I certainly remember that movie moment. We all remember her standing there that sultry summer night, her knees together, her hands pressing the front of the garment to her legs as the sudden breeze from a subway car passing below animated the bottom of her white skirt, exposing those trademark Hollywood gams. The story goes that her husband got pretty pissed off about the scene and divorced her soon thereafter, something I found a little ironic, ironic because the movie was about marriage in a way.
The plot centered on a professional manuscript reader, a middle-aged, kind of dweeby guy à la Walter Mitty, who struggled with a theory proposed in a psychology book: after being married or otherwise institutionalized for seven years, the human male experiences an irrepressible urge to cheat. Now I know from personal experience that just isn’t true. No, the phenomenon is not limited to males. Women are at least as bad, if not worse.
Let me cut to the chase: the institution of marriage is in trouble. It is in dire need of an update. The world is moving forward at breakneck speed, but marriage simply hasn’t kept pace. The truth is that we live in a disposable, throw-away society, the metaphoric mountains at our landfills symbolizing the impermanence of the improved modern and fast-forward lifestyle of twenty-first century America.
When our babies are born, we swaddle them in disposable diapers, clean their little butts with throw-away wipes and strap them in plastic car seats that we replace every other year as the children grow. The fast foods kids eat are so full of steroids and growth hormones that childhood has been shortened by at least two or three years, and the hybrid adults that result have become America’s prime consumer market, accelerating the pace of life still faster.
Every other month, new products are updated and mass produced, rendering the previous generation of goods outdated and useless. No one keeps a cell phone for more than a couple of years, computers are crippled and effete at age three and a brand new car is out-of-date and ready for replacement by the time it’s paid for.
And manufacturers aren’t dumb. They gamble putting inferior products on the market at cut-rates to drive prices down, thus encouraging the trend of impermanence. No product, whether it be a software program, the DVD player in your home or your coveted telephone long distance service is impervious to the trend of constant replacement and renewal.
So is it any wonder that marriage, an institution once considered the bedrock of permanence in society, is it any wonder that marriage has lost its clout as a stabilizer? Marriage vows, like words of the latest MTV song, sound good but have no real meaning:
To have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish… till death us do part.
Those words still fresh on the lips of the new bride or groom, both hope for a long and prosperous marriage, and yet both realize such hope is quixotic at best. By the time they’ve made avowals, many of today’s newlyweds have already considered exit strategies in case the marriage doesn’t work. The prenuptial agreement has become fashionable, even outside California. The Census Bureau projects that half of all marriages in America will end in divorce.
I don’t know how it all came to me, but I got this great idea about how to save the institution of marriage. It was just a light that went off in my head, a stroke of genius, really. And it was doable, but I would need help.
So the first thing I did was catch a flight to Washington DC to pitch my idea to the people who could make a difference: the President, Congress and the Supreme Court. I figured that if anyone had a stake in the welfare of marriage in America, it would be the men and women from the three great pillars of government. All I got was polite excuses and closed doors. It turns out that half the people in Washington were divorced or had opted out of their marriages in one clever way or another.
I came home dejected, though not defeated. I still had my great idea, after all. So I figured that if I could make my proposal work in California, it would probably catch on in the rest of the country. And though San Francisco’s gay marriage crusade wasn’t exactly the beginning of a national movement, it gave me an idea about how to put my proposal before the people.
In order to modernize marriage, I figured I would have to begin on the state government level. Marriage licenses are issued by cities and counties, subject to the state’s definition of marriage, which is why so many states are passing legislation to limit that definition and to ban same-sex unions.
But my proposal has nothing to do with the definition of marriage. Rather, it proposes a change in the term of the license. Unlike most other licenses in California, a marriage license is open-ended. It basically remains in effect for the life of the licensee, something that just doesn’t fly with the need for efficiency in our constantly changing world.
I spent three days walking the streets of downtown Sacramento, researching various agencies, boards and state departments with reference to licensing requirements, license terms and related rationales. When I finished, I was just beginning to understand why the institute of marriage had fallen to such a state of dysfunction.
I started at the Department of Fish and Game, where an employee said she couldn’t tell me why fishing licenses are issued for one year at a time, and that basically the only requirement is cash. There is no exam, but the department does issue a pamphlet explaining rules and restrictions. At the Pest Control Board, I found that the term for a pest control operator’s license is about average for renewal times. After three years, an additional fee is paid and the license is renewed.
It was obvious the people at the Dental Board took certification seriously. They only issue a license after the applicant passes grueling written and demonstrative exams. The license has to be renewed every two years and proof of continuing education must be provided.
Real estate agents—five years; milk handlers and architects must renew licenses every other year, though if you’re a court reporter or bail bonds agent, it’s one year. If you sell machine guns, your one year license is issued by the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division of the U.S. Treasury Department. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.
All you need to get a marriage license in California is a driver’s license or other valid identification. No exam is required, not even a blood test anymore. There’s no waiting period and no requirement for continuing education, though the license costs about $45 cash. But the key factor in the inefficacy of marriage licenses in the state is the lack of any renewal obligation.
And thus I propose to the people of California a sensible provision in the language of marriage licensing to require renewal every seven years. If a couple were to allow the license to expire, then all the legal and tax benefits that marriage entitles them to would be null and void. There would be no penalties or late fees to renew the license. However, until the license was renewed, both parties would be legally considered as unmarried.
In order to administer the new and improved licenses, the state would have to establish a Department of Marriage, paid for by renewal fees, complete with a Marriage Commissioner. This statewide office holder would have the power and discretion to suspend or revoke marriage licenses, based on the deeds and misbehavior of licensees. Suspension or revocation would be the most extreme measures, reserved only for chronic spousal abusers and de facto bigamists. Attitudes must change. More than a mere right, marriage is a privilege.
I realized early on that there would be opposition to my plan from various segments of society, but my proposal is to save marriage, not to trivialize it. Before I answer my critics, we must all concede that marriage, as it exists today, just isn’t working. Sure some people get married and remain married, but half the people who get married get divorced, plain and simple, which brings me to my first group of detractors.
Divorce lawyers now euphemistically call themselves family law attorneys, but they are lawyers nonetheless, and thus the State Bar would naturally oppose the renewal requirement. Just imagine the money lawyers would lose because some people would choose not to renew rather than divorce.
Not re-upping, after all, isn’t as hostile as divorce. There isn’t as much a rejection factor, so the dissolution of a marriage would be less fractious. No doubt “family law attorneys” and the courts would still be necessary for the equitable division of community property and for child custody issues, but divorce lawyers would significantly lose position as players, instigators and money makers.
If marriage licensees were required to renew every seven years, divorce rates would fall off precipitously, cutting into the overweight profit margins of many of the state’s most prestigious law firms. So when the lawyers launch their campaign against my proposal for marriage license renewal, just remember what’s at stake for them and why they would oppose saving the institution of marriage.
I imagine some of the churches might also dispute a provision that would require married persons to renew marriage licenses, but I also expect at least part of their initial resistance would be something of a knee-jerk reaction. They’d see it as a radical step, and yet I believe if they took a step back and gave themselves a little time with the idea, they’d eventually see the merits of renewing the commitment. We’re natural allies, duly concerned and committed to protecting the institution of marriage.
The times we live in oblige us to make a distinction between the institution of marriage and legal marriages, or civil unions. Many Americans believe that the institution was created by and ordained by God, that a threefold cord is not easily broken. Others believe marriage is fundamentally a bond between two people and that God and government have no business in it. And still others see marriage as a tax consideration.
I think we can all agree that the legalities of marriage have very little to do with the marriage itself. Marriage is a personal and sometimes public commitment, but it is not essentially a legal commitment, though legal implications exist.
With all due respect, the Catechism of the Catholic Church actually supports the distinction, wherein marriage is described as indissoluble. According to the church, [Divorce] claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death… Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery. Here there is a clear difference between real marriage and unions recognized by civil law.
Nonetheless, the proliferation of divorce in America has presented the clergy with a dilemma. Many churches have members and parishioners who are divorcing at rates commensurate with the rest of society. Thus our religious institutions are under enormous pressure to make concessions on divorce and remarriage in order to keep up with the times. And with the concessions comes the realization that marriage will never be the rock solid foundation it once was.
For couples who believe marriage is a sacred covenant ordained by God, my proposal presents the opportunity for regular confirmation of a profound commitment. The covenant is reaffirmed in the symbolic Sabbatic year of the marriage license so that the fiftieth year truly would be a Jubilee.
And for those who counter that what God has joined together let no man put asunder, the truth is that no external person or persons put marriages apart. The individuals within the marriage do. Moreover, many couples today do not choose to invite God into their civil unions.
The decision to have a God-ordained marriage is a personal one, and those who choose such marriages willingly subject themselves to God and/or the rules and guidelines set forth by the clergy of their respective religions. The marriage renewal requirement takes nothing away from God-ordained marriage.
The third group to oppose the renewal requirement would be a motley crew, made up of moralists, abusive and controlling spouses, underachievers and insecure persons. The moralists would argue the requirement would make it easier to dissolve the marriage bond, and the latter groups would naturally fear their victims would be unwilling to renew the license at the end of its challenging term.
Of the moralists I ask: is it truly ethical to bolster marriage by using the difficulty, stress and financial loss associated with divorce as a deterrent? Is it more moral to coerce couples to stay trapped in unwanted or unhealthy marriages? Is marriage honorable when millions of spouses secretly seek outside sources to meet physical and emotional needs? The absence of a divorce does not necessarily indicate the existence of a marriage.
For obvious reasons, abusive or controlling spouses would not support a change that empowers the objects of their domination. But abusers and controllers are often in dysfunctional though symbiotic relationships. As hard is it might be for many rational persons to believe, some poor victims have convinced themselves that being in an abusive or controlled relationship is preferable to being alone and/or responsible.
Despite the changes in the term of the license, many of these persons would feel compelled to renew, though some would be saved by the provision. And perhaps in a few rare cases the abuser might change or get help as a condition precedent to the renewal.
The underachiever is the man who gets married and like a tick, his rectum promptly attaches him to the couch, the TV remote in his hand. He goes to work, he comes home and he reattaches to the couch. He doesn’t bathe every day, he lets his nose hairs grow and his stomach and butt start to get doughy.
He won’t take his wife out to dinner like he did when they were dating, he doesn’t compliment her and seldom even talks to her unless he needs something. He ogles other women, he gasses out loud and he’s spent his wad long before his wife begins to get aroused. If she doesn’t re-up the marriage license, there’s no surprise there.
The underachiever is the woman who once married, really lets herself go. She puts on 30-40 pounds, she becomes obsessed with Oprah and she discontinues spontaneous sex. She doesn’t get around to cleaning the house though she won’t work outside the home, she secretly maxes out the credit cards and she belittles her husband in public.
She refuses ever to cook, she berates the kids, she disrespects her mother-in-law and she hates every member of his family. If he doesn’t want to continue in that vein after seven years, can anyone blame him?
Low self-esteem is a significant cause of insecurity, but so is a person’s realization that he or she has not invested heart and soul in the marriage. A person who gets married and simply goes through the motions can’t expect re-commitment from a disaffected spouse after seven years of lukewarm devotion.
A good marriage requires the four Cs: commitment, consideration, creativity and communication. Insecure persons are often astute enough to recognize problems exist, but they are too self-absorbed to commit to making the marriage better.
Of course my proposal, like all proposals, contains one or two inherent disadvantages. Under my plan, established marriages certainly would be easier to escape and leave behind, so the marriage renewal requirement would apply only to present marriages that have not exceeded seven years and to all future marriages. Couples married longer than seven years would be grandfathered in and would not have to ever renew.
The Legal and Financial Concerns
Other concerns involve legal status and financial consideration. If a couple’s license has been expired for more than eighteen months, the simple renewal would not be available. The couple would then be required to reapply and to actually remarry. After a seventh renewal (forty-nine years), no further renewals would be required.
If a woman or man in an expired marriage wishes to pursue spousal or child support, that person would have to file a Notice of Intent Not to Renew with the family court. The court then would determine whether or not to grant support and if granted, the court would fix the amount of the award.
It is obvious though, that the advantages far outweigh any inconvenience the renewal requirement would bring. Many marriages would falter initially, and many of the unions without solid foundations would fail. But in the disposable mentality of America, marriage would benefit from regular renewal, recommitment and redirection.
The Ideal Marriage
Over the years, marriage has been likened to fishing. You bait up your hook and throw it out there, dangling that lure in front of your potential spouse. When it’s taken, you set the hook, and struggle as it may, you reel the quarry in. When it’s over, if you’re lucky you’ve landed yourself a great catch. Wrong analogy. In the end, you’re going to either fry that fish or let it go.
Marriage is much better compared to daily training to stay in shape or in good health, training that a team of two accomplish together. Marriage should not be an end, not the goal or the finish line. It is rather a starting point, an ongoing journey, a lifelong adventure. The needs of a marriage at seven years are different from the needs of a twenty-eight year old marriage or a new marriage for that matter.
In the course of daily training it is helpful to stop at strategic intervals or junctures and check progress. Sometimes small adjustments are required and at others major changes are necessary, but regular reevaluation, recommitment and redirection serve to strengthen a marriage.
For common sense reasons, it is a far better thing to renew marriages rather than to discard them, which is what we do wholesale in America. Though we live in a disposable, throw-away society, we must all appreciate that the institution of marriage is worth preserving.
I thought about asking a local legislator to carry my proposal before the statewide Assembly or Senate, but I get the sense that term-limited local politicians are even less motivated to accomplish good than their securely seated counterparts in Washington. And though I have been disinclined toward the initiative process as has been exploited in California, I think mine is truly a grassroots proposal.
Why? Because for millions of Californians, the prospect of marriage license renewal strikes close to home. How many wives get discouraged in a marriage after three or four years? How many husbands secretly envy the lifestyle of their unmarried counterparts? How many spouses wonder if the marriage was a mistake? How many couples in second or third unions quietly worry that they’ll never find happiness in marriage?
Whether we’re jaded, bitter, cynical, idealistic, naïve, hopeful or pragmatic, most of us have distinct opinions about marriage. According to the last census, there are more than 5,500,000 married couples in California, which translates to 11,000,000 individuals who are directly affected by the present decline of the marriage institution.
If we include the children whose lives are indirectly influenced, we’re talking about 24,000,000 people in California alone. Some of these will frown on and disparage my proposal, while others will eagerly promote it. Love it or hate it, it is necessary to address the problems with marriage. Those who truly want to save it are obliged to offer solutions.
Thus I put my proposal before the people of California and before America. Saving marriage does not require changing the essence of such an honorable institution, only the terms of its licensing. Let us seriously consider a provision in the language of marriage licensing to require renewal every seven years.
Let us engage in months of impassioned debate on the subject. Let us look into our own lives, into our own marriages and share among ourselves. Let us recommend what is working and warn against what is not. The requirements for a good marriage are the same requirements for preserving the institution: commitment, consideration, creativity and communication.
In the movie I mentioned at the onset of this essay, the neurotic human male manuscript reader was coming up on seven years of marriage. With his wife and son away on summer vacation, he worried that he would yield to the seven year itch, that irrepressible urge to cheat. There was, after all, a gorgeous young woman who had unexpectedly invaded his living room and his life.
How did the story conclude? The beleaguered husband, if even in his own mind, was beset by a trial that required him to reevaluate himself, his wife and their union of six plus years. In the end, we were as certain he did the right thing: he eagerly recommitted himself to the marriage.
And was anyone surprised? That marriage didn’t suddenly fall apart because circumstance required the man to reconsider it after almost seven years. His marriage, like any good marriage, only grew stronger as a result of the recommitment and renewal.
Although the movie was made over fifty years ago, it speaks to our times, hinting at a solution. Marriage is in trouble in America, and saving it requires commitment from all of us in considering proposed remedies. In order to save marriage, we must update its licensing requirements so that the union must be renewed every seven years. Agree or disagree, but by all means, let the debate begin.