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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


  1. Robert

    As a nation we have lost our collective minds on marriage and morality.

  2. I appreciate your perspective and shared it until my ex decided to end our marriage. While I don’t agree with Mr. Rampell’s suggestion that we treat our spouses like property that we lease, I do believe it is obvious that our current thinking on marriage needs to change.

    We have allowed marriage to take on several different meanings. The traditional Christian perspective is perhaps best captured by the Covenant Marriage concept. While I would prefer that all marriages are formed under such an agreement, it does not apply in the majority of marriages where the couple does not share the same religious beliefs regarding marriage, and it can still break down when either spouse decides that they no longer want to honor their agreement and/or breaks their vows. While the structures and consequences in place under such an agreement should make divorce less likely, they still cannot prevent every divorce. The months or years that are spent trying to preserve a marriage in which one or both spouses have decided to break their agreement are painful and can be destructive for everybody involved.

    Mr. Rampell said:
    “Marriage is a legal partnership that lasts a lifetime — one lifetime to be exact, that of the first of the spouses to die. Generally speaking, that is a long time for any partnership. People, circumstances and all sorts of other things change. The compatibility of any two people over decades may decline with these changes to the point of extinction.”

    I believe he should have stuck with the partnership concept for marriage rather than transitioning to the idea that it could be a lease. We should require a formal Marriage Agreement to be filed with the state along with the Marriage License.

    Marriage Agreements are relatively common and serve to establish the partnership in a way that makes it clear what both parties intend. If both parties want to establish a Covenant Marriage and share a common belief so that they are able to do so, then the Marriage Agreement can document that partnership and allow everybody involved to understand what is being committed to and what structures and consequences are in place in case either party decides to break their agreement. Others who do not share the same beliefs should still document the exact terms to which they are agreeing.

    Simply establishing a formal written Marriage Agreement with stipulations for how the partnership will be dissolved if either party decides to break their agreement would reduce the dissolution (divorce) rate substantially. Over 70% of divorces are filed by the lower income spouse, and many are filed in an attempt to “strike first” and establish as favorable of a financial outcome as possible. One of the principles of partnership law is that a good partnership agreement will include provisions clarifying the terms under which a partnership can be dissolved.

    State law governs the dissolution of business partnerships and it should be modified to govern the dissolution of marriage partnerships in the same way. Dissolution of a business partnership usually takes 90 days from the filing of a simple one-page statement of dissolution. The protracted time period of many divorces only serves to increase the damage to each person involved and the legal fees for each lawyer involved.

    Similar to Mr. Rampell’s suggestion, the Marriage Agreement should:
    “…describe the property of the spouses in detail, so separate ownership is clear. If a couple wishes to buy something together, or share ownership, they can keep a schedule of these items and decide as they go along how these would be disposed of in the event of a partner’s death or [the dissolution of the partnership].”

    The Agreement should also specify what happens in a dissolution when the couple has a child. Over time, the best thinking on visitation and other co-parenting strategies would make their way into agreements rather than the haphazard stipulations found in many divorce decrees today that only serve to make the co-parenting years stressful, confusing, and painful for everybody involved—and to create disputes that increase the money flowing to the lawyers who suggested such asinine stipulations in the first place.

    The Agreement also should specify what compensation is due to either party (alimony) under various circumstances. If the couple wants to make dissolution less likely then they could stipulate penalties. If the incentives to file for dissolution are low then each party will be less likely to do so. If the incentives to stay together are high then each party will be more likely to do so.

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