I Wanted To Get Contract Married, But My Wife Wouldn’t Let Me

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A pre-nup/post-nup marriage agreement made sense to Michael Erard, but not to the woman he planned to wed.

Entering a marriage for a pre-determined amount of time—what’s also called a contract marriage—is a good idea, if you ask me, and it deserved the airtime it received in a recent New York Times think piece. Maybe I’m biased. I made many of the same arguments for getting contract married many years ago.

I dreamed up the contract marriage, inspired by observing a few marriages that fell into two types. The first was a marriage of zombie spouses. Once vital, their union was now beyond resuscitation; the dwindled individuals staggered through life, gnashing their teeth. The second was a conjugal timebomb. Marriages were blowing up like bad firecrackers, which meant that unsuspecting people, adults and children, got hurt. Neither of those scenarios was going to happen to me, I swore.

It also seemed that the “til death do us part” part of traditional wedding vows—as well as the culture’s dominant conception of the ideal marriage span—exploited the naivete of young people who lacked an adequate sense of how long life really is and the ways a person could change. Lifelong unions might have made sense when lives were constrained and rote, and when life expectancies were short. But now?

The contract marriage—the version of it that I came up with, anyway—was meant as a sober, secular, open-eyed view of how to get all the benefits of both being married and being not being married and avoid the damages of getting unmarried (or staying together, for that matter). Modern marriage in America, as a cultural institution, is built in several layers, all of which were inherited from the past: There’s modern marriage as economic arrangement and business deal; there’s marriage as companionate, love-based; and marriage as legal institution. The most recent layer to this is the sense that the solubility of marriage—now neutral and amoral, not charged with sin—can also be an advantage for one or both individuals.

I proposed contract marriage as an arrangement that would draw on each of these historical contributions and provide the union—and the individuals in it—with the tools to avoid becoming zombie spouses or conjugal timebombs.

The way it would work was like this (I told my girlfriend): The contract marriage basically consists of a pre-nup and a post-nup. In the pre-nup, you agree to get married under certain terms and for a certain amount of time, say five years. Toward the end of five years, you renegotiate, vigorously and consciously. If you decide to continue, you sign another pre-nup. Doing this is the act that defuses the post-nup: an automatic divorce.

Your pre-nup can contain whatever you want; it’s the conscious negotiation that matters. You can even commit to kicking certain questions or issues to the next marital term. Basically, the talks provide a milestone for making sense of the distance covered.

Of course, at the time I had been married exactly zero amount of time, but the advantages seemed clear (even though I hadn’t worked on legal particulars, such as the fact that this would only work in a state with no-fault divorce): The zombie spouses would find themselves divorced, and maybe they were better off that way, and the shocking force of conjugal timebombs would fizzle. (Another provision of the pre-nup was to place crippling material constraints on divorcing within the contract period.) Basically, everyone would know how long they’d have to make it, as well as how long they might not. Otherwise, the expanse of time would seem like an open water swim on an unmarked course.

Perhaps it’s just because I’m naturally a sprinter, not a distance runner, that I took to this model. Would this work? I don’t know—I never got to try. I talked up the contract marriage, encountering some nods (mostly from men, though from a few women) and a fair share of head shakes. A lot of people took it as an elaborate scheme to not be married. That wasn’t it, though.

An article (I forget the author) from the torrent of post-Monicagate commentary about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s marriage pointed out how most people accepted the cultural expectations about relationships rather than crafting their relationships as they wished. Now it seems dumb for me to have been so entranced by the notion that a relationship was a private space in which you could innovate everything. But that’s what I was thinking.

The woman I was living with at the time—with whom I’d bought a house already—didn’t much like this idea, and didn’t want to follow me into marriage activism (as much as straight white Americans could break new ground here). We eventually got married the traditional way, with “’til death do us part”-style vows. To her, the contract marriage’s pre-nup and post-nup Rube Goldbergism seemed too punitive. Doing the right thing only prevented a bad event, it didn’t encourage more positive events. Plus, she thought that the threatening legal contraptions shouldn’t be necessary. If you want to talk about the relationship, why not just talk about the relationship? I acceded this last point, and dropped the case.

I admit, the pre-nup/post-nup mechanism hurt my cause, and I hope that someone else is trying this—I’d love to hear about it from someone who did. Tom and Katie, I don’t mean you.

After six years of marriage, there’s no way I’m going to say I’m any wiser than I was, or than anyone else. I will, however, venture that it may not be necessary to have contract marriage to have conversations about things for which there are no answers, only continued conversations. What are the time spans across which marriages hold secure, and across which the social and emotional benefits of being married begin to decline? Even more importantly, what is our language for finitudes—indeed, why leave this topic to the terminally ill and the aged?

The art of ending well is a lifelong art; it should be practiced everyday.

Michael Erard is a linguist and author of Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners and Um: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. He’s written about language for the New York Times, Science, Wired, the New Scientist, and many other publications, and is a contributing writer to Design Observer. Find him on his website and follow him on Twitter @michaelerard.

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