Published on the Opinions page of the Minnesota Daily |
(University of Minnesota student newspaper)
April 13, 1977
An alternative to traditional marriage
By JAMES PARK
According to surveys in California, there are more people in the 21-30 age group in the state living together than are actually married. - Time Magazine, Jan. 10, 1977.
The suggestion that we create two kinds of marriage, with different rituals, different licenses, and different responsibilities, was made back in 1966 by Margaret Mead. But the idea also was proposed in the 1920s by Judge Ben Lindsey.
Since marriage is an arbitrary social arrangement that has emerged among the earth's inhabitants, it can be changed if we find some other patterns of relationship more to our liking. However, marriage laws and customs do not change quickly. We may not see two-level marriage until the year 2000. Even so, we can begin to think about the provisions we would like to see included in a new Minnesota law on domestic relationships.
If Minnesota is one of the first states to consider alternative forms of marriage, it certainly will gain widespread coverage in the national media. Every family in America probably has some members who have tried different styles of relationships.
Most suggestions for two kinds of marriage are some variation of this scheme: companionate marriage and parental partnership. If and when these two relationships are defined by state law, it really will not be such a radical departure from what we have now. It will just give legal standing to the ways many people have already decided to conduct their personal relationships.
The state has no business regulating personal relationships among adults, so companionate marriage should be as free of legal constraints as possible. Two or more people who want to live together and share their incomes and expenses would be permitted to register this fact in the county courthouse. If they actually are combining their lives economically, their tax returns should be permitted to reflect this fact.
How these marital companions organize their lives together is their own business. They are free to experiment with any relational pattern they wish. Some companionships may decide to he open to loving relationships beyond the married group, while others might choose exclusiveness. Some people may choose this form of marriage because they are "in love." Such marriage for love should be expected to be temporary, because love (especially romantic love) does not last long.
Because no children are involved, companionate marriage would be terminated easily, simply by reporting the change situation to the courthouse. After a while, people might decide just to have free and open relationships without registering them at all. But others who are committed to raising children may decide to make their relationship more permanent by registering as parental partners.
When children are involved, the state does have a legitimate role: such relationships should be controlled for the benefit of the children. Parental partnerships would be a signed civil contract between (among) two or more persons who want to go into the business of raising children (either children they will conceive and bear or children they will adopt). The contracting parties commit themselves to care for their children at least until the youngest child reaches the age of 15 (or should it be 10?). Each new child born or adopted automatically extends the term of the contract.
James Park is a love counselor and instructor at the Minnesota Free University. This article is adapted from the 11th chapter of his Authentic Love: An Existential Vision, which was published last year.
Before parental partnerships are chartered by the state, investigation similar to that now conducted for adoption should be made into the suitability of these persons to be parents. Perhaps a period of companionate marriage, for instance one year, should be a prerequisite for parental partnership.
Because the contracting parties would make a firm binding commitment for at least 15 years, perhaps they would be more careful than at present. Parental partnership will be like deciding to sign up for 15 to 20 years in the military or like forming a business corporation with a minimum lifespan.
Of course, it would be best for the parental partners to love one another. They will be better parents if they have a warm, supportive, happy relationship, but love cannot be contracted for. The responsibility of raising children is not an emotional matter. Those who contract for parental partnership because they are “in love” should ask themselves if their commitment to their children transcends the vagaries of the loving relationship between themselves. The welfare of the children must not depend on the romantic love of the parents. Childrearing is a serious, long-term responsibility which should not depend on the assumed continuation of good feelings between (among) the parents.
One of the stipulations written into the contract for parental partnership should be that the partners will continue to fulfill their parental responsibilities even if they no longer love one another. This will be one of the hardest vows for them I make, and for that reason it should be made both verbally and in writing: "I will continue to work with you for the welfare of our children even if our loving relationship comes to an end." Most people in the early phases of this new kind of marriage will probably try to combine love and marriage in one relationship, but since they are committed to carry on their parental partnership even after the disappearance of love, the family will be much more stable-which may be what children need.
Because it has a completely different purpose than companionate marriage, parental partnership would be much more difficult to terminate. The main reason for divorce today is probably the disappearance of love. This would not be a sufficient reason for getting out of the army or ending a business partnership. Neither should it be considered a valid reason for terminating parental partnerships. The only admissible reason for relieving people of their parental commitments would be their inability to function as parents. In parental partnerships, the welfare of the children comes before everything else. If the partnership degenerates to the point where the continued relationship would harm the children, or if a new parental partnership could better care for the children, the old partnership should be dissolved.
After all children have reached at least age 15, the parental partnership automatically reverts to companionate marriage, including the possibility of voluntary termination without legal process, provided that the parents continue to support their younger children until they are able to support themselves or reach the age of majority.
One possibility that would help parental partnerships to function happily even after the disappearance of love is openness to other loving relationships beyond the parental partners. The contracting parties should carefully consider this possibility beforehand. If they really agree not to love any other people, this promise should become a part of their written contract. If and when their own loving relationship comes to an end, they will just have to get along without love for a few years until their children are grown up and they can terminate the partnership at will. Of course, nothing requires parental partners to live together any more than business partners must share the same office. They may divide their child rearing responsibilities any way they please.
But restricting the other loving relationships of parental partners might be just as limiting and unreasonable as business partners trying to control one another's personal relationships or the military dictating the personal lives of its employes. As long as other relationships do not impair their contractual responsibilities, what the partners do with their free time should be their own business.
It will be much easier to begin a parental partnership with openness to loving relationships beyond the child- bearing unit than to shift to open marriage later. And by the 21st century, most new parental partnerships may begin this way. But it even may be possible for parental partnerships to renegotiate the contracts if more openness is desired by the partners.
Those who are familiar with the history of love and marriage will realize that this suggestion is a return to an old idea. When romantic love was invented in the Middle Ages, it was never between married people. Marriage was contracted for practical reasons: money, children, parental wishes. Love was a romantic game, usually played with someone other than one's spouse.
One of the founders of the romantic
tradition, Marie, the Countess of
Champagne, wrote the following
dictum about love and marriage in
Only recently in history have people tried to put love and marriage together. And for many people it has not worked.
Even today the French have an expression: "Love is the child of freedom." Contracts for parenting are necessary for the well-being of the children so that their parents will not abandon them because they no longer love one another. But going into the childrearing business should not limit one's loving relationships. Let love always be absolutely free from both sides. And let those who decide to raise children with the help of other people create a legal entity for that purpose, a partnership that does not depend on personal feelings or capricious relationships.
The benefits of a two-step system of marriage should be evident to anyone who has considered wedlock. Many young people who get married do not really want to commit themselves for the rest of their lives to one person, but are ready to live together and have a close relationship. It is not a tragedy or a failure if such couples without children want to separate after a few years. Society has no interest in preserving unhappy relationships. Companionate marriage would be the answer for such people.
But when children are involved, society does have a stake in preserving marriages. The process by which people are licensed to become parents should be more carefully regulated. And divorce for parents should be more difficult than it now is.
But without waiting for the 21st
century, when these ideas may be
written into Minnesota law, we can
begin to think differently about our
own marriage plans. What kind of
marriage would you want? If
Minnesota offered two kinds of marriage
licenses, which would you take?
Wednesday, April 13, 1977