Marina Adshade is the author of The Love Market: What You Need To Know About How We Date, Mate and Marry. She teaches at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics.
Divorce rates are soaring, the younger generation has abandoned committed relationships, and marriage is redundant in a world in which women are self-sufficient, or so the story goes at least. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and a willingness to entertain legal reforms to marriage that a generation ago we would have considered completely absurd.
One such proposition is to take the long-term commitment out of marriage and, instead, have marriages that automatically expire after a fixed term of three or four years. Couples who wished to remain married at the end of the contract would have the option of hiring a lawyer to renew their contract for another fixed term, while those who wished to split would be spared the expense, and stigma, of a divorce
Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that divorce rates in Canada today are no higher than they were 30 years ago, and that the overwhelming majority of young people plan to marry one day, and that women who are capable of being self-sufficient are actually more, not less, likely to be married. What would we lose by replacing the current “until death do us part” approach to marriage with a series of short-term contracts?
The form of marriage that we have today exists because it was the system that was best for both individual couples and for society as a whole. It created incentives for men and women to divide their responsibilities in a way that maximized the total output of the household, including the birth and caring for children. The long-term contract was absolutely essential to this arrangement; women would never have been willing to sacrifice their younger years to the care of children without some assurance that their husbands would support them once those children were grown.
Admittedly, today, the long-term contract rarely serves this specific function, but there continues to be efficiency gains to long-term marriage contracts even when both spouses are working.
For example, imagine you are married and that your spouse is offered a job in another city that would significantly increase the total household income at the expense of your own personal income. How willing would you be to relocate without a long-term commitment from your partner?
Or, imagine that your spouse would like to give up his/her job to go back to school to undertake a program that would make it possible for the household to have higher income in the future at the expense of the household income over the next few years. Would you be willing to agree to this arrangement if your marital contract was expiring just when she/he would be heading back to work?
What about home ownership? There is a large fixed cost to home ownership and houses often need to be sold when couples separate. How willing would you be to enter into joint home ownership when the relationship was set to dissolve after a few short years?
These three examples, of course, ignore the most obvious case; that in which couples are deciding whether or not to have children. Clearly, many today are willing to have children without the long-term commitment of marriage, but there are others who would be discouraged from having children in a short-term marriage contract environment. They will prefer to have no children at all rather risk a future in which they are burdened with raising those children alone part of the time and separated from them for the rest.
The system of marriage we have today exists because it continues to be in the best interest of most couples, the majority who will stay together in the long run, and serves the interest of society as a whole. It encourages couples to combine their resources in the most productive way possible, to allocate their labour efficiently, and to have children together.
These are pretty significant benefits to give up just to spare couples that split the expense of divorce.