M Words

Editorial. Focuses on the failure of marriages in the United States. Options for couples who do not want marriage; Reason for marriage failures.

By Robert Epstein Ph.D., published January 1, 2002 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

I HEARD A COMEDIAN SAY THAT A FRIEND OF his just had his girlfriend's nametattooed on his arm. "I can't see that," said the comedian. "I can see marrying someone, even having a couple of kids. But not a tattoo--it's so permanent."

There will be more than 2 million marriages in the United States this year, and more than half will end in divorce. Getting married is like throwing a coin high into the air, watching it spin for a long while and betting one's entire future on which way it will eventually land. Heads: golf and cuddling and shuffleboard until Alzheimer's or death. Tails: tears and accusations and a custody battle, with the house going to the lawyers.

The problem is that the marriage contract isn't worth the paper it's written on. Prenuptial agreements are now harder to break than marriage contracts. Marriage is no longer a vehicle for permanent commitment, because it's too easy to change one's mind. As singer Paul Simon might have said, there are 50 ways to leave your spouse.

So what can couples do who want to stay together forever? I say, let's create a new institution--call it moorage, maybe, after the way we secure a ship to a dock. And let's create a moorage contract, one that's really binding. All it will take to get things going are a few committed couples, acting on their own, jotting down some special words on a piece of paper, loving each other and standing by what they write.

Knowing that you've just entered into a permanent arrangement keeps you working hard to make that arrangement work. Stresses and strains are inevitable in a relationship. With a high level of commitment, people get through rough times--often with marvelous times ahead, born in part of the stresses a couple has shared and conquered.

Moorage isn't for everyone, of course. We also need to recognize the short-term commitment--yes, mereage--rather than trying to fold it into the institution of marriage. And for those who are willing to commit to raising children through the age of majority but who aren't interested in that lifetime thing, we probably need yet another type of contract--moreage, perhaps?

The real reason marriage doesn't work is because it can't encompass the full range of legitimate relationships people have forged in recent decades. These various relationships are quite real, and we need ways to accommodate them.

Robert Epstein is editor in chief of Psychology Today, University Research Professor at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University, and Director Emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts. He earned his Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard University.