Friday, November 25, 2011

Bid Adieu or Renew? Thoughts on Renewable Marriage Licenses

It seems like so many things are renewable. If I do not call Verizon and instruct them otherwise, my mobile plan will automatically renew whenever my current contract is up. My subscription to PC Magazine will renew, also, but only if I send in the little card with a check. With my mobile plan, inertia leads to renewing in that I do not have to act and do something for renewal to occur. It’s automatic. I have to act for it not to renew. In the second case, my PC Magazine subscription will only renew if I send in a check demonstrating my end of commitment to the ongoing relationship. The first type of renewal is what I like to call “inertialized.” The second type is “electable,” as in there being a process of re-election.

Both of these examples portray a commitment process. A choice point came and went, noticed or not, and one path or another was taken, and one left behind. In one case, I passively continue on the same path and, in another, I actively re-up.

What about commitment in marriage? Which is it? Inertialized renewable or elected renewable? This is an interesting question.

This might become a very real question couples marrying in Mexico City face in the near future.

Some assemblymen in Mexico City have proposed that marriage licenses be renewable, sort of like drivers’ licenses. A colleague of mine at DU, Rachel Miller, sent me the link to the story which you can click on here. So, here’s the idea. When you marry, you choose how frequently you want your marriage license to come up for renewal. The minimum is every two years. So, if you so choose, on your anniversary in every other year you not only celebrate but you decide all over again whether you have some “still do” in your “I Do.”

Before you call me crazy for even saying someone is thinking about this, read this quote from the Reuters story:

“The proposal is, when the two-year period is up, if the relationship is not stable or harmonious, the contract simply ends,” Leonoel Luna, the Mexico City assemblyman who co-authored the bill, told Reuters. “You wouldn’t have to go through the torturous process of divorce.”

The assemblyman suggests that the great value in this idea is that a marriage that is not fairing so well could end without the ugly or difficult process of divorce. I’ll come back to that in an upcoming post. I think the idea is actually commonly believed and I’ll explain why.

Back to renewable marriage licenses. I have some practical questions. I wonder if you could send out invitations, asking others to attend your renewal decision ceremony. Imagine your friends and family proudly standing around you as you sign the card, pay a fee, and put the renewal card in an envelope to go out in tomorrow’s mail. How could you even sleep through that night? What if it gets lost in the mail? And another thing. Can you get registered for gifts somewhere for a renewal? I also wonder if people would be a lot nicer to their mate as renewals approached, especially if they were uncertain that the renewal they hope for would be a slam dunk.

A little more seriously, I have a few thoughts and I also have a keyboard, so here they come.

Here begins the “duh” or “no kidding” paragraph, but these points are always worth mentioning lest another think one is not in touch with reality. Marriages do not always work out, and for any number of reasons. Some marriages should never have come about in the first place. Worst of all, some marriages are dangerous and damaging. Yet, in general, the whole reason that marriage does work and offers advantages in life (many advantages, on average) is because the commitment is considered to be once and for all. It is this idea that is the core of what marriage is about. Here are a few advantages of settled commitment:

1. You don’t burn a lot of energy re-deciding, periodically, if you are in or out. Deciding takes a lot of energy away from other things like building a better life together.

2. You don’t burn a lot of energy re-wondering, periodically, if your partner is in or out. The whole reason (I believe) that commitment is so important in lasting love in the first place is because it settles anxieties about whether or not there is a future together.

3. Having a strong sense of “us with a future” changes behavior in positive ways. Research demonstrates this in countless studies. People invest when there is a future. People sacrifice when there is a future. People don’t get as upset about small (and sometimes large) problems in the present when there is a sense that “we are here for each other despite our imperfections and annoying habits.” While a settled sense of a future together doesn’t (and shouldn’t) make abuse or infidelity tolerable, it otherwise does wonders for making it okay for you each to be human.

Having said those things, I can imagine one way in which this type of policy could lower the odds of divorce for some people.

Imagine a couple we’ll call Lucy and Ricky. They are planning their wedding. Their wedding is a week or two away and it’s time to go down to the town hall and get their wedding license. They get to the desk and talk to the clerk and ask for a license. The clerk says, “no problem. Just fill out this form and give me a check for the fee.” The clerk points to a section in the middle of the form and says, “Also, you have to check one of these boxes, here, to indicate if you want the renewable-term marriage or not, and if you do, what term you are choosing.”

Lucy starts to fill out the card, and she gets to the term election section. She starts to mark the “non-renewing” box (which, ironically, means perpetually renewing), and Ricky says, “hold on a second. Let’s talk about if we should go for a 5 year or 2 year term. That’s an interesting idea and there must be some advantages.”

Ricky and Lucy are now going to have a special moment. Let’s call it a somewhat late stage DTR. (Define the relationship.) As you might imagine, in their case, it becomes their last serious conversation about a future together.

Here’s my point for today. Temporary commitment is not compatible with a relationship that most people choose in the belief and hope of permanence. If the commitment is temporary, it just is, but we shouldn’t expect the benefits that come with the expectation of permanence to follow from a temporary permit.

I will stay with this theme in the next post or two because there are some more angles to explore that are interesting (or fun) or both. Can you commit to reading just one more blog entry? Two? I’m not asking for a lifetime commitment here.