Use or Freeze By…: Expiration Dates for Marriage?

Reuters reports that “leftists” in Mexico City’s assembly are contemplating a two-year, term-limited marriage.  They argue that it would spare the city’s married residents—half of whom split, and most within the first two years of the marriage—the “torturous” process of going through divorce.

I talk about this concept in my book, Marriage Confidential, since my husband and I abstractly fancied the idea, in a marital sci-fi kind of way. It turned out that a sexy, leather-wearing, motorcycle-riding female politician from Bavaria had proposed a seven-year term limit on marriages. If the couple was still happy after seven years, they could renew the contract easily, like a driver’s license.

Nothing is more foundational to the romantic narrative than “HappilyEverAfter…,” which came at the drowsy end of every bedtime fairy tale I was read as a girl, just before the book slammed triumphantly and conveniently shut at the point when the marriage actually began.

Term-limited marriage is likely to pop up more in the coming decades, as we live healthier, longer. We might have to adjust and recalibrate our idea of marital “failure” and longevity, accordingly. Is a marriage necessarily a failure when it ends?

Perhaps we could have a few “successful marriages” in one lifetime. Maybe, instead, of failing, a marriage simply comes to the end of its natural life, or utility (“grey divorces” among spouses over 50, such as Al and Tipper Gore, are one of the fastest-growing groups today).

Already, our marital practices if not our ideals have shifted toward serial monogamy, which is a de facto term-limited approach.

Since happily ever after is the ideal, however, these marriages are perceived as failures rather than transitorily successful.  This sets in motion a potentially damaging narrative chain reaction (and stories matter. Joan Didion famously remarked that we tell stories so that we can live). Even if the divorcing spouses don’t feel all that hostile toward each other—maybe they feel secretly forgiving, or maybe they’re mutually relieved—they’re maneuvered into a position of greater hostility and acrimony by the lack of value-neutral ways to tell the break-up story. If the marriage has “failed,” then someone or something must explain that failure, and take the blame for it.

We don’t want to take the shame of failure all on ourselves. So the spouse becomes an oppositional figure, even if we actually see things in more multi-faceted ways. And ask any divorcing couple just how much bile and anger a divorce attorney who argues “their side” can gin up in what could have been a civil break-up.

In contrast, a marriage that’s a failure by the “forever” metric would be judged successful enough by the planned obsolescence, term-limited standard. You didn’t “divorce,” or fail. Your contract just expired, on time and as planned, and you’re deciding not to renew.  It’s a totally different story, isn’t it?

Mexico’s Catholic Church isn’t happy with term-limited matrimony. It violates the sacrament of marriage. And, even a secular thinker might reasonably object that this proposal is just a sad case of lowering the marital goal posts, or dumbing down the marital commitment, to normalize the moral failure of divorce.

I see the term limit more as a secular adaptation to the post-romantic times. Impermanence doesn’t necessarily make a marriage a failure, or even less meaningful—at least by secular standards. We often hear today, for example, that disgruntled spouses should give up their divorce-provoking romantic delusions about marriage and start seeing it as instrumental, a practical arrangement for childrearing. But, if that’s the case, then why should marriage still be assumed to be forever?

And if people were permitted to think aloud, “I owe these 18 years to my children, but then we can exercise the term-limit clause and break up,” they might not feel so trapped and miserable.

Think of distance running. A marathon runner will say that they can endure any discomfort so long as there is a finishing line—something precise, not the gaping maw of “ever after,” which keeps getting longer on us, or “forever.”

And, in this way, marital expiration dates might indirectly support longevity, too. Perhaps the couple that otherwise would have divorced at mile-post 5 now thinks, “well, we might as well stay together until the contract expires at mile-post 7.” And maybe their family gets to be intact for a few years longer, which could benefit the children, or the couple.

Better still, if they make it to mile-post 2, and have a gracious exit, then they might not make the desperate decision to have a baby in an effort to save the marriage.

At the least, the marital expiration date would give couples a way to tell the story of divorce as something other than a betrayal or failure. It reorients our sense of marital success.

As legendary football coach Vince Lombardi said, “We didn’t lose the game. We just ran out of time.” 

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