The Tale of Oogie and Boogie, Part 4
A Lifetime-Commitment, Monogamous Marriage Survival Guide
Before resuming this thrilling tale from yesteryear - a good many yesteryears, indeed, since we are going back to the Neolithic - let me offer three tangential comments.
1) Some may be asking why I am inserting a series of articles on marriage in what is supposed to be a forum for expat issues. In response, I offer this reasoning: From my experiences, a goodly percentage of expats are shaken-not-stirred survivors of divorces. Indeed, for many expats, getting divorced was what allowed them to be free to become an expat. Plus, many of those newly freed expats will marry a local resident after they get settled into their new country and new life. Thus, I submit that this topic is imminently suitable for an expat forum.
2) Last year, I entered a writing contest whose theme was “generations”. I was proud of that essay, aptly named A Strange Tribe. The contest is over so I am now free to offer that brilliant essay to the rest of the world. If you would like to see my contribution to fine contemporary literature please send an email to rgreenzzu (at) yahoo.com and I will reply with my essay as a PDF file attachment. This essay details my own marriage and family-starting experiences as an expat.
3) If you have enjoyed and been intrigued - maybe even entertained - by this long series of observations, projections, and other drivel, please think of other people among your weird friends who might be interested. Spread the word of a new online community being formed for the detailed description, discussion, and dissection of expat-associated issues. It’s all free; no extra charge for alliteration. Expat writers and similarly forlorn creatures are especially welcome.
And, before we resume the examination of the institution of marriage, I will utter my weekly plea: If you are either single or married, please consider making a small donation on my Buy Me A Coffee page.
I repeat: For the foreseeable future, there is no doubt that marriage as an institution is here to stay. So, the question becomes how to modify our current marriage patterns and laws in a way that will be more beneficial and harmonious for the couple and for their society.
I ended Part 3 with an intriguing question: Can we change the marriage contract that Oogie and Boogie would have signed if pen and paper and writing had been invented in the neolithic age? Is there something already existent in modern times that can be adapted to solve the Unhappy Marriage problem? I believe there is. Read on for The Solution.
Marriage is, among other things, a legal entity, complete with a contract, although we don’t usually call it by that name. This marriage contract and the related laws created by various governments specify in precise terms the obligations, rights, limitations, and requirements for both parties entering into this contract, er, marriage. Over the years and with many variations to fit different societies and different periods, a lengthy set of regulations has evolved that attempt to eliminate any loopholes or ambiguity. This set of laws also defines the brave new world of divorce settlements and custody rights where children are involved. The contract and set of associated laws have become so complex that divorce lawyer’s children can attend expensive universities.
Let’s look at another legal contract, already quite common, that could be adapted to become the new form of the marriage contract. In the insurance industry, we find a form of life insurance called ART, annual renewable term. In business, for example, you may have a situation where you need to insure the life of a key person or persons - but not for a lifetime. Suppose you need to insure the life of a key person only until a merger is completed and new management installed. With an ART insurance contract, an insurance policy on the key person is issued. What is different from a standard insurance contract is that this ART policy is binding for only one year – hence the “A” in Annual Renewable Term.
With an ART insurance contract, at the end of the year, the customer looks at the situation and decides if they want to continue this insurance coverage or let it lapse, i.e. walk away and lose the insurance coverage but have no further expenses. Furthermore, clearly stated in this type of contract, they can exercise this option every year they keep the ART policy. Every twelve months, they ask themselves, “Do I want to continue paying for this insurance, or is it time for me to end this contract?”
Furthermore, when they initially sign the insurance contract, they know that they're only making a commitment for one year. Each year, on the anniversary, they will make a new yes-or-no decision about renewing the contract for one more year. The customer can continue with the insurance as long as they wish; it’s in the contract that they have this right. Thus, they keep this insurance exactly as long as it benefits them personally.
Can you see where this is going?
The Solution: What would happen if we had annually renewable marriage contracts like that? What would change in your daily life if you knew in advance that you had to make a decision every 12 months about continuing the marriage? Even more important, what would change if you knew in advance that your partner also had to make a decision every 12 months about continuing the marriage?
So, after these hundreds of words, that’s it? That’s your proposal? Just change the length of the standard marriage contract from lifetime to annual renewable?
Yes, I reply, pretty much, that’s it. Great ideas are usually simple. As Einstein said, if you can’t explain an idea simply, you don’t really understand it.
(Obviously, it doesn’t have to be for twelve months. It could be two years or three years or five years… or, in its current form, for a lifetime. But, for this discussion and for maximum psychological impact, let’s limit our discussion to one-year extensions.)
With an ART marriage, from Day One, the wedding day, you would know that you could walk away from the marriage when the year was over. It would be completely legal and simple; it’s all in the contract. There would not be - could not be - unreasonable obstacles and resistance. You are merely exercising your rights as clearly stated in the ART marriage contract.
Very simply, as stated in the contract, each year on your anniversary, you decide if you want to continue to stay with this partner for another twelve months. With this ART marriage contract, there would be no financial surprises. Furthermore, there are no social consequences. If everyone is bound by similar contracts, there can hardly be surprise and dismay if you choose to exercise your option to end the contract, er, marriage. You simply say, “It didn’t work out,” and move on. Pain, remorse, disorientation… sure, there will inevitably be some but removing the shock and awe from the process will help. It might reduce the rebound rate also.
There’s one critical difference from the ART insurance contract. What if renewing for another year required a mutual agreement between the two partners? What if both partners had veto rights, i.e., the ability to end the marriage by declining to renew the contract? What if the marriage contract clearly states both spouses have exactly the same right to decline? This would mean that, while you are considering the pros and cons of staying together, your spouse is having the same thoughts.
Yes, your spouse can also walk out at the end of the year, and you cannot contest it. What if it was socially acceptable and simple for either spouse to make that choice? Like the argument about looser gun control laws promoting a more polite society, this ART marriage contract would certainly encourage more polite breakfast conversations. Even when you had points of profound disagreement, you would have a reason to be polite to the person across the table. Instead of yelling, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! Are you sitting on your brains? Because that’s where most of your ideas come from!”, you might say, “Well, let’s agree to disagree on that point. Would you pass the salt, please?”
Granted, just like today’s lifetime-marriage contract, even with such an ART marriage contract, any decision about breaking up would rarely be completely simple and obvious. Every relationship has some good features and some bad features. Even with an ART marriage, you would continue to balance the bad things you dislike with the good things you would be sacrificing by leaving. However, unlike looser gun control laws, I believe this proposal to adopt annually renewal marriage contracts has a reasonable chance for success. It’s gotta work better than the current system which is generating so much unhappiness.
But the kids…
Yes, in such deliberations, both parties have to remember any children in the marriage. They must also remember that the most exhausted member of our society is the single parent. It's so much work and so many decisions for one person. Those are strong arguments for staying together and trying to resolve differences amicably. The possibility of being an exhausted, bedraggled single parent with disoriented, upset children would definitely be a factor to carefully consider when you think about ending the marriage. But, the awareness of the easy exit allowed by an ART marriage contract would change the tone of such discussions. You are not a prisoner with a life sentence. At least, you have a viable choice about staying or leaving. That option is psychologically huge.
What about a closer look at the psychological benefits of merely knowing you have such an option? Think about it in general terms. As soon as anyone says to us, “You have to…”, we automatically resent whatever it is that we have to do. Furthermore, if possible, we will resist whatever it is that we are told we have to do. In case you’ve forgotten this sensation, ask any young student how they feel when teachers or parents give them homework assignments and say, “You have to…”.
Actually, you don’t have to ask them; just watch them. See the response when they are being told what they have to do. Now, compare this with the response when they are told, “You get to…” or “If you want to…”. The sense of being in control, of making their own decisions, explains why children expend unlimited energy learning things they are interested in, i.e., they get to, but resist the things they have to. (Can you say passive aggression?) My son chose to learn to speak German and he loves it. He is making real progress, even though this study must be done in addition to his school subjects. It was his choice. Piano, on the other hand, was my choice for him. Even when he is developing his playing skills, his lack of genuine enthusiasm is immediately obvious. He is practicing because he has to.
Well, guess what? In this psychological situation, adults are nothing more than big kids. Don’t you love it when your boss gives you another big assignment that you have to do… on top of your current stack of work that you have to do? As soon as someone says to you, “You have to…” we big kids also resist and resent.
Now, can you hear the same tone in “You made a lifetime commitment. You have to stay,”? Thus, when one marriage partner uses or even implies that lifetime commitment clause as leverage in an argument, the resentment can only grow. Even when it is unspoken, both parties know the elephant in the room.
But, what if someone said, “You get to stay married to me for another year”? Different sensation, right? Let’s imagine a psychological If/Then scenario: If you know that, in a few weeks or months, you and your spouse will be required to make a decision about continuing to live together, then you are going to think very seriously about continuing the behaviors that upset your spouse. Given the imminent deadline for their yes-or-no decision, you will ask yourself how important the issue is to you. Really important or a minor irritant? What about any other behaviors that the partner doesn’t like? Again, really important or a minor irritant?
Hopefully, your spouse will have exactly the same thoughts. Is some issue really that big a deal? Is it really worth breaking up over? In the future, knowing that your spouse has to - no, gets to - make this decision every year, they might not be quite so likely to take you for granted. Likewise, if you knew they might be leaving soon, you would appreciate your spouse more.
Indeed, in that scenario, you may decide to change the personal habit that drives your spouse crazy - and probably also drove your mother crazy long ago. You cannot control your spouse’s decision to stay but you can be a big, big influence in their decision to leave. The psychological impact of telling someone, “Continuing my behavior is more important than your expressed wishes that I stop,” is incalculable. And, if you decide that your habits are more important than a mollified spouse (with all the benefits of a mollified spouse), that spouse has a legitimate reason to ask, “Are you really stupid or are you just acting stupid?”
After these hundreds of words, my proposal can be summarized in one sentence: All these benefits of domestic harmony become available when you merely change the length of the marriage contract from lifetime to annual-but-renewable.
Your comments are invited.
Next time: The conclusion of the Ballad of Oogie and Boogie. In three-part harmony, I will include afterthoughts, responses to some comments, and a couple of ideas for even more radical social engineering that might greatly reduce the divorce rate - and misery rate - in the future.
What about… both partners are issued a legal firearm as part of the marriage ceremony? Would you still want to quibble over some small point at breakfast? (My wife is not a morning person on her best days. Do I really want to provoke her when she is groggy, surly, and armed?) Tune in next time for other outlandish thought exercises.
Thus far, the republishing of the Oogie and Boogie Marriage Series has generated several private and public comments. Nice.
And don’t forget to visit my Buy Me A Coffee page to relieve yourself of excess funds. I don’t know if your contributions are tax-deductible; probably not. But, if you are feeling lucky, you can try.