Why modern marriage is unrealistic, and what should replace it
This post grew from the response to a throw-away line when I commented on the introduction of "gay marriage" (in all but name) in the UK. And it is a subject that seems to keep pursuing me in other discussions.
So: why I don't believe in marriage (as we currently understand it).
To promise to stay together "until death do us part" now has a very different meaning to it had 100, or 1,000 or more years ago. In fact, while I doubt the data will ever exist to give a conclusive average, I suspect the current average length of marriage before divorce - 11.5 years - is roughly equivalent to the average length of marriage in early modern Europe (the area of history on which I have read most), and indeed probably roughly over the past 2,000 years. Given the historic death rates, the median length of the partnership before one or the other died, would probably have been about that.
Yet today in the UK the average age of first marriage for men is 30 and women 28. That means on average the marriage, if it is lifelong, will last 46 years, until the man dies. (Yes I know I'm simplifying the statistics, but that's broadly accurate.)
Furthermore, there is an expectation today that the marriage will be more than an alliance of families, or the establishment of an economic unit, or a means of providing for children, all things that were seen as its primary purpose in the past. Instead, marriage is expected to, or at least hoped to, meet the majority of the emotional, sexual and personal needs of the two partners.
And it is expected that they'll live together all of that time - by no means an expectation in the past, when, again using English examples, aristocratic partnerships frequently meant the women stayed in the country while the men spent most of their time in London (e.g. Margaret Paston, or Lady Alice More, whose husband was home at Chelsea no more than a few days each month.) City merchant families, and of course those of soldiers and sailors - saw a similar pattern.
Yet today it is expected that two people will meet the majority of each other's needs, for the great majority of their lives, and be more or less in each other's pockets for all of that time. I just find that utterly unrealistic. It fails to allow for the fact that people change, develop, grow in different directions, over their lives. For two people to grow for decades in matching directions might occur, but only very, very occasionally. Otherwise, one partner will have to stifle their personal development to fit in with the other, or else they'll grow apart.
Rather than that being accepted as a natural development, something to be managed gracefully, the pressure to regard marriage as being "for life" causes huge stresses and strains when the unrealistic nature of that goal emerges.
So what's needed instead? Well I'd suggest that instead, "marriages" should be five-year rolling contracts, to be renewed or adapted at the expiration of each period, by mutual negotiation between the parties. They might allow for periods of living apart (say if one person wants to travel for a year and the other doesn't; they might allow for someone setting up their own space in the house to be restricted to them for a certain times ... whatever works for the couple.)
The terms of what happens at the end of the period should be agreed at the start. Some might indeed end up being life-long - possibly even more than are now - once the terms of the agreement can be adapted to changing circumstances.
But, I hear the objections, what about the children?
Well many children experience their parents breaking up (whether or not they were formally married) and I'd suggest what causes most of the problems for them is not the break-up per say, but the bitterness and acrimony associated with the ending of something supposed to be "for ever".
About a quarter of children are living in sole-parent families at any one time. I couldn't find any figures on children living with step-parents, but I'd reckon that would take the combined figure to well over 50 per cent, so blended families are pretty well the norm anyway.
If children grow up in an environment where this is the norm, where society allows for these "divorces" and doesn't make them the site of shame or unnecessary acrimony, then they'd be a lot better off than many children are today.
So that's my proposal - a fundamental reform. You'd probably have to change the name, to avoid confusion - "personal partnerships", perhaps - but I'd suggest you'd end up with a society that would be both more stable, more harmonious, and happier.