On Monday, the Office for National Statistics revealed that the UK divorce rate is at a 40-year low. Statistician Nicola Haines cited a rise in cohabitation and an older average marrying age as likely factors behind the decline. Cohabitation can provide couples with the opportunity to test the waters before plunging into marriage, which may diminish the likelihood of divorce. However, for couples who eschew the concept of marriage entirely, it can simply be an end in itself.
There are of course many reasons why a couple would choose not to wed— some people view the institution of marriage as archaic or inherently patriarchal, while others might be put off by the statistical likelihood of divorce. According to relationship expert Dr Nikki Goldstein, rejecting marriage, at least in its traditional mould, could be good for us and our relationships.
"I see people all the time that are clinging on to marriages because that’s easier, or the idea of being on your own or divorced is scary," she told Daily Mail Australia. Dr Goldstein advocates for a new model of commitment, which would allow couples to make their rules, while affording them the same sense of emotional security and legal protections as marriage.
"If there was more social acceptance from society and we did have more encouragement to create our own rules and marriages, maybe we’d see a decrease in the amount of divorces."
In one sense, this is nothing new. Cohabitation agreements are gaining increasing legal weight, allowing those in long-term committed relationships who choose not to marry to prepare for the future. Yet while many couples pursuing such agreements envisage them lasting the duration of the relationship, Dr Goldstein specifically calls attention to the idea of fixed-term, renewable relationship contracts.
Dr Goldstein claims she was inspired by a US-based blogger Emma Johnson who, in 2013, made a case for ditching the traditional promise if ’till death us do part’ and opting for a 10-year marriage contract instead:
"A 10-year marriage contract embraces the human drive to formally couple. It offers the legal and emotional protection that marriage affords us, but also embraces the very realities of how we live our lives today. We no longer expect anything to last forever."
Like a traditional prenup, the proposed contract would hammer out financial and, if applicable, children arrangements for both during the course of the marriage and for if it should end. However, the contract would also establish "broad goals for the marriage itself". Couples who reach the 9-year mark would then take the opportunity to reflect on their relationship, and decide whether they would like to end their union, or renew the contract, possibly with amendments that speak to their hopes or expectations for the future.
Detractors of such proposals may argue that marriage is, by definition, a lifelong commitment. Those who are unsure whether they can go the distance with their partner, perhaps just aren’t suited to marriage at all.
While fixed-term relationship contracts may seem unromantic, the acknowledgement that people’s needs change over time, often due to circumstances beyond their control, is a pragmatic one. Ms Johnson’s idea certainly encourages sustained communication between partner, as well as attesting to the fact that good relationships require regular nurturing. It remains to be seen, however, whether making this a contractual obligation will catch on.