Should Marriage Have Term Limits?

Interesting article in the NYTimes proposes an alternative to “as long as we both shall live”. What do you think of  a 20-year marriage contract? Yearly renewable term? Should marriage contracts have built in term limits?

When my parents got married in 1963, they were high school sweethearts, barely twenty-one, and my mom had just had one of the first open heart surgeries in the world. After speaking with the surgeon, my dad was certain that his fiancee would most likely die before her thirtieth birthday. My mom had spent her young life blue in the face and with a very unpredictable heartbeat. Neither of them knew how long their marriage would last.

It’s an odd way to begin a life together, with the threat of death hanging over it. It created for them a certain fragility. It also gave them a respect for the institution that I believe is missing for most of us. They had to first decide if it was worth investing in each other and in a new family if only for a few years. As the threatened end point came and went, and my mother carried on living, they had to reassess and regroup. Each time she made it through another procedure with flying colors, they rededicated themselves to this vow that no longer had such a finite term to it.

It’s been nearly fifty years and my dad still worries about my mom, even when she’s riding her stationary bike every morning, taking the grandkids to Disneyland or planning a trip around the world. And my mom frets about my dad when he busts out one of his chainsaws, drives for twenty hours straight or schedules ten meetings a week. They love each other, feel grateful for the years they’ve had together and they honor the work it takes to keep a marriage alive for five decades.

No, I do not think we should approach marriage as a contract with a set term attached to it. An intimate relationship is not merely a business and there is much more at stake. I do think we should frequently consider the questions my parents were forced to ask themselves: Am I willing to put in the work needed to keep this relationship knowing there are no guarantees that the other person will do the same (or even stay alive)? Do I want this enough to risk my own sense of emotional safety? Am I willing to sit with the discomfort that comes with facing my ultimate fear of losing this person I love?

Each year for the past 11 years my husband and I have asked these questions. Every year on our anniversary we verbally commit to staying together. And some years we sit across from each other with less enthusiasm than others. Some days/weeks/months are so hard that I rest more on faith in our vows to each other than I do in the reality of the moment. But most days I feel lucky to have found someone willing to work with me, learn with me, laugh with me and grow old with me. We might only have another day together, one more contract renewal, another decade, but my intention is to see this through till death do us part.

Marriage should really be billed as a huge risk for an unknown payoff that first involves up to two years of bliss, then confusion, then anger, then either giving up because you thought the first part would last forever or getting to work creating the relationship you want. That’s what I would like to tell every engaged couple.

Signing a twenty year contract won’t help make sense of that cycle. What might help is paying attention to couples who are doing it well. My parents’ marriage works because they have been intentional about it. My marriage works because we check in on the contract we signed and we have stayed curious about ourselves and each other. A friend’s marriage is exploding with passion after many years together because they have decided to get to know each other again.

We don’t need contracts. We need to bring all of our enthusiasm, creativity and attention to our relationships. We need to approach commitment like those Choose Your Own Adventure books from my childhood– we are each (partially!) in charge of how the story ends. We decide if we’re going to make it to the end of the book or pick another one from the stack. Perhaps Anais Nin is an odd choice for this post but here is one of my favorite quotes:

Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings. – Anais Nin