Many experts have mused about the concept of renewable marriage recently. As one might assume, the arguments about whether couples should be able to periodically review and renew their legal contract fall along a series of standard axes, dividing along right-left, LGBT-straight, church-state and romantic-realist lines.
As the Trump administration prepares to take power amid a wave of cultural volatility, however, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that new coalitions could form in the coming years around issues that no longer seem straightforward.
Renewable marriage is just such an issue, in which triangulating interests surrounding the traditional marriage trap collide.
You’ve got evangelicals still reeling from the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which gave marriage rights to same sex couples, who are looking to Vice President-elect Mike Pence and the Republican Congress to roll it back. Donald Trump, the GOP’s fearless leader, has tied the knot on three occasions himself, most recently with the initial first lady to have posed for nude pictorials. (Though, to be fair, who knows what was on those canvases Dolly Madison saved from the burning White House?)
You’ve got folks in the LGBTQ+ community who never wanted to assimilate to heteronormative cultural institutions who are cringing at the idea of dedicating more movement resources to the fight for marriage equality.
And you’ve got outraged cisgender straight allies who never really understood the nuance of the issue of freaking out over Supreme Court picks that might halt the hallmarks of the sexual revolution — birth control and abortions. It’s open season, and you can bet the halls of Capitol Hill will be bustling like a suburban David’s Bridal shop in June.
Yet it seems Americans are united in how miserable marriage makes them. Only 3 in 10 marriages remain healthy and happy, according to psychologist Ty Tashiro in his book "The Science of Happily Ever After." So why couldn’t we see some alternatives to the institution emerge in the years to come? After all, more than half of millennials believe marriages should be renewable, research has indicated.
Florida attorney Paul Rampell is arguably the authority on the subject of what he calls “wedleases” in the United States, and his website notably lists Donald J. Trump as one of his clients. Rampell’s famous 2013 Washington Post op-ed on the subject garnered significant attention domestically as well as in countries such as Australia and South Africa. The article details how reimagined marriage contracts could be based on a real estate model.
Rampell said he believes that while some nations such as Mexico have failed in attempts to introduce renewable marriage laws, there isn’t anything stopping people who want them from obtaining them. “No court or legislature has approved a wedlease, or premarital agreement limited term, but no court or legislature has disapproved it either,” Rampell told Salon. “I think some courts would approve of it, since it is a variation of existing, court-approved marital contracts.”
If a sizable enough number of people start seeking renewable marriages, without waiting for legislation to green-light their wedlease unions, it could alter the landscape of the country’s marriage debate. How might that shake out?
Even if this were branded as something other than marriage and considered in a secular context, the Christian community would likely oppose it, says religion writer Jonathan Merritt, whose book "A Faith of Our Own" examined the rise of the religious right.
“Despite some Christians' claims that the Bible only imagines marriage as one man and one woman for life, you'll find a plethora of marriages in the Bible's pages,” Merritt told Salon, noting examples of polygamy, slave marriage and the addition of concubines.
“As the Bible progresses through these many models, it seems to move toward particular ethical guidelines for marriage," Merritt said. "Nearly every major Christian sect affirms that a marriage is mutualistic, monogamous, lifelong union. It is difficult to imagine how a wedlease could comport with a Christian ethic. A wedlease is marriage by contract, but the Christian vision is marriage by covenant.”
It seems plausible that many moderate Christians could support this sort of civil marriage “even if they would not affirm it as the best arrangement according to their beliefs,” Merritt said, adding though that conservative Christians would likely “fight any effort to normalize this sort of marriage.”
It’s possible that traditional opponents of the Christian marriage movement might align in a shared desire to stave off aspiring wedleasers. After decades of exclusion from heteronormative structures and institutions, LGBTQ+ activists became well-versed in alternative commitment structures, many working through the model of civil unions and domestic partnerships as small wins along a path that ultimately led to marriage rights. A new classification for relationships might be redundant or a step backward — depending on what if any steps the GOP takes concerning unions for same-sex couples.
Undoubtedly, if the renewable marriage movement gains traction, the marriage equality fight could serve as a model from a tactical standpoint. According to Alison Lefkovitz, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark and the New Jersey Institute of Technology professor and author of the forthcoming “The Politics of Marriage in the Era of Women’s Liberation,” renewable marriage proponents might emulate the approach of securing wedleases state by state or borrow some of the language surrounding human rights.
“I'm not sure that these arrangements would undermine the institution of marriage for those who fought for it or make it more palatable to groups that opposed marriage equality from the left,” Lefkovitz said.
“It's possible that they could serve the same purpose that domestic partnerships, civil unions and other less formalized versions of marriage have, which is making the benefits of marriage more accessible to non-intimate partnerships, extended family relationships, etc.," Lefkovitz added. "It's also possible, however, that like these other forms of less formalized marriage, they would not be treated equally by various states, corporations, everyday workers. Would this end up being another separate-but-equal system?”
It’s hard to gauge the current demand for renewable marriage, since it's not yet an option on the marital menu. As Rampell pointed out, “so far wedleases are theoretical.” We do know that millennials are delaying marriage at increasingly higher rates and are amenable to alternatives and that older divorced women are finding themselves at notable financial disadvantage that more realistic legal protections could have prevented.
As the forces of society continue on a collision course, it may be possible that people will intentionally say “I do” multiple times in their lives.
Rampell said he has been approached by clients interested in negotiating wedleases, but so far at least they are reluctant to be the first test cases and bombarded with publicity.
“I still think it is a good idea for certain people, for instance, those who have been married and divorced multiple times,” Rampell said. “Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”