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Would renewable contracts save marriage?

Posted on Tuesday, July 6, 2010 in Divorce, Happiness, love, Marriage, Relationships

“So, did you hear?” Sara said as we rolled up our yoga mats after a much-needed Bikram class.

“Hear what?”

“The Millers are divorcing.”

“That’s too bad, I guess. Uh, who are they again?”

“You remember that cute little girl in eighth grade, Nadine, the one Trent liked for a while.”

“Oh, yeah. Her parents?

“Yep. There goes another one.”

“What is going on with marriage?” I sighed.

“It isn’t for everyone.”

“Yeah, but by the time you realize it, it’s too late. All that’s left is counseling and, if that doesn’t work, divorce.”

“Well, if they really want
to make marriages last,
they’d make it easier
to split.”              

“Now you’re making no sense whatsoever.”

“Excuse me, but I am making perfect sense.
A lot of guys are afraid
of getting married because, why?”

“They’ll be trapped?”

“Well, that, too, but they’re afraid they’ll get financially wiped out by divorce.”

“Yeah, so …”

“So, there aren’t many
incentives to get married.”

“But that sure is a reason to stay married.”

“Right, but more women want divorces than men.”

“So, what are you suggesting?”

“Make marriage a renewable contract. Each party has to hold up his or her end of the bargain, and if they aren’t, wham, the contract’s void and the courts can divvy everything up as they do now.”

I can see it now — Do you take this man, for better and for worse,  in sickness and in health until the contract is up for renewal?

Sara isn’t the first person who’s suggested that. Two lawmakers, Maryland’s Lena K. Lee and Hildagarde Boswell, sponsored a bill to make marriage a three-year contract, with an option to renew every three years if both partners agreed.

Marriage is under threat, they observed.

“We have to offer something more than the same archaic marriage pattern, the same mind-draining guilt,” Boswell said.

“Across the country today, young people are living together, shacking up, as they call it, and disregarding old-style marriage vows,” added Lee.

And that was in 1971! Has anything changed?

The bill never passed, obviously, but a German politician (also a woman, and isn’t that interesting?) tried to do that in Germany a few years ago and a similar bill was presented — and squashed — in the Philippines earlier this year.
Would any of those have saved more marriages from divorce?

Thinking about my own marriage, I’m not so sure. If I had to reevaluate the marriage every few years, that means I’d actually have to be paying close attention to it, looking closely at my role and Rob’s.
Honestly, I think that means we still would have gotten divorced … a lot earlier!
Should marriage be a renewable contract?
Photo © JLG –

Bring on the comments

  1. Steve says:

    I think such contracts would certainly help marriages end more gracefully with the terms of parting being predefined.

    The divorce lawyers would hate it! 🙂

    I don’t think they have anything to worry about though.

    People will always want a “traditional option” available, which would make proposing a “limited contract” have a stigma around it, the way asking for prenuptial does.

  2. amy says:

    oh man. my ex truly believes that marriage should be a renewable contract–i think he says every five years. would it save marriage? dunno. it might actually induce more people to enter marriages with a “try and see” mindset, which ultimately means it wouldn’t last.

    interesting to think about, though…

  3. Steve says:


    Isn’t the problem with many relationships that things are taken for granted? Maybe being on a renewable “plan” would make *some* people see a marriage as a living organic thing they would have to put work into.

  4. Steve says:


    About your poll. 11 -> infinity seems a bit large. How about 11 – 15 years? 🙂

    Seems like the poll would make a good post !

  5. jim
    Twitter: mobilene

    No. When two people marry, it’s like gluing two boards together. When they split, there’s no way to pull the boards apart without causing damage to both boards. Renewable marriage contracts wouldn’t change that.

    It may be too late for the likes of us, but if we want our children to have greater success in marriage, we need to raise them to be happy and healthy and whole. To have good boundaries, to have compassion, to know how to commit. We need to help them see that they ought to wait until they have their heads fully together and know who they are before marrying — and in this day and age, that means late 20s and early 30s.

  6. Phil says:

    Jim is correct, a renewable contract wouldn’t make it easier to split. The lawyers would love it because they would need to be involved with every contract. You would need to hire them even if you weren’t getting divorced.

    If the cause of divorce is the wrong attitude, writing up any contract isn’t going to help.

  7. Kat Wilder says:

    New marriage vow: for better for worse, in sickness and in health … till the contract's up for renewal.

  8. BigLittleWolf
    Twitter: BigLittleWolf

    It’s an interesting concept. I think it might end marriages earlier, which might make it easier to re-establish a “marketable” life (while still at a marketable age).

    As for making marriages end more graciously, I don’t think so. Those who will be acrimonious will still be acrimonious.

    I think the question is whether or not the original contractual aspects in marriage have anything to do with out mid-late 20th century notions of love in marriage.

    As for divorce court (not to mention family court) – it’s already such a disaster, and so divergent state by state, that it’s hard to imagine it worse. Maybe divorce sooner would make for fewer assets (people are younger), and thus slightly shorter fights in court, if nothing else.

  9. Kat Wilder says:

    Steve — Hmm, well, why does a prenup have a stigma attached to it? I know we marry for love and prenups don’t seem very loving, but as anyone who gets divorced will tell you, marriage is a financial arrangement.

    As for the poll, 11-15 years eliminates those 16 years older/younger. I feel bad for them! 😉

    Amy — yeah, I suppose it could give some of us a “this is just short-term” mentality, but people divorce for similarly random reasons. What makes a contract attractive is that before renewal time, you’d really have to be held accountable for maintaining your end of the bargain, which, of course, each partner should be doing anyway. This is a reminder!

    Phil — What determines a wrong attitude? “We’ve grown apart”?

    BLW — You are right — our “notions of love in marriage” have messed everything up (oddly). When it was clearly a financial arrangement, expectations were easy to set and compare. Throw emotions into the mix and, ugh! As for divorce court, I think courts should mandate 50-50 co-parenting (except in cases of abuse, addictions, etc.) Fathers should not be written out of the equation!

  10. Wombat
    Twitter: kissnblog

    Can’t help wondering if there’s such a thing as a credit default swap for marriage. Might be something Goldman Sachs could offer.

    Otherwise, the idea’s always appealed to me.

  11. Mike says:

    I remember listening to a couple who had a marriage contract. It spelled out what each of them were responsible for. So that if a problem came up they went back to the contract to see who was at fault. I think the more that is spelled out on expectations in the relationship the better. Would a contract save it? I doubt it. People will break anything if they don’t want to do something.

  12. Edgar says:

    In response to Mike, the fact that contracts are the lingua franca in business has not meant that they aren’t broken regularly nor that attorneys have nothing to do. The same would likely go for marriage contracts. But at least with marriage contracts being required, we might not see the stupid 24-hour marriages like those of some former Mousketeers. Nor would we be quite as likely to see people laboring for years with unstated conceptions of what a marriage is at any point in time. Like Kat says, a regular reappraisal (contract renewal) would likely lead to earlier divorces in those situations in which that is the best option.

    Marriage forever between two exclusive individuals is really the construct of industrial capitalist society, in which the ties to extended families and agrarian communities were severed, to allow freedom of labor mobility. Anthropologically speaking, seven years (the time to bring a child to a certain basic level of independence) was the primary building block of time for a human partnership, and after that, all bets were off. Of course, the clan and then the village often provided the support necessary to allow “marriages” to dissolve or evolve, but those resources are not as prevalent in our atomized society.

    Renewable contracts seem to be a logical extension of the other factors that have been changing the marriage idiom of industrial society, which have included the increasing financial independence of women and the creation of social support structures (albeit mostly in European countries) that allow a transition of partners without major financial or social repercussions.

  13. Kat Wilder says:

    Prenups get a bad rap. Why? Cause when you divorce, it's all about $$, not love.

  14. VJ says:

    There are indeed renewable & ‘temporary’ marriage contracts known around the world. In the Western experience, they enjoyed some popularity in the the period prior to the 1600’s. Before the Church got mixed up in it, in the Middle Ages & before say? It was quite common according to some history. I still suspect it would have little effect on the divorce stats today however. Cheers, ‘VJ’

  15. The Observer says:

    Q:Should marriage be a renewable contract?
    A: It is. By virtue of not being cancelled. Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. As in you have to actively renew or its over–has a sunset provision, like tax law. Renew or bye-bye.

    Its certainly food for thought. The other aspect is: should you have to do as much work to get married as you do to get divorced?

    But consider that the marriage “contract” is both a civil binding and a spiritual binding–at least in most peoples’ minds. Certainly the Pro Prop 8 set. Hey they have a right to feel that way and express themselves (while denying others’ their rights to express their love and fidelity in a same sex union). But it digress.

    I got married many many moons ago. I’ve been married for more than half my lifetime on earth. So I have some experience in being and staying married. I guess you could say we never decided to get divorced…on the same day. We’ve had our ups and downs, not necessarily in bed, either. But would I have re-upped every three years? Or every decade?

    Maybe my experience is different than most–given the rates of marriage failures. I basically stood up before witnesses, in the sight of God (as the verbiage goes) and swore I’d be faithful (I have), foresake all others (so far so good), til death us do part (two cancers and we’re both still ticking).

    Both our parents were married for life, as well. And now that mom and dad have gone on a permanent vacation I’m not considering making any drastic changes.

    Having kidlets probably was the most unifying aspect to our longevity. Who want to raise kids in a broken home, broken relationship environment? I didn’t.

    Going back to your original premise–how do you have kids and just not renew your 3 year contract? With that in perspective, its easy to see how nobody would ever take the politicians seriously when they somewhat tongue in cheek suggest a renew or don’t renew statute. I really feel they were just trying to make a point that we need to be more aware of our commitments in marriage.

    Oh, and our marriage was rocked big time when she decided she’d favor a “open marriage”. When that happened my world collapsed. With the appearance of some cancer cells she quickly changed her mind and decided I wasn’t so bad after all…apartment lease cancelled, back to the family home…and fifteen year later the kids are gone and we’re still together. Remember this is all from my perspective.

    Kat, this certainly is a great subject…now that I’ve commented…I’ll read the wisdom of your other followers. Cheers, T.O. aka W.D.

  16. The Observer says:

    Just wanted to chime back in regarding the non-renewal option equivalent: divorce. Simply stated in almost every case I’ve seen first-hand divorce is always about punishment, not dissolution. Just sayin’.
    T.O. aka W.D.