What If Marriage Were Temporary?

Various cultures have toyed with the idea of giving unions an expiration date.


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In Jonathan Swift's 1726 classic Gulliver's Travels, he describes a race of people, the Struldburgs, who are afflicted with the pesky inconvenience of immortality. If two Struldburgs are to marry each other, "of course" the marriage is dissolved, by courtesy of the kingdom, as soon as the younger partner hits 80, "for the law thinks it a reasonable indulgence, that those who are condemned...to a perpetual continuance in the world, should not have their misery doubled by the load of a wife."

While some of Swift's satirical propositions are agelessly absurd (the most obvious being "A Modest Proposal" and its bid for cannibalism), the idea of a marriage with an expiration date seems somehow prescient. With the divorce rate hovering between 40 and 50 percent, one could argue half of marriages are temporary, anyway. In a development that proves even more canny for Mr. Swift, a recent study has shown the "gray divorce" rate (the divorce rate among couples over 50) has doubled since 1990. With these facts in front of us, could we make the case the idea of a time-sensitive marriage has morphed from a bitter joke into a viable option for modern couples?

Before one dismisses temporary matrimony as a lunatic thought experiment, it should be noted that the concept of temporary marriage has been around for millennia. Most notably, the controversial Shia practice of Mut'a, or "pleasure marriage" allows for a marriage to be dissolved upon an agreed-upon date. (The marriage contract could last years, days or even minutes.) According to Boston University Professor Shala Haeri, in her book Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shi'i Iran, nika mut'ah "is a pre-Islamic tradition of Arabia" still practiced by a minority of Shiite Muslims.

In extremely conservative religious communities, temporary marriage allows for a man and women to date or have sex without the commitment of permanence. (In other circumstances, it also would allow a woman and man to live or work together in close quarters.) With a temporary marriage contract, the couple can be together and still remain well within the eyes of the law. However, opponents of the practice assert that in certain Muslim communities, where a woman's virginity is considered a huge asset, temporary marriage renders women unlikely to find a permanent husband.

In a Western example, the world took notice in 2011 when,in the name of lowering divorce rates, lawmakers in Mexico City proposed a bill that would allow marriages to expire after two years. Once their contract dissolved, they would be given the option of either cementing their vows for life or terminating their bond, minus the messy hassle. "You wouldn't have to go through the messy hassle of divorce," said Leonel Luna, a Mexico City assemblyman and co-author of the bill, told Reuters at the time. Not completely surprisingly, the bill didn't make much legislative headway.

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Sarah Fentem is a writer based in Chicago.

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