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The Opt-out Marriage

By Anja Boenicke | November 30, 2007

Marilyn Monroe starred in The Seven Year
Itch
. Image by Gemvita (CC).

Globalization increases the flexibility of labor markets by removing barriers to travel, immigration, and communication. But increased mobility goes hand in hand with increased economic uncertainty, especially among young professionals.

According to a 2005 Globalife study conducted by the University of Bamberg, young people face fixed-term contracts, part-time employment, and joblessness more than other groups in the labor market. This economic uncertainty affects social behavior, such as family formation and parenthood, and young people in these situations increasingly delay marriage. The Globalife study found that a major reason for the rise in average marriage age and declining fertility in rich countries is the increasing difficulty young people have making long-term decisions.

Not only are young people less economically able to start a family, but they also change locations more often than ever with the fluidity of labor markets. Spouses or couples are less likely to find appropriate work in the same place.

The changing nature of personal relationships has accompanied a gradual global shift of gender proportions in education and the workplace. According to the 2007 World Development Indicators by the World Bank, secondary and tertiary education rates of young women have reached higher levels than those of young men in a majority of countries in recent years, and 122 out of 200 countries have seen an increase in female labor force participation. In 2005, women represented on average 40.3 percent of the labor force worldwide.

Increasing participation by women in the labor force also means changing roles in society. With some women opting exclusively for the career track and others trying to balance careers and children, traditional family arrangements are under pressure. When both partners are committed to career plans, the ability to compromise decreases.

Some young people respond to this development by remaining in school longer, postponing family formation, taking part-time jobs, or engaging in short-term relationships. More couples are maintaining so-called weekend marriages or long-distance relationships. A rise in permanent migration contributes to this trend and creates international or intercultural marriages and relationships.

Social behavior is adjusting to this new cosmopolitan lifestyle and the corresponding shifts in gender roles. According to statistics recently published by the OECD, nearly half of all German marriages end in divorce. The numbers are similarly high in other rich countries.

One response to this trend, according to maverick German politician Gabriele Pauli, is to require marriage partners to reevaluate their commitment after seven years. A 50-year-old twice-divorced member of the Christian Social Union (CSU), Germany's conservative party, Pauli recently suggested that both partners must actively choose the renewal of their marriage. After seven years, you either stay married or you split up.

Pauli ran on this platform in an effort to become head of the CSU last month although it was clear she had little chance of winning. She received only 2.5 percent of the vote. But she succeeded in introducing into the German political debate her belief that politics too often endorses dated ideas. She aims to push politics toward an approach that relates to modern society.

Yet it turns out her idea isn't new at all. On February 13, 1905, the New York Times ran an article titled "A Limited Marriage Bill—Colorado Women Up in Arms Against Measure in Legislature." Excerpts from the legislation describe a system of contracts allowing for marriages between three and ten years. Parties to a limited marriage contract could return after six months and make a new contract for life. The legislation even proposes that such contracts specify which one of the contracting parties would be "head of the proposed family."

In the Shia Islam tradition, short-term marriages called mutaa are a 1500-year-old custom. These arrangements take the form of contracts with a time frame and recompense agreed upon by both parties. Today, various types of temporary marriages are practiced in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and Iraq. In fact, Iran's interior minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi has recently advocated time-limited marriages as a means of solving social problems. But mutaa marriage is a controversial practice, often considered "a cover for prostitution," that results in illegitimate children.

A recent article in Men's Health advocates time-limited marriages as the cure for divorce and commitment phobia. "It's time to bring some innovation to the sanctity," argues author Tad Low. "Let's leave the 19th century behind. It's great to value tradition and all, but slavish adherence in the face of irrefutable evidence of failure is foolish."

It is unclear whether putting a time limit on marriages will stem the tide of divorce or create happier partnerships. But the forces of globalization are pressing the issue in new and challenging ways, and increasing numbers of cosmopolitan young professionals are confronted with the dilemma of an international career versus a long-term personal commitment.

Demand for marriages with an opt-out clause may build if this trend continues, and Pauli's proposal won't seem so strange then after all.


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Read More: Culture, Gender, Globalization, Jobs, Migration, Religion, Germany, Iran, Europe, Global, Middle East

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