Can We Give Up The Marriage Habit?

Attorney Kate McGuinness discusses the idea of moving toward limited-term marriage contracts versus traditional marriages.

Humans are notoriously stubborn about giving up harmful habits. Smoking is one obvious example. Packing on the pounds is another. Marriage is a third.

A recent article in the New York Times exploring the virtues of renewable limited-term marriage contracts has raised eyebrows. As the survivor of three divorces, I heartily endorse the concept.

Marriage became a bad habit for me. My desire to be part of a couple arose from my upbringing as part of a dyad with my narcissistic mother. I was never allowed to individuate or stand on my own. The only way I found to break free of her was to take on another partner—a husband. When that choice failed, I searched for another and then another and yet another. As I’ve described previously on Role/Reboot, I continued to marry narcissists hoping to find the love I’d never received from my mother. But getting love from a narcissist is virtually impossible.

Few marriages are based on such a neurotic motive. However, other disagreeable reasons, such as greed and control, may come into play. The institution of marriage has created a stage for manipulation and deceit.

Humans bonded and reproduced for tens of thousands of years without marriage. Sociologists speculate that marriage evolved as a way to provide exclusive sexual access to the bride in an attempt to ensure that the children born of the union were sired by the groom. The desire to establish paternity related to children’s entitlement to an inheritance as well as the father’s obligation to support them.

As practiced for most of recorded history, marriage shifted the burdens of household chores and child-rearing onto women. These factors led to its criticism as a patriarchal custom. But marriages fail for a number of reasons. Dissatisfaction with traditional gender roles (or with a spouse’s failure to fulfill such role) is just one of many.

Today, approximately half of all marriages end in divorce, and many more couples remain unhappily married. The costs of divorce and miserable marriage are psychological and economic.

A renewable limited-term marriage contract would significantly lessen both. A contract with five- or 10-year terms would provide stability with a less fraught escape clause than a divorce petition. In many ways, such a contract can be seen as a fleshed out prenuptial agreement.

Prenuptial agreements are increasingly common and typically set forth the economic consequences of divorce if one occurs. Expanded into a marriage contract, these agreements could even deal with child custody if the couple anticipates having children. However, because courts rightfully treat the interests of children as being paramount, a contract’s custody provisions might not be upheld.

If the mention of children in the context of limited-term marriages makes you squeamish, remember that in all 50 states either spouse can seek a no-fault divorce. Virtually all states permit a divorce to become final within months after the initial petition is filed. A “til death do us part” marriage provides children little more protection than a renewable marriage contract.

Just as the impact of divorce on children’s psychology can be debated so, too, could be the impact of one parent’s decision not to renew the marriage.

I wish I could tell you my only child survived my divorces unscathed. I’m quite sure that’s true for the divorce that occurred when he was an infant. He was 10 when the next divorce occurred and, fortunately, it was amicable. That husband adopted him and continues to play a role in his life today.

The true test of the effect of my divorces on him may be his willingness to marry or enter a committed relationship. He’s 23 now and hasn’t reached that threshold. When I asked him for his views on renewable limited-term marriage contracts versus traditional marriages, he pondered the question for a few minutes then came down on the side of contracts. But don’t read too much into that, both his father and I are lawyers. How could he not favor a legal arrangement?

Kate McGuinness is a lawyer who spent 17 years at Biglaw before becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 500 corporation. After leaving that position, she studied creative writing and is the author of a legal suspense novel Terminal Ambition, which is available on She is an advocate for women and tweets as @womnsrightswrter.

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