. In fact, most of the responses to Vicki’s article were from wives who wanted more sex:

  • “I’d like sex 3 times a week, but I’d kill for twice a month.”
  • “It is awful. You go through a daily barrage of emotions that you feel are strangling the life out of you. You feel neglected, ignored, dismissed, alone, frustrated, tempted, beaten down emotionally, you feel like roommates instead of spouses. Then you see their wandering eye. Another slap in the face.”
  • “I’m 33 and my husband is 32. We haven’t had sex in over a year. I’m desperate for human contact. I initiate it all the time and am turned down. Otherwise we have a great relationship. Kiss, hug, laugh. I’ve told him many times I want sex he says, ‘[yeah], we need to work in that,’ but it never goes anywhere. Now I’m fantasizing about our male friends. So horrible.”

Recently, a man named “Ben” responded to my post with:

  • “Withholding sex seems to be incredibly common, according to my research from both men and women. I’m more and more convinced that a long-term monogamous relationship just isn’t possible. I mean, how can it be really? Just because society somehow wants it to be like that, it clearly doesn’t work for most couples.”

Can the past predict our future?

Marriage in the Western world has only been based on love for about the past couple of hundred years. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the primary purpose of marriage was to procreate (legitimately) and to fulfill financial, political, or social expectations. Monogamy probably wasn’t as important to these married couples because they joined families based on a purpose, rather than an emotion.

While social scientists continue to search for answers to what’s “natural” for us, and how we operate best in relationships, marriage and relationships continue to change, and rapidly.

Because of technological advances, we no longer need marriage—or even coupling—to survive. We base the impetus for so many of our actions today much more on what will bring us happiness and fulfillment. (This relates not only to if and how we partner, but also where we live and work.) If marriage doesn’t fulfill us, why marry? This is the question many Millennials are asking—and likely a big factor in our declining marriage rates.) Is it time to revisit purpose-driven marriage, such as a “parenting marriage,” in order to raise kids together, or even a “safety marriage” to build financial resources together?

What’s the real issue?

What seems obvious to me is that, while we say affairs are not supposed to happen, they do—a lot. With so many unfulfilled sex lives out there, and so much cheating going on, it begs the questions: Is monogamy outdated? Could marriages that are otherwise good and healthy actually find hope in becoming open? Could those with a higher sex drive have permission to have sex outside the marriage from the less-sexual spouse?

Esther Perel, noted therapist and author of Mating in Captivityoffers an important observation that monogamy and love don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other—and that it’s not always unhappily married people who cheat. Happy people cheat, too, she finds. Monogamy used to mean one person for life. Today, we define monogamy as one person at a time. We used to have to seek love in adultery but now, because we have love in marriage, adultery can destroy the marriage.

Infidelity has probably always been painful, but today, Perel says, it’s traumatic because it threatens our sense of self:

“Romantic ideal makes us rely on our partner’s fidelity with unique fervor but we are never more inclined to stray because we are more entitled than ever to be happy.”

In her recently released book, The State of Affairs, Rethinking Infidelity, Perel examines the anatomy of an affair from all angles—the person having the tryst, the one being cheated on, and from the vantage point of the “other man” or “woman.”

Just as Vicki and I conclude in The New I Do, Perel concludes that one of our greatest impediments is that we keep trying to make blanket rules for every couple but, it simply doesn’t work. Because each couple has its own unique needs and desires, any rules of social order are little more than a set up to fail.

What would happen if we left it up to each individual couple to have open, honest conversations about whether they want to open their marriage, and if so, just how open they’d like it to be? Would all hell break lose? What would happen if we could talk more openly and honestly about what’s working in the bedroom and what’s not?

There’s no question that sex and monogamy are tough subjects to bring up, that there are taboos against non-monogamy, and that some spouses just “don’t want to go there.” But if couples don’t have important conversations about exclusivity and expectations about fidelity, the door to greater fallout remains open because they will undoubtedly default to dishonesty, which, as Finkel points out, is almost always a worse betrayal to the jilted party than the cheating.

Like most challenges we face in life, avoiding the topic or wishing things could be different doesn’t make problems go away.

What are your thoughts? Should we be able to talk more openly with others about our sexual frustrations or let-downs? Should we be more open to opening up our marriages? What would happen if we had more options than simply staying in a sexless marriage, having an illicit affair, or divorcing?