What If We Treated Marriage More Like the Contract It Is?

I may sound cold, but when you realize that most serious ruptures in marriages are from a failure to communicate properly, perhaps the best defense of marriage is to be a little less Pollyanna about it.
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I've been married twice, and both times I went into it with a lot of hope and enthusiasm. Both times, I planned to remain married to this person forever and ever, amen. And both times, I didn't. Both times, I was the instigator in the divorce.

I reflect on that often, and wonder how much we as a couple failed, and how much was a failure of the institution of marriage itself. Is marriage essentially flawed, or am I?

The word contract is used to describe both marriage and business, with one big difference; we go into marriage with a naïve, "YES! Whatever, forever! Love conquers all!" Yet we enter our relationships with our cell phone companies with multi-page documents. We start a relationship with our mortgage holder with at least a 30-page document.

People sign agreements with employers committing to binding arbitration and non-competition clauses, but we place our happiness in trust based on unspecified faith in love. I can't be the only one who thinks that maybe we need to put as much thought into the marriage contract as we do all the other contracts in our lives.

Marriage is about unspoken assumptions, and the failure of many marriages is based on people having different assumptions as to what constitutes appropriate behavior. There's an old adage, "Men marry women hoping that they will never change, but women marry men hoping to change them," and in many cases I think this is true, but I don't think either view is entirely correct.

People aren't static; we change and grow, as well we should, but what about how that affects the marriage? Do we have a right to assume the person we marry will remain the person we fell in love with, even ten, twenty, thirty years down the road?

Marriage as an institution is in trouble. Half of them end in divorce. Heck, I personally have increased the divorce rate in the country by twice my fair share. I am not purporting to be an expert on marriage, but perhaps marriage needs to change with the times.

Perhaps, when we write our vows, we need to think a little bit more about practicalities and less about abstract love. For example, it's pretty common to pledge monogamy, but how does that actually work? What constitutes cheating? Can the woman read erotica? Can the man watch porn? Is online chatting the same as cheating? What if the woman kisses a girl? How much sex does each partner expect? Under what circumstances can that change? How will each partner deal with potential changes? It seems like common sense, and I am sure all couples talk about these nuances before marriage, but maybe writing it down would help keep everyone on the same page.

I may sound cold, but when you realize that most serious ruptures in marriages are from a failure to communicate properly, perhaps the best defense of marriage is to be a little less Pollyanna about it.

One would never sign an employment agreement that stated, "I will do whatever work the company feels is necessary, regardless of the hours or toll it takes." Yet, we form households with vague divisions of labor that are often filled with animosity. No one would ever think to divide out household tasks in their marital agreements, yet that is what most people fight over. I once kicked my husband for not taking out the dog when it was his turn, then pretended I did it in my sleep and had no idea what he was talking about. Is that direct communication? No!

What would have happened if we had a clearly written document that detailed our expectations, including time spent with friends and family, managing disposable income, division of work, and raising children? What do you love best about your mate? How can you ensure that part of them doesn't change?

How will you deal with the times when compromise is necessary, and no one wants to? There was a sitcom once about two friends in business together, and each was given a set number of "insists," which they could use to dissolve an impasse. What if, in your marriage, you could say, "I'm using my insist!" when things got too heated? (This could only work if each person only had three insists a year.)

What are the "deal-breakers" of your particular marriage? Mental health issues? Drug addiction? Bad behavior? Violence? Being taken for granted? Under what conditions will counseling be insisted on? What if, when you reached an intolerable point in your marriage, instead of saying, "I don't know what to do," you had already agreed on what to do?

Personally, I can't promise to live with someone "til death do us part" without some measure of "unless" involved. I don't think it's healthy to give someone a free pass to treat you however they want, or for you to treat them badly either. I think one of the drawbacks of marriage is that it is all too easy to take our partners for granted and stop bringing our best selves to the relationship.

How might that change if you knew you had to re-sign your contract every five years, and your spouse was able to invoke the predetermined dissolution clause with pre-negotiated spousal support and division of assets? Might men and women both try a little harder to be good to one another?

What if you got all of that fighting resolved before you spent thousands of dollars on a wedding? What would life look like if we paid as much attention to the nuts and bolts of forming a household unit as we did to the selection of the DJ for the reception?

Lara is a writer and mother. This piece first appeared on goodmenproject.com, where she is a contributor.

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