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Marriage for millennials

The summer holidays always seem to be something of a silly season for news stories, and family law has not escaped this phenomenon. A story caught our attention recently which combined the issue of marriages with what some might describe as the modern world’s throw-away approach to modern life and technology.

The story was reported in the Telegraph and in Time Magazine and likens the modern approach to marriage and long-term commitment to beta-testing software.

According to a new survey from the USA covering the age group labelled millennials (those aged 18 to 34), 43% of respondents said they would support a marriage model that involved a two-year trial, after which the union could be either formalised (like a decree nisi but in reverse) or dissolved, with no divorce required. A further third were in favour of a fixed term marriage in which licenses would be granted for five, seven, ten or thirty year periods, after which the terms of the marriage would need to be renegotiated. Some 21 per cent liked the idea of a “presidential” model, where marriage would last four years – automatically renewable to eight – after which you get to choose a new spouse. 10% favoured a multiple-partner marriage option (polygamy or polyandry to put it in legal terms), and 40% said they believed the “till death do us part” vow should be abolished.

These new suggested arrngements were described in the study as “beta marriages”, representing unions that the couple concerned can road-test, then uncouple, or “de-glitch” to use a techy term, without cost or consequence.

Naturally a study focussing on the thoughts of a few hundred young Americans is not necessarily reflective of the zeitgeist of all of us living in the UK today, but there are some interesting points arising from it.

It seems that younger people may want to test a relationship before committing to it. For the younger generations, there is little stigma to divorce; perhaps it now represents just a stage of life (remember Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s “conscious uncoupling”?). We are all accustomed to having choices and options available to us now – from career paths, to where we live, what we wear, whether we attend church, right down to the type of phone we use. This expectation of quality and choice may carry through to relationships and may partly account for the rise in couples living together either before marriage, or instead of it, perhaps thinking that it provides a more flexible set-up. Perhaps the changing social mores are also behind the increase in couples drafting living together agreements and pre-marital agreements in order to give themselves certainty and plan for the uncoupling or deglitching which they consider may well be on the medium-term horizon.

The wide acceptance of alternative family structures and the increasing numbers of people living together outside of a marital framework indicates how attitudes to the family as a concept are changing. The decline of organised religion means marriage itself is no longer generally seen as a sacrament: in fact 70% of marriages now take the form of civil, rather than religious, ceremonies. The 2011 census showed us that almost a fifth of people who were married but not living with their spouse were in fact cohabiting with someone new. We all know that living together is on the up, and the rise in cohabitation is occurring more in mature age groups, with those aged 40 and over making up 41% of the cohabiting population in 2011.

That said, despite this beta-testing idea, marriage remains attractive to many and the ONS figures for 2012 show an actual increase in weddings taking place – up 5.3% on 2011 (262,240 weddings took place in 2012). When combined with the dropping divorce rate, this would tend to show that the Big Day and everything which follows it still has its appeal, even for the creative minded millenial generation.

The picture is confusing. This sort of debate is not entirely new. Some anthropologists have long argued that long term monogamy (as formalised in modern concepts of marriage) is not how we are meant to live, but rather we would be better suited to repeated short-term, monogamous relationships lasting three or four years.

Where does all this leave us? Despite the fact that in the office here we do enjoy a good survey, this one is not really likely to affect the way we practise family law, and there are certainly no plans in this country (or indeed in the USA) to introduce marriages of fixed duration after which you can change partners or keep your current one (can you imagine the stress of approaching the end of the fixed term, wondering whether or not you’d come up to scratch in the preceding years or were about to be dumped?). But the concerns that many people do have about making a huge commitment with financial implications should it go wrong can be allayed somewhat by the preparation of agreements sorting out what should happen if you do later uncouple. If you would like to talk to us about protecting your wealth going onto a relationship, or any other aspect of family law, do ring us on 01223 443333.

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