I’m not surprised that Paul Rampell, who proposes in The Washington Post that couples who don’t wish to commit for life have the option of signing a marital lease instead of a marriage license, specializes in estate planning. A “wedlease,” he calls his idea. His proposal is a good example of how metaphors can shape thought in very practically meaningful ways. Citing high divorce rates, Rampell recommends that the legal partnership of marriage be adapted to include arrangements that do not last a lifetime, but rather a period of years specified by the couple:
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.
Ah, yes. As simple as vacating a rental unit. No mess. Not bloody likely, I’m afraid. Rarely does a relationship, marital or otherwise, end with the simplicity of someone moving out of a rental property. I imagine that Rampell is thinking of the legal mess, and not the emotional and psychological mess, that comes with divorce, but that in itself is a problem. He’s addressing marriage only as a legal structure, and not at all as a bond between two human beings. Can you say divorced from reality?
Only someone locked into his metaphor could compare a human relationship to a rental unit and think this similarity means that the end of a “wedlease” partnership will come without mess. Please. Even rental property agreements have their messy side. Sometimes people refuse to abide by the rules to which they’ve legally agreed.
I told my my wife about this proposed “wedlease,” and she laughed. “That’s a stupid idea,” she said. “Most people don’t take very good care of the property they lease.” Indeed. We rent ourselves, and while we respect the property, keeping it clean and notifying maintenance when something needs repairs, we don’t give it the care we would if we owned it or planned to live the rest of our lives within it. We’re not attached to it. Treating our marriage with this emotional distance would spell disaster for our relationship.
Rampell asks why society doesn’t make the legal structure of marriage more congruent to human behavior. The answer to this is simple. One of the purposes of marriage is to direct and compel behavior. People make vows, publicly, and henceforth there is a public expectation that the couple will keep their vows. The legal structure of marriage reenforces this expectation. Marriage sets ideals the couple has to work towards. Hard work? Always. Chance for failure? You bet. Are these challenges good reason for society to stop encouraging married couples to make a lifelong commitment? I suppose that depends on whether you think people treating marriage as a rental unit is a good idea.