Profitable mistakes

These days, it seems society is awash in self-help relationship books--breezy little volumes on snagging the right man or woman, getting him or her to marry you, then finding a way to save the relationship when it begins to fall apart.

Despite this surfeit of advice, divorce seems as prevalent as ever, with as many as one of four marriages ending that way.

A Dallas couple, Phyllis Estes and Colle Davis, considered this bleak statistic and tried to come up with a way to have it both ways--the benefits of a marriage contract, without the ball and chain.

The solution: Don't get married, they say. Get committed.
The unlikely duo--who've racked up at least five divorces between them--have concocted something called a "commitment contract." It's aimed toward the over-40, baby-boomer set, and offers an alternative to marriage and, they hope, the sort of pain that accompanies divorce.

"We support traditional marriage for the purpose of raising children," Estes explains. "But for adults over 40 who have been through the drama and trauma of divorce and are afraid to be in a relationship, this could be for them."

The commitment contract has all the formality of a business arrangement, but in theory is easier to mend or break if things don't work out, the couple says.

Estes, 47, and Davis, 51, developed the contract idea about a year ago for themselves. It breaks down a relationship into seven areas: living arrangements; social expectations; sex; fair fighting; finance; family and in-laws; and routines and habits. Using these sections as an outline, each couple comes up with its own rules governing the non-marriage relationship.

For example, one partner may like sex to be a drawn-out affair that begins with a fancy dinner and ends in the sack, but the other prefers it quick and done.

"You ask for and negotiate exactly what you want," Estes says. "You tell how often you want the 'Tuxedo sex'--with the candlelight and dancing. And how often would you be willing to have 'bikini sex,' which is fast."

Having the number and types of sex acts written into a binding contract seems more than a little bloodless. And Davis admits this approach may seem a bit limp compared to spontaneous sex.

"Yes, it is very clinical," Davis says. "But it's better than going through divorce. In divorce you have to write everything down. We figure, let's do that on the front end."

The commitment contract idea came about as result of Estes' and Davis' own relationship. Soon after meeting in 1995--right on the heels of Estes' most recent divorce--the pair decided to search for a way to be committed to each other without getting married. Davis, who says he was familiar with contract law from his days as a financial planner, was attracted to the idea of devising some kind of legal and binding contract.

"When we met, we had no idea what to do," Estes recalls. "We had to find a solution that works for us. It just grew out of our love for each other."

While they recommend that people take weeks, even months, to complete the contract, they finished theirs in a matter of days. They chose to write it in what they saw as a romantic, spiritual place: Taos, New Mexico. They took long walks, had nice meals. And finally they faced each other, pencils and pads in hand, and began to negotiate.

The duo points out that there's plenty of give and take in writing the contract. They've agreed they will eventually live together; they live in separate homes now. When they do combine their households, neither Davis' children nor Estes' parents can come live with them. Family members can visit for up to two weeks, but no longer. The couple also has a provision for what they call "walk-outs": If an argument becomes too heated, one party is allowed to walk out--for up to an hour. That person has to say where he's going and when he'll be back.

So far, the couple say the contract is working for them. And though they've only been living under its constraints for four months, they're already planning to offer a course and book about the marriage alternative.

In their book proposal for Re/Destinations: Adults at a Crossroads, Davis and Estes write that baby boomers have "spent billions of dollars learning HOW TO [find the right person], attending retreats, workshops, fire walks, intensive encounter weekends, motivational speakers."

What boomers haven't done as well, the couple says, is find ways to hold those relationships together and minimize the risks if a break-up does occur.

The commitment contract course is slated to begin in August at a Dallas hotel, and will cost $149 per person for six hours of instruction and a workbook. The book deal, however, is still a dream. The couple have hired an agent, and claim they've elicited interest from some New York publishing companies.

It may seem more than a little strange to peddle advice on commitments when none of your own relationships has gone the distance. Estes and Davis, however, say their multiple divorces gave them a learned perspective.

"We like to think that because of the pain we've suffered through, that we can speak with the voice of experience," Estes says.

What the contract offers is "a formula for creating the relationship you have always wanted," according to the couple's book proposal.

Davis and Estes don't offer many details about what happens if the contract is broken. It's a "living, working" document, Estes says. "You can negotiate," she adds. And after two years, if one partner decides to ditch the other, "You can go through a process to make it null and void."

Is such a contract enforceable? That's unclear. Larry Praeger, a Dallas attorney certified in family law, says the bigger question is whether the courts should be involved in such arrangements at all.

"Do you really want a judge to decide on how often you take someone to the opera or if you have sex three times a week?" he asks. "You're not going to make people better human beings through the legal system."

The skeptics about commitment contracts include Davis' three children. "My kids think I'm crazy," he says.

Davis and Estes are not new to the counseling business. Davis, a licensed counselor, has spent the last 15 years as a "business coach," a jaunty title for a psychotherapist who helps business people become more successful. Estes, a writer, produces seminars about creativity, including "The Artist's Way" and "Going Within for Answers." She also writes a weekly column on "creativity and personal transformation" for Today's Dallas Woman.

"The major difference between [the contract] and marriage is that marriage is very easy to get into and very difficult to get out of," Davis says. "We have sort of turned that around. Here there is always room for negotiation, where in a marriage you are locked together.


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