Hitched: Should Marriage Be A Renewable Contract?
I seriously never thought I’d say this: I miss being engaged.
I don’t miss wedding planning, and I don’t miss being talked to as if, as a human with a ring and a vagina, I had no interests aside from talking about the details of “my” (so rarely, “our”) big day. I sure as shit don’t miss shopping for wedding dresses. I don’t miss getting Wedding Industrial Side-Eye because Patrick and I had, like, a wedding budget.
What I miss is the day-to-day experience of preparing to love someone publicly.
Patrick and I didn’t have a particularly long engagement — or courtship, for that matter, since we got married before we’d known each other for two years. But during our eight-month engagement, I spent so much of my time being excited, just plain excited as all fucking get-out, to be in love.
And when Patrick and I worked on wedding stuff together, on something as banal as trying to find the most affordable yet stylish tablecloths, or something as exciting as building a mapped-out guide to Dallas for incoming guests, it didn’t feel like just working on wedding stuff. It felt like we were working on us, and on what our wedding said about us, and also on the future we both wanted so badly together, and to create for ourselves.
It’s nice to spend months at a time being reminded that you’re in love, to be focused both on the present and the future and the past, enveloped in the sustenance and growth of a relationship.
Marriage is wonderful, but it is not like that. At least, not for me. I often think about how much I love Patrick, and I certainly love him more today than ever, but that sense of immediate future-building that I felt during our engagement is dulled.
Once you’re married, your work is done. Of course, reasonable people know that healthy relationships take maintenance and work and communication on every level, every day, every month, every year. But after the wedding, what do we look forward to? Buying a house, maybe, or having kids. But not everyone can, will, or wants to buy a house; neither does everyone have the ability or desire to have children.
This is why I believe in an argument for contractual romantic marriage, renewed at specific intervals throughout the life of a relationship.
If you want out of a marriage, you get divorced, and it’s probably horrible, or at best, a relief. But if you still want in you get … what? Sure, couples are encouraged to celebrate anniversaries. But as a society, there’s no system in place that asks people in marriages if they want to stay, only one that says it’s possible to leave.
What if the thing that kept couples together wasn’t the absence of divorce, but the presence of public, legal renewal?
I think the idea that a renewable marriage contract is somehow depressing or unromantic is a fundamentally cynical one. I don’t see a renewable contract model as being predicated on the idea that people will want out; I see a renewable contract model as being predicated on people wanting to stay in, and wanting to honor that.
This romantic idea we have about forever love and the two dedicated (and heterosexual) people who should be so committed to each other that the only thing that stands between them and mutual separation is death? Pretty new.
Marriage contracts don’t fly in the face of everything we’ve ever believed about marriage. In fact, marriage contracts are right in line with what many societies originally believed about marriage, which is that it was a social, political or business arrangement — and a deeply patriarchal one at that, with women being passed around not “like” chattel but as chattel. Romantic love was reserved almost exclusively for the relationship between a man and his unmarried mistress (or mister, in some cases). Many times, there existed no social or cultural space in which it was appropriate for a wife to experience romantic love.
I’m certainly not trying to argue that to be wed in the 4th century was awesome and that we need to idealize the past. What I’m saying is: ideas about marriage, and what it means to be married, are not static, but ever-changing with time and geography and culture.
You can not like marriage contracts for a lot of reasons, but “It makes a mockery of this long-standing institution” isn’t one of them, because we have totally already done contractually-based, rather than romantic love-based, marriages. What I’m interested in thinking about is combining the romantic with the contractual.
I see a renewable marriage contract not as a palliative for inevitable divorce, but as active therapy for people who are left with not much to do after they throw the $30,000 wedding that so often obscures the reality of the institution it creates: a marriage.
Of course, everyone who has the big-bash wedding isn’t doing it for the wrong reasons, and everyone who runs down to courthouse isn’t somehow magically enlightened and destined for matrimonial bliss. But when the Wedding Industrial Complex sells one day, and not one lifetime, we have to consider that that day-after may be something of a letdown, something society doesn’t prepare us for, something that starts with the question, “What now?”
We’re encouraged to put so much effort into a ceremony and a party, but where’s the magazine rack filled with copies of glossy Modern Marriage? What if instead of glamorizing the purchase of a $3,000 dress a woman wears once, we watched “Say Yes To That Professional Enrichment Course That Will Help You Provide For Your Family”? What if instead of “My Fair Wedding,” producers amped up the shit-getting-real on “My Fair Share Of The Housework”?
I would be excited to officially and legally renew my marriage to Patrick every five or seven years. I think it might recapture some of what I enjoyed about being engaged, of focusing very seriously on my relationship and its future for a particular period of time. And I’m not above saying that, in 10 or 15 years, I might need something like a legal check-in to make sure I’m giving our marriage the attention it deserves.
A renewable contract would, I think, encourage people to face problems in their relationships head-on, before those problems get so bad that one partner wants to divorce. And it would start conversations, or at least encourage starting conversations, that so many people are afraid of having, lest they upset that “forever” they promised each other but never worked out the details of, or the details of which have shifted — I changed my mind about kids, or I want to quit my job, or can we please have more sex
Asking people to promise to be together forever, then giving them not just no lifeboat for their voyage together but skimping on the motor and oars and compass, is asking people to abandon ship. If a renewable contract can act as a map to help couples navigate the future, I’m happy to sign on for that trip.