When Trish Barillas’ fiancé, Charlie Sandlan, is at risk of getting on her nerves — for example, by chewing loudly, protesting girls’ night or trashing her new favorite hip-hop song — she can shut it down in a word.
“I just say, ‘contract,’ and we kind of return to a natural calm state,” says the 40-year-old life coach.
Barillas and Sandlan, who have been together for a year and a half, have a relationship contract — a smartly designed, 22-item pact enumerating their desires and pet peeves.
Break the terms, Barillas says, and they’ll have to take a good, hard look at their courtship.
The Chelsea couple, now engaged, drafted up their pact a mere 15 days after their first date. Sandlan, 48, had read about them online and brought the idea up with Barillas during a drive upstate. She was immediately on board.
“Relationships get messy and confusing,” says Barillas. “Contracts are reliable — very crystal clear and concrete.”
Control-loving New York couples are jumping on board with prenups for dating, that lay out everything from sex goals to off-limits fighting strategies to non-negotiable personal quirks. Lovers who sign on the dotted line claim that the contracts encourage rational boundary setting, fair fighting and compromise.
For Barillas, that means starting her days on a less-than-ideal note. “I hate NPR,” she says. But Sandlan loves to have it playing in the background when he’s getting ready for his day.
“So [he stipulated that] in the mornings, he has to listen to NPR for at least 20 minutes,” she says. For the good of the couple, Barillas says, “I agreed.”
She’s also given him football Sundays, two date nights a week and a daily phone call — lasting at least five minutes.
“Normally, I would have felt suffocated” by that much contact, she says. But the contract helped to take the edge off. “This is just what he likes — [it’s not] about something I did wrong.”
Besides, she points out, Sandlan has made equally important concessions for her: He’s contractually obligated to support her yearly trips with her best buds, to let her pay for things once in a while and, yes, to work on not chewing loudly.
Relationship therapists say that contracts like Barillas and Sandlan’s can be helpful — depending on how they’re written.
“A long laundry list of annoyances in the form of contractual obligations is not going to fix the relationship,” says Jean Fitzpatrick, a Murray Hill-based marriage counselor who works on similar agreements with her clients, usually during premarital counseling. She believes the trend toward dating contracts likely stems from young couples wanting to split up tasks differently than their parents’ generation did.
The “emotional prenups” Fitzpatrick works on with her clients focus on problems that would necessitate a return to counseling, such as an ongoing conflict or someone not doing their share of chores.
But some think a breach isn’t even worth renegotiating. For Amy Chan, a 37-year-old Chelsea resident, a relationship-contract dispute was reason enough to call it quits.
“It didn’t work because we couldn’t agree on our terms,” says Chan, who runs a retreat called Renew Breakup Bootcamp for women who are trying to recover from a bad split. She felt like, for her ex, “everything had a disclaimer or an ‘out,’ ” allowing him to weasel out of his responsibilities and promises he’d made to her.