Sociology students should be well aware that we live in age of persistently high divorce rates, with almost half of all marriages ending in Divorce.
While marriage is usually a result of romantic love, and the first months and even years might well be pleasant, eventually mere practical concerns such as money, career changes, and especially childcare can put a strain on marriage resulting in a divorce that neither partner wants.
Jeannie Suk Gersen is a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School who suggests that divorce lawyers should become marriage guidance counsellors and work with couples before they get married in order to get them to reflect on the kinds of things that lead to divorce, and to effectively agree on the kinds of practical questions that can put strain on a marriage which result in Divorce.
The idea is that IF couples think through the kind of problems which usually put strain on a marriage several years down the line, they’ll be better prepared to cope with that strain and divorce will be less likely.
There are three types of question/ issues that couples should work with pre-marriage counsellors to sort out before getting married:
- What are one or both of you giving up in order to get married and what should the appropriate compensation be?
- How are you going to sort out childcare? (There is no such thing as free childcare)
- What property do you want to keep as yours rather than it becoming ‘property of the marriage’?
These are the kind of things couples don’t usually think about when making the commitment to get married, which results in ‘hidden sacrifices; being made by one partner’ which can breed resentment over the years resulting in Divorce.
For example, one partner may give up or take a step back in their career to move to a new city where their partner maintains their career.
Most couples don’t appreciate just how much mundane labour is involved with childcare or how much it costs to arrange babysitters etc. This is something that couples REALLY need to think about before marriage if they intend to have children.
Finally, if they have investments they want kept separate, they need to sort this out in advance of getting married.
These are the three questions that most commonly have to be answered when couples file for formal divorce – and it’s certainly not a matter of romance at that point. Couples have to agree on an economic value of the money lost from the career one of them gave up when they moved or on the cost of the free childcare they’ve given, in relation to the income coming in from the other partner, for example.
Gerson came up with this idea from the course she teaches in family-divorce law. She says she’s received lots of emails from her ex-students telling her how useful knowing about these questions had been in their own relationships.
Her point is that trying to put an economic value on what one person has ‘given up’ and what their compensation should be BEFORE getting married – that should help prevent resentment because both partners are in agreement from day one, rather than there being unspoken about subjective differences in what each person is giving to the relationship, purely in practical and financial terms.
There is an interesting link here to arranged marriages – it is precisely these kind of things that the parents of two people in an arranged marriage will sort out – that there is a kind of ‘equality’ in practical terms and that the partners are a good match in this sense.
In non western cultures – this is considered – sorting out practical considerations about money are sorted out at the start of the marriage journey, then it allows room for romance to start
The theory is this – if we can sort out the pragmatic arrangements of a marriage first, this should allow more room for fun and romance, and the marriage has more chance of success.
Relevance to A-level Sociology
This is a useful update for students studying the families and households option.
It’s especially relevant to Late Modern perspectives on the family:
This is the kind of social development that Anthony Giddens foresaw many years ago – experts becoming more involved in the running of people’s personal lives, it’s an extension of expert systems into people’s life-worlds.
It’s also the formalisation of the negotiated relationship mentioned by Ulrich Beck – kind of a development of it, spelling out the domains that should be negotiated – the kind of areas that couples don’t talk about – or maybe the fact that this is being suggested here tells us that couples over the last decades haven’t really been ‘negotiating’ their relationships that successfully!
Ultimately it also shows us an example of reflexivity in society – and is a criticism of Postmodernism – in this example we see that MOST of us agree that divorce is desirable and we take conscious steps to actively reduce the likelihood of it happening – which suggests Giddens’ idea of the late modern society is more appropriate than postmodernity, which suggests there is no such thing as truth anymore. This isn’t the case here – the agreed upon truth is that ‘divorce is bad’ and there’s an attempt to refine a solution.
The problem – is there’s no demand for this kind of pre-marriage service!
When you’re about to get married, you’re in love – the last thing you want to think about is codifying and quantifying that relationship into a points system which is what is being suggested here.
Also many millennials just aren’t that pragmatic – they’d rather tell the story of romantic love than this cold and calculated approach to a relationship.
AND, will this work – in the early days of a relationship you are in the phase of ‘showing what you show’, and ‘hearing what you want to hear’ – either partner could easily over-promise.
And in England at least, talking about money is vulgar – it’s not appealing.
Finally you can’t plan for every future eventuality with children – they have this habit of being…. unpredictable at times!
Find out More
I summarised the above from an excellent radio 4 episode of Positive Thinking – you can listen to it here.