Friday, October 5, 2007

Temporary marriages

“German politician suggests temporary marriages” was a recent news story . Gabriele Pauli, the member of the conservative CSU who launched the proposal, believes that anyone wanting to stay married more than seven years would have to apply for an extension. Otherwise, the union would automatically expire.

Brilliant! Why should spouses have to stick together forever? Life takes many twists and turns that might make you want to part ways with your one-time sweetheart. Besides, couples could always chain fixed-term marriages and remain together for as long as they liked. In fact, given the high rate of failed unions, temporary marriage is a necessary institution. Is it?

After thinking about this for a while, here’s my conclusion. If you believe that people are perfectly rational and far-sighted, then temporary marriage is a redundant arrangement. Modern, secular societies have accepted four behaviors or institutions that accomplish the same goals. Those institutions are: cohabitation, divorce, pre-nuptial agreements and pre-marital sex. On the other hand, if you think that humans are inattentive creatures that postpone inevitable losses, then temp marriages can be useful.

Temp marriages are redundant

Taking your partner for a test drive sounds like a great idea. You don’t want to get stuck with a lemon on a coast-to-coast ride. And I don’t mean learning about your partner’s sense of humor, income, or intelligence -you figure that out in the first couple of dates. I’m thinking about experience traits such as earnings growth potential, resilience in the face of job or family setbacks, or health.

But the importance of learning about your partner is one of the reasons why society allows and practices cohabitation. Even in relatively conservative America, 41 percent of women ages 15 to 44 have lived with an unmarried man, according to the 2000 Census.

In spite of all that learning before tying the knot, people still misjudge their partners. And some harmful habits, such as domestic abuse, alcoholism, drugs, or snoring, appear only after years of life in common. Other people develop the proverbial “seven-year itch.”

But this is why societies have sanctioned divorce. Committing to a fixed-term marriage, while retaining the possibility to get a divorce, is meaningless. The divorce option can be defined as “I can quit anytime”; the temp marriage with a divorce option goes “I can quite at the end of the contract, or any time.”

Temporary marriages also ease the splitting process. Presumably, distribution of assets, custody of the children, alimony and child support, etc. would be stipulated on the contract. But spouses who are concerned about the financial consequences of a separation sign pre-nuptial agreements. Since the divorce option, with the attached pre-nuptial distribution of assets, can be executed any time, it is superior to temp marriages.

Finally, temporary marriages allow people to get in intimate relationships without having to commit for life. But modern, secular societies consent sex between unmarried people.

In fact, some religious groups have allowed fixed-term marriages in order to substitute for consented pre-marital sex. The Muslim Shiites allow the “Nikah Mut’ah” or “sigheh”, which is a marriage with a preset duration and, in practice, a way around the official ban on pre-marital sex. The institution is an exercise in hypocrisy, since “sigheh” can last for as little as a few hours and the spouses don’t even need a cleric. (Another motivation for the sigheh is to allow prostitution –some women will accept to “get married” for hours or days in exchange for a dowry.) But the point is that secular societies have accommodated people’s urges by authorizing pre-marital sex, instead of adopting temp marriages.

Temp marriages can be useful

Humans are pretty inattentive creatures. We don’t reconsider the decision to have cable TV every day. Likewise, we typically do not re-evaluate the optimality of our wedlock state very often, even though divorce is an available option every single day. Temporary marriages force us to do that re-evaluation at least once each term, near the end of the contract. This forced re-evaluation would stop relationships that would have withered away for too long otherwise.

Another way to understand the same phenomenon is procrastination. The process of splitting up comes with costs, both subjective and real: the fear of and stress from separation, the attorney’s fees, moving costs, etc. It is perfectly rational to postpone losses, since we apply a discount factor to future events. But when eventual divorce becomes a certainty, postponing it is never optimal: the more you wait, the more difficult it will be to find another spouse, and the larger the foregone happiness from remaining in a bad marriage. Temp marriages cap those losses.

So the evaluation of temporary marriages depends on how rational people are. Which view is more accurate? That’s up to you: I muse, you decide.

Can you think of other reasons why temporary marriages are a valuable option? Is there some other "irrational behavior" that leads people to prolong their (failed) marriages? Why have societies chosen divorce, pre-marital sex and cohabitation as alternatives to fixed-term marriages? Leave your answers in the comments.

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Anonymous said...

Best post yet. Your writing and musings are getting better and more interesting. This one had noine of the cognitive dissonance of your last post - or rather, it did, but it suited this week's subject matter perfectly. And this week saw your best analogy ever: "You don’t want to get stuck with a lemon on a coast-to-coast ride."

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Anonymous said...

A secular institution of temporary marriage can serve an exclusive society within an inclusive society by uniting rational, foresighted people. I haven't found an example yet, but why not?