Whether or not you said “until death do us part” in your wedding vows, and an increasing number of couples don’t say it anymore, most of us believe marriage should be lifelong even if they don’t always end up that way.
Of course when the words “until death” were added to the wedding vows, in the 1500s, average life expectancy was 38 years and marriages didn’t last all that long. Interestingly, there were about as many remarriages then (thanks to high mortality rates), one out of every four, as there are now, four in 10 newlyweds in 2013 (thanks to divorce).
Maybe “until death” made sense when marriages lasted an average of 12 years or so, as marriages in colonial days did, according to historian Stephanie Coontz. But do they make sense now?
Would it make more sense to have renewable marriages of certain lengths based on a couple’s needs — say two to five years for 20-somethings who want to experience married life before they start having children or 18 years for couples who have made that leap and wish to raise them to adulthood?
The idea of temporary marriage has been around for a long time, which I document in an article in Aeon this week, and was even in practice around the world centuries ago. It’s understandable why temporary marriage might have seem attractive to the West in decades past, when sex and having children outside of marriage was shameful, and when women relied on marriage for financial security. That’s not the case anymore, of course. So why have a temporary marriage when cohabitation can serve the purpose of a trial marriage?
Because cohabitation is not the same as marriage, which I’ve already detailed.
Millennials seem to be open to a beta marriage, at least in concept. Still, time-limited renewable marriages won’t necessarily give them what they want unless they know what they hope to achieve in their marriage beside longevity — our only marker of success. That’s why I believe in marital plans.
But a renewable contract is attractive for a number of reasons:
- No more stigma — As the late Nobel-winning economist Gary S Becker observed, if every couple was required to personalize their marital contract based on their values and goals, the stigma, shame and judgment that surrounds alternative marriages (such as open marriages) and divorce would disappear; all of us would understand and appreciate that there are many ways to live and love, and many reasons to end a marriage.
- It’s more romantic — Who wouldn’t want to know that his or her spouse is signing up for another go-round instead of staying together because of vows made years ago, with all the hope and often unrealistic expectations of young love; or because of fears of paying alimony and losing half of their retirement plans and access to the kids (reasons many men cite for not wanting to wed); or even just plain inertia? While marriage offers the illusion of everlasting love, commitment and a blissful life together, divorce is always an option and women overwhelmingly initiate it.
- More transparency and accountability, less complacency — By creating a renewable marital contract based on a mutual needs, goals, expectations and values, couples will have to have open, honest discussions instead of assumptions and unexpressed expectations. You not only hold each other accountable, but you hold yourself accountable for what you agreed upon — and you can’t ignore things for too long because there’s a date that will require action; renew or not. You won’t easily be able to become complacent, the big killer of relationships.
- You’ll have a stronger union — Some people fear an expiration date will give people an easy out, seemingly forgetting that divorce is always an option and no out is “easy.” There’s a lot of talk about the “work” of marriage. Define that as you may, all relationships, romantic or not, need attention. A renewable marital contract defines exactly what that attention is. As research indicates, matched expectations = happier partnerships.
- Conscious uncoupling vs. contentious divorce — Even with renewable contracts, divorce may happen. One person may want out at the end of the contract or both. While no relationship breakup is painless, having a renewable contract may be less painful because the contract lays out the actions you will take (such as counseling), and by when, if there are problems the two of you can’t solve on your own. It also lays out what will happen in the event of a non-renewal (how you’d split property, savings, etc.), in a way that feels loving and fair — a very different reality when you’re in the typical crisis mode of divorce.
No one exemplifies the benefits of a renewable marital contract better than Married with Luggage bloggers and authors Betsy and Warren Talbot, whom we interviewed for The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. Marriage is a social contract, Betsy says, and like any other contract it needs to be reviewed and adjusted from time to time. They do it on their anniversary, and have done so every year since nearly the beginning of their 11-year marriage.
Although The New I Do suggests couples have a written contract, the Talbots believe there’s power in stating out loud, “I choose you again” while detailing the specific things they’re going to work on to make their relationship better. And because of that, they are mindful not only of each other’s behavior, but also their own — and that either can say, “I’m done.”
Rather than make marriage too easy to leave, Betsy believes it makes it more difficult.
“Once you commit to work on your relationship on a regular basis with yearly check-ins for the big stuff, it is incredibly hard to walk away,” she says. “I feel far more secure now than I ever did in the ‘happily ever after’ of our early years. I never think Warren is going to leave because he shows me every day how committed he is to make this work, and tells me every year that he still chooses me as his life partner.”
That doesn’t mean those are easy conversations. In fact, telling your partner he or she is not quite up to snuff is incredibly challenging. But, as she says, “The goal of the conversation is to improve our union.”
Don’t you want that, too?