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Should Marriage Expire?

Couplehood is laid out in chapters. One chapter is rife with romance as your peers get hitched. The next is replete with pride as your peers have babies.

The next — the one I’m in now — is saturated with shock, anxiety, and discouragement as your peers bicker, cheat, and surrender their once-happy marriages to the life-hacking bandsaw that is divorce.

It’s ugly. Though my marriage feels sturdy, it’s hard not to wince and take cover, whimpering, under the storm of blame lobbing, heart wringing, and estate dividing that so many friends are weathering.

With national divorce rates around 50 percent, are half of us doomed to betray or grow apart from the partners we promised to have and hold? Are we damned to disillusionment for failing to cherish ’til death do us part?

Our grandparents managed to stay married, either through a stronger commitment to wedlock or a greater tolerance for misery. But if splits are inevitable in today’s live-for-the-moment culture, then can’t they be — shouldn’t they be — less painful?

What if, when our spouses’ faults begin outshining their favors and that irresistible yen for newness comes a-knockin’, we could gracefully excuse ourselves from the union with no hard feelings? What if marriage were a temporary construct? What if it simply expired, like milk?

Last year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics floated the idea of fixed-term marriage contracts: A marriage license would expire after five years, and 10 years, unless the couple renewed it. They hoped such a construct would encourage partners to work proactively toward surpassing those milestones, and remove the stigma associated with divorce so that it wouldn’t feel like a failure, but the natural course of many relationships.

If we had to “re-up” every five years, perhaps we wedded folk would be on our best behavior: attentive, communicative, engaged, and more apt to slip into seductive satin than saggy sweatpants at the end of the day. Then again, maybe a looming renewal date would create anxiety, rendering null one of the best parts of marriage: the not-having-to-always-be-fabulous-because-they-love-you-anyway perk.

“I think if you’re going into a marriage with an ‘out clause,’ then you probably shouldn’t be getting married in the first place,” said a friend of mine.

But if we stopped imagining marriage as an everlasting fairy tale, if we instead approached it is as a series of satisfying, self-contained chapters, we might be more successful.

“It works for jogging,” another friend concurred. “I can’t quite commit to jogging a whopping five miles, but I can commit to going to that next tree, and then the next fence, and then that mailbox. Pretty soon, I realize I went the whole five miles.”

A divorced friend of mine doesn’t like the idea. “I am not available for lease,” she said. “I don’t want to be driven around for a few years and then traded in for a newer model just because hey, it’s in the contract.”

It would be especially sticky if children were involved, but let’s be honest: Couples divorce despite the proven benefits of a two-parent household. If they could walk away with a handshake and a “thanks, that was fun,” it would be less taxing on the kids than an unplanned, unbridled war.

The greatest drawback to marital expiration dates, I think, is that couples who didn’t expect to stay together wouldn’t make long-term plans together. They wouldn’t build. They wouldn’t dream. They wouldn’t hope.

And shared hope is really the brass ring of coupledom. In fact, if fixed-term marriages can’t eradicate the perpetual threat of divorce, then mutual, matrimonial hope may be the best we can do. Eager to see what life’s next chapter brings, I’m still hoping for a happy ending.

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