The Relationship Contract


For centuries rebel writers have compared marriage to prostitution. Michelle Obama’s relationship advice to school children backs up the argument. That and a thousand other pieces of evidence.

This week a friend told me she was planning a two-week soul-searching trip to India. Last time we spoke, I recalled, she had planned a whole month. “My boyfriend didn’t want me to go for that long on my own, so we compromised.” She clarified. I was – as I so often am when I talk to friends engrossed in relationships – aghast. Must it always be that a sexual relationship precludes a claim of ownership over our partner’s time?

In the same week, a male colleague nervously joked of his impending marriage and stag do. “Last weekend of freedom!” It’s a common bachelor quip, but the fact that we so easily and jestingly associate sexual commitment with lack of personal freedom says a lot.

I’ve added it to my growing mountain of evidence that all relationships are an act of negotiation, no different to the model of prostitution. Michelle Obama’s relationship advice to a group of school children while on her visit to the UK last month? “Reach for partners that make you better. Do not bring people into your life who weigh you down.”

Not since I last heard an Eleanor Roosevelt quote have I agreed with an American First Lady so much. With every relationship comes a sacrifice – time, energy, diary control, quality of sleep, wardrobe space. We wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) endure it unless a partner adds to our life overall.

All of us seek a relationship for a reason. Most would claim it’s for companionship. Some would sheepishly admit that it’s because they want a family. A brave and honest few would admit that it’s for financial stability or domestic practicality. For some it’s simply that they long to fit in with the social norm of couplehood – that seems to be so much more agreeable to family, friends and colleagues. (“When are you going to settle down?”)

This isn’t wrong. We shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that pure romantic love isn’t the only motivation for a relationship. It doesn’t mean that behind every happy couple is a spreadsheet breakdown of benefits offset by sacrifices. Genuine love is still, usually, the conscious driving factor of any relationship but there is always – consciously or subconsciously – a selfish reason why we seek a relationship and a pragmatic drive as to how long we stay in it.

The Obama’s do seem genuinely in love to even the gravest PR cynic. But she still told those school children that when she met her husband she “always believed he would be useful.”

Fox News didn’t like this nugget. They called it ‘weird relationship advice.” It isn’t weird. It’s natural. Men and women have been bartering for relationship return for aeons.

Evolutionary psychologists call it ‘The Sex Contract’, as thrashed out by our prehistoric cousins. Our sex lives evolved like this: Male offers meat, protection, shelter and help in rearing the kids. In return, woman allows exclusive and fairly frequent sexual access. A woman selected her partner based on who would offer the greatest return of investment. She wouldn’t waste time, energy and the risks of pregnancy on a man who didn’t look likely to stick around and help. Likewise a man wouldn’t waste his hunting catch on a woman who may be sleeping with someone else, because that increases paternity uncertainty. And what a waste of resources it would be if he were providing for someone else’s offspring!

There is no such thing as a fine line between relationships and prostitution. All relationships lie on a sliding scale with cash-for-quickie-sex on one end and so-called true love on the other. The only difference is the currency. Helen Wood, for instance, trades in the concrete and countable currency of cash. But on the other end of the scale, the currency is more complex and fluctuates in value over time. It’s a bit like the Euro – you’ll often disagree over whether you should have joined in the first place. On this end of the scale the investment is higher (a life-long 24-hour contract sometimes!) and the benefits are more subjective. It could be emotional support, familiarity, someone to drive if you want to drink or being safe in the knowledge that there’s someone to take the bins out every Tuesday.

There is no such thing as selfless romantic love. The Greeks very sensibly distinguished between the conditional romantic love for a partner and the unconditional love for a child or a brother or a deity. They called them Eros and Agape. They would never ever confuse romantic love with unconditional love. “But if you loved me, you’d buy me those shoes!” “I do love you darling, but I’d love you more if you gave me a blow job once a week.”

I struggle to understand the derogatory label attached to prostitution. As long as all are aware of the terms of the contract. It is far worse for a woman to pretend to trade in love when really she just wants access to half her man’s assets. And it’s far worse for a man to pretend to offer commitment when really he wants cheap sex. Hail the man who is prepared to pay for the perk of no strings!

I call the currency of relationships emotional capital. If you invest in someone emotionally, you expect time and commitment back. If you give your pledge of monogamy, you would at least expect that person to be on the end of the phone after a bad day. If you’re not interested in emotional return – like Helen Wood, then the rewards take a material form. It’s been the way throughout centuries and across cultures. Our Victorian ancestors selected their suitors on their ability to provide. In arranged marriages this is still the case. Even in our modern, PC, gender-balanced western world, I bet you’d still raise an impressionable eyebrow if a girl friend disclosed she’d bagged a banker or a lawyer.

I’m by no means the first to group together relationships and prostitution. The writer Mary Wollstonecraft famously declared marriage was legalised prostitution in the 18C. In the 70’s feminists carried banners with that very slogan on it. And more recently economist Gary Becker won a Nobel peace prize for his “Theory of Marriage” which concluded that “mate selection is a market, and marriages only occur if they are profitable for both.”

It’s very true. Love and sex are traded in a complex marketplace with competing currencies of commitment, affection, domestic help, co-parenting, status and cash. Women’s fertility is precious and therefore expensive. She never has, and never will, give it away for free. If she did the bottom would fall out of the market.

Helen Croydon is an author, journalist and broadcaster.

Watch a related interview on Joy TV on Helen talking about relationships as a form of prostitution: (here)

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