‘Til the End of the Contract Do Us Part

‘Til death do us part.

That’s the vow, right? That you’ll stay together until one or the other of you dies?

We all know couples who haven’t managed that one. Heck, I’m the second Mrs. Twistie! His first marriage didn’t end with a death, but with divorce. Some of you have talked in comments about previous marriages. Right now, I happen to be doing a lot of hand-holding for a very good friend who decided to call her marriage quits after ten years because she has never been happy in it.

I swore ’til death do us part, and I fully intend to honor that vow. But I completely get that not every relationship is going to work out that way. And so I was intrigued with the fact that Mexico City has a proposal currently on the table for temporary marriages.

The proposed temporary marriage would have a two-year minimum term, at the end of which couples would have the option to either extend the contract or dissolve the marriage without the legal hassles of a divorce. The marriage would simply end.

I’m sure a lot of people will consider this a brand new plot to end the world. But the funny thing is, this sort of temporary marriage has been around for hundreds of years in a variety of cultures. Whether it has value is another question entirely, of course. Just because something has been around a long time doesn’t mean it’s either useful or healthy. Whalebone corsets did little for the health of either women or whales, but they were around for a long, long time.

In Iran, temporary marriage has been practiced for a very long time… but virtually all of the marbles are in the man’s pocket. The woman must be unmarried to enter into the contract, but a man doesn’t have to be. The contract may be broken early, but only if the man decides to do it. If the contract is broken before the temporary marriage is consummated, the woman gets only half the bride price promised… even if the reason is the man’s inability to carry out his end of the bargain.

On the other hand, there has been a version that was beneficial to both partners. In the fifteenth century in the Indonesian Archipelago, women were heavily involved in the thriving business of trading in the ports. Seamen from across the globe came to buy and sell goods in these ports. The men were often lonely and in need of someone to help them understand the cultural requirements of trade – not to mention the language. Local women wanted access to choice foreign goods and no doubt enjoyed the companionship as well. Temporary marriages flourished. When the sailors got back on their ships, the marriages ended with no negative social consequences to the women who had married them. Oh, and any children from these marriages stayed with their mothers.

Temporary marriage was also practiced in Scotland – particularly in the Hebrides where my ancestors hailed from – once upon a time in the form of handfasting. In that tradition, the couple would marry for a year and a day, at the end of which time the husband had the option to make the contract permanent and legitimize any children already born or to send his temporary wife right back to her parents.

So what do I think of all of this? Well, it’s not something I would choose, even if the option was readily available to me. When I make a decision, I usually like to stick with it. I think that depending on how the law is written and how society views it will make a huge difference in whether or not it’s exploitive to women.

But if it’s written carefully so that both partners can gain and neither will hold all the power, then it might well be a viable option for someone who isn’t me.

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