What if We Treated Marriage More Like The Contract It Is?

bride and groom

Marriage is a contract – much like one with your cell phone company. But what if we treated it more like the contract that it is?

I’ve been married twice, and both times I went into it with a lot of hope and enthusiasm.  Both times, I planned to remain married to this person forever and ever, amen.  And both times, I didn’t.   Both times, I was the instigator in the divorce.

I reflect on that often, and wonder how much we as a couple failed, and how much was a failure of the institution of marriage itself.  Is marriage essentially flawed, or am I?

The word contract is used to describe both marriage and business, with one big difference; we go into marriage with a naïve, “YES! Whatever, forever! Love conquers all!”  Yet we enter our relationships with our cell phone companies with multi-page documents.  We start a relationship with our mortgage holder with at least a thirty-page document.

People sign agreements with employers committing to binding arbitration and non-competition clauses, but we place our happiness in trust based on unspecified faith in love.  I can’t be the only one who thinks that maybe we need to put as much thought into the marriage contract as we do all the other contracts in our lives.

Marriage is about unspoken assumptions, and the failure of many marriages is based on people having different assumptions as to what constitutes appropriate behavior.  There’s an old adage, “Men marry women hoping that they will never change, but women marry men hoping to change them,” and in many cases I think this is true, but I don’t think either view is entirely correct.

People aren’t static; we change and grow, as well we should, but what about how that affects the marriage?  Do we have a right to assume the person we marry will remain the person we fell in love with, even ten, twenty, thirty years down the road?


Marriage as an institution is in trouble. Half of them end in divorce. Heck, I personally have increased the divorce rate in the country by twice my fair share. I am not purporting to be an expert on marriage, but perhaps marriage needs to change with the times.

Perhaps, when we write our vows, we need to think a little bit more about practicalities and less about abstract love.  For example, it’s pretty common to pledge monogamy, but how does that actually work?  What constitutes cheating? Can the woman read erotica? Can the man watch porn?  Is online chatting the same as cheating? What if the woman kisses a girl? How much sex does each partner expect? Under what circumstances can that change?  How will each partner deal with potential changes?  It seems like common sense, and I am sure all couples talk about these nuances before marriage, but maybe writing it down would help keep everyone on the same page.

I may sound cold, but when you realize that most serious ruptures in marriages are from a failure to communicate properly, perhaps the best defense of marriage is to be a little less Pollyanna about it.

Perhaps the best defense of marriage is to be a little less Pollyanna about it.

One would never sign an employment agreement that stated, “I will do whatever work the company feels is necessary, regardless of the hours or toll it takes.” Yet, we form households with vague divisions of labor that are often filled with animosity.  No one would ever think to divide out household tasks in their marital agreements, yet that is what most people fight over.  I once kicked my husband for not taking out the dog when it was his turn, then pretended I did it in my sleep and had no idea what he was talking about.  Is that direct communication? No!

What would have happened if we had a clearly written document that detailed our expectations, including time spent with friends and family, managing disposable income, division of work, and raising children?  What do you love best about your mate? How can you ensure that part of them doesn’t change?

How will you deal with the times when compromise is necessary, and no one wants to?  There was a sitcom once about two friends in business together, and each was given a set number of “insists,” which they could use to dissolve an impasse.  What if, in your marriage, you could say, “I’m using my insist!” when things got too heated? (This could only work if each person only had three insists a year.)

What are the “deal-breakers” of your particular marriage? Mental health issues? Drug addiction?  Bad behavior? Violence? Being taken for granted? Under what conditions will counseling be insisted on?  What if, when you reached an intolerable point in your marriage, instead of saying, “I don’t know what to do,” you had already agreed on what to do?

Personally, I can’t promise to live with someone “till death do us part” without some measure of “unless” involved.  I don’t think it’s healthy to give someone a free pass to treat you however they want, or for you to treat them badly either. I think one of the drawbacks of marriage is that it is all too easy to take our partners for granted and stop bringing our best selves to the relationship.

How might that change if you knew you had to re-sign your contract every five years, and your spouse was able to invoke the predetermined dissolution clause with pre-negotiated spousal support and division of assets?  Might men and women both try a little harder to be good to one another?

What if you got all of that fighting resolved before you spent thousands of dollars on a wedding? What would life look like if we paid as much attention to the nuts and bolts of forming a household unit as we did to the selection of the DJ for the reception?


Photo Credit: Flickr/bigpresh

About Lara Lillibridge

Lara Lillibridge is a writer and mother living in the Midwest, where she tries to balance the writing life with single parenthood. She finds joy in singing off-beat and dancing off-key. She has been published previously at The Feminist Wire, Airplane Reading, and Brain, Child magazine's Brain, Mother blog.


  1. Great article, Lara!
    I love the anecdote about kicking your husband for not taking the dog out, that sounds like some of the behavior I’ve had in past relationships! Passive-aggressive communication can be the result of not feeling appreciated!
    This is a really interesting perspective on the issue, I love your ability to think outside the box.

    Thank you!

    • I like how you “Love the anecdote” about Lara kicking her husband. I wonder if you would have loved it as much if the sexes had been reversed.

  2. What if We Treated Marriage More Like The Contract It Is? There would be a lot fewer contracts finalized as men get to read how little will benefit them at such a huge cost.

  3. John Schtoll says:

    From discussing this with a lawyer friend of mine, there is no way the ‘marriage contract’ would ever hold up in court if it were any other type of contract.

    Think about it , if there were a contact with your cell phone company, this is how it would work for the person ‘paying’. You would be required by law to provide your money to ‘support’ the cell phone company by paying your bill on time each month. At any time the company could break the contract and while you would necessarily have to pay the full amount each month, they could stop providing the service to you and you would still have to pay an amount each month for possibly the rest of your life. Also the company would get half the stuff you earned during that time period.

    Worst contract in history.

  4. I completely agree with this. Marriage is not just about love — it’s also a business arrangement, to some degree. Ending my romantic relationship was easy. Untangling the finances, the mortage, my name change, etc. was not. I like to think we were both mature adults, entering the commitment with our eyes (and hearts) open. But a huge deal breaker emerged, and I should have clearly addressed it before marrying him.

  5. What we need is people with integrity and loyalty and commitment. Why do arranged marriages work more often than “we choose”, perhaps because socially it is NOT acceptable and they have to make it work, and more often they really end up loving each other. Hollywood has corrupted marriage. To expect a spouse, or yourself, to not change is just plain stupid and ignorant. Of course they will, but you change together, keep learning about each other, keep talking. keep growing. Everyone wants those “butterfly feelings” etc etc, THATS the corruption and the garbage. They want the “feeling” but they forget that “feeling” won’t be there ALL the time. 95% of the time its work and commitment and loyalty.

    • How often do arranged marriages work? And does “work” mean they simply stay married? Does it works because you can’t leave = success! Or, merely survival?

      If we treated marriage like a contract and it was clearly spelled out for men that you’ll both change and the things you like about her now are “garbage” and will be replaced with work, commitment and loyalty… who, in their right mind, would sign up?

      The “feeling” you seem so contemptuous, and sex, are what I can’t get from my friends. I didn’t need to go looking elsewhere for loyalty.

  6. Jack Bauer says:

    That would make complete sense if marriage was faltering institutionally because people were taking it too seriously and staying put too long … as opposed to trading in spouses every few years. It seems to me that marriages are falling apart because people are treating it far too much like a cell phone contract … a fleeting business arrangement wherein even minor dissatisfaction merits shopping around for better service, better rates, etc. No need to work on things with the one you’re with … just move on to the next temporary contract.

    The problem isn’t that people are taking it too seriously. Its that they’re not taking it nearly seriously enough.


  7. Sorry about my typos. What wanted to say was:

    It surprises me each time a meet a person that think he has a higher status than a person that is not married.

  8. Hi Paul

    ✺”It’s also time for us to recognize that there is nothing about marriage that makes it an inherently
    BETTER, or SUPERIOR sort of life and lifestyle.”✺ I agree with you, and it surprises me each time I meet a married person that seems to think he has a higher status as married than those married .

    And since the model for marriage is at least 2000 years old, maybe it protected persons needs at that time, but the society we live in today is radically different from the society at the time The New Testament was written. The marriage contract is a contract about sex and money( property ) and love is also mentioned …..

  9. Lara writes: How can you ensure that part of them doesn’t change?

    Of all the futile expectations one can have of life, trying to “ensure” that your partner “doesn’t change” is perhaps the most futile. The nature of the reality that we’re living in – both the outer reality of the world, and the inner reality of our own minds – is that all things are marked by IMPERMANENCE.

    So there is no ensuring – and no form of insurance – that will guarantee any sort of permanence in your spouse’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors.

    Of course, creating contractual performance stipulations is one option. But – speaking personally – the idea of actually having sex with a women who is indulging my desire while suffering through the experience because of contractual stipulations rather than sharing my erotic enjoyment of the experience is about as unappetizing an idea as I can imagine.

    The idea of having a periodic review and renewal discussion is fine – but really people are actually doing that already, informally. People get to the vaunted seven year itch time (or five or nine or whatever) and start doing marriage calculus – doing their own internal cost/benefit analysis – thinking about the opportunity cost of staying with this spouse, versus going back out into the world and (perhaps) looking for something better – or not looking for something better at all, but simply enjoying freedom from what has become bondage.

    There are all sorts of solutions to these highly predictable marriage predicaments that range from the mundane (marriage strengthening seminars, marriage counseling) to the esoteric (polyamory, swinging, etc). None of them is a cure-all. None of them will work for everyone. And for a lot of folks, none of them will work over the long haul.

    It’s time for us to recognize that the very institution of marriage represents an ego-ideal. Like all ego-ideals, it is a two-edged sword. It can spur people on to becoming more of their “best selves”, and it can also be a cruel taskmaster, forcing people to aspire for a sort of perfectionism that will surely make them miserable as they fail to achieve their goals.

    It’s also time for us to recognize that there is nothing about marriage that makes it an inherently BETTER, or SUPERIOR sort of life and lifestyle. If you have a GREAT marriage, it’s a blessing. If you have a TOLERABLE marriage, not so much. And if you have a BAD marriage, it’s like hell on earth, (just ask anybody who’s had one).

    When we stop with the old matrix model of SANCTIFYING marriage, people will feel less social pressure to marry, and more freedom to find their own way. Part of what the Good Men Project should be doing is having THIS conversation which no one else is having – so that men can emerge from the world of parental “shoulds and oughts”, and be able to approach the whole question of marriage or no marriage as a very indvidual, personal inward oriented question – rather than a societally pleasing one.

    • Julian Michels says:

      So cogent, Paul. I think this could be expanded and submitted as an article of its own.

      • Thanks, Julian.

        I’ve been invited by one of the GMP editors to start submitting pieces. But for now, I am not willing to lend my name to the site, because I have not been happy with the editorial decisions they have been making – and I told the editors (including Lisa Hickey) this.

        I’m watching carefully to see if they are going to stop publishing pieces that (unconsciously or not) add to the needless shaming and blaming of men that has become a part of the zeitgeist. If I see they’ve had an aha! moment and are now doing a better job than before, then I might become an actual contributor.

        • Hi Paul… I have been enjoying this website because it makes me think more deeply about being a man and how I interact with those around me. Your first comment also makes me think differently about the article above and marriage in general. I understand that you may not agree with what you percieve as this site’s POV, but I encourage you to contribute. Contributing your voice has a much stronger chance of influencing the conversation here, over standing to the side and waiting until others write articles you agree with.

    • Very well said. Thank you.

  10. Lara writes: Marriage as an institution is in trouble. Half of them end in divorce.

    No, that statistic is incorrect.

    Half of FIRST marriages end in divorce. For SECOND marriages, it’s 2 out of 3. For THIRD marriages it’s 3 out of 4.

    A related statistic: Dr. John Gottmann, perhaps the country’s leading expert on marriage and divorce (google him and his fascinating work), says that 66% of marriages do not make the 40 year mark.

    Of course there are deaths, etc – but his stat jibes well with the ones I gave above, which are quoted commonly.

    Bottom line: Marriage, as an institution, is in BIG trouble. The silver lining here is that this is good news for divorce lawyers, in an age where we’re graduating way too many lawyers for them to all get good jobs.

    • @Paul…

      “Half of FIRST marriages end in divorce. For SECOND marriages, it’s 2 out of 3. For THIRD marriages it’s 3 out of 4.”

      When you look at marriage by income and education strata, you see a huge drop in divorce rates. I am sure you can find more information using Google. Quite interesting really.

      Another metric: about two thirds of all divorces in America are filed by the woman. What is really going on here? The author filed in both instances.

      • Hi Jules

        You ask why do women initiate divorce more often than men?
        The old classic by J . Bernard “The Future of Marriage” say men gain more from marriage than women. But that book is old now.

        Let me guess based on my own experience :

        * In periods of trouble in marriage it is easier for men to withdraw into their work to forget it all. Since many women work in the home or work part time they have less other arenas to disappear into. The home is their place and they can not escape into office..
        * The age factor also tells women they have to get out before they are too old….if they want a new man and maybe a child.
        * It is easier for women to live alone and be alone, than it is for most men. To part of a couple is more important to a mans quality of life, than a woman’s.
        * Women have more friends and know they will not be lonely after divorce.
        * Maybe women are braver and less afraid of the challenges of a new life alone?
        * women can live long periods without having sex with a man.
        * if men are raised to repress feelings and emotions then maybe they also repress the pain and sadness of a marriage that is falling apart. As long as they get sex they do not suffer as much as a person that have strong feelings?
        * men fear the economical burden , if there is children to support.
        * men do not like change in family life and the home. They feel secure with routine , sameness ..?
        * in difficult periods , porn satisfy men’s longing more than it doses women’s longing
        * maybe women know when a quality of a relationship is so low that it Is nothing left.
        * does honor play a part here? Maybe a man feel he loses his honor if he leaves his family. While the woman feels her self esteem raises when she acts and have the guts to get out a hopeless situation. She sets up borders for herself and know when enough is enough.
        * maybe women take better care of their health then men,and leave marriage to save their health and prevent a breakdown.
        * maybe friends, coaches and therapist advice women to leave when they vent their feelings or search advice , while men talk with nobody about problems at home.
        * maybe women see other woman leave and start their new life alone and seems very happy. A copy cat effect.

        * and maybe J . Bernard was right, when she said men benefits more from marriage than women do , still today. So why sacrifice your life and your health for marriage?

        • @Iben

          Hello Iben! How are you? I hope you are doing well.

          Thanks for these great insights. I happen to agree with all of them? I could never understand why men who are divorced were so eager to jump back into the ‘fire’. Lol!!! But, I think the explanation you offered is correct.

          I think I feel more like a woman on this matter. I too can live alone and not feel lonely (yes, so long as I have a source for sex). I have gone very long periods of time without sex. I think it was harmful to my psyche.

          So why sacrifice your life and health for marriage?

          You should not! It took me a very long time and many struggles with my religious beliefs to divorce. Even today, I question myself Iben if I made the right decision. I have feeling of guilt based upon my Holy vows to God.

          I think here in America, as far as marriage goes, that if we men would put more into it emotionally things would be better. I have met many divorced women, especially over the age of 50, and they really seem very happy being single. Sure, they would like to be in a relationship, but their cadre of friends seem to give them all the spiritual and emotional food they require.

          Cheers Iben!

          • Hi Jules
            Thank you for the kind words, I am fine.
            You still think a lot about breaking the marriage wow. I think your marriage was no longer a marriage when you left. Two persons sharing a house is not a marriage, and how does the Bible define marriage?
            Look at the rules and regulations in the Bible and remember the time it was written in.
            We expect Muslims to see the the Quran with new eyes, Christians have to do the same.

            Do you remember this article?


            If dr. Sheck is right in his analyses of what men really want from a relationship , it can explain some of the reasons why women initiate divorce.
            What he describes here sounds like like my husbands wanted , in addition to frequent sex in ways he preferred it. ( and some flings as well).

            Marriage is fine for some, but we idealize it.

          • I would argue that one of the reasons many men seem to be taken by total surprise when their wife file for divorce, is that he actually perceived that she had the situation pretty much where she wanted it to be. Running “Family, Inc.” on a budget and a spreadsheet, without so much physical and/or sexual affection.

  11. Hi Lara
    Great article 🙂


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