A 10-year marriage contract isn’t such a bad idea

'Til death us do part? Not necessarily.

Let's make marriage binding for, say, 10 years and see how we go.

If we decide after a decade of cohabitation, communication and possibly procreation that we're done, then there should be no feelings of guilt or shame about moving on.

Given one in three marriages in Australia ends in divorce - most commonly around the 12-year mark according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics - couldn't fixed terms be a commonsense option for a social construct that has fallen out of step with reality?

As same-sex marriage continues to dominate political debate, I wonder why people are so fiercely protective of an institution whose success rate is hit and miss.

When I was in school, single parent households were few and far between. Now, they're fast becoming the norm.

Kids move between homes, parents re-partner (or not), life goes on.

It would be much better all-round if feelings of failure didn't add to baggage that is in itself a negative, inappropriate term for life experience.

I'm not saying people should simply quit when the going gets tough - irreconcilable differences should not be code for can't be bothered trying - but if we knew the legally binding contract we entered into didn't hold us for life, we might be less burdened by the pressure of forever and more engaged in giving our best for a fixed term.

As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said this week, "The threats to traditional marriage are not gay people getting married; the threats are desertion, cruelty, neglect, abandonment, indifference."

Australian relationship expert and sexologist Nikki Goldstein, who has a doctorate of human sexuality and presents the Sex and Life podcast, says a 10-year contract would help people live in the moment and make positive decisions.

Sexologist Dr Nikki Goldstein discusses the idea of a 10-year marriage contract on her Sex and Life podcast. (Pic: Craig Greenhill)
Sexologist Dr Nikki Goldstein discusses the idea of a 10-year marriage contract on her Sex and Life podcast. (Pic: Craig Greenhill)

"Love isn't always enough," Dr Goldstein says, "and the goal of marriage shouldn't be lasting until the end no matter how unhappy we are.

"If two people have tried as hard as they can to fix their problems, should going their separate ways be considered failure or strength for doing what's right for them and possibly their children too?"

Many divorcees admit that the idea of failing was what kept them in an unhappy union for far too long.

Four years ago, the concept of a 10-year contract was floated by American author Emma Johnson.

Writing on, Johnson said the modern model of committing to a "soulmate" for life was but a blip in the history of marriage, and it's day had come - as evidenced by high divorce rates and dwindling numbers of people marrying at all.

Marriage itself is not the problem - at its core it offers connectedness, comfort and protection that humans crave - but thinking it will last forever is naive, she said.

Under the 10-year contract, both parties initially state their goals, similar to a prenup, but with more detail around finances and children during the relationship and afterwards should it end.

Goals also address the primary point of the marriage: is it companionship, passionate love, to have children, build financial equity?

At the nine-year mark, the parties decide that the marriage has run its course - Johnson says the contract allows for "a low-animosity split" and celebrating a partnership that was successful while it lasted - or they sign another 10-year contract, with changes.

"Studies show that a lack of communication is the number one reason people divorce. A forced conversation about the future of a marriage can only be good for any relationship."

And for those who feel certain their union will last for all time, nothing is more romantic than signing on for a lifetime of 10-year anniversaries.

People, like my parents, who've been married for more than 50 years, might disagree on the grounds that contracts make it too easy to bow out, but Johnson's idea has merit in an increasingly transient age where people change jobs up to 15 times in their life, and three in five people move away from their home towns.

Many people have had intimate relationships before meeting their spouse, and they find others after divorce, giving rise to the practical reality of serial monogamy.

Therapist Susan Pease Gadoua, in her co-authored book The New I Do, says many millennials are looking into "ethical non-monogamy" and striking out "til death us to part" from their vows.

She says less conventional concepts, such as contracts, can promote more conscious and creative couplings.

With the push for same-sex marriage reshaping the traditional model of marriage, reframing the together-forever idea deserves consideration for an institution that currently only works well for some of the people, some of the time.

Topics:  contract divorce marriage

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