Sex & Relationships

What if Marriage Were Temporary?

Nearly half of millennials support the idea of “beta” marriages.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

For most of the history of marriage, till death do us part did not mean 50 years wedded to the same person. A century ago, death regularly transformed a new mother to a corpse in the blink of an eye. A sip of water from an infected source or a slip on the road could quickly fell the young and the fit. Cholera, consumption, smallpox…death had many names and predictable results: widows and widowers usually found another partner and remarried, sometimes more than once.

As sanitation, hygiene and medical advances prolonged human life in the 20th century, married couples in the West faced a new and unprecedented prospect: living with the same person, decade in and decade out, until the ailments of old age took one of them away. The marriage was now expected to withstand the stresses of all stages of life: childrearing, work, the empty nest. As the nuclear family in the single-detached home replaced the more fluid and populated living arrangements of the past, marriage began to carry new burdens. Two people must be all things to each other for all time, in tight quarters and with little relief.

Little wonder that the loosening of divorce laws soon followed.

In practice, marriage today in the U.S. is often temporary (approximately half of all married couples end up divorced), but most people still enter the contract as if they will remain wedded for the rest of their lives. A gigantic wedding industry cashes in on the fantasy. This expectation, entirely unrealistic for a good chunk of the population, results in contortions that are hardly conducive to human happiness, or even sanity. Too many people face the shamed search for emotional and physical connections outside the marriage, producing soul-maiming hypocrisy and mendacity, and much collateral damage. Bitter divorces that enrich lawyers and tear families apart are often the sad result. Many who stay married lead lives of quiet desperation, unhappy in their circumstances, but unable to envision an alternative to one-size-fits-all-till-death-do-us-part.

Is this the best we can do? Shouldn’t something so important in our lives be shaped to fit our fundamental natures and current circumstances, not the other way around?

Marriage is often depicted as a timeless and fixed institution. But the truth is that marriage has been quite flexible throughout history and across cultures, fluctuating with social and economic conditions. One of the alternatives to the fixed, forever marriage is the temporary marriage. Let’s take a look at how this practice has evolved.

Till Sometime Do Us Part

Laura J. Mitchell of the University of California, Irvine, has described temporary unions in diverse cultures in history. In 15th-century Indonesia, for example, women acted as traders in port cities, and therefore had social and economic power. Mitchell notes that there was a longstanding practice of temporary marriage between local women and foreign traders in such places. Both partners had recognized rights in these unions and enjoyed business benefits: she got access to goods from external trade networks; he learned about local customs and opportunities and was able to set up a home while abroad. The temporary marriage carried no social stigma for the women. When the men returned to their native countries — maybe Portugal or Holland — the children stayed with the women, who had enjoyed economic advantages from the arrangement.

One of the most fascinating cases of temporary marriage is the nikah mut'ah or sigheh, an ancient Islamic practice (possibly with pre-Islamic roots) that unites man and woman as husband and wife for a specific period of time — as short as an hour or as long as 99 years. The practice developed so that a man could have legitimate sexual relations when traveling long distances. A woman who entered such a contract assumed the status of a wife and all the rights of one.

Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, temporary marriage came back into vogue in Iran as young people were delaying marriage due to financial hardship, yet still had sexual needs. Because of the lack of equality between men and women from a legal or social standpoint, men received far more advantages in these situations, having the right to multiple wives as well as the sole right to end the temporary marriage. Women were sometimes driven into temporary marriages because of the inability to provide for their own subsistence due to lack of economic and social rights, which placed them on unequal footing.

Many Iranian women considered the revival of the custom to be harmful. There is some stigma attached to the practice, and in some cases, the contract marriage serves as a loophole for prosititution, which is forbidden under Islam. In recent years, there has been a full-blown embrace of temporary marriage by officials in Iran. Restrictions have been loosened so that temporary marriage no longer requires the permission of the first wife.

An interesting report on sexuality from Iran’s parliamentary research department discussed in the Economist paints a picture of wide acceptance of temporary marriages by young people who want to have sex, and clerics who share that desire:

“[The recommendation] for stopping unsanctioned sex is remarkably liberal. Instead of seeking to cool the loins of the youngsters altogether, they should be allowed publicly to register their union by using sigheh, an ancient practice in Shia Islam that lets people marry temporarily. A legal but loose and much-deprecated arrangement, which can last from a few hours to decades, sigheh is often viewed as a cover for promiscuity or prostitution. Clerics themselves have long been suspected of being among its biggest beneficiaries, sometimes when they are on extended holy retreats in ancient religious cities such as Qom.

For less conservative Iranians, some of whom even jokingly describe themselves as ‘not real Muslims,’ the report is merely an admission of reality—and an amusing distraction from the austere topics usually occupying their leaders’ minds. ‘This is what every human body needs,’ says Zahra, a 32-year-old chemist who lives with her boyfriend in northern Tehran and declares that she has no intention of seeking authorisation to have sex. ‘I have one life and though I love my country, I cannot wait for its leaders to grow up,’ she adds.”

Temporary marriage is viewed as a solution not only to sexual urges, but to emotional, financial and legal issues. In Mexico City, much to the chagrin of the Catholic Church, there has been a movement in recent years to introduce temporary marriage licenses for couples who could choose after two years to split or renew the license for life. The idea has emerged as a response to the high costs, both financial and social, of divorce. The authors of a 2011 intiative (which failed to pass) reasoned that because most divorces occur in the first two years, deciding whether or not to renew the license after a two-year period made sense. The ways in which children and property are handled would be specified in advance, thus precluding the need for drawn-out and expensive court battles. Some advocates have also pointed to possible benefits for women who may suffer abuse from their husbands, making it easier for them to leave. 

The subject of temporary marriages (seven-year term) came up for debate in Germany in 2007, but has not yet been enacted in law.

Could Legal Temporary Marriage Gain Traction in the U.S.?

Millennials are not very enthusiastic about marriage, partly because of the hardships caused by the Great Recession. A recent Pew Research Center report shows that only 26 percent of them are married.

USA Today asked 1,000 18- to 49-year-olds whether they would be more open to marriage if the institution could be updated to express modern values. 43 percent of millennials surveyed said they supported the idea of marriage based on a two-year contract which allowed the couple to formalize or dissolve the union without divorce or paperwork; 33 percent were OK with the notion of marriage licenses granted on a five-, seven-, 10- or 30-year contract, after which the terms would be renegotiated. Almost 40 percent said they wanted “till death do us part” abolished.

In a recent Time magazine opinion piece, Jessica Bennett suggests that millennials like the idea of a “beta” marriage because they are used to technology and choice, habits which warm them up to the notion of testing marriage for glitches and bugs.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if a temporary marriage could be considered a success instead of a failure? Two people could come together in a mutually beneficial way for a period of time, and not destroy each other or their children when they decided to go their separate ways. Would many of us be happier, more fulfilled human beings if we were not forced to contort ourselves to accommodate a rigid institution that may not reflect our emotional, sexual, or economic realities?

No one is saying that forever can’t be an option. But does it have to be the rule?

Lynn Parramore is contributing editor at AlterNet. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU, and she serves on the editorial board of Lapham's Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore. 

 

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