Another day, another celebrity break-up: Fergie and Josh, Jennifer and Justin, Channing and Jenna, now Nikki and John (ps. might have seen that last one coming).
When a couple calls it quits, it’s easy to bemoan our era of seemingly disposable unions. Our grandparents would say, “Back in my day marriage was for life. You stuck it out.” But is commitment really the problem? Could it be the traditional marriage structure that isn’t working? Does “forever” create too much pressure and too many unrealistic expectations? What if marriage was a renewable contract instead of a lifelong commitment?
This idea isn’t new, but it is polarizing.
Ever since the post-Victorian era, progressive scholars, philosophers and artists have been exploring and suggesting alternatives to traditional marriage. In some circles, the idea has wild appeal. Others believe undermining the traditional marriage arrangement indicates a breakdown in societal values and the beginning of dystopian anarchy. Cue the locusts!
And many of us fall somewhere in the middle. We intend to wed for life but we also know shit happens and people change. While there are many benefits to creating a lifelong partnership, marriage is no longer necessary for procreation or to further one’s financial interests (unless you’re a Trump).
These days, marriage rarely involves the joining of two farms or an exchange of livestock. So many wonder: Could freeing each other from “forever” actually lead to happier, more productive unions? If “forever” becomes an anvil around the neck, for whatever reason, could “maybe forever, let’s start with five years” be more practical?
And while we’re at it, while we’re redesigning marriage as a partnership of increments, why not expand the contract to go beyond spoken vows? Why not make it an actual contract that requires each party to keep up his end of the bargain? I know, I know… stop being so romantic Jen! But … a renewable marriage contract could be customized to each party’s opinions, values and expectations. As a temporary agreement that welcomes and prepares for change, the renewable contract is designed to meet the needs of the people signing it, not the other way around.
The contract’s “Deliverables” section would represent the minimum standards that must exist throughout the marriage as well as language acknowledging that while all elements may not be present at all times, on balance, values like fidelity, emotional support, respect and willingness to compromise must be consistently upheld. Again, these would be customized to preference. We could also include “Deal-breakers”, things that void the contract immediately should they arise. Deal-breakers could be big, like (must never commit murder or own a snake) or small (must never become vegan or watch musicals).
The truth is, the comfort and security of marriage can make us lazy. Even when we try to keep our relationship fresh and strong we still find ourselves taking advantage of the long-term commitment. So what if I clip my toenails in bed? What are you going to do, divorce me? Once the marriage is underway, it can be easy to undermine the respect and admiration we had for our partner back in the relationship’s early days. Things we’d never consider doing while dating become acceptable in marriage, sometimes resulting in death by a thousand cuts.
Imagine sitting down with your intended to draft the renewable marriage contract. Think of the conversations, the intimacy and the raw knowledge you would gather about your potential spouse. How many relationships would flourish, having launched from a place of deep understanding and mutual agreement, and how many would end right there, for the right reasons?
The beauty of the renewable marriage contract is that it forces us to confront and discuss our expectations before making the most important commitment of our lives. There’s something about putting our signature to something that really makes us think. We sign the marriage license at the ceremony but that’s after the deed is done. Many couples sign that piece of paper without ever having talked seriously about what they want their relationship to look like, and what is truly important to them.
Having our desires and expectations written as terms of an agreement will help us communicate them without shame or uncertainty. Those of us raised to be pleasers, who’ve been taught to avoid conflict at all costs, have an especially difficult time believing we are entitled to express our needs. Rather than tamping down our wishes and wants, or expecting our partner to decode them (then living with simmering resentment when s/he doesn’t), a renewable marriage contract helps us define and discuss our expectations.
If the time comes to part ways, the expiry of a contract is a cleaner and simpler alternative to the breaking of a lifelong commitment. Break-ups are rarely pretty or amicable, and a renewable contract won’t change that. Just as a marriage certificate offers no guarantee from having our hearts and vows broken, this alternative piece of paper will not protect us from having to disentangle in ugly and difficult ways. But could it enable us to right-size expectations? Could the end of a marriage be less traumatic if we’d only committed to five years in the first place?
“Till death do us part” is still an option because ideally, after each term, the contract would be renewed. Like the people it serves, the marriage contract would also grow and evolve. Renewal periods would be at each party’s discretion, ie. two, five, seven or 10-year increments.
Could we take the concept of a personalized agreement and apply it to a lifelong commitment instead of one made in multi-year increments? Sure, but the multi-year, only in increments aspect is what gives the whole thing meaning and gravitas.
Being “up for renewal” might keep us on our best behaviour but the Holy Grail of success would be the evolution of marriage into a more practical institution.
The renewable marriage contract is not a perfect concept but it does provide a built-in mechanism for addressing our relationship needs. It acknowledges that forever is a long time to tether yourself to someone who, like you, will grow, change and evolve with age and experience. Instead of replacing honest, face-to-face dialogue, it provides a jumping off point for the expression of desires we may not be comfortable tackling proactively and which, when unexpressed, can lead to conflict down the road.
A written contract with deliverables, terms and conditions may seem too structured, or specific, but its beauty lies in the fact it can be either permanent or impermanent, depending on what’s required. When our needs and wants change, when life happens and what’s written is no longer relevant, we agree to explore a new framework; we tear up the existing agreement and create a new one (or not) that works better for us. When the fog of war becomes too thick, the renewable marriage contract provides a foundation for good communication. It helps us find our way, which is what any good relationship should do.