If marriage were a product in the market place, ailing and outmoded, its manufacturers would have revamped it and relaunched it long ago in a bid to boost its appeal. And that is exactly what some couples are doing for themselves. Convinced that the conventional patterns don't fit their needs or their particular natures, they have reconstructed marriage in different, less rigid, forms to suit the way they are. Naseem Khan talks to three couples about the pros and cons of their private arrangements

WE NEGOTIATED OUR OWN CONTRACT

Kate and Brian's stormy relationship was saved by their invention of a contract that reminds them of their shared ground rules. Kate, 53, is a textile artist and Brian, 50, a property developer. Both live in Leeds.

Brian: Both of us had been in marriages before, so we were reluctant to go into another one in a traditional form. I see marriage, for the most part, as people entering unconsciously into a contract, the conditions of which they have not explored or understood. This contract that we put together I consider much more binding, in fact. We put it together in May 1991, and we've renewed it three times since then. The last time, we renewed it until the year 2000. I think you could say it saved our relationship. I don't think we would still be together if it hadn't been for it.

Kate: Definitely not. We've had a pretty up-and-down sort of relationship. We've been together now for 14 years - I was introduced to him by his ex-wife, actually. I didn't think much of him at the time. He wasn't as cultured as I am. He didn't like the theatre or reading. He wasn't into any of my interests. He was a property developer in Bradford, while I was a community artist living in Leeds.

But still, he used to go on phoning me five or six times a week and taking me out.

Brian: I thought she was pretty great - though not as much as I do now.

Kate: So there was this doggedly devoted man in the background, which was really rather nice. It was only when we were on a self-development course, after about five years, that I realised I was keeping him at bay in case someone better should come along. So I decided to make a commitment. I told him first of all I didn't fancy him . . .

Brian: I knew that anyway.

Kate: And, oddly, as I said that, the feeling disappeared. But then, once I'd made my brave commitment, he got really scared. He started backing off and having relationships with other women, not just sex but what I thought was bonding with them. He had one relationship in particular which I thought was beyond the pale.

Brian: Finally, we went to see a counsellor, and I suddenly realised that in my work I negotiated quite complex contracts every day. So I thought, why don't I draw up a contract that sets out what we both agree to?

I sat down and did it straight away on a page in my Filofax. It took me a quarter of an hour, and we've never changed it.

Kate: The first clause is about being sexually faithful. It's the one thing that's caused us most trouble. I tried an open relationship because that's what Brian wanted. I thought I could handle it, but I really couldn't. So I said to him, 'Right, I know I said it would be OK, but it's hurting me too much.' I learnt it was fine for me to be selfish and say what I myself wanted.

Brian: Fundamentally, sexual faithfulness is essential. We've tried it every other way, but our conclusion is that this is the only way it works. But the thing about the contract is that it depends on constant negotiation. The eighth point, for instance, says we should 'express our needs to each other', especially if we're in breakdown. We don't always do that. We both have a tendency to hide, metaphorically, when things qo wrong.

There are times when I don't want to talk things over. I don't want to talk at all, I don't want to be dug at. But that's the commitment. Kate's much more conscious about our relationship than I am. I think women are. And our digging away means that if a stone needs turning over, one of us will kick it over. And it's usually Kate.

Kate: We still keep our own houses, and that helps. We've each got our own private spaces where we can be on our own if we want to be. Living together or not isn't an issue any more. It was about 10 years ago, and we lived together for a year, but really I felt I had no privacy. This way has its disadvantages. There's the physical inconvenience. I've got a desk there now but often I don't have what I want when I'm in Brian's house.

But, to be quite honest, I don't trust my own conditioning as a woman. If I were to live with Brian I'd want to do things all the time, do things around the house. When I'm not there, he doesn't eat. But I don't want to take on all that. I don't want to take on looking after his clothes. I know if I lived with him, I'd find myself doing that, being in the supportive role.

Brian: It's always possible that things may change. We might live together some time in the future, when we've worked out our different rhythms. The trouble with ideas about marriage is that in general they are far too fixed. However, what I do know at the moment is that this relationship is the most important area in my life. I didn't feel life was an adventure before I met Kate. A lot of it was simply to be got through on the way to somewhere else. Now, every element of it is either challenging or exciting. It's not flat survival.

Kate: That's absolutely vital, in my view. What was it George Bernard Shaw said about life - something like, 'to be burnt out, to be fully used up . . .'? I believe that means to have used yourself fully, not to have saved yourself; not to have saved what you really want to do for the future and then died before you've done it.

A COMMUNE IS BETTER THAN A COUPLE

Karl and Jenny decided their marriage would work better in a commune. Karl, 31, once a physicist, now works as a computer programmer, while Jenny, 27, looks after their small children, Nuala and Han, at the commune in Cambridgeshire.

Jenny: I've known since I was a teenager that I didn't want to live in a couple situation. The role models I saw around me, on the whole - well, they trapped people. I didn't see people having much fun and I thought, 'I don't really want to do that. I want to live with friends.'

Karl: It seems much more exciting, and there are many more possibilities at a simple level. You get pooled resources, for a start. I like gardening and I like machines, and here, at Parsonage Farm, I get the opportunity to do both. And my idea of bringing up children has always been to have lots of adults around, not just two people.

Jenny: Of course, this happened by accident, in a way. I was 20 when we met, seven years ago. Karl came into the wholefood shop where I was working. We started going out and we got on really well. I'd been planning to sail to Australia with friends, but I decided to stay - mainly because of Karl. I must say, it still rankles. I don't regret being with Karl, but I sometimes think I should have carried on doing what I wanted to do.

Karl: It was different for me. Jenny was my first real girlfriend - maybe because of the racism against part- Chinese men. To be honest, I was quite desperate. And at first I had entirely unreasonable expectations of her - that she was going to be the 'perfect woman'. Of course, I was quite satisfied with myself. Over the years we've had incredible arguments and been extremely upset with each other for long periods of time. I've been really horrible in lots of different ways - and I think maybe you have been, too.

Jenny: Yes, I have.

Karl: It's taken a lot of time, but I think we're clear now.

Jenny: At first, you were really jealous of the past people I'd been with, and I felt very restricted by that. That's alright now - I know Karl isn't going to freak out. He's changed a lot, and I suppose I have, too. At the beginning, I was incredibly reckless.

Karl: I always reckoned she was risking her life.

Jenny: I'm not so thoughtless about other people now.

Karl: And living in a commune has probably helped. It relieves some of the tension there might have been if we were living on our own. It stops the tendency a lot of people in couples have, including us, to look to each other for more than is reasonable.

Jenny: It's important to realise that communes differ. At the beginning we were wanting to set up our own, with friends. We were researching the idea and so we came here to look at it. Then I became pregnant with Nuala, just over four years ago, and so we just moved in. Karl had to find a job - he'd been a physicist originally, but got a job as a computer programmer in Cambridge.

It's a reasonably relaxed set-up - there are eight adults and six children (though they're all much older than ours), and we have a rota where each adult cooks over an eight-day or so cycle. We've got our own large ground- floor room, and now that Han has been born, we're going to get a second room.

Karl: The advantages are straightforward. It's cheap, and there's inbuilt child care. There's always someone around to keep an eye on the children if Jenny and I go out for bike rides. But it can be a bit stifling. We both try to make friendships outside as much as possible.

Jenny: That's not easy, because there's no denying this place is looked at in a certain way in the village - they think of it as a freaky place. After quite some time, I managed to ask one of the other mothers at Nuala's playgroup: 'Tell me honestly, do you think Parsonage Farm is odd?' And she said: 'Well, it is weird, isn't it?' We've got over that now, but I don't think we'll live here for ever. I'm not sure I want to live in quite such a communal way. I'd like it to be more relaxed, not necessarily eating together each evening.

There's lots of good things about it, but I'd like to set up something with friends closer to our own age. Maybe with friends all living in the same street or sharing a house, but not so closely as this.

Karl: It's true that in some ways, though, our relationship is better because of living here.

Jenny: But the people here are not my primary friendships, although some of them are quite important to me. My relationship with Karl is the most important thing in my life. I do value it. But one day I can imagine going off travelling when the children are old enough or doing a major project, and our relationship won't stop me.

Karl: I get scared when you talk like that.

Jenny: It is scary.

Karl: I think, oh dear, Jenny is going to go away for a couple of years - what will I do? But I know that fear is the thing that holds me back from achieving the things I want to. It's not the sort of thing I need to listen to. It's my goals and dreams I want to listen to.

TWO HOMES, TWO KITCHENS, TWO ELECTRICITY BILLS

Edward and Alice, in their early 50s, have been married for 29 years, but find that living at opposite ends of the country and meeting mainly for holidays has in fact strengthened their marriage. Edward is a lawyer in London, while Alice is busy with voluntary work and her garden in Northumberland.

Edward: I've always tended to look for unconventional solutions and I don't like forcing people into roles. Husbands tend to get forced into an iron suit. And nor do I want Alice to be forced into the little- woman role. So our solution has confirmed my belief that a degree of unconventionality can work. This is our situation: we've known each other for 33 years and have been married since 1964, but we've been living 300 miles apart for around three years.

Alice: We were living up in Northumberland when Edward got a job down south. We couldn't sell the house and neither of us liked the thought of it standing empty. Two or three months went by and we discovered we quite liked being apart. Mainly we meet on holiday now, and sometimes I come down and visit him.

Edward: We feel Surrey is a bit . . . what would you say? Cosy? Claustrophobic?

Alice: Claustrophobic, definitely. I feel tense down here. There's too much noise, too much traffic.

Edward: I don't get up to Northumberland much now because of work. Not that I'm a workaholic; it's just that I find it hard to switch off. And I'm out of the village now. I don't understand village politics any more.

Alice: But we're still definitely married. We're physically separated, but I don't feel mentally separated.

Edward: The main time we spend together now is on holiday. And the quality of our holidays has gone up quite a lot. Usually we spend three weeks exploring France, but every so often we do something completely different. We'd always wanted to go to Petra, and it was fantastic.

Alice: And there was Kenya - swimming in the Indian Ocean with stripy fishes. I never thought I'd do anything like that. Time's precious now, and we get on better than when we lived together. We can be abrasive with each other.

Edward: Let's be honest, we can be bloody- minded on occasion]

Alice: If you live together and have a row, it just smoulders on. With us, we go off and take it out on other things, and then when we next meet we revert to our normal sunny selves.

Edward: I suppose we've always done separate things. She did the Guides and Women's Institute. I sailed. She's a first-rate gardener, while I don't like gardening.

Alice: Now, because we don't meet often, when we see each other we try to make it something special. We tend to get wrapped up in each other - probably rather selfish.

Edward: You can understand why our children were worried about us to begin with. And your parents still think it's odd, don't they? But close friends, they understand.

Alice: Although they think we've changed.

Edward: Changed? Have we? Well, I've learnt to cook.

Alice: He's a great cook. He occasionally rings me up and says, 'how do you cook so- and-so', and I tell him which recipe book to try.

Edward: I've only had to throw away two dishes.

Alice: He looks after himself well, but I'd have expected that. He's very organised.

Edward: I have my routine. Friday is washing and ironing night.

Alice: We have our own territories, you could say.

Edward: The thing is, that requires a large degree of trust. There are a lot of questions we don't ask each other. She has to know that if there was something going on, it would be on the side and I wouldn't let it get to the heart of the relationship.

Alice: There was a time when I thought he had a mistress, and I was very jealous. But I had to accept there was nothing I could do about it, unless I . . . He should do want he wants to do, that's what I believe.

Edward: And it does work, so long as we talk things through. Oddly enough, I think we're getting on much better now. You can think about relationships being like those Venn diagrams in maths, with sections that overlap. People tend, because they get married and live together, to think the two circles are going to overlap totally for ever, and I don't think that's true. I think the area of overlap gets stronger if you develop your own private areas.

Alice: If you feel things have to be conventional, you panic if they're not.

Edward: When it comes down to it, we are working our marriage out, but we're working it out 300 miles apart.

Alice: There are disadvantages, of course.

Edward: Yes. Double electricity bills.

(Photographs omitted)

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