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.”


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.


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?



"She finds the concept reasonable"
Thats when you know you've found the one


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.


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.


Short answer: Yes.

Louis D

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,, 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.


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.



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?


I've been told by a Korean friend that many marriages in Asia are already like business partnerships. I find the concept a little "cold" - where if put into practice it may commoditized people. Love is not all about money, although I don't think that I'm naive to think that it's not a big part of getting a partner. We commoditize people already, but I don't think it's a good thing, and hopefully our society begins to move away from this or else in the not so far future I can see this leading to eugenic issues.


Yeah, how are fertility rates in east Asia, anyway?


This concept sounds much more reasonable than the current model where if it doesn't work, the parties may need to go through a long and expensive divorce process, depending on the state. The 3-5 year term means that the relationship gets renegotiated periodically, and that period would give opportunity for a clean break without courts getting in the way should either party desire. IMHO, marriage should strictly be up to churches, and government/contracts shouldn't be involved at all in a relationship. Everything else from home ownership to child custody to end of life decisions could be handled at a contractual and all of the religious terms and morality should be kept separate.


In other words, "divorce is hard, so we should make it easier"? What advantage is there of a "clean break" when you're a kid who still wants a relationship with both parents and still needs both their support?

I want to see the study that compares the long-term outcomes of kids whose parents divorce vs. kids whose parents fight and disagree a lot but stay together. I would be shocked--SHOCKED--to see that the kids whose parents stuck it out and stayed married do better in the long run.

Voice of Reason

Talking about the "sanctity of marriage" and saying that "Oh, if you go through all of that, you're missing the point of marriage" is all well and good until you're the one that gets burned. The wife who works two jobs to put her husband through medical school so that he can divorce her, run off with his secretary and make $300,000 a year, or the self made millionaire who gets cleaned out by a wife who runs off with the pool boy will be comforted very little by people who tell them "Well, you should have done XY and Z to prevent this.

When people are getting married, they always assume that their fiancé is perfect and will never betray them. But, unfortunately half of all spouses are below average spouses.

David Gonzales

Yes...but it's complicated. Look to Mexico, they have experimented with shorter "marriage contracts" in order to unclog the divorce courts.


Sounds like you're looking at a renewable marriage license. Civil rights groups have been slowly pushing toward this direction for years; making marriage a religious institution and civil unions a legal one would (at least in the eyes of the concept's supporters) help eradicate a lot of the inequalities involved with our current legal definitions of marriage. So you can go in that direction, and I'm sure that there is a lot of writing out there discussing that (though I can't claim to know the sources), and probably some good hard data on the issue, too. If you're interested in the socio-political aspects of it, I'd start there.

But if you're going to go into the nitty-gritty details of the contract language itself, you'll probably want to look at corporate merger theory (is there such a thing?) and marriage questionnaires that churches use in pre-marriage counseling; use those as a rough guide for how you would structure the contract.

Of course, there would be valid concerns if you're going to contractually stipulate responsibilities. If, for example, the husband agrees to take out the garbage, what happens if he doesn't? If these things are in writing, I suspect that they'd be more grounds for contention than if they weren't. And then if you go to renew the contract but have these little sticking points, what happens then?

I'm married, and it's hard. There's a lot of give-and-take, and my wife and I don't always agree on everything. Our responsibilities shift with the demands of the family, and from what I've heard from other married couples, the ones that can adapt to this reality are the ones that are most likely to make it. The ability to compromise and grow together from that is a fundamental aspect of a married relationship; has as economists have found that when reward systems are externalized they become less pleasing, my guess is that if you lay out marriage responsibilities and reduce area for compromise you're going to end up actually reducing the strengthened bond that arises from the resolutions of those ambiguities.


james bach

What incentive is there for anyone to enter into such an agreement, when we can get all we want and need without any legal entanglements? Unless there is some romantic "going all in until death" angle, which is why I got married both times... Marriage is sort of mutual slavery, or else it's not worth it. The terms of marriage are outrageous, and of parenthood even worse. But we put up with them because what we get back makes it worthwhile.

No legally enforceable contract can touch the level of total commitment that a successful loving marriage requires. Just the suggestion that it should or could be made into a legally binding contract weakens and trivializes it.

All a formal contract is is an agreement for how lawyers will get involved if something goes wrong. "Darling, you'll make me the happiest man alive if you agree to these terms and conditions, and agree to settle all disputes by binding arbitration in Delaware."



Marriage would be great if it would be viewed as a celebration of a union of two people coming together expressing their love for each other in front of their loved ones, instead it is viewed as a contract or guarantee that that piece of paper will make them stay together forever. Marriage, can be great, but it's not foe everyone. Some people prefer being single, others in an open relationship, it's neither good nor bad, what it comes down to what type of relationship you believe in and want to be in, and if you happen to find another person in this world who has similar views as yours and wishes to be by your side, and share the same views then that's all that matters. Any type of relationship requires you to put some work into it if you want it to flourish and if you want to maintain it. What it comes down to is the "wanting" part (wanting to make it work, wanting to put the effort if it, without having expectations from the other person). Once you put expectations on a person you have to understand that they will never be met by the other person, because the expectations that you have in your mind will never be done the way you would want them, because no-one can do things or think the way you do. Basically, if someone wants to do something for you, they have to have the "want" without any expectations, if someone truly loves you and wants to be with you (in a marriage/in a relationship of any sort), then they will be with you. We don't owe anyone in this world anything, we are born as individuals and will die the same way. To have expectations from someone is to set yourself up for disappointment. Therefore, if you want to do something for someone, or if you love someone, do it, but don't expect anything in return, that's when you know you are being your most true self, and if you get the same in return than embrace it and enjoy for as long as it lasts.



The piece of paper isn't supposed to make you stay together forever--it's supposed to drastically increase the costs of deciding that you won't.

Why is artificially inflating the costs of such a decision good? Because in fact there are people you owe things to, people who are not born as "individuals": they are your children, and they are born as part of your family. Without their families, children are at the mercy of strangers' charity, and without that they would likely die.

Even removing one parent but keeping the family otherwise intact harms children drastically. Marriage is not a "celebration" of an "expression of love" or any of that hippie-dippie nonsense. It is a practical consideration to help ensure against our children getting screwed.


I like the idea, have had similar ideas myself...though that doesn't constitute a scientific source. I like the idea that having a child is an 18 yr. contract...raise them together and get them off, then decide.
The employment contract should include a division of labor, agreed to upfront and reviewable at ea new contract period. (I find this approach means more happiness in teh home as all parties know what is expected). The problem of mainstream acceptance is it lacks romance...but simply the couple needs to seperate the romance from the logistics of maintaining the relationship.