Irreconcilable Differences Pt. I

Why marriage needs to change its ways: Does the U.S. need marriage counseling from Mexico?

Why marriage needs to change its ways: Does the U.S. need marriage counseling from Mexico?

I’ve never wanted a destination wedding…until now. The temporary marriage license legislation introduced by the Party of the Democratic Revolution in Mexico City has made me want to grab my boyfriend Clint and make a run for the border. It proposes (wink) to allow couples to elect at the outset how many years they want their union to last. At the end of the prescribed number of years, the marriage expires by its own terms.

This development in Mexico finally has people talking here in the U.S. about the continued viability of the institution of marriage. Hey, whatever it takes. Roughly fifty percent of marriages in this country end in divorce. We can no longer ignore our problems and hope that they’ll somehow magically fix themselves. Americans and the institution of marriage need some long-overdue therapy. In this three-part series, we will sort through the institution’s historical baggage, assess the issues it struggles with today and develop a workable plan for the future.

You don't listen to a word I say

The idea of a legally binding union without the lifetime commitment isn’t a novel one to me. Not to brag or anything (because that’s SO unlike me), but I came up with the idea for a Term of Years (“TOY”) marriage a year and a half ago when Clint and I were in San Francisco. We were on a tour of Alcatraz when the whole idea crystallized for me. I couldn't help but notice the parallels between the two institutions: Alcatraz looks beautiful from a distance, but many find it lonely and terrifying on the inside. It has imprisoned countless people, serving as a headquarters for misery and despair. Once deemed functional—even useful—the institution's relevance is now questionable. Ditto every one of those points for the institution of marriage.

I realized that the “one size fits all” approach didn’t work for many, if not most, people. So, drawing from both my personal experiences as well as my legal background, I sketched out the framework for a new institution. My idea wasn’t to do away with traditional marriage, but rather to offer an alternative that allowed people the ability to enter into legally binding unions for a defined length of time. Sort of a “commitment light.” Together, but not necessarily forever.

I wrote up the story and pitched it to various magazines ranging from Psychology Today to state and national bar journals. I got some positive feedback, but I didn’t get a single taker. A couple of months later, an awesome but now-defunct blog called the Southern Shift did go out on a limb and publish it. My friends and family were kind enough to read the story, but that was as far as the idea got.

Keeping up with the Lopezes

Fast forward to earlier this fall when I started hearing from those same friends and family about the developments in Mexico. “Mexico stole your TOY marriage idea,” was the upshot of messages that accompanied the link to the story

The fact that Mexico is not only having the conversation about whether one-size-fits-all marriage makes sense anymore, but is considering legislation to give couples more flexibility raises an important question: Why is Mexico—a country that is predominantly Catholic and generally perceived as being more conservative and traditional on social issues like marriage—able to talk about this, while here in the U.S. where we pride ourselves in being so modern, we cannot? 

I believe the answer is as simple as it is surprising. In Mexico today, the momentum on issues like this is moving in a forward direction; but here in the U.S., we are increasingly wedded to the past.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Mexico doesn’t have its share of problems. Clearly, it does. But it seems as if Mexico’s battles over the serious issues that confront it—ranging from drug wars and associated violence, to systemic corruption and widespread poverty—are making it more practical and open minded about solving some of its other problems. Here in the U.S…not so much. 

Consider this: I pitched my story in the summer of 2010. By that time, Mexico City had legalized gay marriage, same sex adoption and first trimester abortions, and lawmakers had begun the process of amending the constitution to declare that Mexico is a secular state.  In short, Mexico is marching down the aisle of progress on many of the same issues that are keeping the U.S. tethered to the past like a ball and chain.

For many people this seems incongruous. How can a country where over eighty percent of the population identifies itself as Catholic be moving in a direction that is at odds with the official positions of the Catholic Church? But reading too much into the high percentage of Catholics in Mexico can lead to erroneous conclusions. Yes, Catholicism is the dominant religion there, but the number of people who identify themselves as Catholic is growing at a much smaller rate than the percentage that identifies themselves as atheist.  And while the percentage of atheists is tiny compared to Catholics, there is a lot of room on the ideological bookshelf between these two spiritual bookends. 

Additionally, just because someone identifies themselves as Catholic doesn’t mean they buy the entire package (or even any of the package) of conservative dogma that is typically associated with that religion. I’m speaking from experience here. I was raised Catholic, still identify myself as Catholic and am even raising my own kids Catholic; but I was also raised to be a yellow dog Democrat by my Catholic parents, and am pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, just to name the two most common Catholic hot button issues. 

And although it hurts to admit it, I am not all that unique. I know plenty of other Catholics who share many of my same views—including some priests. The fact is there is a sizeable base of Catholics who interpret their religion as calling them to be more concerned with issues pertaining to social justice and service to the poor than the moralistic, conservative issues that tend to get all the press. The focus on social justice leads these Catholics to be liberal when it comes to politics. And even among more conservative Catholics, there are plenty of people who firmly believe in the separation of church and state, and while they may personally oppose divorce or abortion, they still recognize these things need to be legal. 

In the final analysis, the religion one identifies with is not always a decision arrived at through a logical process. Sometimes the religion you are raised with feels like a part of who you are, much like your nationality. I submit this is certainly true in Mexico. Folks might disagree with some of the official church positions and the rhetoric espoused by some of the loudest voices associated with their religion, but they nonetheless would not consider leaving the church they were raised in. They choose instead to remain and hopefully help usher in a new era, rather than bailing and leaving behind what feels like a chunk of who they are. 

All of those factors help to explain how Mexico can be surprisingly open minded when it comes to considering the issue of updating the institution of marriage. But why is modern, secular U.S. unable or unwilling to do the same? In our next therapy session, we’ll take a look at our own house in an attempt to identify the issues that seem to be holding us back. Until then, as Shakira might say, no fighting.

Austin Photo Set: News_christina pesoli_temporary weddings_Nov 2011