David Rodeback's Blog

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Saturday, August 2, 2014
Then a Cruel Joke, Now a Serious Policy Proposal

An idea I first encountered as a juvenile husband's cruel joke on his young wife is now seriously proposed as policy, to solve a problem which might be much smaller than we've all been thinking: the high divorce rate.

Have you ever noticed how an idea that was once a joke may eventually be taken quite seriously? I haven't been around long enough to know whether this a distinguishing feature of modern life or characteristic of human life generally. In any case, here's an example.

Nearly 30 years ago, some friends were telling me about the tempestuous early years of their marriage. She was 15 or 16 when they married, which sounds too young to me. He was a decade older, give or take, but going on 12, which was the larger problem, I think. By their own account, they fought like cats and dogs -- rather like the Tea Party and the Republican establishment, perhaps.

Just a few years into their marriage, as their anniversary approached, he did a terrible thing. He was trying to be funny -- and they both laughed about it as they told me the story years later. He may also have been trying to be cruel; if so, he succeeded brilliantly. He told her that their marriage license was coming up for renewal on their anniversary, and he wasn't going to renew. She reportedly spent the next few days and nights in tears, before he finally grew up just a wee bit and explained the "joke."

Granted, that particular teenage girl probably wasn't ready to daydream about marriage, let alone be in one. And we might have forgiven her a few years later, in the immediate aftermath of the joke, for promptly widowing herself with a large skillet or butcher knife, or -- less poetically -- with one of the firearms they kept in the house. In this case, homocide hardly seems excessive. As it was, she grew up a little, and I think he did too, eventually.

A year ago -- almost to the day -- I read a Washington Post  op/ed advocating the creation of a new institution. Because wedlock so often ends in divorce, Paul Rampell extolled the virtues of wedlease.

Why don’t we borrow from real estate and create a marital lease? Instead of wedlock, a “wedlease.”

Here’s how a marital lease could work: Two people commit themselves to marriage for a period of years -- one year, five years, 10 years, whatever term suits them. The marital lease could be renewed at the end of the term however many times a couple likes. It could end up lasting a lifetime if the relationship is good and worth continuing. But if the relationship is bad, the couple could go their separate ways at the end of the term. The messiness of divorce is avoided and the end can be as simple as vacating a rental unit.

In an article posted today at the Deseret News National Edition , Emily Hales reports on expert opinion suggesting that official trial periods -- beta tests -- would offer no real benefit. Agree or disagree with the experts, as you wish. My point is that the idea of a wedlease -- often by another name -- is being taken seriously, to the point that in Mexico City there was an attempt to create such a legal institution.

Twenty-nine years have passed. My friends raised three fine children but eventually divorced. He remarried twice, with only temporary success each time. I spoke at his funeral a few years ago. She is married now to another good man I knew. Maybe you're thinking that these two would have benefited from a wedlease, if anyone ever could. I think they grew up and became the fine people I came to know in large measure because -- from the beginning -- they considered their commitment to each other permanent. But their personal experience is not my point.

My point is that his cruel joke on her is now advocated as public policy -- by people with straight faces. Perhaps that's the crueler joke, and it's on us.

It may be even crueler than it looks. It's common knowledge now that about half of marriages end in divorce, and that only about 30 percent of surviving marriages are happy, whatever that means. There's some new research that suggests those numbers are wildly inaccurate: that the divorce rate is less than half that high, and about 80 percent of marriages are happy (whatever that means) after five years. The same study asserts that the divorce rate is even lower -- 27 to 50 percent lower -- among churchgoers. If the study is right, or even close to right, then the bad joke is also built on bad data.

Finally, a personal note. In view of the new, happier numbers, I don't feel any less lucky that my marriage license would be up for its 26-year renewal eighteen days hence, if the world were even weirder than it presently is. The new numbers just mean my good fortune was more likely than we knew. They do not reduce the breathtaking magnitude of that good fortune.

I'd renew.

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