The Relationship Model for Modern Couples
(Lifetime Commitment Not Included)
by Christina Pesoli
Maybe it was the timing: Our two year anniversary of dating. Maybe it was the place: Alcatraz Island. But whatever the reason, I suddenly found myself thinking a lot about the institution of marriage.
I couldn't help but notice the parallels: Alcatraz looks beautiful from a distance, but many find it lonely and terrifying on the inside. It has imprisoned countless people, serving as a headquarters for misery and despair. Once functional--even useful--the institution's relevance is now questionable. Ditto every one of those points for traditional marriage.
Don't misunderstand me. I am not anti-marriage. In fact, I like it so much I've personally tried it - more than once. It's just that when it comes to adult relationships, I question whether a "one size fits all" approach really works anymore.
I appreciate the historical importance of marriage. In days of yore, trades were passed down from generation to generation. Tailors and cobblers taught their crafts to their sons who eventually took over their fathers' businesses. Farms were kept in families for decades or even centuries. With this system, a partner for life was a necessity. The husband was responsible for tending to the chores associated with either growing the food or earning the money with which to buy the food, while the wife was tasked with the upkeep of the house. If all went according to plan, the partnership would yield a crop of children to provide additional hands to help lighten the load.
Husbands and wives splitting up could disrupt the family business model, jeopardizing the production and distribution of food and goods and by extension the stability of the entire community. Back then, marriage for life was generally good for everyone (although admittedly better for some than others).
We've come a long way, baby. Today, people get to choose rather inherit their professions. It is now the norm for people to change jobs or even careers several times over the course of their working years. And last but certainly not least, women now comprise nearly fifty percent of the American workforce.
But even though practically every aspect of our working lives has changed, the way we formalize our adult relationships has acted like an intractable spouse, refusing to budge no matter what. Sure, divorce is prevalent--in fact, roughly half of all marriages end that way. But the relative ease with which one can divorce doesn't constitute progress. Rather, it's simply more evidence that marriage for life doesn't fit for at least half of those who enter into it. Relationships that presumably started out positively end up in divorce court, with couples spending huge amounts of money untangling their assets, dividing up their property and debt, and worst of all, fighting over the kids.
I'm not advocating we throw the baby out with the bath water. I think marriage for life should still be available for anyone who elects to enter into it. What I'm suggesting is a new addition to the relationship family: The term of years (or "TOY") marriage, which is for a set number of years rather than for life.
Some might ask why we need another institution at all, pointing out that if couples don't want to get married, they can simply date or live together. The problem is that the adult population in the United States is attached to the notion of formalizing their relationships. In formalizing a relationship, a couple is attempting (however futilely) to fortify it with a degree of certainty. This gives a couple the confidence to move forward, possibly entering into joint endeavors like buying a house or having children.
In Europe, adults seem more comfortable doing these things without getting married. In fact, my old-school Italian aunt told me recently that in Italy, there is more stigma attached to being divorced than having a child without being married. In the US, it is still the other way around.
Given this cultural hard wiring, if the only option to formalize a relationship is marriage for life, that's the arrangement people will choose even knowing that the odds for success are stacked against them. If, however, a TOY marriage is available, chances are they will select that option instead, and quite possibly succeed.
Recipe for Success: One Part Contract, Zero Percent Religion.
A TOY marriage is strictly a contractual arrangement governed by civil law. It has no religious implications at all. The key features are as follows:
How long does it last? A TOY marriage lasts for five years from the date it is entered into.
How is property handled? Whatever property each person had before entering into the TOY marriage remains her separate property; and whatever property acquired during the term is community property, with each person owning fifty percent.
What happens when the term expires? A TOY marriage expires at the end of the term, no matter what. At the end of the term the couple must do an accounting of its estate. This doesn't mean they have to liquidate the estate, but they must assess the value of everything acquired during the term and divide it into two equal shares. After the accounting there is no longer any community property, but only equal shares of separate property (plus whatever separate property each had at the onset of the TOY marriage).
What if a couple has kids during the toy marriage? Any kids conceived or born during a TOY marriage are subject to a fifty-fifty custody arrangement upon the expiration of the term. A couple can mutually agree to a different agreement either at the onset of the term or even at a later point, but neither party can force the other to accept different terms than initially established (except in the case of abuse or neglect).
What if a couple wants to stay together after the expiration of the term? While a couple cannot prevent its TOY marriage from expiring at the end of the term, the couple is free to enter into another term if they mutually agree. But even if they choose to re-up, they nevertheless have to perform the accounting. In such cases, they will enter into the new term with the separate property they had before they entered into the previous TOY marriage, plus the newly converted separate property that they acquired at the end of the previous term.
What about morality and other miscellaneous issues? A TOY marriage is available to any couple of legal age, regardless of gender. Members have rights similar to spouses in traditional marriages regarding health care decisions for and rights of access to the other member in the event of an emergency. Additionally, they are eligible for spousal benefits from each other's employers. But unlike traditional marriage, how each member conducts itself during the term is not relevant to the contractual relationship between the parties. If, for example, one member cheats on the other, it may make that member a douche bag, but it doesn't form a legal basis for dissolving the TOY marriage.
What if one or both members want to end the term before it expires? One member may not unilaterally terminate the TOY marriage prematurely, but couples may mutually elect to end a TOY marriage before the term expires. In such case, the couple would simply conduct the accounting procedure early and divide the community property into two equal estates of separate property.
What about Jewelry? Rings are optional, but strongly encouraged. Because when isn't jewelry a good idea?
What's so great about a TOY marriage? TOY marriage goes a long way toward eliminating the risk of "failed" marriages. A TOY marriage is realistic and practical, and sets the parties up for success. If a couple completes its term of years, the TOY marriage was successful, whether or not the couple ends up parting at the end of the term. An adult may have four TOY marriages in her life--and assuming all are completed to term, by definition all would be successful. Without the TOY marriage option, that same adult would have four "failed" traditional marriages and all of the stigma that goes along with them.
Another benefit is it makes honest people out of us. You no longer have to choose all or nothing: Either no formal relationship at all or the draconian pledge of 'til death do you part. Now you can make a commitment for a reasonable length of time, and actually keep your word.
By agreeing up front when everyone still cares about each other how things will be handled later when things might not be so rosy, protracted battles fueled by acrimony and a desire to exact revenge will be minimized if not eliminated altogether. Perhaps most importantly, it prevents kids from being dragged through custody battles. The couple agrees to a fifty-fifty custody arrangement and the schedule is set by law. People can agree to modify the terms, but the agreement has to be mutual.
And consider this: Because TOY marriages have a definite expiration date in the not-too-distant future, there is a built-in motivation for members not to let themselves go or take each other for granted. If a member hopes to enter into another term of years with the same person, his best selling point will be the quality of the immediately preceding term. That provides a powerful incentive for people to put forth their best efforts throughout the term, which in the end benefits everyone. If, on the other hand, a member is planning to move on, he will at least feel compelled to keep in shape in anticipation of his approaching singledom.
Despite all of these advantages, there is one thing that will not change under a TOY marriage. Whether you're married or not, breaking up sucks. It seems there is always one person who wants to stay together, while the other is ready to move on. Even a concept as brilliant as the TOY marriage will not eliminate that inherent imbalance. But at least the TOY marriage goes a long way to minimize the things to fight about in the process.
Now back to my favorite topic: Me and my personal situation. My boyfriend is younger than me and has never been married. Since we've been dating over two years now it's decision time. Plus, he's turning thirty-five in a few weeks and everyone knows any man who hasn't been married by the time he hits thirty-five has serious issues of one variety or another. But since I've been down the traditional aisle before, if I do that one more time I will only be creating evidence to support the ugly rumor I have serious issues of my own. And while our relationship works great right now, who knows how it will be down the road? He might want someone who more fully appreciates the comedic genius of the Family Guy, while I might want someone who totally gets the musical brilliance of Freddy Mercury.
In short, our relationship is a perfect test case for a TOY marriage. And although my boyfriend generally likes the concept, he insists that being TOY married would not change him from being my boyfriend into being my boyTOY.
Happily ever after? Beats me. But the next five years look pretty good.