Welcome back to the final installment in our series on marriage, three heavy-duty counseling sessions between Americans and the institution of marriage. The first installment examined the developments in Mexico that made Americans finally admit we have some problems. The second installment sifted through the baggage in our own house. In this last session, I will weigh in with my opinion: Should we stay or should we go?
Taking the plunge
Remember when two-piece bathing suits were sold as if they were one-piece bathing suits? The same size top and bottom were sold together on one hanger for one price—no substitutions and no exceptions. Finally, retailers realized that two-piece bathing suits were different than one-piece bathing suits, and that it made no sense to pretend they were exactly the same. They took the plunge and started selling the tops and bottoms separately. Looking back, it’s hard to understand why it took so long.
When it comes to adult relationships, Americans are metaphorically stuck in the dressing room trying on swimsuits that don’t fit right. If we want to swim in the pool of formalized relationships, we’re forced to choose between (a) buying something that is the wrong size and style, or (b) going bare. In other words, it’s marriage for life or nothing at all.
Recent research shows that people are increasingly choosing option (b), and some interesting trends are developing as a result. Couples are marrying later and more are electing to live together without getting married. There’s also a new pattern emerging where rather than living together, couples are engaging in “stayover” relationships. They each maintain separate houses, but stay overnight with each other more often than not.
While these trends are interesting, all are merely variations of option (b). They don’t offer any formal recognition of the relationship, and they do nothing to help the institution of marriage evolve. We need a breakthrough like we had in swimwear marketing—a game-changer that will offer a workable solution for the 50 percent or more of Americans for whom the institution of marriage simply does not fit.
Not your grandmother’s bathing suit
This may be hard to hear, but it’s time to give up trying to make traditional marriage into something it’s not. Traditional marriage is a one-piece bathing suit—it always has been and it always will be. One-piece bathing suits are fine for people who want that style. Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh apparently love one-pieces so much that they get new ones every chance they get.
But it’s time for a new style for the rest of us. And that’s where the term of years (or “TOY”) marriage comes in. If traditional marriage is a one-piece and living together is skinny dipping, then the TOY marriage is a bikini.
TOY marriage is a union that is strictly based on contract rather than religion, and its key features are as follows:
How long does it last? A TOY marriage lasts for five years.
How is property handled? Whatever property each person had before entering into the TOY marriage remains separate property; and whatever property acquired during the term is community property, with each person owning 50 percent.
What happens when the term expires? A TOY marriage expires at the end of the term, no matter what. At the end of the term the couple must do an accounting of its estate. This doesn't mean they have to liquidate the estate, but they must assess the value of everything acquired during the term and divide it into two equal shares. After the accounting there is no longer any community property, but only equal shares of separate property (plus whatever separate property each had at the beginning of the term).
What if a couple has kids during the TOY marriage? Any kids that result from a TOY marriage are subject to a fifty-fifty custody arrangement upon the expiration of the term. A couple can mutually agree to a different arrangement either at the onset of the term or even at a later point, but absent extenuating circumstances like abuse or neglect, neither party can force the other to accept different terms other than those initially established.
What if a couple wants to stay together after the expiration of the term? While a couple cannot prevent its TOY marriage from expiring, the couple is free to enter into another term if they mutually agree. But even if they choose to re-up, they still have to perform the accounting. In such cases, they will enter into the new term with the separate property they had before they entered into the previous TOY marriage, plus the newly converted separate property that they acquired at the end of the previous term.
What about morality and other miscellaneous issues? A TOY marriage is available to any couple of legal age, regardless of gender. Members have rights similar to spouses in traditional marriages regarding health care decisions and rights of access to the other member in the event of an emergency. Additionally, they are eligible for spousal benefits from each other's employers. But unlike traditional marriage, how each member conducts itself during the term is not relevant to the contractual relationship between the parties. If, for example, one member cheats on the other, it may make that member a jerk, but it doesn't form a legal basis for dissolving the TOY marriage.
What if one or both members want to end the term before it expires? One member may not unilaterally terminate the TOY marriage prematurely, but couples may mutually elect to end a TOY marriage before the term expires. In such case, the couple would simply conduct the accounting procedure early and divide the community property into two equal estates of separate property.
What about Jewelry? Rings are optional, but strongly encouraged... because when isn't jewelry a good idea?
Designed to eliminate the negative edge
TOY marriage goes a long way toward eliminating "failed" marriages. It is realistic and practical, and sets the parties up for success. If a couple completes its term of years, the TOY marriage would be deemed successful, whether or not the couple ends up parting at the end of the term. An adult may have four TOY marriages in her life—and assuming all are completed to term, by definition all would be successful. Without the TOY marriage option, that same adult would have four "failed" traditional marriages and all of the stigma that goes along with them.
With TOY marriage, you no longer have to choose between all or nothing. Now you can make a commitment for a reasonable length of time, and actually keep your word. By agreeing up front when everyone still cares about each other how things will be handled later, when things might not be so rosy, opportunities for protracted battles fueled by acrimony will be minimized. Perhaps most importantly, it prevents kids from being dragged through custody battles. And consider this: Because TOY marriages have a definite expiration date in the not-too-distant future, there is a built-in motivation for members not to let themselves go or take each other for granted. If a member hopes to enter into another term of years with the same person, his best selling point will be the quality of the immediately preceding term.
Life's a beach (and by "life" I mean five years)
So, that’s my best advice. I know it’s hard to give up on something when you’ve been fighting for it for so long, but once you realize that you’ve been fighting for the wrong thing, giving up is not just the smartest option, it's the only one. And just like when retailers made the switch and began selling swimsuit tops and bottoms separately, once we begin offering the TOY marriage option alongside traditional marriage, we’ll wonder why it took us so long.
That concludes our sessions. I hate to rush off, but I have to go buy a new bathing suit because Clint and I are headed to Mexico. Not really the trip of a lifetime, but certainly the trip of a half-decade. And when it comes to a marriage that sets us up for both happiness and success, the TOY marriage is definitely an all-inclusive package.