Last Sunday a guest column appeared in the Washington Post advocating “term marriages” or “wedleases”—temporary marriages that would end after a predetermined number of years.
The column claims this could reduce divorce. In the column, the author points out how common divorce has become in recent years, and asks the question, “Why doesn’t society make the legal structure of marriage more congruent to our behavior” by legalizing temporary marriages? He even goes so far as to claim when a temporary “wedlease” expires, the husband and wife could renew their marriage “lease” or go on about their separate lives as simply “as vacating a rental unit.”
The idea sounds so far-fetched that you would almost think the column was satire. The truth is, however, with more couples trying “open” marriages and many states choosing to define marriage as something other than the union of one man to one woman for a lifetime, it’s worth taking time to explain why “wedleases” simply would not work.
- People are not property. The author likens a “wedlease” agreement to a temporary real estate contract: The property is yours for a time; when the agreement expires, your claim to the property expires with it. This logic is troubling, because human beings are not property. They are unique individuals with intrinsic value and feelings. It’s demeaning to claim ending a marriage can be as painless as ending an apartment lease.
- You can’t “try” commitment. Either you are committed, or you are not. This is the same problem people who live together before marriage run into. By its very nature, marriage is an exclusive commitment to another person. If you’re “commitment” to your spouse only lasts a predetermined number of years, that’s not a commitment; that’s just a temporary agreement.
- The breakup is never mutual. Even in a dating, if two people both agree a relationship needs to end, one person is almost always more onboard with the idea than the other. Divorce is no different, and a “wedlease” would not be, either. What happens if a husband wants to let his wedlease “expire,” but his wife does not? How is it fair to her to let him unilaterally decide their relationship isn’t worth keeping? This problem already exists with no-fault divorce laws. A temporary marriage license would only compound the problem.
- What about the kids? The people most harmed by divorce are the children. Study after study tells us the ideal place for a child to grow up is in a stable home with a married mother and father. Society has a vested interest in making sure marriages work, in-part because the future of our children is at stake. No-fault divorce already injects a tremendous amount of instability into the lives of children. How disruptive would it be if a child lived with the knowledge every day that in a few years his parents’ marriage could simply “expire” and his life be uprooted? What is that going to do to him, developmentally? The column offers no real solution to this problem—namely because a good solution does not exist.
Why doesn’t society make the legal structure of marriage more congruent to our behavior? Answer: Because laws exist to set a standard, not just reflect one. If criminals repeatedly break the law, we should not change the law to facility their illegal behavior. Marriage laws are no different: Just because a standard is challenging doesn’t mean we need to lower that standard. It means we need to help people meet it. When the government begins redefining marriage, it undermines that standard and threatens the institution of marriage.
If no-fault divorce is like a hole in the bottom of a sinking ship, a temporary marriage license is like drilling a second hole in the bottom to let the water out: It’s won’t save the ship—just speed up the shipwreck.