My colleague Howard Markman came across this piece in the New York Times from September: Till Death, or 20 Years, Do Us Part. The piece begins noting the urban legend that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes had a five-year contract on their marriage. Beyond that, the article is interesting for quoting from a number of scholars who study families as the author grapples with the feasibility of life-long marriages. The hook is the idea that people might be better off committing to a shorter time commitments in marriage than life.
I wrote about the idea of two-year marriage licenses last year (you can find that entry here). In this more recent New York Times piece, the discussion is serious even if the possibility of the idea becoming popular is low. At least, I think the possibility is low because, no matter what else is true, people really do want lifelong love—it’s just the getting there that is the difficult part.
A truly large number of people who marry will divorce (currently projected at around 40 to 45% or so). The NYTs piece also notes the work of sociologist Susan Brown at Bowling Green State University who finds that the divorce rate is taking off among those 50 and up. We are living longer and longer, with the question being asked by many as to if it’s really possible to be compatible with someone for that long.
Reforming the nature of the commitment, some argue, might destigmatize divorce and reduce its negative impacts.
Robert Emery is a psychologist and family researcher who studies the impact of divorce on children. He makes a great observation about commitment in the piece in the Times. To quote: “Dr. Emery favors a candid, apolitical reckoning: an acknowledgment that marriage is not a sexfest with a flawless best friend but something that takes enormous investment. And that can pay off. Lifelong coupling, he says, bestows great benefits, including longer lives for men (“They’re being nagged by a partner with selfish interest in their long-term health”).”
Emery is right on point about the potential benefit of committing to the whole nine yards. But he and many others quoted in the article are also grappling with the reality that many people become disillusioned in their marriages, and dissolution is a prime cause of, well, dissolution. Ironically, this is perhaps the greatest reason that time-limited marital commitments are not all that likely to catch on in a big way. People want the illusion. But not all who desire the illusion understand the role of the enormous investment Emery talks about. The illusion without the investment is delusion.
As a society, the much bigger issue going on while we talk about the fragility of marriage is the growing trend toward non-marriage. Increasingly, couples are not only not committing for life, they are not committing for even a few years. This has very important social consequences, particularly as more and more couples who have not vetted commitment together have children. It's not hard to have children. It's a lot harder to raise children together, and what's hard with commitment is crazy impossible without it. I’ve suggested these trends toward childbearing in low commitment contexts are setting our society up for a "perfect storm." I could be wrong. But I'd bet I’m not.
Ironically, while I’d not advocate for adjustable term marriages, I can see one advantage of the practice. I will quote from my earlier piece about the proposal in Mexico for 2 year renewable marriages that came up last year.
Imagine a couple we’ll call Lucy and Ricky. They are planning their wedding. Their wedding is a week or two away and it’s time to go down to the town hall and get their wedding license. They get to the desk and talk to the clerk and ask for a license. The clerk says, “no problem. Just fill out this form and give me a check for the fee.” The clerk points to a section in the middle of the form and says, “Also, you have to check one of these boxes, here, to indicate if you want the renewable-term marriage or not, and if you do, what term you are choosing.”
Lucy starts to fill out the card, and she gets to the term election section. She starts to mark the “non-renewing” box (which, ironically, means perpetually renewing), and Ricky says, “hold on a second. Let’s talk about if we should go for a 5 year or 2 year term. That’s an interesting idea and there must be some advantages.”
Ricky and Lucy are now going to have a special moment. Let’s call it a somewhat late stage DTR. (Define the relationship.) As you might imagine, in their case, it becomes their last serious conversation about a future together.
There are many situations that turn out terribly in marriages for one or both partners. For some, there was not a realistic way to see that coming. For others, the pathway that ends so painfully started with poor decisions at the start of the relationship in terms of things like how quickly one or both partners got on the path that was not wise in terms of making a good match as partners. In fact, as I’ve often noted, it’s not so often poor decisions as it is transitions without decisions--transitions that make it harder to go back up the path and make a different choice. Having serious talks between two individuals who have become attracted, at key moments, can increase the odds that each individual will end up with a mate where the type of life-long investment Emery noted is not crazy. The DTR concept can be applied at many transition points; it does not have to pertain to merely talking early on about if a relationship is really forming.
If you are not married and want to be, your best bet isn’t going to be a short-term marriage contract. (And I've never--yet--met someone at that stage of a relationship who seriously wants to think short-term.) Your best bet will be based on being careful about who you select in a mate. Compared to the paths people are increasingly likely to take, this means going slower, sliding less, and having a few DTRs about the big things, such as life goals about children and careers or where to live and world views and beliefs. You can talk to this other person about such things, and if talking about such things threatens to wreck the relationship, the odds probably were not so great that it was going to go the distance in the first place. I'm not talking about killing love and attraction, I'm talking about defining the type of future you want to have, and seeing if you are on the same page about it.