21 September 2014

Rethinking Marriage: Beta marriages, renewable-term marriages and other interesting ideas

It will probably surprise no one to learn that the reason why marriage is presumed to be permanent in the Western world stems from the Catholic doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage, you know, from this line in the New Testament: "what god hath joined together, let no man put asunder." Canon law on the irrevocability of marriage was all well and good when our life spans topped out at 30 in the middle ages; surely if you'd be entitled to the McDonalds senior's coffee discount at age 25 you could manage a life-long commitment to someone. However, considering that life expectancy in Canada shot from 59 for men and 61 for women in 1920 to 79 and 83 respectively in 2007, the notion of a single, life-long relationship takes on a somewhat more ominous aspect.

Interestingly enough, despite our increasing longevity, our enthusiasm for marriage has not yet begun to wane, although the rate of unmarried long-term relationships is increasing at a pace three times that of marriage and the divorce rate is a healthy 41%. The national divorce rate had held at this level for the last decade or so, after two sharp increases that followed the introduction of the federal Divorce Act in 1968 and the removal of the provisions about fault and matrimonial misconduct in 1985.

In 2012, I was asked to provide a keynote speech on the future of family law for a course put on by the Continuing Legal Education Society of BC. In light of the decline of religiosity as a compelling social force, and its replacement by a sort of secular rationalist humanism, I suggested that in the not too distant future we might see a flourishing of alternative family arrangements such as:
  • communalist families structures;
  • polyamorous or polyfidelitous families; and,
  • hive, creche and other cooperative approaches to the raising of children from multiple parents.
Given the rate of relationship breakdown, I also suggested that in the future we might see separation management aids such as:
  • the ability to register as a non-couple, expressly renouncing the existence of a marriage-like relationship;
  • property ownership and acquisition software to trace excluded property and family property;
  • term-limited relationship contracts; and,
  • separation insurance.
My presentation was surprisingly well received. However, it seems that I am not alone in my speculations. In a brilliant article for Time magazine, Jessica Bennett writes about a 2014 study by USA Network, yes the television network, on the relationship preferences and attitudes of millennials, those aged roughly 18 to 34. Bennett writes:
"They found all sorts of things: among them, that people cheat on the Internet (uh huh), that young people don’t think their relationships are like their parents’ (of course), and that everyone seems to have taken to the term uncoupling (yuck)."
Even more interestingly, Bennett notes that:
"Buried in the data was the revelation that almost half of millennials (43%, and higher among the youngest subset) said they would support a marriage model that involved a two-year trial — at which point the union could be either formalized or dissolved, no divorce or paperwork required. Thirty-three percent said they’d be open to trying what researchers dubbed the 'real estate' approach — marriage licenses granted on a five-, seven-, 10- or 30-year ARM, after which the terms must be renegotiated. And 21% said they’d give the 'presidential' method a try, whereby marriage vows last for four years but after eight you can elect to choose a new partner. 
"In total, nearly half of all of those surveyed, ages 18 to 49 — and 53% of millennials — thought marriage vows should be renewed, and nearly 40% said they believed the 'till death do us part' vow should be abolished. In other words: Beta marriages! ..."
These are some very interesting findings. They suggest that the generation just emerging into adulthood takes a starkly realist approach to relationships and recognizes not only the fact that some marriages fail but perhaps that some marriages should fail.

There were a number of ideas behind my suggestion of the term-limited relationship. At a basic level, I thought that a fixed term would give couples a regularly repeating opportunity to seriously consider the state of their relationship and reflect on their contentment, areas of dissatisfaction and areas for potential change and improvement. Too many couples, married or not, don't have regular check-ups with each other, and without the conscious airing of grievances, malaise and discontentment, irritation can fester, ultimately diminishing everyone's quality of life and encouraging the sort of seething resentment that makes the lives of divorce lawyers so comfortable yet so miserable.

I also thought that establishing a presumptive termination point would flip the normal dynamics of separation by requiring the consent of both to continue the relationship for another term. This might spare one or both parties from at least some of the blame and guilt involved in deciding to end a relationship; after all, it was going to end anyway. The fixed termination point would also allow couples to proactively address common trouble spots by planning leases, mortgage renewals, car loans, time share obligations and other commitments ahead of time.

The equality of opportunity to decline renewal might also empower a party to set the terms on which the relationship might continue. These terms might address irritating personal habits, responsibility for common chores, attendance at counselling, spending patterns and shared debts, relationships with others, means of conflict resolution and management of family obligations. In my experience, marriage and cohabitation agreements that call for a review are rarely actually reviewed, either because the couple have forgotten about the term or because the review may prejudice the survival of the relationship. In a fixed-term relationship, a review would be necessary for the continuation of the relationship.

Would term-limited relationships work in real life? Honestly, I don't know, but I think the idea is worth considering, particularly by younger couples. So, apparently, do the millennials. Here's the infographic from Bennett's Time article:

In case you can't read it, the results of the USA Network survey are essentially these:
  • 10% of respondents would be interested in a multiple-partner relationship, in which a marriage could be to more than one person at a time (interestingly, the Family Law Act defines "spouse" in such a way as to permit more than one relationship that simultaneously qualifies as spousal);
  • 21% would interested in a relationship that would last for four years, with an option of a further four;
  • 36% would be interested in marriages in which the licence to marry is granted for fixed terms, and must be renegotiated to be extended; and,
  • 43% would in interested in a trial relationship of two years, a "beta" marriage, after which the relationship could be formalized or dissolved.
Interesting ideas all. However, it is worth noting that the survey also discovered that 31% of respondents thought that marriage should continue to be permanent and the legislation allowing divorce should be rescinded.

I'll write about the Family Law Act and polyamorous spousal relationships in a future post.

My thanks to my friend and colleague Zara Suleman for bringing this interesting article to my attention. Thanks also to feedly.com for thoughtfully caching an earlier draft of this article, thus saving me from a painful re-write after an even more painful accidental deletion.