Today in the paper there was an article about Tom Cruise and Kate Holmes getting divorced. This news, in and by itself, wouldn't have been very surprising, given the high rate of divorce in Hollywood. What was unusual about it, however, were its circumstances. The reporter speculated that the reason for this divorce was possibly a wedding contract Kate Holmes and Tom Cruise had signed at the beginning, stipulating that they would be married to one another for a period of five years. Apparently now the five years are up, so the contract becomes null and void.

What do you think? Do you think it is a good idea to protect against nasty divorces later on by setting a time frame for the length of a marriage? Or do you think this time limited agreement chips away at the very structure of a marriage?

Of course we all know that about 50% of marriages today end in divorce (first marriages, that is, because subsequent marriages have a higher chance still of ending in divorce.)

It is also quite true that, with the widespread use of birth control, couples can now choose when to have children and how many. This is a drastic departure from the past, when most married couples spent most of their lives together having and raising children and, sadly, seeing some of them die, due to the high infant and child mortality rates prevalent in those times.

It is also true that we live much longer than in the past and have much healthier lives, so a marriage today can easily last twice as long as the average marriage of past times.

Let me remind you that marriage was seen as a contract for most of our recorded history. It was typically arranged by the bride and groom’s parents and it was meant to provide a statement for the community in which it occurred. At times it was two powerful families who intermarried, in order to join their powers and become even more powerful. At times it was a way of cementing shaky relationships between members of the community who needed to get along; or it was a way of strengthening one’s ethnic background, or creating loyalties and alliances, and so on.

The concept of romantic love had very little to do with marriage. If couples eventually grew fond of one another and came to love one another, well, that was the icing on the cake, but not the real reason for the union.

The concept of romantic love as being the key reason for a legal union is quite recent, and is still evolving. There is now more equality between spouses. There are more expectations of openness, honesty on both sides, and better communication between spouses than in the past. In this country women yield close to as much power as men now, and they continue to get stronger. At times they are the main breadwinners, particularly during the current economic crisis, but this is a different subject about which I will write in another blog in the future. For here, suffice it to say that the traditional balance of men being in charge and women being dependent and powerless has been disappearing for the past forty years or so.

Having said all that, let’s go back to the notion of time-limited marital contracts.

While it is no wonder that couples are trying to figure out ways of avoiding disappointment and acrimonious breakups down the road, we question what does signing a time contract say about their union? And, what are the psychological implications of signing a contract with a time frame in mind?

I think to set a time for the duration of a marriage SHAKES THE VERY FOUNDATIONS OF THIS INSTITUTION. This is so, in my opinion, because a marriage is a commitment to engage with another person in a very intimate, intense and continuous way until and unless problems of such magnitude arise that make it impossible to continue to stay together.

While I don’t advocate staying together no matter what because I am quite mindful of the dysfunctional state of some relationships, I encourage newlyweds to enter this contract fully aware of the fact that staying in a healthy relationship is one of the most difficult things each of us will ever have to do. I also tell them, as statistics indicate, that the rewards, if we are successful, are immense. It is indeed difficult to go through life with someone who may be at our side at times, and at others he or she may see things quite differently than we do; someone who may want to make decisions that are antithetical to ours, and with whom at times there seems to be no way of negotiating a middle ground.

These are some of the challenges we find, and some of these challenges can break us by creating such deep rifts that cannot be repaired. However, WORKING AT A RELATIONSHIP FORCES US TO GROW UP. It makes us accept that life is not as stress-free as we would like it to be. The problems we encounter are not as superficial and easy to resolve. The commitment to marriage forces us to stay in a painful situation and attempt to resolve it, when all we want to do is to bolt out and turn our back on it. Marriage makes us face the problems, feel the hurt and the pain, rather than running away. And all of this helps us take on the challenges in front of us; stretch ourselves in order to find a solution and, when we achieve it, what a victory that is!

If we need to set a fixed time frame and plan to get out of such a commitment, on the other hand, how can we ever develop the determination and the fortitude to work as hard as we can? And, will we ever know how much we can do?

Daniela Roher, PhD

Author's Bio: 

I am a psychotherapist working with individuals and couples in distress in two continents and three countries. I studied at the University of Torino, Italy, University of Cambridge, Great Britain and Wayne State University, in Michigan. I was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford in Great Britain on Interdisciplinary Women’s Studies and received a diploma in Adult Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy from the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute. I have been in private practice in psychotherapy for over thirty years. During the last twenty years, I became increasingly interested in the science of relationships. In January 2012, I published a book, in collaboration with my friend and colleague Susan Schwartz, PhD, entitled “Couples at the Crossroads. Five Steps to Finding Your Way Back to Love.” This book reflects both my clinical work and my passion for this field. Please visit my book site, and my professional website, to read my blogs and for more information.