-Joel Lashmore, Madison WI This post originally appeared on A Cubicle Apart
With much of the current debate surrounding marriage about making access to the institution available to certain groups, it is obvious that social movements have perhaps become irreversibly intertwined with a bureaucracy assigned to love. This article is not about who should be allowed to marry nor what constitutes a marriage, but rather where we feel as a society the point of interaction between love and government should be. There are important questions we just never ask about an institution which is and has been for millennia one of the most steadfast pillars of society and culture around the globe. We seldom have inputs through which we can decide how as a society we wish to preserve the zeitgeist of connection, and indeed love itself. Law does not often keep up with the drives of culture. Segregation was legal until our society made it otherwise. There will always be a delay in the time between what people really want and how government institutionalizes their desires.
Now, as America witnesses the great battles of marriage equality fought out in each state, views are starkly changing. Minds are more open now than ever before to disconnects between marriage law and contemporary views on marriage. But how do we paint a picture of what we would envision the institution of marriage like in the modern age without erring in presumption of need? Marriage equality aside, what does the traditional version of marriage look like? Divorce rates have risen throughout the late 20th century and continue to rise. This is now an intergenerational trend. Perhaps traditionalists could cite all sorts of reasons for this trend, but the facts point to marriage failing as an institution the society it serves. According to the American Psychological Association, in 2013 the divorce rate in the United States was close to 50%. If 1 of out 2 marriages fail, do we not owe it to the American public to review the institution of marriage and pursue strategies which at the very least alleviate the bureaucratic burden on couples who choose to cease their union?
Divorce is not the only reason to renovate marriage. In the regulations specified for married couples, the institution itself has become a tool. It has been used to pay less in income taxes and to gain US citizenship. While debating whether spouses should be able to acquire citizenship at all is probably a moot point, the fact that we have the phrase “greencard marriage” in our lexicon hints to the degree this tool is abused by those who wish to attain the benefits of marriage without the desire for a romantic union.
If we decide marriage is an institution provided by government to make it easier for couples who intend to be with each other, then the benefits attained from a union must not outweigh benefits from pursuing traditional government channels. If someone wants citizenship, there should be an easier way to do it than by getting married. Only by using managerial logic for this bureaucratic problem can a solution be found which uses the benefits from marriage to encourage the types of unions which last and decrease the general burden on a system to manage divorce or fraud. For a drastic example, if it were law that all married couples are entitled to one million dollars by getting married, everyone would do it! In fact, the economic pressure to marry would be so high that those who stayed single might suffer an extreme burden by missing out on the loot! In short, a best-practice strategy will use benefits from marriage to encourage only the people who intend to marry due to the nature of their romantic relationship and not from some ulterior motive or out of desperation.
So far in this article, we have defined marriage as a social construct encouraged and regulated by government. No suppositions to who should be eligible or what those unions should look like have been made, only that alleviation of marriages for ulterior motives and decreasing the divorce rate are top priorities for a hypothetical renovation. At this point, you as the reader might be asking how exactly should the institution of marriage be changed? The answer is marginally, and in a sneaky, very subtle way.
A solution to these issues could lie in contact theory. We think of marriage as a permanent, unalienable bond. Divorce rates of nearly half show that perhaps the disconnect from what we think and how we act is great indeed. The idea that marriage is not necessarily permanent, and the acknowledgement of this through our own behavior is so revolutionary to our society that law has so far overtly condemned it. Your government is telling you with its status quo policy that it wants to you marry, and stay married forever.
And get divorced forever. There is a whole legal industry built around the concept of divorce. One Las Vegas hotel attracts couples specifically to have a romantic weekend before they finish up their fun by getting a divorce. The institution of marriage is big business. We hear about multi-million dollar celebrity marriages sometimes only before we discover the couple separated months later. If this industry effects the choice of whether to get married or not does not matter. Its it an existential threat to changing anything about marriage. Once money gets involved, frequently regulation gets out of the picture. We see hints of this with shale oil fracking, offshore tax evasion, and drug approvals by the FDA.
The key isn’t to throw out what we have, it’s to make a few tweaks.
Require a marriage re-licensing every five years. Set citizenship requirements for ten years of marriage. Foreigners may enjoy the benefits of citizenship while married, but have now a significant hurdle to a classic “marriage of convenience.” Marital status becomes at least in a legal sense not as significant a decision. And though clearly only this legal definition is being discussed, religious marriages and other non-denominational unions have no baring on how people would want to see this relationship carried out on the ballot and the tax return. People who plan to stay married would probably not change their mind when presented with a simple bureaucratic requirement, not very different from going to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
However, it would change the social picture. People who feel stuck in a relationship, or maybe who are being abused, suddenly have a legal remedy. They can let their marriage expire. Wait! Now, you as the reader might be thinking I have contradicted myself. How does this help the divorce rate, an argument this whole article rests upon? Allowing a marriage to expire would indeed trigger a divorce and/or the execution of a pre-nuptual agreement. However, like the ambiguity we lend to the definition of marriage, to define divorce within this new paradigm might involve a cultural “mellowing” of the connotations associated with it. We might see divorce not as its literal meaning, “separation of two”, implies, but as a shade of grey in the color palate of affection.
So if requiring a re-licensing every five years does not drive down the numbers of traditional divorce, why would we value these changing definitions or re-evaluating the institution of marriage?
To answer this, something must be understood demographically about the people who are tending to marry. Many people marry to cope with a situation, to live in the same house with someone who they may also feel something romantic towards, to save money, to appease their parents’ wishes. No general statement can be made about the “marrying type.” People who get married are trending to be older than before, with more financial responsibility. We can say this institution is being used temporarily with deliberation. Cessation of marriage will make it possible to shift social blame for separation on the state rather than the individual, erasing or ameliorating hundreds of years of social stigma towards divorcees. Children commonly remember the legal divorce of their parents almost as poignantly as the reason they chose to divorce in the first place.
Letting a term expire rather than making a conscious choice to divorce opens up worlds of possibilities for how we govern relationships and structure our nuclear family unit. While the change proposed here is drastic, it does not disregard the value and success we already enjoy from the status quo. Putting time requirements on a license will seem paltry to the individual but paradigm changing on a macro level. It could be the first step in acknowledging that our governmental policy is just as crucial as our morals for how we behave. It could be the first step in the liberalization of the institution of marriage, an update for the internet age. One for which we are overdue.