Eric Sentell says if two people view marriage as a temporary commitment, then they will probably treat it as such.
When discussing divorce in his critique of American culture, The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom argues that our society is quickly adopting a no-risk, low-stakes, consequence-free attitude toward marriage and the family. If that seems a little over-dramatic, consider Matt Richtel’s recent New York Times article, “Till Death, or 20 Years, Do Us Part,” in which he wonders if people would be better served by a marriage contract with a predefined time-limit rather than an open-ended, life-long commitment.
The very suggestion of a timed marriage contract simultaneously reflects our culture’s diminishing expectations for an institution that fails half the time (literally) and its increasing tendency toward avoiding consequences, commitments, and responsibilities. While we may avoid the risk, we also miss out on the benefits of a life-long relationship.
Some of the experts Richtel interviews consider a timed marriage contract an innovative way of discarding our culture’s romantic notions of life-long love and embracing a more realistic version of marriage in which divorce loses its traumatic character. Ideally, divorce would become a normal part of life with limited emotional toll.
As sociologist Pepper Schwartz asserts, “[A marriage contract] is back to the past, which used to involve dowry, bride price, economic arrangement. Nobody pretended [marriage] was not an economic arrangement.” The divorce lawyer Kenneth Altshuler adds, “perhaps we need to change our expectations so we’re not so unhappy.” Richtel puts it even more bluntly when he paraphrases psychology professor Robert Emery: “marriage is not a sexfest with a flawless best friend but something that takes enormous investment.”
Clearly, Schwartz, Altshuler, and Emery are as disillusioned with typical notions of marriage as anyone. I agree wholeheartedly that our culture needs a more realistic, less Hollywood-esque version of love and marriage. But I could not disagree more with predetermining acceptable timeframes for marriage, thus indulging our culture’s fear of consequences, commitment, and responsibilities.
This fear does not merely change our expectations for marriage. It diminishes them—and us.
If two people view marriage as a temporary commitment, then they will probably treat it as such. Why invest in something temporary? Why spend quality time with a temporary spouse? Why grow and mature? Why improve your character flaws to make yourself easier to live with when the person living with you will be gone eventually? So what if the contract stands for 20 years, just raise the kids you both wanted and move on.
Perhaps the questions above begin to explain why only 36% of cohabitating couples in a 2010 study reported being “very satisfied” in their relationship, compared to 57% of married couples in the same study. By definition, cohabitation is a temporary arrangement. Yes, many cohabitating couples are extremely committed and devoted to each other, even raising children together. But no matter how emotionally-committed a cohabitating couple might be, each person remains only a moving truck away from leaving. I, for one, can’t imagine being “very satisfied” with such a tenuous relationship, especially if it were to invoke the self-centered attitude described in the previous paragraph.
When we minimize the risks of a relationship, when we diminish our expectations for committed love, then we inevitably curtail its rewards. We gravitate away from rather than toward each other. We indulge the fear that builds walls against interpersonal connection. We lose the opportunity to create a unique, shared sense of meaning and purpose. We weaken both our relationships and ourselves.
Our culture certainly needs to view marriage more realistically, to be more honest about its difficulties and challenges, but giving up on life-long love should be the absolute last resort. As Richtel himself concludes, common marital challenges can be manageable transitions rather than inevitable deal-breakers that necessitate a more realistic time-table. Marriage’s challenges don’t inevitably lead to the consequences of divorce, but lacking commitment certainly leads to the hidden consequences of lost opportunities.
Eric Sentell lives in the DC-metro area with his emotionally brilliant wife. He teaches college composition and directs a writing center at Northern Virginia Community College. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Rivendell Gazette, Long Story Short, Red Ink Journal, Moon City Review, Unlikely Stories 2.0, Blink Ink Online, Short, Fast, and Deadly, and Six Minute Magazine. In September 2010, Long Story Short selected “Stolen Thunder” as its Story of the Month.