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Harry K Wexler

Harry K Wexler Ph.D.


A Cure for Divorce: Term Marital Contracts

A controversial, but thought-provoking idea: the renewable marital contract

In this age of high divorce rates, many people yearn for the good old days of lifelong marriages. Although divorce rates decrease during recessions, the current rate, at about 50% of first marriages within the first two years, remains disturbingly high. I would like to offer a somewhat outrageous and paradoxical recommendation of the "renewable marital contract" that may significantly decrease divorce rates and lead to improved marriages and individual happiness.

The term marital contract might be for 5, but no longer than 10 years, and at that time, couples automatically become divorced without any legal process other then what happens when any contract is finished. In essence, the marriage contract would expire and like a license or a passport, would need to be renewed. At the end of the contract both parties would need to make the active choice of renewal or to simply move on and, perhaps, be proud of a job well done, in contrast to the current never-ending, until-death-do-us-part contracts.

Admittedly, marriage typically undergoes changes of function, from romantic interest to child rearing and economic concerns, and when things go well, partners grow and develop strengths to meet their challenges together. For example, when raising children, wise parents put aside their differences and more personal concerns to learn about that deeper love for children that requires some degree of selflessness. Of course, as in any long-term relationship, resentments often build up with ongoing sacrifices that can finally erupt in divorce. Marital counselors generally focus on poor communication skills and the need to bring out feelings that have accumulated and are often dulled by such things as substance abuse and over-involvement with the children, while ignoring the spouse.

The time limited term contract will interrupt common patterns of denial and accumulating resentments that are a relatively normal marital byproduct by simply ending things, unless the parties decide that, on balance, it is worth renewing and perhaps updating the contract. Over a period of five years, many things change. None of us would agree to an endless employment contract, so does it really make sense anymore to agree to an endless marriage contract? Since in most cases, ending a relationship with shared property, children and many valued social connections is disruptive, to say the least, most partners would be highly motivated to consider contract renewal. Alternatively, those who are "through" might feel relief and freedom versus resentment and unhappiness that can last until "death does them part." Those who wish to consider signing up for another term would have the opportunity to evaluate the value of their marital relationships and decide if and how roles and responsibilities could be renegotiated. The negotiation of the next term contract would foster open communication about why we marry and stay married when circumstances and people change over time.

Though controversial, the term marital contract with a renewal option idea holds considerable potential to create conditions for free choice, communication and negotiation, all of which are goals of marital counseling when trying to improve and save marriages. It could also decrease expensive angry divorces that scar children and sometimes create long-term bitterness. Acceptance of this radical idea has the potential to drastically reduce divorce, as we know it, and provide a cure for many of the ills associated with divorce.

Rather than honestly lobbying for this controversial contract to be considered legally (I realize that it is a logistical nightmare that could cause traumatic instability for children involved, etc.), I want merely to point out the need for constant communication, renegotiation, and commitment renewal in long-term relationships. This is not always something we all think about when we sign-up for the gig.