When hundreds of thousands of people across the world get divorced each year, it suggests that the ‘happily-ever-after’ idea of marriage isn’t quite working.
So, why are we clinging onto this archaic union when it's broken? Could we salvage it by totally overhauled how we define it? As same-sex marriage is legalised in more and more countries - with Australia hoping to be next - canning the traditional format has thankfully already begun. Perhaps temporary marriages should be the next relationship taboo to be broken.
Imagine the money we'd save on divorce lawyers if being married for two months, or a year, or half a decade, to see if we can endure our partner’s bathroom habits, lax use of the washing basket and aversion to taking the bin out was acceptable? And at a time when dating has transformed thanks to apps, temporary marriages would help us show our commitment to another while flagging that that “til death do us part” is a little steep as of yet.
The way we live is changing, too. Research by the Gallup shows that fewer people in the US aged between 18 to 34 are marrying, but that 86 per cent want to get married at some point. Maybe they are waiting for the stability that the baby boomers enjoyed, as more than any other generation millennials are more likely to live in a household of three or more people.
Writer Vick Larson explored alternatives to marriage including hitching temporarily in her book The New I Do, which she authored with therapist Susan Pease Gadoua. They found that plenty of people value the idea of building a life with one person, but the details of what they want shifts. Instead of pretending that love is the basis of all relationships, they found that couples are more successful when they are open about what they want - however unusual it may seem at first.
The pair explored models including starter marriages, where couples commit for a set amount of time; companionship marriages based on the fact that 64 per cent of people marry to avoid loneliness; and parenting marriages which enable a couple to raise children without the stress of pretending they are in love. “Living alone together” was the best fit for some long-distance couples. The covenant marriage, which is described in the book as “harder to get into and harder to get out of”, involves a couple completing counselling before their nuptials and agreeing to onl break their bond if there is evidence of abuse, infidelity, criminal behaviour, or abandonment. A safety marriage, meanwhile, is essentially a “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” often seen when an improbably attractive person marries someone old and wealthy. The authors advise that each set-up can involve a legal contract just like a traditional marriage.
“Marrying for love has made the whole institution unstable,” says Larson. “Although many heterosexual couples say they want to marry for love, in truth, property and wealth are still very much a part of the marital deal. Same-sex couples who have had longtime loving relationships and often children with partners they couldn’t marry recognise the importance of having a marriage license — it gives them access to perks and protections as well as societal recognition."
But alternative and temporary marriages have been around for centuries, they were just eclipsed. Pagan handfasting, where a couple agrees to a temporary marriage, has been around since the 16th century, while Shia Muslims also have a contract known as “al zawaj al munqatea” which translates as “continuous marriage” or a “mutah”, meaning “pleasure”, although that is sometimes used as a derogatory term.
This union be established in private, or with a scholar so the father is compelled to support a child if the woman falls pregnant. A time limit and a dowry is set, and both parties agree that the marriage can end early if needs be.
Bahareh, a primary school teacher in London, is currently in a temporary Islamic marriage. Her long distance partner first floated the idea, and they set the clock at six months.
“A temporary marriage is a contract like any other - and contracts are good as they force you to think about your wants and needs,” she expains, adding she hasn’t experienced any downsides.
“It breeds a deeper respect between myself and my partner," she says. “Once the time period nears to an end, we will have to evaluate the relationship thus far and decide on our next steps. This requires a deep level of communication and reflection which is always a positive in any relationship.”
Fatimah, a 30-year-old student based in London, met her partner online almost a year ago. As a practising Muslim, she didn’t feel comfortable having sex until she was married, so a temporary union was a solution. They first agreed to a two month stint, which they have since extended to six months.
“In my case, my partner and I are doing it to get to know each other before committing to spending the rest of our lives together. I think temporary marriage gives Muslims the option of a modern relationship without the rush of needing to get married to keep things halal," she explains. "Sexual interaction is a huge part of any relationship and expecting Muslims to just not have that until the big day is silly.”
“I know a lot of people frown on this, but if God says it's ok then that's enough for me,” she adds.
Larson chimes that the hardest part of forging an alternative marriage is often the judgement of others.
"That’s what many people who have open marriages told us; they might be able to tell some people about what they do but not everyone. There is still is a lot of shame and judgement when people choose to live outside the marital 'box'. That’s part of the reason we wanted to write the book — to let people know they’re not alone, that there’s nothing 'wrong' with them for choosing a marriage that feels more authentic to them."
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