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Could a ‘Beta Marriage’ Be a Better Marriage?

A couple holding up signs at their wedding that say better together.

You met someone special, the relationship is working in ways you never even imagined it could, and you’re wondering what’s next. Do you move in together? Or, if you’re already living together, do you get married? Or maybe the idea of marriage seems somewhat scary for you. (It is “until death,” after all.)

But does it have to be?

What if you could try it out for a few years to see if it’s as good as—or even better—than how your current relationship works. What if you could create a time-limited marriage contract that you could renew or easily dissolve, without the drama and expense of divorce? Would you do it?

Many say they’d at least consider it. According to a recent TIME editorial by Jessica Bennett, millennials are overwhelmingly opting for what she calls a beta marriage. According to a PEW research study, more young adults are postponing marriage. As a result, they have more opportunities to have several committed relationships before they tie the knot. As one millennial told Bennett:

“Millennials aren’t scared of commitment—we’re just trying to do commitment more wisely. We rigorously craft our social media and online dating profiles to maximize our chances of getting a first date, and ‘beta testing’ is just an extension of us trying to strategize for future romantic success.”

Defining ‘successful marriage’

Entering into a commitment with knowledge and wisdom makes sense. So does planning for future romantic success, especially since having a successful marriage is what all married folks want. But, what makes a successful marriage? The only way many people define a marriage as successful is if it lasts “until death,” meaning once someone dies, success!—even if the marriage was an unhappy, angry, sexless, loveless, dysfunctional union.

So if the goal is to have a successful marriage, perhaps it would be helpful if couples defined what success means to them, what they will do to make it happen, and what they expect their partner to do based on their values and goals. And, let’s face it—a “successful marriage” is going to look different for people who have or want to have children, people who don’t want to have children, people who desire an open relationship, and middle-aged empty-nesters who are seeking companionship.

In other words, not all of us are looking for the same things in our marriage, even if we hope to have our marriage last. So defining why you want to put a ring on it and what will make your marriage a success is really important. And one way to do that is to create a couple-specific contract that would be renewable.

Not a new concept

As odd as it may seem, renewable and temporary marriages have been discussed for decades, centuries even. In some places in the world, they actually existed successfully. Temporary marriages date back to ancient times, practiced by Peruvian Indians in the Andes, in Indonesia, in Japan and in Islam, where it’s still in place today albeit not without its controversy. Trial marriages—similar to temporary marriage but entered into with a hope that the union will become permanent—were suggested as far back as the 18th century by Maurice of Saxony.

Ever since then, they have been periodically discussed and promoted by progressives, and in recent years some have even proposed legislation—a seven-year contract in Germany in 2007; a 10-year marital contract in the Philippines in 2010, and a marital contract of a minimum of two years in Mexico City in 2011.

None of the proposals were passed into law but, given that fewer people are getting married across the globe, according to sociologist Philip Cohen, if we continue this way, the global marriage rate will hit zero around 2042. If divorce still remains a concern for many, perhaps it’s time to take trial and temporary marriages seriously.

Could beta = better

Here are a few reasons why beta marriages may have advantages over “until death” marriages:

Goodbye stigma — There’s still a lot of stigma, shame, and judgment around those who want alternative marriages, such as open marriages, as well as divorce. If everyone had to personalize their marital contract based on their values and goals, that stigma, shame, and judgment may disappear, according to the late Nobel-winning economist Gary S. Becker.

Goodbye fear and inertia — Many couples stay together unhappily because they fear divorce and the related emotional and financial costs, want to keep access to their children, and sometimes just because of inertia. Couldn’t it be more romantic knowing that each person in the relationship is renewing their marital contract because they actually want to continue being together?

Goodbye complacency — The way many marriages work now, spouses can go years, perhaps decades, being neglectful or even harmful, or taking the other for granted without any accountability. How long would a couple go sexless—a common complaint in longtime marriages—if they had to come up with a mutually agreed-upon plan every few years? With a renewable contract, it’s going to be hard for couples to ignore things for too long because there’s a date that will require action; renew or not.

Goodbye contentious divorce — Even if you have a renewable marital contract, one or both of you may decide not to renew. While no romantic breakup is without its pain, having a contract may be less stressful because it will lay out the actions each of you would need to take—like going to marital counseling—and by when if problems arose that you couldn’t solve by yourselves. It would also require couples to figure out what would happen if one or both of you chose not to renew, such as how you’d split property, investments, furnishings, etc., in a more loving and fairer way than what typically happens when a spouse is facing an unexpected split. They just might avoid the expense and acrimony of divorce.

If that doesn’t make you think, consider this: 10 percent of first marriages don’t even make it past five years. Having a mutually agreed upon marital contract would at least mean that couples would be forced to have some important conversations about what they expect from their marriage.

And here’s a bonus—you don’t even have to be married to benefit from having a contract, as “How to Fall in Love With Anyone” author Mandy Len Canton writes: “Our contract addresses much of what must be negotiated in any relationship, especially when cohabitating. It begins with our reasons for being together… Our contract isn’t infallible, or the solution to every problem. But it acknowledges that we each have desires that deserve to be named and recognized.”

Would you want the same?

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