Thursday, November 19, 2015

Till Death Do Us Part ... or until the contract expires?

A student who graduated more than a year ago knocked on my office door, came in for a chat, and sat down for a whole lot of talk.  Any time any such student comes by, well, it means that I know quite a bit of their stories.  I asked him about his sister and parents, whom I have never met though.  His parents are divorced, he said.

"Are you doing ok?" I asked him and told him about the research on adult children of parents getting divorced finding it more difficult to handle than the young kids who relatively easily adapt to the change.

"Mine was a twenty-year story" I said.  And then told  him about my parents who, if things go well, will celebrate sixty years of married life in slightly more than a year.  In their case, it will be "till death do us part."

But, being married to another till death was an idea that dates back to the times when the average life expectancy at birth was barely thirty-five.  Life, especially the number of years we live, has changed dramatically in a mere two hundred years.  In those old times, if people married at puberty and died in their mid-thirties, well, that is a twenty-year period.  Hmmm.... wait, twenty echoed in my life too!

What if we are operating with a model that is no longer applicable?
Our current contract – ‘until death’ – might have worked when people didn’t live all that long (according to the American sociologist and author Stephanie Coontz, the average marriage in colonial times lasted under 12 years); or when many women died in childbirth, freeing men to marry multiple times (which they did); and when men of means needed women to cook, clean and caretake, and women needed men for financial security.
One grandmother was married to her husband for less than four years--a tragic event killed grandfather.  The other grandmother was married for many more years than four--when grandfather died of a heart attack, they had been married for thirty years.  In both cases, it was "death do us part."  Of course, as traditions mandated, the grandmothers lived as widows for the rest of their lives.  Had the grandmother died after four years of being married, grandfather would have re-married, of course; but, that's a different topic for another day.

At the recent conference, a wonderful, older, colleague sounded a tad agitated over how his son's fairy-tale marriage ended even before the first anniversary--a divorce, not death, parted the couple.  We live in a different world now.
In a recent survey, many Millennials indicated that they’d be open to a ‘beta marriage’, in which couples would commit to each other for a certain number of years – two years seemed to be the ‘right’ amount – after which they could renew, renegotiate or split, as Jessica Bennett wrote in Time magazine last year. While it wasn’t a scientific survey, it points to a willingness to see marriage as something other than ‘until death’, which, in fact, it is not. In 2013, 40 per cent of newlyweds had been married at least once before, according to the US think tank the Pew Research Center. Since 10 per cent of first marriages don’t even make it past five years, a renewable marriage contract makes more sense than ever.
Marriage as a renewable contract makes rational sense.
In 1971, the Maryland legislator Lena King Lee proposed a Marriage-Contractual Renewal Bill so couples could annul or renew their marriage every three years. In 2007, a German legislator proposed a seven-year contract; in 2010, a women’s group in the Philippines proposed a 10-year marital contract; and in 2011, Mexico City legislators suggested a reform to the civil code that would allow couples to decide on the length of their marital commitment, with a minimum of two years.
But, imagine the logistical hassles of contract renewals.  Common property, kids, tangible and intangible investment into making the contract work, ... nightmares for most of us, but pleasant wet-dreams for attorneys who will think of billable hours!

At some point, we might have to admit to the outdated and pointless "till death do us part" notion and work on a major overhaul.


Mike Hoth said...

The logistical hassles are a big part of why marriage is a lifelong commitment. A two-year commitment means that I could be on my 9th marriage before a child from my first marriage reaches adulthood. Imagine a child with over a dozen step-parents and the logic behind short-term marriages becomes a horror story. Couples that make the kinds of decisions that prolong our species need to stay together for quite some time; children, house payments and pets need a lot longer that any of the proposed contracts to come to fruition.
Is a 70-year marriage unfeasible for most people? Probably, but we see lots of people making such long-term commitments. By creating a short-term contract system for marriage, we'd be enforcing the cultural short attention span that gets complained about so often. We want the youth of today to hold jobs for 40 years and complete 4-6 years of college, but they can't be expected to love another person for more than 2?

Ramesh said...

A deeply intriguing argument ; I had never though of it this way.

Yes, its a very different context today in which a family operates today. I am a great believer in the long term, but your observations on how that long termism is actually not happening is true as well. But, I submit, that should not make the long term association any less desirable.

Parents are more often devoted to children for life even if they have separated. If that can be till "death do us part" why is it so difficult for us to do so with our spouses. I don't know.

I am of the opinion that this is a bit like democracy. It could be argued to be a lousy system, but can be proved to be better than any other alternative !

Sriram Khé said...

Two commenters in different stages of life--one way younger than me, and another way, way older than me by two years ;)

Mike, "serial monogamy" is not anything new. To some extent, the series of relationships are nothing but a series of contracts that were not renewed for whatever reasons.

Ramesh, yes, theoretically the contract can easily last until death. But, increasingly it does not. Even my divorce was not the first in the extended family. I think that sooner or later, social practice will begin to reflect the reality ... and there is nothing wrong with that either.

Anne in Salem said...

The short term contract sounds far from romantic and not terribly functional. I wonder the effect on the birth rate if marriage were for renewable two year terms. Would people be reluctant to have children if they knew there was a possibility of the contract not being renewed? Of course that is always a possibility, even if the couple intends to last until death, as several of us are proof. Yes, intriguing. But also discouraging. Terribly complicated.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, discouraging and complicated.

Given the reality, I wonder if at some point even the fairy tales that children read--and watch on screens--might have to be updated. I mean, there is a serious disconnect about tales of "happily ever after" and the real world--a kind of disconnect that did not exist in the old days of "till death do us part."

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