According to a nationally representative survey of one thousand Americans commissioned by the USA Network, a significant minority of millennials would like to make marriage a temporary and renewable contract. Here’s how Jessica Bennett summarizes the findings at Time (emphases hers):
Almost half of millennials (43%, and higher among the youngest subset) said they would support a marriage model that involved a two-year trial — at which point the union could be either formalized or dissolved, no divorce or paperwork required. Thirty-three percent said they’d be open to trying what researchers dubbed the “real estate” approach — marriage licenses granted on a five-, seven-, 10- or 30-year ARM, after which the terms must be renegotiated. And 21% said they’d give the “presidential” method a try, whereby marriage vows last for four years but after eight you can elect to choose a new partner.
In total, nearly half of all of those surveyed, ages 18 to 49 — and 53% of millennials — thought marriage vows should be renewed, and nearly 40% said they believed the “till death do us part” vow should be abolished.
Bennett optimistically terms these hypothetical arrangements “beta marriages”—”unions you can test and deglitch, work out kinks or simply abandon course without consequence.”
I can sympathize with the fears and practical considerations underlying the idea, but I struggle to understand how temporary, 100-percent negotiable, low-commitment relationships deserve the term “marriage.” After tying the knot, couples should by all means continue to “work out kinks” in their relationship and negotiate practical matters like work, child care, and household chores as necessary.
But the point of getting married is to stop testing the relationship itself, to stop asking whether your current partner is right for you. The time for questioning, putting one another on trial, holding back one’s full commitment, is called dating. Marriage marks a new stage: because they taken a binding and permanent vow, both spouses feel secure in the relationship and paradoxically more free to grow together and adjust to one another as their love will demand. Or as Wendell Berry more eloquently describes that growth in the marriage of Andy and Flora Catlett in his novel Remembering:
It was as if they were not making marriage, but being made by it, and, while it held them, time and their lives flowed over them, like swift water over stones, rubbing them together, grinding off their edges, making them fit together, fit to be together, in the only way that fragments can be rejoined.
That sometimes painful but necessary process, the only way that two flawed human beings forge a permanent bond, is impeded if not made impossible by the critical mindset, the distrust, and the fear of being found unworthy inherent in a “beta marriage.” Why adjust to your spouse when it would be so much easier to find a new one two years from now? Why sacrifice any of your desires if the relationship you have with your dentist may well outlast the one you have with your spouse?
Long-term nonmarital relationships and the spread of divorce have blurred the lines between dating and marriage. But a beta marriage would offer only a poor combination of the two: marriage’s aspiration to permanence and dating’s distrust and insecurity.