Why All Women Need Renewable Marriage Contracts
Women initiate divorce more than men because marriage is an unequal institution — a time-limited marriage contract fixes that
You’re nearly 20 years together, have a few kids with your spouse of 15 years, and the pandemic and the slow easing up of the lockdown is having you question your marriage.
That’s British journalist Molly Gunn’s dilemma. Maybe that’s yours, too.
And so she finds herself wondering about alternatives to marriage as we generally know it — a one-size-fits-all-forever plan — including the renewable and starter marriages detailed in the book I co-wrote, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels.
In an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, she writes:
“Marriage brings lots of wonderful things, but the expectation of ‘forever’ can feel like a pressure cooker. … what if two people have an amazing time together and simply decide, after a while, that they’d like to try something else? Why can we not celebrate marriages for what they were, instead of deeming them failures when they end? I’ve started to wonder if marriages shouldn’t be more like mortgages: sign up for a fixed-term contract that you review after a set period of time. You might renew it, or sell up completely. But can you imagine moving house and people brandishing your time in that home a failure? No, we simply look back on the happy memories.”
My coauthor and I are all for term-limited renewable marriage contracts, but we prefer that couples decide for themselves how long their contract should be; a starter marriage would ideally be five years or under but a parenting marriage would ideally be 18 years.
When we wrote the book, which was published in 2014, we hadn’t met anyone who fully put renewable marital contracts into action (you cannot legally plan for a marriage’s demise), although we interviewed and feature couples who have unwritten but agreed-to time-limited arrangements. Since then, I have met online two couples who have created their own versions of marital contracts — Karen Mangiacotti and Mark Miller, who have been together almost 15 years and now call Costa Rica home, and Annmarie Kelly and Joseph Eagle, of Philadelphia, who have been married 31 years.
Both couples re-up their marital contract every five years, a number that made sense for both of them for similar reasons.
Karen Mangiacotti and Mark Miller
Karen and Mark met on a podcast while living on opposite sides of the country and were friends first before they married — the third marriage for both of them and with seven children, now 9 to 29, between them.
“I felt like we needed to put a structure in place,” she tells me
As she writes on her blog:
“We wanted to do whatever we could to keep ourselves in a good place and we were both painfully aware that marriages need continuous attention and care. Like all good partnerships, marriages need to be talked about. Marriages need boundaries and validation and advocacy and appreciation. Marriages need to be fed and watered regularly with plenty of sunlight. This comes in the form of being ever-mindful of the incredible fortune of simply having each other. It comes in the form of realizing that you are both deeply flawed, and also doing your best. It comes from recognizing you love each other deeply, even when your marriage looks like you don’t. For us, this meant that we would renew our marriage every five years, or the marriage would simply expire. … Every five years one of us needs to propose, and the other needs to accept, and if both happen, then we start all over again.”
They have now married three times — in 2009, 2014 and 2019. There were some festering issues from the past that needed addressing this last time. The next time they wed, she notes, she will be 53 — no longer the mom of young children. That means the contract that once included child-care issues will have to address other things — health care, retirement, aging and, as always, the big questions, “Who are we? Who do we want to be?”
“The five-year mark is more like an evaluation. Like, where did we want to be at this time and where are we? And also, how has it changed? Where do we want to be in five years from now?” she tells me.
Their proposals and wedding ceremonies are elaborate and, she says, essential:
“We take our proposals seriously. Our thought was, if we’re not invested enough to have the proposal, to want the proposal, and be interested in the wedding, then we’re not invested enough to make a marriage work. It’s work. Even the best marriages, it’s not worth it if you’re not excited about it. Neither of us want to spend one more year in something that’s not letting us live our best lives.”
Karen believes having a contract clarifies things. As she tells me:
“The hard part of is you can’t sweep things under the carpet. The hard part of is you have to be committed to being in it. The hard part is you can’t say, ‘It’s fine,’ for years on end. ‘Yeah, I’m not getting my needs met, but it’s fine.’ You can’t do that. You can’t bullshit yourself or anybody else,” she tells me. “The good part is, when you put out anything into the light, nothing is that big of a deal. When we don’t, everything feels like a knife into your heart.”
Annmarie Kelly and Joseph Eagle
Annmarie came to her marriage contract differently. Growing up in a Catholic Italian family, she didn’t question her destiny — marriage and kids. Although she was engaged at 22, she broke it off. She watched her friends follow the same path set out for her. “They fell in love and got engaged and it was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, fun, fun, fun — until it wasn’t. They turned from these happy girls into wives,” she tells me.
She had her own life, career and house when she met Joseph and fell in love. Still, the idea of marriage and being a wife didn’t appeal to her. “I said to him one night, look, I’m sure I can be with you for five years. I’ll get married to you for five years and if we still like each other, we’ll get married for another five years.”
He agreed and they have now married each other six times. But before they commit to each other for another five years, they sit down to discuss where they’ve been, where do they want to go individually and as a couple, and do they still want to go together.
For Annmarie, it’s all about feeling safe. As she tells me:
“Safety is such a huge issue in relationships, it’s huge with women. There’s two things I don’t think women pay attention to consciously, and one of them is safety and one of them is emotional energy. It’s why I didn’t want to get married — I saw women giving up their power. They would get married and give it up, for the sake of the relationship, for the sake of the kids.”
Halfway through their second marriage, they hit a wall — a potentially marriage-ending one— and went to a therapist. If they hadn’t thought in terms of being together just five years, she says, Joseph might not have agreed to that.
“He was scared to death. He’s like, ‘It’s going to open up a can of worms.’ Well, that’s not what happened, and I learned stuff and he learned stuff, and it was really positive. And he later said if it hadn’t been for the five-year marriage, he probably wouldn’t have gone. Cause it would have been that tendency to put it off, put it off because we have forever to fix it. Well, no one has forever to fix it, it’s that little game you have in your head about it being forever.”
That’s when they started to create a written contract to guide them.
The two have since written a book, The Five-Year Marriage, about their experience of time-limited marriage and a way to help other couples who are wrestling with “forever.” They do not have children so parenting issues are not part of their contracts, but that doesn’t mean childfree couples don’t have their share of issues to negotiate. For Annmarie and Joseph, the death of their respective mothers defined one of their marital contracts.
Now they’re figuring out tapering down Joseph’s works as a massage therapist with a goal toward retirement.
Like Karen and Mark, Annmarie and Joseph celebrate each marriage with a ceremony and sometimes a party. It’s important, she says, and is not the same as renewing vows.
“We do not renew old vows that are outdated. We come up with a whole new set of things and we have a new set of agreements and we spiritually end that marriage and start a new one.”
It’s the time frame that works.
“I don’t have forever to address a problem. I can’t let anything go for an extended period of time. … We pay attention to the relationship. We talk about the ugly stuff, we talk about the good stuff. There’s a piece that’s motivating, there’s a piece that makes it a little more exciting and there’s a piece that strengthens the friendship.”
Why time-limited renewable contracts work
Although both couples came to the idea of their five-contracts differently, one after multiple marriages and children, the other a first marriage, there contracts accomplish the same things:
— The women suggested it. Karen and Annmarie were the drivers of the contracts. There’s some history to that. The first issue of Ms. magazine, in 1971, included an article on How to Write Your Own Marriage Contract, which featured interviews with two progressive couples. Not surprisingly, the wives insisted on the contracts to deal with what they saw as marital inequities (and there were many in those days) when it came to chores, cooking and finances and, when kids came along, childcare issues. Because marriage has traditionally benefited men over women (remember, women overwhelmingly initiate divorce) and leads to a “his” and “hers’ marriage, a contract clearly states each person’s needs, goals and desires and together they agree to how they will work on that.
— Each contract addresses different lifestyle phases. Karen and Mark came into their marriage with emotional baggage from previous marriages as well as children. Then they had two children together. Their early contracts were all about parenting. Now, they’re about to become empty-nesters, which means their contract has to address what that will look like. Annmarie and Joseph don’t have children, but Joseph is contemplating a slower work schedule and possible retirement — this changes the dynamics of a marriage. Their next contract will be all about that. Long-term marriages aren’t static, nor are the people in them; a contract clearly names it and offers a path forward.
— Each marriage gets celebrated. While the ceremonies may not look different that a first wedding ceremony, their vows reflect their new agreements, not the vows they said decades ago. As Karen says, if you’re not going to put the energy into planning a ceremony and new vows, you’re not likely to put much energy into the marriage itself.
— There’s no room for complacency. Annmarie is clear about what almost did in her marriage to Joseph: they hit a bid, bad wall and they couldn’t solve it themselves. Going to a therapist was hard for them, and they may not have gone were it not for the fact that their contract was close to ending and they were either were going to fix things and renew it or divorce. Joseph admits that alone made him agree to counseling otherwise they would have kept putting it off, letting anger and frustrations simmer as many couples do. That does not lead to anything positive and loving. A contract not only holds each other accountable, but forces you to hold yourself accountable for what you agreed upon. You also can’t ignore things for too long because there’s a date that will require action; renew or not. You won’t easily be able to become complacent, the big killer of relationships.
— The goal is to keep the marriage going. Many people balk at the idea of a time-limited marital contract because it will be an “easy out” for someone. The truth is, there already is an easy out — divorce. The goal of a renewable contract is to keep the marriage going as long as it’s working, and to fix the things that need fixing before the next contract renewal so it actually works for each spouse. As Karen says, a marriage needs to be fed and watered and appreciated and advocated for. Few people enter into a marriage hoping it will end; that’s true of Karen and Mark and Annmarie and Joseph. But they want each marriage to meet them where they are right now.
As I wrote before, having a renewable marriage contract is so much more romantic that an until-death-do-us-part marriage because who wouldn’t want to know that your spouse is signing up for another go-round because they really want to be with you instead of staying together because of vows made years ago that they may have ignored for years?
And, honestly, who couldn’t use a little romance right now?
Want to learn how to create a renewable marriage contract? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore (please do) or order it on Amazon. And we’re now on Audible.