Are Contracts the Key to Long-Term Relationships?

If your live-in relationship could use a little work, should you spell out your requirements in legal language?

Over Monday night football, a dinner of takeout eggplant Parmesan, and a bottle of pinot noir last November in their Manhattan apartment, Audrey Zimmerman felt a familiar surge of resentment as her boyfriend of five years stared blankly at the TV screen. Once again, after she'd suggested a winter getaway, he'd offered his usual unenthusiastic "Sure, I guess" in reply, prompting Zimmerman to ruminate on everything else that felt off about their relationship: their lack of regular sex; his mother's constant insults, like "Congratulations on your promotion, but we'd rather you have babies." The couple planned to get married in a few years, but clearly they needed help.

Zimmerman, 38, a graphic designer, had toyed with the idea of therapy, but maybe there was another route. Her lawyer, Ann-Margaret Carrozza, had mentioned that she drafted cohabitation agreements- Carrozza called them "love contracts"- to help couples sync up their relationship expectations. So over two sessions in Carrozza's office, the duo hashed out the details of a legal document that would define their life together. On Zimmerman's wish list: one international trip a year, sex three times a week, and he had to defend Zimmerman to his mother. And the biggie: Given that Zimmerman had passed over lucrative job opportunities in Chicago five years prior to move to New York City with her financier boyfriend, if they broke up she wanted $15,000 for every year they'd been together to compensate for the lost income she would have earned. He offered clauses of his own, too: monthly date nights, one do-nothing hangout day, and regular sit-downs to review their finances. If either party didn't comply with the contract's terms- say, if he dumped Zimmerman and refused to pay the annual $15,000- the other could sue.

Sound Romantic? Their contract has improved their relationship, insists Zimmerman: "We've made it clear what's important to us. Now we can enjoy our time together because we don't argue over everything." Since he suggested a trip to Mexico, she no longer gets worked up when he wants to be a homebody. As for sex, they're having more of it. "Initially the whole thing was kind of weird," Zimmerman concedes. "No one wants to think you're doing it in anticipation of a train wreck, but it's been a tool to learn how to live together. It's like our marriage training."

Another New Yorker created a contract in 2010 with her longtime live-in boyfriend, with whom she co-owns an apartment, after she got fed up with his late nights. "He would roll in at 5 a.m., sometimes wasted, which is disrespectful," says the 35-year-old editor. She'd threaten to lock him out; they'd argue- until they decided to put it all down on paper. With the help of the site LegalZoom, they drew up a document on their own. Now, if he comes home after 4 a.m., he knows that he'll be sleeping it off in their building's hallway. "Then, since we were doing it, we added how we'd split the apartment and furniture if we were to break up," she says. "I wouldn't expect we'd ever go to court, but it made it feel more real. It's so easy to say you're going to do something and not be held accountable."

Perhaps this litigious phenomenon was inevitable. Considering that 74 percent of U.S. women will live with a partner before 30, according to a 2013 report from the National Center for Health Statistics, with many bringing their own assets to the table, it makes sense that some are seeking out prenuptial-like agreements, even if there are no nuptials to speak of. Nearly 40 percent of divorce lawyers say they've noticed an increase in these agreements, according to a recent poll by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. They can be dizzyingly exhaustive and include clauses about vacation and housework schedules, sleeping and exercise habits, TV viewing- you name it. But are they a hedge against potentially empty "Honey, I'll change!" promises or an excuse to bring out your spontaneity-squashing control freak? And how do you enforce whether someone is, say, not doing the dishes enough, anyway?

"If it's legal and not against public policy, it's enforceable," says Kenneth Altshuler, a Portland, Maine- based family law attorney and past president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. (Except sex obligations, which could be construed as a form of prostitution.) It's fair game to sue over who should pay for property taxes or car repairs, but getting a judge to rule on whether your boyfriend owes you the $100 he agreed to pay if he exceeded his weekly allowance of Sports-Center is a tougher sell. "I've never seen any of these go to trial," says Carrozza. "You'd probably end up settling."

For couples uninterested in a wedding, cohabitation agreements can be a form of marriage lite: You don't get alimony or income tax breaks, or inherit your partner's money, but you can decide what parts of your lives you want to merge, like retirement accounts and life insurance plans. "It's a way to say 'I believe in the relationship, so I'm willing to offer a financial commitment,'" explains Bari Weinberger, a divorce lawyer in Parsippany, New Jersey. But if you do want to marry, will the contract help? While it can be dressed up as "motivational," there's still no escaping the fact that it's a list of conditions for keeping love—which can backfire, cautions Steven Stosny, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., and the author of How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It: "Do you really want your partner to take you to dinner because he signed an agreement, or because he wants to?"

Maria Cognetti, a divorce lawyer in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, says her contract clients are often coming from a place of caution. "They're usually thinking, 'I have to protect what I have,'" she says. Oklahoma City business coach Aprille Franks-Hunt, 37, was relieved that she and her ex had signed a contract when they ended up parting after four years together. "It could have gotten messy," she says, "but we left with what we came with and split what we'd gotten together."

When she tells friends about her contract, Zimmerman realizes that it can come off like a cold approach to love. But if they'd gone to counseling, she says, "it would have been, 'Let's talk about our feelings.' This is more of a guarantee: There's something powerful about signing on the dotted line. It's the difference between promises and results."