Margaret Mead was right — marriage should be temporary

Recently, sexologist and author Nikki Goldstein suggested that marriage should be a 10-year contract.

It better reflects how people are actually living these days, she says.

Currently, the only way we can determine if a marriage is “successful” is longevity. In other words, if someone dies, success! But we’ve all seen marriages that have lasted “until death” that were pretty miserable — why do we consider that a success?

Enter the idea of a limited-time marital contract.

I’m all for them. But why 10 years? That’s too short a time to raise children to adulthood (about 18 years, give or take) and too long if you just want to see if marriage is a good fit for you before you have kids (assuming you want them), a so-called beta marriage. Those are the two types of time-limited marital contracts suggested in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press, 2014). But every couple should be free to determine how often they would consider renewing, renegotiating or ending their marital contract based on their goals and values; 10 years is a rather meaningless number.

Two-step version of marriage

Although suggested by various people throughout history, it was lauded anthropologist Margaret Mead who popularized the idea that a couple only needs to stay together to raise their kids; that’s their “job.” In the late 1960s, Mead suggested a two-step version of marriage — an “individual commitment” for youthful passion and sex (but no children) that could easily be dissolved or, if they wished, converted into a “parental commitment” if they were ready to have kids. She also believed once the children were grown and out of the house, couples might desire to split and find a different person to be a companion in their old age.

Why does this matter? For many reasons, but here’s one couples rarely think about nowadays as they search for a “soulmate” and marry for love (which, as historian Stephanie Coontz has famously written, destroyed the institution of marriage): the traits that you might want in a person to co-parent with may be different than the traits you want someone to spend your romantic life with. Which is why platonic parenting is catching on.

Ancient concept — and practice

The idea of temporary marriage, or a renewable marriage, is hardly new. In fact, temporary marriages have actually been successfully practiced for centuries, among Peruvian Indians in the Andes, in 15th-century Indonesia, in ancient Japan and the Islamic world and elsewhere. And proposals for temporary marriages have popped up in recent years in Mexico City, Germany and the Philippines.

Are we finally ready to actually adopt renewable marriages? I make an argument for it in Aeon. As we approach the wedding season, it’s a timely discussion.

One thought on “Margaret Mead was right — marriage should be temporary

  1. Smh this is stupid sorry for being so blunt. The art of relating in a relationship is difficult enough with changing feelings,goals and outlooks always in play. To add a technical aspect to something that should always be emotional takes away from the focus or point of marriage.

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