As they stand before friends and loved ones to celebrate their union, few couples today vow to “honor and obey” as their parents or grandparents most likely did. Most newlyweds see their marriage as a partnership of equals; if anything is being honored, it’s more likely the relationship itself. And obey? Nope.
Many also don’t vow “until death do us part.” Still, most of us expect that our marriage will last forever — even though 10 percent of first marriages don’t make it past five years, and about 40 percent of all marriages end in divorce.
At what point was it decided that marriage should be lifelong, anyway?
As with many age-old institutions, it’s challenging to pinpoint the rationale for making marriage lifelong, but scholars say it appears to be based on a combination of religious, moral, and economic motives. Of course, when the words “until death” were added to wedding vows in the 1500s, the average life expectancy was 38, and marriages, thanks in part to plagues and maternal deaths during labor, didn’t last all that long. Lifelong marriage may have made sense in an era when women were considered their father’s and then their husband’s property and they needed to be protected economically, especially if they had children. But that’s rarely how and why couples tie the knot nowadays. Most brides-to-be come into a marriage with established careers, financial resources, and property. And even though some end up scaling back work or opting out entirely once they become parents, a good number of today’s fathers are doing the same.
Marriage is changing.
Given that marriage is now defined more by personal desire rather than economic necessity, do we need to keep marriage a forever thing? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have renewable marriages of varying lengths based on your needs — say two to five years if you want to experience married life before deciding to have children or not (because living together is not the same as marriage in the eyes of the law and even your friends and family), or 18 years if you’ve made that leap and wish to raise them to adulthood?
As unusual as that may sound, the idea of temporary marriage has been around for a long time; it has been successfully practiced among indigenous Peruvians in the Andes, in ancient Japan, in 15th-century Indonesia, and in the Islamic world. In the mid-1960s, lauded anthropologist Margaret Mead suggested marriage be a two-step process — an “individual commitment” for young couples that could easily be dissolved or converted into a “parental commitment” if they were ready to raise children together. More recently, time-limited marital contracts were proposed in Germany, the Philippines, and Mexico City. While no laws were passed, some legal experts in the States and abroad believe it’s time to make them available to couples. So do I.
1. The End of Stigma
We often hear marriages that end in divorce described as “failed” marriages. As comedian Louis C.K. reminds us, “No good marriage has ever ended in divorce.” But many loveless, sexless, and unhappy marriages last until death because, sadly, there’s still a stigma around divorce. If every couple was required to personalize their marital contract based on their values and goals, the late Nobel-winning economist Gary S. Becker noted, the stigma, shame, and judgment that surround divorce, and even alternative marriages, would end; all of us would appreciate that there are many ways to live and love and many reasons to end a marriage or not.
2. It's Romantic
While marriage offers the illusion of everlasting love, commitment, and a blissful life together, let’s face it: divorce is always an option, and women overwhelmingly initiate it. Still, many people stay married for reasons that aren’t all that loving — perhaps out of fear of the financial and emotional consequences of divorce and perhaps the loss of access to their kids; or not wanting to feel like a “failure”; or a determination to stick to their marital vows despite becoming complacent, the big killer of relationships; or perhaps just plain inertia. Wouldn’t it be more romantic to know that your spouse is signing up for another go-round because he or she actually wants to continue to be with you? Wouldn’t it be more romantic to hear, “Yes, I choose you again,” every few years? Plus, you could throw a marriage renewal party, which may be even better than a wedding!
3. More Transparency and Accountability
By creating a renewable marital contract based on your mutual needs, goals, expectations, and values, you and your partner will need to have frequent open, honest discussions about your union instead of relying on assumptions and unexpressed expectations. You not only will hold each other accountable, but you’ll have to hold yourselves accountable, too, for what you agreed to do. You won’t be able to easily ignore issues for too long because there’s a date that will require action — renew or not.
4. Conscious Uncoupling Versus Contentious Divorce
Even with time-limited renewable contracts, a marriage may end. You may not want to renew, or your partner may not, or both of you may decide to call it quits. While it’s true that no romantic breakup is without pain, a time-limited renewable contract may be less painful because you will have already discussed and agreed to the actions you will take before choosing not to renew, such as going to marital counseling, and by when. You also would have discussed and agreed to all the practicalities of ending a union, such as how you’d split property, savings, furnishings, co-parenting duties, etc. in a way that feels loving and fair to both — an entirely different reality than making those decisions in the heat of an unexpected divorce.
There have been huge shifts in the way people create family today, and increasingly, albeit slowly, society has become more accepting and embracing of the changes. The law is still lagging, but we have begun to change our conversation about what family “looks like.” Unfortunately, our marital model has sadly stayed static — a one-size-fits-all, lifelong model that is in all practicality neither. If we truly see marriage as an egalitarian union of two equal people, then we need a new marital contract that supports such a union. A time-limited, renewable marriage contract is the smart and, yes, romantic answer
Vicki is an award-winning journalist and co-author of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). She also works with couples to create marital plans.