Should Marriage Be More Like an Employment Contract?

A reader named J.D. Peralta is asking for your help:

For about the last six years I have developing a theory about how marriage should be legal social contracts.  I feel that legal marriage (not marriage by the church) should be treated more like employment agreements. These “marriage contracts” should bring with them a term that ranges from 3-5 years. The term of the contracts will be developed by both parties but I feel that they should include things like expectation, key areas of responsibilities, etc.

I have been working on this in my spare time but I am currently taking a management class for my bachelor’s degree and I have the opportunity to really put some muscle behind this theory. That is where I need your help. I have been researching this topic for the last two weeks but I have found very little data that could be considered as legitimate sources to support my argument.  I am hoping that you can point me to some reference that help me to complete my argument.  Any assistance you can provided me would be greatly appreciated.

A bit more about Peralta. He is 32, works as an accountant for a public accounting firm in Los Angeles, was born in El Salvador but has lived in the U.S. since 1986. His parents have been married for 39 years; he has two older brothers. “In case you are curious I do have a girlfriend,” he writes, “and we have been together for almost 5 years. I have discussed my theory with her and she finds the concept reasonable.”

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  1. KevinH says:

    I think the idea is ok, but ultimately needs to be tweaked. Broadly, people get married for 2 reasons:

    1. simplify their legal obligations to the state and optimize their legal benefits.
    2. Social signalling

    Unfortunately, an employment contract doesn’t do very well as far as simplfying obligations go, and putting time limits doesn’t send very strong social signals.

    I’d say it should be more aligned with a ‘memorandum of understanding’, but even there I’m not sure what benefits you achieve over and above the preexisting legal framework for marriage.

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    • J.D. says:

      I agree that the idea needs to be tweaked. I am not sure that most people get married to simply their legal obligations to the state but I do feel that it can optimize their legal benefits. I partially agree with the idea that people get married for social signalling. I understand that getting married for 3 years may not send a strong signal on its surface but I would argue that if you are secure in your marriage why wouldn’t you want to renew it every so often and celebrate the successful renewal. To me some of the fears that people have have more to do with the fear of rejection than anything else. Some may argue that their partner can simply decide not to renew the contract and the end of the limit. However, my question to them would be, would you really want to be married to someone who doesn’t want to renew the marriage contract. I think that successful renewal of the contract over and over would send a stronger social signal.

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  2. Lexie says:

    If an employer and employee choose to terminate the agreement after 5 years agreeably, both can move on with few issues. If a husband and wife choose to terminate the agreement after 5 years and simply move in different directions – is that fair to any children who were born? Will couples decide not to have children since there is no long-term commitment in the marriage? What about a home that was purchased together? Yes, divorce deals with all of these issues, but I don’t think a marriage should be handled like a “3-5 year contract”. You can say that you want to re-evaluate roles and responsibilities every few years, and in virtually all marriages they are. When one spouse loses a job, when one spouse is offered a promotion, when children are born, when elderly parents move in – all successful marriages roles and responsibilities are reassessed to keep the household running smoothly. Why does this need to be written down?

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    • JD says:

      To answer your question about whether a non-renewal of the contract would be fair to the child? I look at it from this perspective I feel that a child should have two parents who are together because they love each other want to be together not two parents are together because of a mutual responsibility that they have together. Also just because two parents are not together does not mean that a child will be deprived of a father and/or a mother. Having a marriage that is not automatically for life will make couples think twice before they have a child. However, the intention of the marriage contract is for couples to discuss how having a child will affect their relationship. I find that often times people don’t discuss things like have kids, they simply just go with the flow.

      I agree with you that some of what my marriage contract proposes do happens in a natural environment. However, I feel that it does not happen often enough. One thing that I should mention about my marriage contract is that I am not intending to be a pass or fail system but rather a rubric that couples can use to measure results.

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      • NZ says:

        If the two parents are not abusing each other or the child (serious abuse, let’s remember, is uncommon) why is it better for the parents to be separated–and for the child to then be raised in a single-parent household–than for the parents to be together out of a mutual responsibility to the child?

        “Having a marriage that is not automatically for life will make couples think twice before they have a child.”

        Heck, not ever being married doesn’t make couples think twice before they have a child! It’s bad enough that there’s basically no longer any social pressure pushing people to get married before they have kids, you’d like to erode the little remaining legal pressure pushing people to stay married after they have kids!

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      • Steve C. says:

        Hi NZ! I agree with and enjoyed reading your comments here, including this one. I do disagree with the notion that staying together is always best for kids — or that marriage is only/primarily about procreation. My wife and I raised (are raising) 4 kids, and we split after 28 years because we knew our discord was harmful for the kids. We separated BECAUSE of the kids. At our age, the easy path would have been to stay together for financial reasons and convenient disease-free sex, despite our discord. But the entire family now functions much better, and there is much more love in the home(s). The renewable contract is nothing to fear for you if you believe that your marriage is forever. In the real world, many marriages today are not forever, despite the best of intentions.

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      • NZ says:

        Hi Steve C.! When we talk about big social issues like marriage, we inevitably must refer to generalities. Obviously there will be a few cases where staying together, even without abuse, is potentially worse for the kids than getting divorced. (I’m admitting this is a possibility, not that it’s what I presently believe.) I would offer, however, that your experience is unusual–divorces are often messy, and the lasting impact on the kids is often one of pain and misunderstanding, even if in the immediate sense there is more love in the home. There are also more subtle, but still harmful, effects of growing up without a father that I did not realize until much later (my parents divorced when I was 6, and mostly got along very well afterwards).

        I don’t disagree with you about the facts of the real world. I simply disagree that we should be accepting of those facts and learn to accommodate our institutions around them. We should be working to change those facts!

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  3. Andrew says:

    “She finds the concept reasonable”
    Thats when you know you’ve found the one

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  4. Mehdi says:

    Terms and conditions? Absolutely. Aren’t marriages already a social contract under the terms of fidelity, in sickness and in health, and so on? So what is so unusual about 3-5 year expectation of performance and enjoyment plans? The ideological construct that we need to stay together forever based off a commitment made in our twenties or early thirties is absurd. It would be as if I was forever to be judged and perceived as my anarchist / pop-punk loving teenage self.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 11 Thumb down 9
    • NZ says:

      It’s bizarre how many of the hip things people currently believe about marriage are apparently formulated on the premise that we live in a world in which children don’t exist.

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      • JD says:

        I am not sure about Mehdi but as for me children was a big influence in the creation of the marriage contract. I worked in Education for almost nine years and I got to interact with various families, parents and children. I always loved working with what the schools deemed “at risk” students. What I observed was that many of the kids who were labeled “at risk” had parents who lacked a good level of communication and most had parents who were still married. The marriage contract is intended to lay the groundwork for communication between partners. I feel in relationships where children are involved they play a very important part. As such that importance should be reflected in the marriage contract.

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      • NZ says:

        JD: In my comment above I was mainly responding to what Mehdi said, because saying that we shouldn’t be forever beholden to decisions we make in our 20s and 30s doesn’t seem to address the possibility that one of those decisions might be to bring children into this world. The whole point of marriage, if you boil it down, is to make sure that children who are brought into this world have both their parents around to care for them until adulthood.

        Your experience with “at risk” youth must be unusual, because “at risk” kids are statistically more likely to only have one parent. (By “at risk” I’m assuming you don’t just mean low on the economic scale, but also some combination of other factors including criminality, behavioral issues, educational problems, nutritional deficiency, low intelligence, etc.)

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    • JD says:

      Part of the reason why I came up with the marriage contract idea is that I feel that the institution of marriage needs to be modified to address changes that occur. People change and I feel that the current structure of marriage doesn’t help to address those changes. When you get married you marry the person that they are at that present moment, not the person that they were or the person they will be. However, it is possible that your partner can change and that change may cause you to change your feelings about them.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Yes, you might change over time. Yes, your girlfriend might change over time. This actually is something to be strongly hoped for. Change, even unwanted change, is not itself a good reason to dissolve a fundamental family relationship.

        For example, you might become disabled and dependent, you might be distressed by the loss of a loved one, or just temporarily be going through a rough patch—and in your contract, if you’ve “changed”, and that change lines up with one of your periodic reviews, then your girlfriend should say, “Oops, we’re up for our three-year renewal. You’ve ‘changed’ and I don’t like the current ‘you’. This isn’t fun for me any longer, so goodbye, and good luck for the rest of your life, sucker.”

        Would you accept this sort of thing from your parents or siblings? Would you say to them, “Every three years, we’re going to review our relationship, and unless you really still want to be my mother *and* I really still want to be your son, then the relationship is permanently over. (By the way, you can expect me to dump you if you ‘change’ in ways that I don’t like.)”

        Does that sound loving to you?

        By the way, someone proposed this idea on “This American Life” earlier this year. (See http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/457/transcript ). Ira Glass had a pretty good explanation of why, in his experience, that isn’t really such a good idea. Perhaps you should read it.

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      • NZ says:

        @Enter your name…

        That’s an excellent point. When my wife and I started dating, and even still by the time we got married, I had a very libertarian attitude towards marriage: I thought it was just the business of the two people getting married and the government should have no say in it (nor should any other central authority). In my marriage vows I effectively declared our marriage to have been officialized in my head years earlier, and that the ceremony we were presently taking part in was just a show to help it sink in for everyone else.

        It was sweet and earnest, and my wife cried with joy at those words, but if I could go back and advise my former self on the writing of them, I would have told my former self that in fact the ceremony and the judge who officiated it were critical to the realization of the marriage itself, and that I should have greater respect for these institutions even if they are not strictly rational.

        Within a year or two, my views on marriage had evolved drastically (as you can probably see from my comments), and this happened privately so that one day my wife asked me some question about marriage (gay marriage, I think it was) and was shocked by my answer. She was disturbed that my ideas had changed so much, and suggested that had I held these views when we started dating, she might not have continued to date me.

        Luckily, we were already married, and already bonded as one. We’ve learned to live with our disagreements about this and other topics, and it’s not hard because we know we have this institution buttressing us together for life. We know that our being together to raise our daughter as a cohesive family is much more important than whether, or rather how, our identities change.

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      • Steve Cebalt says:

        Hi “Enter Your Name”! You asked, “Would you accept this sort of thing from your parents or siblings?” Yes. Children have no say in their choice of siblings. It’s a genetic lottery that puts siblings together randomly. They share DNA, yes. But that should not bind them to a lifelong relationship if it is dysfunctional, or simply uninteresting. We feel societal pressure to “unconditionally” love our parents or siblings. We shouldn’t.

        NZ: You make so many good points, even though your fundamental premise seems to be arguable– that marriage is about children. Where does that notion come from? It strikes me as dogma, but by what authority? I find that your points are very well made nonetheless. I very much appreciate the dialogue you have fostered here. Why such strong feelings though?

        And just for laughs: “Marriage is grand. Divorce is 50 grand.”
        And, from Willie Nelson: “Why is divorce so expensive? Because it’s worth it.”
        And finally, for the economists, a chart showing the No. 1 cause of divorce:
        http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-XC9uxasPLtU/UPMm2Li6jXI/AAAAAAAAB6Q/uylYhsYs0bI/s640/mariage.jpg

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      • NZ says:

        Steve Cebalt,

        Thanks for those words of support. You ask where I get my notion that marriage is about creating a stable, two-parent environment in which to raise children as a single family unit:

        There are indeed dogmas and authorities arguing the same notion, but for me it arises from observing the facts surrounding marriage, divorce, and illegitimacy, both presently and historically. In the spirit of Freakonomics I also foster a healthy skepticism of many of the rosy assumptions we have about these facts.

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  5. Calum says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  6. Louis D says:

    You should take a look at the legal doctrine of unconscionability. Perhaps outside of the economics realm, but courts are often hesitant to enforce a contract if it considers terms injurious to the public. While I’m sure there are plenty of legitimate terms of your proposed contract (economic support, grounds for annulment, etc.) where having children, sexual conduct, etc. are concerned, courts may outright refuse to enforce or grant relief for the violation of some of the terms of the agreement. See, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_M, which invalidated surrogacy contracts within New Jersey.

    May not be what you were looking for, but it is always fun to look into the legal edge.

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  7. NZ says:

    There is one obvious source which opposes Peralta’s argument: human experience.

    As I understand it, marriage is a way to solidify bonds that are intended to stabilize the environment in which children are reared, because children reared in a stable environment with a mother and father present do better in the long run in just about every way.

    Marriage, at its essence, is NOT about mutual expectations and responsibilities of the “parties” involved (at least not expectations and responsibilities of the sort I assume Peralta is talking about) but about a commitment to providing for descendants. It’s easier and more fun to have sex and then move on when you’re bored, but marriage prevents men from stranding pregnant women–and prevents pregnant women from totally burdening their own families and societies’ welfare systems with the support of their children. In other words, marriage isn’t about what you and your spouse owe to each other, so much as it’s about what you and your spouse owe to your offspring.

    I think marriage should be “till death” except in clear cases of abuse, but if we MUST put an official statute of limitations on marriage, it should last about 25 years. That’s enough time to have a couple kids and see them through to adulthood.

    What I’d like to know is, why is everyone so eager to further dismantle an institution that is already in trouble? We need to be reinforcing and resurrecting marriage as a central rite of passage in our culture, not cheapening it and scrapping it for parts.

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    • James says:

      Unfortunately for your thesis, human experience is a LOT broader than your blinkered view of an ideal 1950s nuclear family.

      Rather than write a long discussion of various successful family/child-rearing structures (see any good anthropology text), I’ll just ask you one question. If I were to marry, it’s virtually certain (given my age and reluctance to play sugar daddy) that the person I marry would be past childbearing age. Why then should our marriage be constrained by the need to rear nonexistent children?

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      • NZ says:

        I don’t think there should be a law *preventing* you from marrying, but in your situation why would you bother getting officially married? If I understand you correctly, you’re past the age where an age-matched spouse could bear you children. So, what would be the broader purpose of such a marriage, except to throw a big ceremony and henceforth refer to each other as husband and wife? And if that IS the point, I’d remind you that you don’t need a marriage license to do either of those things.

        Obviously there is no ideal nuclear family–that’s why it’s called an ideal. But there are patterns in this world, and by daring to notice the patterns we can see that some things work and others don’t. The 1950s ideal is an extrapolation and personification of those patterns, but it’s useful because it provides a model to strive towards. People who successfully strive towards that model have better long-term outcomes. We should encourage this striving, not reward the drop-outs.

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      • James says:

        Why bother getting married if you can’t (or don’t want to) have kids? Let me count the possible ways:

        1) Income tax benefits (depending on the couple’s relative incomes).
        2) Employer-paid health insurance for spouse
        3) If one spouse dies, other inherits joint property without much fuss or taxes
        4) Social Security benefits

        That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more.

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      • NZ says:

        I feel like last time I didn’t answer your question directly enough. Please forgive me if I’m repeating myself:

        You’re basically asking, “If marriage is designed for people who have kids, then what about people like me who might like to get married but won’t or can’t have kids?”

        I’m saying that if marriage is a product, you’re not its intended user, in the same way that soccer moms aren’t the intended users of Lamborghinis.

        You can get married, but you shouldn’t expect it to be ideally suited to your lifestyle or where you’re at in life, any more than a soccer mom should expect to fit all her kids and their gear into the back of a Lamborghini. When many people have this expectation and want to stretch marriage into something that fits their unusual situation, the meaning of marriage becomes diluted. Hence, you have so many commenters on this blog post who believe that marriage is about two (or more?) individuals agreeing over chores or money or something, rather than about uniting two individuals into a family in which children can be securely raised.

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      • NZ says:

        James, you listed the following reasons to get married even if you can’t or won’t have kids:

        1) Income tax benefits (depending on the couple’s relative incomes).
        2) Employer-paid health insurance for spouse
        3) If one spouse dies, other inherits joint property without much fuss or taxes
        4) Social Security benefits

        Yes, these are goodies that I can understand you’d like to cash in on. However, it seems obvious to me that these goodies are supplied as an incentive for people to form nuclear families–not just for individuals to attain a certain tax or legal status for personal gain.

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    • JD says:

      To address your argument on the first point you are assuming that a marriage contract will not be renewed. Otherwise I think there is no way to say for certain that a marriage that is renewed consistently will provide a less stable environment than a traditional marriage would.

      I agree that marriage at its essence is not about mutual expectations and responsibilities of the parties involved. However, a marriage is between two people and people as we know have certain expectations. I feel that there are psychological contracts that exist in these types of relationships like they do in employment relationships. These contracts are sometimes implicit, invisible and often times are unspoken. Just because these contracts are not written down it does not minimize their importance. They could affect the performance of the marriage. A marriage contract would provide a forum where these psychological contracts can be identified. Psychological contracts are susceptible to change over time and that change is driven by the individuals who holds them. Having a marriage contract that has a time period involved helps the marriage to evolve and respond to changes.

      I disagree with your next point because I do not feel that marriage prevents a man from standing pregnant women up. I am assuming that when you say “standing a women up”, you mean that when a man finds out that his partner is pregnant he simply decides that he wants nothing to do with the mother of the child and the child itself. Men who walk away from their parental responsibility will walk away regardless of the circumstances. To the second part of your argument I think the issue has more to do with financial resources than the state of marriage.

      I agree with you that marriage should be “till death”, however renewing marriage contracts in no way prevents the marriage from that goal. I disagree with you about the time limit because I feel that too much change happens in 25 years to be properly addressed. To me a 3-5 year period seems adequate but I could agree to a 10 year contract.

      To address your last point, I don’t feel that people are trying to dismantle the institution of marriage we are simply trying to modify it to fit the times. I feel that a marriage contract would help to strengthen marriage because it would address the causes of divorce. Marriage should not be a rite of passage but rather a union between two people who are united in a common goal(s).

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      • NZ says:

        Why are you assuming a marriage contract WILL be renewed? A basic law of economics is that generally, lowering costs of something (either by increasing supply or removing opportunity costs) raises consumption of it. By making this marriage contract renewable every 3-5 years you are lowering the costs of divorce in both ways because you are introducing a greater supply of divorce opportunities, and they are prepackaged and ready to go–all you have to do is choose not to renew.

        Marriages have been evolving and responding to changes since time immemorial, without the kinds of contracts you’re proposing. My grandparents will soon be celebrating their 70th anniversary. They had four kids together, were separated for years while my grandfather served in the military overseas, they moved and changed jobs multiple times, their kids expatriated and moved back, they’ve struggled with issues like instilling traditions and passing on their legacy, and sometimes it looks like they disagree on just about everything. I suspect a lot of people with very old grandparents who are still alive can report similar stories. How is it that people from their generation were able to do this without having to constantly amend and renew notarized contracts with each other? How do you suppose?

        Obviously marriage is not guaranteed to prevent men from running off and leaving pregnant women stranded, but it sure works a lot better than a periodically easy-to-terminate agreement, and certainly works better than no marriage. In fact, I can’t think of any humane and sustainable arrangement that works better for this than traditional lifelong marriage.

        I always get suspicious when people talk about “modifying” things to “fit the times,” because this often means acquiescing to some serious problem and trying to sneak around it rather than confront it. For example, I think one of the leading causes of divorce is very simply the widespread acceptance we have of it. Your contract not only does not address that cause, it would help further it.

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  8. Mike says:

    What is the end-game to this? We already have a contract when we marry (heard of vows?). What on earth are you trying to accomplish other than to make it easier for people to divorce? It is already socially acceptable for individuals to get divorced, and with the advent of adultery sites (ashleymadison), people no longer believe there is any sanctity in marriage. What happens when you bring kids into a marriage? In all of your research, did you entertain that there is more than you and your partner affected by your marriage?

    I guess what I really want to understand is, why get married in the first place?

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    • JD says:

      The end game to this would be that you renew your contract over and over until death do you part. I understand that there are marriage vows and I have heard of them. However, I am sure that you will agree that they don’t address a lot of the things involved in a marriage.

      I have to disagree with you that adultery sites have led to the diminishing belief in the sanctity of marriage. I feel that infidelity in general has more to do with that than anything else. I don’t feel that a marriage contract will promote infidelity.

      People get married for various reasons and a marriage contract would help to make those reasons more clear.

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      • NZ says:

        “The end game to this would be that you renew your contract over and over until death do you part.”

        Really? Do you honestly believe that’s how it would play out most of the time? The law of supply and demand notwithstanding?

        “People get married for various reasons and a marriage contract would help to make those reasons more clear.”

        That’s part of the problem though, isn’t it? Marriage is meant to serve a fairly specific function–the formation of a stable unified household in which children can be reared in the presence of both their parents–but now we’ve got this popular idea that it’s just as legitimate to get married for the purpose of showcasing your affection for someone or to get in on the financial benefits of the “married” tax status or whatever it is. By helping to clarify those reasons you help to legitimize them, and thus help to destroy traditional marriage.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        “People get married for various reasons and a marriage contract would help to make those reasons more clear.”

        (1) Contracts don’t have to be renewed every three to five years to be clear. The lifelong marriage contract already exists. It’s called a pre-nuptial agreement.

        (2) If you’re hiding something, or even deceiving yourself, then you’ll just write a fantasy instead of the real reasons. Nobody’s going to write “During the next three to five years, I plan to trick you into having a baby so my mother will quit nagging me about grandchildren and so I’ll have an excuse to by a house in the suburbs instead of renting this apartment.”

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