I am writing a contract with my friends. Everyone is tired after long days at work and would rather be watching Netflix, but instead we are fleshing out bleak future scenarios: What if their marriage breaks down? What if we die? What if someone has an accident and can no longer work? What if we come to hate each other? Working off a template, we are trying to weave a legal container that could help us navigate the imagined future end of our relationship.
This has not been my usual experience of friendship.
My husband and I had been praying and thinking about living in community for years. We felt called to London, but we couldn’t square that calling with the impossibility of affording a home big enough for our family and the missional hospitality we longed to offer. We believed the atomized nuclear-family home served too few, putting pressure on marriages while excluding people who were single or lacking material resources. We longed for a deeper place for discipleship. We wanted to prepare for an environmentally and geopolitically turbulent future. And, frankly, we yearned for adventure.
We raised the possibility with various friends, but most of them were too deep in the survival-mode years of young children to consider it, or too scared of the potential conflict. I knew, deep down, that I couldn’t live with many of my dearest friends, and they couldn’t live with me.
And then a new couple walked into our church. I discovered that they had lived in community before and were keen to do so again. I felt again the vulnerability of my dating years when I invited them over for dinner to explore whether we might one day want to live together.
For nearly two years we met and prayed and researched and talked. We discussed everything from our personality types to our childhood experiences of home to our deepest fears. We bought a book about the practical aspects of living in community and worked through exercises. The intentionality of it all felt foreign. Most new friendships are riven with ambiguity, but this was clear by design. We needed to know each other well, not just out of curiosity, but from practical need. Major future life decisions rested on how well we handled feeling grumpy, how we managed disagreement, if we were reliable. We had to regularly talk about how we were all feeling about our strange shared dream, to address misunderstanding and hurt as we went along. It was (and is) tiring, but it was also extraordinarily intimate. Within a few months I felt known in a way only my oldest friends know me—the unlovely parts along with my strengths. I knew them also, and their vulnerability felt like a gift.
I felt known in a way only my oldest friends know me—the unlovely parts along with my strengths. I knew them also, and their vulnerability felt like a gift.
Then the pandemic arrived. We could meet only by Zoom, them calling from a tiny flat—one furloughed, one overworking—while we retreated to my parents’ house in the countryside and frantically learned to homeschool. We missed each other. All around us the already creaking model of atomized, expensive housing began to show fissures, with people trapped in their isolated hutches. Our dream seemed more important than ever.
And so, as soon as it was legal, we leaped. A friend leaving London in the Great Post-pandemic Exodus offered to rent us her house. Two months later we all moved in. And now, eighteen months into our “test of concept” and on the verge of buying a house together, we are again forced into hyper-clarity—this time by lawyers.
Most friendships are defined by implicit, unspoken agreements. An understanding of who we are to each other accrues over time. We send a series of tiny signals, repeated bids for connection, contact, or attention that are either reciprocated or ignored. We post them a book. They show up at a birthday party. We forward them a job ad. The undertone of so many of these interactions is “I was thinking of you when I wasn’t with you. You matter to me.” But unlike in romantic relationships, there is little social permission to just say that. And so most of us navigate this risky emotional terrain making barely conscious calculations. What is legitimate to want from this person? How much am I happy for them to request of me? Is it safe to be myself? How many messages can go unanswered before it’s okay to feel hurt? What happens when one of us wants this to end? What are the “terms” of our endearment?
Nietzsche wrote, “Just think to yourself . . . how different are the feelings, how divided the opinions, even among the closest acquaintances . . . how many hundreds of times there is occasion for misunderstanding or hostile flight. . . . How unsure is the ground on which all our . . . friendships rest; how lonely is every man!” Occasion for misunderstanding or hostile flight. That feels like a good summary of the last few years of politics and pandemic. I can’t be the only one who has friendships that feel on unstable ground.
When my husband and I were getting married we took a course that deliberately surfaced many of our unspoken assumptions about what a marriage should look like. We spoke about our parents’ marriages and our hopes for our own, and we spelled out exactly what we understood by our commitment to each other. We signed a document in a public ritual that is both a legal contract and that deeper, older thing, a covenant. There are social structures to reinforce it—date nights and marriage advice and an expectation that we will continually express and maintain our commitment.
It’s not just marriage; clarity is a current buzzword in leadership circles too. Simon Sinek has named it a key characteristic for leaders, and Brené Brown has put the phrase “Clarity is kindness” at the centre of her theory of leadership. (Next to the Bible, this Brown line might be the most quoted phrase in our community. In fact, we sometimes joke about naming whatever it is we are doing “the Order of St. Brené.”) In professional settings, clarity about the nature of team relationships is key to a healthy work culture. Too often this is also unspoken—the first weeks and months in a new organization are spent feeling out the interpersonal terrain—but job descriptions and org charts and statements of values usually give some clarity, and more and more organizations understand its importance.
This drive for more clarity can be seen in a range of other settings. In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker argues that clarity of purpose and expectations are the key ingredient of any successful event, meeting, or encounter. I’ve seen first-hand how a lack of clarity in church settings, whether about doctrine, decision-making, or leadership, can lead to deep (usually unintentional) hurt. Healthy churches are clear on who they are and what they are trying to do, drawing on the fairly clear and direct New Testament epistles for guidance. Church relationships aren’t always easy, but at least there is a framework.
But my friendships remain my least-defined relationships. When I think about what I want my life to be defined by, friends are close to equal in importance with my spouse and children, equally as important as my church, and more important than my work.
So why do I mainly leave it all unsaid?
The Appeal of Friendship Contracts
I am not the only person thinking about this. A few months ago I saw this much-liked tweet: “how do i explain to my friend that turning all their friendships into explicit contracts is a bad idea?”
The dominant tone of the replies was horror. A friendship contract sounded to many like an oxymoron, confusing voluntary associations with business. It was the creep of capitalism into human relationships, people said. (Almost everything is the creep of capitalism, on Twitter.) I instinctively agreed. Trying to exhaustively list expectations, responsibilities, and consequences in a friendship felt at the very least like the creep of individualism. The bald legal language might fix the challenge of a lack of clarity, but at what cost?
When pressed for details of the friendship contract in question, the tweeter added:
they want things like:
– you’ll lend me money if i need it
– when i call you twice you’ll always answer and you won’t leave your phone on full silent even at night
i reckon what’s happened is that they don’t know how else to ask for these things, and even though they don’t need them right now they felt very lost and abandoned when they felt they didn’t have them from people they considered friends a few months ago
“They don’t know how else to ask for these things” echoes with sadness, the raw vulnerability of needing others and not knowing how to protect ourselves from disappointment. It was a tiny Twitter story, rich with human drama. It stayed with me. Both as a leader and as someone living in community, I have become doggedly committed to the value of clarity and therefore wondered if some mechanism for injecting clarity into friendship might not be a terrible idea. I went looking to see if there were healthier versions.
The hashtag #friendshipcontract has been used thousands of time on Instagram and TikTok, and a Google search will present you with a range of printable templates. Some of these are twee and adolescent, covered in hand-drawn hearts, only slightly more formal than “BFF” necklaces. Some, however, seem to have serious intent, presented with all the solemnity of a binding legal contract. Templates are also offered as resources for teachers seeking to deal with arguing friends, the pedagogical message being that clarity of expectation makes relationships easier to navigate.
You will also find contracts, different in tone, for “friends with benefits” (it’s actually called something less polite than that, but this is a very proper magazine), presumably to avoid future confusion about what sexual intercourse implies. Attempts at clarity spring up more readily when our established categories get confused—we usually don’t have sex with our friends. (This confusion has become a regular rom-com trope.)
In a few places there have been attempts to have friendship recognized in law. In the Netherlands, platonic best friends Joost Janmaat and Christiaan Fruneaux signed the first legally binding friendship contract in 2015 as part of a move to recognize the ways friendship can play as significant a role in people’s lives as marriage. They would like to see similar rights extended to those bound by a friendship contract as to those who are married—for example, having the inheritance tax scrapped and gaining protections against testifying in court.
None of these seemed quite what I was after.
The Insufficiencies of Friendship Contracts
My housemate is on the phone to movers, getting a quote. I am cleaning the gunk off the dishwasher filter, feeling miffed that no one else has, while also feeling faintly guilty that I’ve not emptied the food waste bin. Sometimes living in community feels more like living with siblings than with friends. The practicalities force a proximity almost unheard of in normal friendship. We feel faintly annoyed or defensive much more often than with other friends, but we also clear the air more. More is asked of us—when I am low and tired I really don’t want to have to tidy up after myself, or show up for house night—but we also receive far, far more.
Purchasing property requires a legal contract between us. And I am a pragmatist with a pessimistic streak, well aware that many communities begin with utopian dreams and end in flames. Still, the writing of it feels odd. Our contract is necessary but not sufficient, and in its legal form not really about our friendship at all. It’s the language of assets and liabilities, risk and reward—not trust, reciprocity, and respect. It isn’t, and shouldn’t be, transferable to friendships not involving property, but I can’t help feeling that something of what we’re learning should be.
The commitment we are making to a shared life feels more like a marriage than a business deal. More like a covenant. Maybe that’s what we need. Maybe that’s what all friendships could use.
Our contract is necessary but not sufficient, and in its legal form not really about our friendship at all. It’s the language of assets and liabilities, risk and reward—not trust, reciprocity, and respect.
The covenant is a key biblical theme—some would argue its central motif. God enters into covenants with human beings—commitments involving promises and obligations that seem to be repeatedly broken (at least on the side of the humans) and repaired. It’s not a contract with carefully listed requirements that becomes nullified when one of the obligations isn’t met. Rather, it’s more like a posture, a promise, a turning toward.
The late Rabbi Sacks first clarified for me the difference between a covenant and a contract: “In a contract, two or more people come together, each pursuing their self-interest, to make a mutually advantageous exchange. In a covenant, two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can achieve alone. . . . It isn’t an exchange; it’s a moral commitment. Contracts are about interests; covenants are about identity. Contracts benefit; covenants transform. Contracts are about ‘me’ and ‘you’; covenants are about ‘us.’”
Contracts reinforce separateness. They purport to make it easier to trust, by reducing risk, but I’m not convinced they actually have that effect. The contract with our friends makes clear our separate interests in an adversarial future event. It assumes competing rights and attempts to balance them.
In our situation, a kumbaya approach to owning a house together that denies the risks we are taking would be irresponsible, and there are good theological reasons to guard against our own and others’ future sin. But I discover that my cynical old heart wants a covenant as well. Covenants work differently, thinning rather than reinforcing the boundaries between us, making us mutually vulnerable, mutually responsible.
I suggest writing a covenant together at our next house night, once we’ve all recovered from the contract session. Maybe it can be a pilot for friendship covenants more generally, I tell them. It surprises no one that I’m the person pushing for more clarity, looking ahead at worst-case scenarios, wanting to guard us against relational pain. Clarity is kindness, I repeat, nodding toward our icon of St. Brené (I’m joking).
Covenants work differently, thinning rather than reinforcing the boundaries between us, making us mutually vulnerable, mutually responsible.
The others are less keen on a friendship covenant. My husband, much influenced by the legal arguments of Jonathan Sumption, argues that as long as we are all clear and happy we should write down as little as possible. Like Sumption, he thinks there is danger in most written codes because they attempt to ossify a moment in time. Our housemates broadly agree. We are living a covenant, is the mood of the group. We already have clarity. The point isn’t the document.
They may be right. Edward Langerak, in a paper on covenantal ethics, explores the dangers of codifying a covenant too tightly, writing, “One of the reasons that those bonded in covenant cannot explicitly list all the rights and duties of those in the covenant is that, since covenants generally involve elements of gift and indebtedness, there is often an incommensurability between the gift and any efforts to pay for it.”
Incommensurability is inherently unclear, unresolvably unstable. Which is why buying a house with someone you are not married or related to can feel terrifying. I can see the skepticism on the faces of people I tell, swiftly followed by remarks like “I hope you’ve got good legal agreements.” We have—or we will have. What I don’t know how to say is that I’m not worried about who gets what money on point of sale. I mean, I want that to be fair (though what actually is fair in a Kingdom economy is a knotty question that many late nights and bottles of wine have failed as yet to resolve—send me your answers on a postcard), but most of all I want to know how to protect against the emotional breakdown that would lead to our having to appeal to these agreements in the first place.
On the days I’m overwhelmed I can feel the appeal of a friendship contract, not just for our assets but also for our behaviour: putting down on paper how we intend to treat each other, spelling out what loving each other well means, protecting ourselves against future hurt. The person I learned of on Twitter who wanted to contract her friends to answer the phone makes a sort of shameful sense. But Langerak argues that this is to fundamentally misunderstand covenant: “Often the effort to calculate our covenantal responsibilities—to interpret them contractually—results in a paradoxical maximizing and minimizing of them.” The Israelites make this mistake repeatedly, thinking time and again that simply increasing the number of sacrifices can somehow compensate God for life, for salvation. In these calculations there is the echo of a parent who buys presents to make up for their absence, or a spouse who thinks expensive jewellery can compensate for faithlessness.
Sometimes couples rewrite marriage vows to make marriage seem like a list. (“I promise to bring you a hot water bottle when you’re on your period. I promise to let you watch football.”) But a covenant isn’t a list. These things are representative of something harder to quantify: care. A hot water bottle or football may not be the things we need in different seasons of marriage, but we will always need care. Marriage vows are an anchor into that future, a promise to follow the thread of care wherever it leads. The thing that endures, like God’s covenant with his people, is difficult to codify in language, and it changes shape over time. Langerak again: “Covenantal living shapes responsibilities, and responsibilities shape covenantal living, and both are shaped by events that impinge on them, but it is extremely difficult to legalistically list the ways in which this happens.”
So no friendship covenant with my housemates—or rather, not a written one. A covenant is a promise of a posture, and its clarity is in our actions.
We will have a commitment service though, where we give thanks to God together for our new house and ask people to pray for us: that we can continue to love each other well, that we will together become a place where others find love too. It’s clear enough for now.
Despite rejecting friendship contracts and even written covenants, I’m still left with a desire for more clarity with my other friends. I don’t want them to have to guess what they mean to me. For a few people I think of as “lifers,” I’ve decided the first step is to “define the relationship,” like you do in dating when you want to clarify what is happening. This is what you mean to me. Am I a lifer to you? I want to covenant with you. We are an Us, not just a you and a me. We are, and this is a weighty and serious thing, Friends.