Marry Me a Little

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We’ve all heard the figures about the sad state of our unions (50% of marriages end in divorce! children of single mothers live in poverty!) and the panicked theorizing about the causes for their breakdown (staggering economic burdens! weak moral fiber!). It could be argued that the impulse to promise one’s life to just one partner flies in the face of logic. Many couples are opting not to marry at all (the number of unmarried opposite-sex couples who shack up together has increased nearly tenfold since 1970), and though reliable statistics are hard to come by, it’s clear that detailed prenuptial agreements are on the rise, too, even in first marriages. Most prenups simply outline the financial and legal “rules” of a marriage, but some now go as far as to dictate how often a couple will have sex and even what grade of gas they’ll put in the car. Then there’s the small-but-growing number of couples who sign self-terminating marriage contracts — agreements designed to provide some of the stability and benefits of marriage without making the seemingly untenable promise that a good thing will go on forever.

A marriage contract is like a “living together” contract.

“I wanted some level of commitment, but not ’til-death-do-us-part’,” says Bonnie, 32, who signed a one-year marriage contract with her husband last July and plans to renew for another year. “[We also wanted] to make our marriage more sacred by keeping the church and the
government out of it. That really goes against our political views, which we share, and which brought us together.”

    Bonnie’s quest for an alternative to lifelong commitment is hardly a new one: As early as 1927, a San Francisco Superior Court Judge advocated the use of 5-year renewable marriage contracts in the U.S.. And since the age of the prophets, Shiite Muslim law has allowed couples to enter into temporary marriages which function as socially sanctioned outlets for the ‘undeniable’ sexual urges of young men. Hell, pagans have been performing hand-fasting ceremonies, in which a couple is “married” for a year and a day, for millenia. The concept has been around for longer than the notion of romantic love, but could self-terminating marriage contracts ever become a widely accepted alternative to princess brides and their dashing grooms vowing — in front of God and everyone — to stay 2gether 4ever?

    "I think we’ve come to this clash where the dynamics of relationships have changed," says Courtney Knowles, spokesperson for the Equality in Marriage Institute, which was founded by Lorna Wendt after her high-profile divorce from the former CEO of GE Capital. "It’s not the same template as twenty years ago, when the man brought home the bacon and the woman cooked it and everything was really clear-cut. The wedding aisle has become the Aisle of Assumptions: People spend months picking out china patterns, but they never stop to say ‘Hey, where do you want to be in five years?’"

    “We weren’t looking for legal status, or to make a statement to our family or friends,” explains Kimberly, 31, who was married in a pagan-inspired ceremony last spring. “We wanted something meaningful for ourselves, by ourselves.”

    Forward-thinking cultural commentators have started coming around as well. Laura Kipnis (Against Love: A Polemic) and Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America) have both advocated renewable marriage contracts as a way of relieving the crushing burden of expectation that we place on our ostensibly life-long romantic partners.

     “It doesn’t solve the problems that lead to divorce,” explains Bonnie’s husband Hardy, 34, “but it allows us to keep making a firm commitment rather than feeling stuck and just lingering indefinitely.”

    Kimberly’s year-at-a-time commitment has given her relationship “room to grow” without the pressures of a lifelong promise. But of the people she knows who’ve hand-fasted, the couples that are still together were all eventually legally married as well.

“[A renewable marriage contract] is sort of like a living-together contract,” says Lynne Gold-Bikin, a divorce lawyer in Pennslyvania and founder of the

Most renewable marriage contracts function like employment contracts with an annual review.

American Bar Association’s “Partners Program”, which teaches kids about relationships. “But what sort of issuing authority is going to let people have two-year marriage licenses? A marriage license is not a renewable contract.”

    Although the legal viability of these contracts is still largely untested, well-constructed prenups routinely hold up in court. The current debate over same-sex marriage is also dramatically altering the the legal landscape: Even though Bonnie’s family doesn’t consider hers to be a ‘real’ marriage at this point, she and her husband live in Vermont, which allows civil unions, and she was able to put him on her health insurance at work.

    Still, some are turned off by the implicit defeatism and lack of romaticism in these temporary arrangements.

    “[My boyfriend] and I have been living together for almost four years, and we’re perfectly happy,” says Amy, 36, whose first marriage ended in divorce after two years. “If you’re going to do something that non-committal, why even bother? It’s a built-in failure — you’re showing that you don’t believe that strongly in the relationship — and I think it sounds belittling.”

    For better or for worse, most renewable marriage contracts function in a way that’s similar to employment contracts with built-in annual reviews — they’re simply a formalization of what any relationship counselor will tell you couples should be doing anyway.

    “When I hear of a two-year prenup with the option to renew, it feels like a safety net to me, like someone is getting a prize for lasting two years,” says Knowles. “But I guess I would rather have people sit down and have a discussion about a prenup with an expiration clause then have them not sit down at all.”
    “[Before the first ceremony], we picked a date way in advance and worked toward it,” says Kimberly, who hasn’t renewed last year’s vows yet, but plans to. “I think that’s kind of what we’re doing now.”

    Although Bonnie and her husband had a series of very specific conversations about their their financial and emotional expectations for the next year, the actual contract that they signed was very simple.

    “It’s a commitment to sticking it out for a full year, giving it a good try and not just running out,” says Bonnie. “We might think about having children and do it for a bit longer then. This way, it’s a positive affirmation that we want to continue.”


Emily Mead and Nerve.com


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