Marriage, many of us heard growing up, is a union that’s meant to last forever. But of course, it often doesn’t. Is it time we did away with “til death do us part” and replaced it with “til we decide this is no longer working?”
Vicki Larson, writing for Aeon, points out that storybook commitment is better in theory than in practice. Why should we be celebrating couples who’ve been together for 50-75 years, she asks, when the truth is that many of these people are likely unhappy and living in “loveless and sexless” relationships? Why do we put forever marriage on such a pedestal?
This isn’t the first time someone has brought up the idea of “beta marriages.” Larson points out that Henry Havelock Ellis (famed British sexologist) had advocated for trial marriages—as long as the couple didn’t have children—so couples could try things out and have access to contraceptives. And the idea was around even before he called it a “trial marriage” at the turn of the 20th century.
While Ellis gave this type of temporary marriage a name, others had been talking about similar unions years before, including the German poet Johann von Goethe, who entertained the idea in his Elective Affinities (1809), and the American paleontologist E D Cope, who wrote in his book The Marriage Problem (1888) that marriages should start with a five-year contract that either spouse could end or renew with a further 10- or 15-year contract and, if all still went well after that, a permanent contract.
The idea’s been kicking around ever since. Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead proposed that marriage contracts have two steps—one before children (easily terminated) and one if a couple decided to procreate. And in 2011, Larson writes, Mexico City lawmakers proposed that couples make up their own marriage contracts as long as the union lasted a minimum of two years. Even more recently, 43 percent of millennials polled in a 2014 survey agreed that testing out marriages wasn’t such a bad idea, Time reports.
No one’s saying that forever marriage has to be done away with. But perhaps it’s time we gave some space to the fact that temporary marriage has worked in many cultures. And even if you’re a romantic who believes something like this will ruin basically everything, there’s something else to consider: As Larson points out, what could be more love-affirming than both partners continuing to choose each other? And if it doesn’t work out, being free to try again with someone new (without a messy divorce) isn’t an awful consolation prize.
Won’t that lead to more divorce, someone (read: your mom) might ask. Maybe, but the latest statistics show that divorce isn’t on the rise anyway, and even if it were, the world wouldn’t end, we suspect.
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