Marriage Contracts: Should We Should Have Marital Term Limits?
Last year marked my ten-year wedding anniversary. I love the legal protections of marriage -- no one argues that my husband can't visit me in the hospital or shouldn't be able to pick something up for me or inherit my money. I love the psychological aspect of marriage, too -- but it's the LEGAL aspect of marriage that ups the ante societally from living together. The legal aspect is also the part that I think we should change: We should have marital term limits.
Credit Image: HarshLight on Flickr.
I have several reasons. They are my opinions.
- Marriage is the only common American legal contract I can think of that has no expiration date. Marriage isn't the same as love. They can go hand-in-hand, but they don't have to. You can be married to someone you can't stand and not married to the love of your life. Marriage is a legal contract, and as much as I love the protections it provides, I see no reason why all hell should have to break loose if you want to sever that contract or limit it in some other legal way.
- Divorces shouldn't be allowed to snarl up the courts as much as they do. Our judicial system is slow. And expensive. The more unnecessary trials we can pull back out of it, the better able it will be to serve those who are in serious need of legal recourse. (Some divorces may fall into that category, of course, I do realize that, and there should be a provision for those who need to leave a marriage mid-contract for safety's sake.)
- Putting in term limits makes re-upping even more romantic than getting married in the first place. Getting married is much easier than staying married. I love my husband now much more than I did when we got married and less than I expect to love him in ten more years. Spending time together and growing up together has deepened our bonds. We've grown toward the middle in our ability to compromise, what we like to do for fun, where we want to live when we're old. The longer I'm with him, the more I want to stay with him. However, the way we've grown closer is to not take what we have for granted. Every day I know we both wake up, look over, and think, "yeah, I'll stay married today." Staying married because you choose it every day is a different feeling than staying married because you got married. Conscious choice makes things more valuable.
- Break-ups are going to happen whether or not we make it simple legally for them to happen -- the divorce rate reflects that. I feel the same way about marital term limits as I do about legalizing marijuana -- making it easier to split or to get pot won't change people who would normally not practice the behavior, and it won't change people who normally would practice the behavior -- it just changes how we as a society deal with those behaviors. In the case of marital term limits, no longer are mid-life crises or affairs or even two sets of lawyers needed. One person just moves out.
- If you did want to stay together (and I hope you do!), re-upping needn't be so hard. You could handle it online or maybe mail it in. It's not like you need to have a wedding all over again -- we renew our health insurance and car insurance every year, we pay taxes every year -- why not re-up our marriage certificates every 5-10 years, same way?
- And the real reason: Term limits separate the legal relationship from the religious relationship. If you marry someone because you believe you've been united in the presence of God, changing the legal meaning of marriage doesn't take anything away from your spiritual vows. We have all sorts of separation of church and state in government, and I can't figure out why we're hanging on to this one.
Kim Pearson wrote a post on BlogHer in 2008 talking about the legal definitions of marriage. She pointed out:
There is no one definition of marriage. It is dependent on the culture, the society and the needs of the community. Some of those needs are commerce and business. In fact, that was the driving factor in early marriages. Love did not necessarily have anything to do with it.
Maura Kelly at The Daily wrote in favor of marital term limits for different reasons than I've even brought up: People change.
On a less cynical note, it's likely that many divorcees earnestly planned for lifelong partnerships but simply didn't sufficiently understand life, themselves or their spouses. Perhaps they were incapable of envisioning the ways in which their significant others -- or they themselves -- would change. They may have been surprised by their partners'inability to change or their own intransigence. Punishing them for not being able to foresee the future seems unnecessarily draconian.
You may think I'm being over-the-top, but this fall Mexico City actually submitted a proposal for two-year marital term limits. I think two years might be a little short, but they came to that number because the half of Mexican marriages that end often end within the first two years.
Introducing term limits and emphasizing the legal side of marriage -- separating it from the religious side -- (yes, I'm going to go there) might also make it easier for people to wrap their heads around same-sex marriages. Some same-sex couples have no desire to be married, but others do want to get married, legally married, with all the rights and privileges of marriage. I see no reason why they shouldn't have that right, and it seems to me the major argument against it is the religious view of marriage (for which this Christian sincerely apologizes).
Customs and ceremonies do matter; rituals matter, the word "marriage" matters -- legality matters.
I love my husband, and I love being married to my husband. Marital term limits wouldn't take anything away from that, from me. However, they could have a real benefit for America. From the twice-divorced Sudden Bachelor:
And if divorce is the result, it's no longer a lawyerfest. It's all dealt with, the prenup spells it out with a formula designed by the same legislation that created term limits ... All of which can be varied by prenup, but it's spelled out and avoids at least some of the gross inefficiencies not to mention emotional and financial desolation which is modern Western style divorce.