Everyone Needs A Starter Marriage
I’ve got a never-endin’ love for you.
From now on, that’s all I want to do.
From the first time we met, I knew:
I’d sing my never-endin’ song of love for you.
- Delaney Bramlett, Never Ending Love
Starter homes, starter jobs, starter careers, and starter cars. Why do we need these things when we’re first starting out in life?
I’ll tell you why:
- Because, even if we have a vaguely accurate idea of what, in the long term, is best for us, we can’t usually get it at the beginning. And yet, that’s where we have to start.
- Because we generally don’t have even a vaguely accurate idea of what is best for us. What we think we want, what we think we need, and what we think our life is going to be like is so terribly inaccurate that we make dumb (and sometimes really dumb) decisions. We often need a Mulligan for our first attempt at anything significant, and hopefully it doesn’t scar us psychologically, economically, and socially for life.
- Because we are so busy trying to pretend to be who we think we should be that we have no idea who we really are. It takes most people, I’d say, into their 30s—maybe their 40s—to become themselves in such a way that they don’t damage themselves and other people by trying to be something that they’re not.
So, why not starter marriages?
“Oh, no,” I can hear you say, “That’s different.”
But not really. Maybe, in ideal, marriage is a permanent, unique, fulfilling, and on-the-first-try union of two people; but in practice, let’s face it—it just isn’t.
As marriage has become a mutual and fulfilling partnership between consenting adults (rather than a property arrangement between families, the exclusive reservation of a womb, or the only way to become sexually active) it’s no wonder that divorce has increased. The idea of marriage as the mutual bordering and intertwining of two loving lives just doesn’t jibe well with the reality of the changes that most people go through from the time they think they should get married (generally in their twenties) to when they are really ready to undertake such a commitment (generally in their 30).
For some people, the solution is to make divorce harder. Create “Covenant” marriages. Eliminate “no-fault” divorce. Lock people into their union until they just wear down and learn to settle for the reality of what they signed up for. Personally, I don’t think that making divorce harder is going to help marriage or make for better marriages. It’s not like anyone wants a divorce. Getting one now, even if you want one, is like having your insides scraped out with the rusty lid of a cat food can. And, having witnessed the direct and indirect damage that people cause when they stay together when they really ought to have parted ways, I think making such people stay married just so you can feel better or smug about your own lot is just plain cruel.
I loved you when our love was blessed;
I love you now there’s nothin’ left but sorrow and a sense of overtime.
And I’ve missed you since the place got wrecked, and I just don’t care what happens next,
Looks like freedom but it feels like death; it’s something in between, I guess,
It’s closing time.
- Leonard Cohen, Closing Time.
What we should really do is make it harder for people to get married young.
Back in the day, when marriage was an inescapable social obligation, a property arrangement, and a breeding plan, back when you could expect (or hope) to die in your 50s, early marriage made some sense. But not so given the relationship that marriage has become. We’re getting into the workforce older, we’re choosing to have children later, and we live into our 70s. It makes sense to move the marriage start date back a couple of decades. We need to grow up first.
“But what about the meantime?” you say. “How are young people supposed to…you know….” What? Do what they’re already doing? I know that there are a few people who want to encourage people to marry young so that…you know…only happens in marriage, but the idea that any life-long commitment should be governed by an 18-20 year-old’s sex drive makes even less sense than a car commercial. I may be old fashioned, but I don’t think that one ought to drive away married for the sake of “zoom-zoom.”
“But,” you say, “What if someone wants to get married young? What if they think that they are ready? What if they want to have children in a stable home?” Well, first of all, current marriage statistics suggest that people who think they are ready to be married in their twenties just aren’t, and they also show that having children in the twenties is one of the surest ways to develop an unstable home. We don’t let underage people drink, drive, smoke, vote, sign contracts, or get married. In each of these cases, the “underage” limit is different depending on the activity. I’m just saying that we should move the marriage floor up from 13 and 14 (for females and males respectively in New Hampshire, 15 in Minnesota, Mississippi, and Utah) to about 30.
But – I suppose – there’s no way to get around the fact that some people (and with their families’ blessings, what yet) are bound and determined to get married during this dangerous time. I suppose it’s easier to make the argument that a sixteen year-old can’t handle a cigarette than to argue s/he can’t handle a spouse. So, what I suggest is that we do for them what we do for all kinds of young people who don’t have the experience, credit, maturity, good sense, or independence to not become locked into long-term commitments that they shouldn’t undertake.
Yes, I’m talking lease-to-own.
I suggest that marriages prior to thirty years of age should be made on five year, renewable, leases. Only over the age of 30 could you enter into the kind of “permanent” marriage that is now the norm. That means if you married at 20, you would renew at 25 and again at 30 before being able to make things permanent at 35. If you married at 27, you could go straight to a permanent marriage at 32. Five-year marriages (M5s) would have a standard agreement as to obligations regarding debts, assets, and any child support. This agreement would be signed prior (and this is important) to the marriage or its renewal, and would commit each party to settle differences by binding arbitration. Full tax benefits, and access to full legal recourse, would not accrue until a permanent-status marriage (MP) was achieved.
I’ve done a lot of foolish things that I really didn’t mean, didn’t I, oh, baby.
Seen a lot of things in this old world, when I touched them they did nothin’, girl.
Here I am, baby – signed, sealed, delivered – I’m yours!
–Stevie Wonder, Signed, Sealed, Delivered.
The beauty of this system is that it doesn’t preclude the possibility that some marriages were just made to last (my parents’ for example). In fact, it might provide an opportunity to celebrate them before they hit the 50-year mark. We could wait until the permanent status marriage to do the big wedding celebrations; kind of like a mortgage burning and wedding celebration rolled into one. And it would allow for bone-heads (like me) who thought they knew what they were doing to make their mistakes with the least damage, and unclog the courts by taking a whole lot of useless, damaging, and degrading divorce proceedings out of circulation.
And – get this – it wouldn’t keep churches that see marriage as a sacrament or sacred commitment from telling their members that they had to stick with it. No, they could tell them that couldn’t stay in the church unless they did. I imagine it would be hard to tell the people who had signed up for a five year commitment and didn’t want to renew that they were inferior to the nearly half of the other members who had proclaimed their eternal love and already been through a divorce or two. But that’s their problem.
In any case, renewal time would make for an opportune moment to require some kind of marriage “check-up” counseling for members of faiths that wouldn’t accept that members could turn in a marriage after five years as if they were trading up a Honda lease for a Lexis. I don’t know about you, but “pre-marital” counseling seems to do no one any good at all (except perhaps as an exculpatory rite for the officiating pastor). But mid-term counseling, after the couple has hit the reality of living together, might indeed prove beneficial before moving on to another five year, or permanent, commitment.
Marriage should be more than way for society and the tax code to recognize serial monogamy. If I’ve learned anything about it from two of my own and from witnessing marriages good (my parents) and bad (that shall remain unnamed), it’s that the best marriages are not those imprisoned by a commitment to “marriage” (as if you could have a good trip with someone you detest by being committed to the RV) but those whose relationship grows into the kind of commitment we celebrate and idealize in contemporary marriage. Let’s give everyone a more realistic chance to get there.
I can’t promise that I’ll grow those wings or keep this tarnished halo shined;
But I’ll never betray your trust, angel mine.
-Cowboy Junkies, Angel Mine.