Recently, yet another marriage in my circle of friends blew up, making the unofficial tally something like 50% of marriages which I've witnessed ending within 15 years or so. And some of the surviving ones are on shaky ground.
All of these people, of course, swore they'd stay together until the end. Presumably, they were sincere. Yet it's become clear that only a minority of people can realistically live up to that promise. Vowing to remain exclusively with one person in a faithful monogamous relationship until death do us part makes about as much sense as vowing to work for the same firm until the end of one's career. How could you seriously promise to be working at the same firm 30 years into the future when the firm, or even the industry, might no longer exist? 15 years after your vow of permanent fealty to the firm, you get an offer at 3 times your present salary, and you're expected to turn it down? And before you reply that marriage as a 'sacred commitment' can hardly be compared to a job, ignore what people say about their preferences and look at how they actually behave. How many people are actually treating their marital vows differently from a job or consumer product? The divorce and infidelity statistics suggest very few indeed.
Marriage as an institution was created when mankind lived in primitive tribal settlements, and the average human went through life encountering the exact same 2-300 people until their death. It was also a way of ensuring financial support for women at a time when they weren't expected to support themselves. And, of course, to stabilize potentially violent unattached young males.
All these circumstances have now changed: people now encounter hundreds, if not thousands of opportunities to cheat, and the social stigma against divorce and single motherhood has never been lighter and is not coming back. Already, 40% of Americans view marriage as obsolete. In the US, only the richest Americans (especially whites and Asians) have any realistic chance of a life-long marriage; the institution has essentially died out among the middle-class and below. Marriage as a universal institution which everyone is expected to enter is like Wile E. Coyote: it ran off the cliff into thin air long ago, and is just waiting to fall.
So what will take its place? Unmarried cohabitation, for one thing (see the last link). But marriage as an institution is so deeply anchored in Western society that people will go on pretending to take it seriously for a few decades more. And there will still be the odd successful life-long marriage -- among a small sub-set of risk-averse, traditionally-minded, highly religious people (all these traits are linked). Already, we see trends in most Western societies in which organized religion is shrinking to a core of about 20-25% of the population who are part-genetically, part-environmentally predisposed to experience strong, sincere, abiding religious faith within an organized hierarchical religion. Since no social pressure is forcing the rest of the population to pretend to take organized religion seriously, they are no longer doing so. Marriage as a genuine life-long proposal will survive only in highly religious communities.
What about the rest of us, though? I still think Gabriele Pauli had a brilliant idea. She's a twice-divorced, rather eccentric female politician for the Christian Social Union (CSU) party in Germany, a Bavaria-centered Catholic traditionalist party. Five years ago, she proposed that marriages should automatically dissolve after seven years unless the couple decides to renew it. Naturally, the other members of her party went berserk and quickly vowed their fealty to the noble institution of traditional marriage -- presumably with the exception of CSU bigwig Horst Seehofer, who was busy having a love child with his much-younger mistress (to be fair, he ended the affair and is back with his wife. For now.)
But the idea is a sound one. First, from an aesthetic point of view, it would reduce the amount of rank hypocrisy and insincerity in society. There's just something unseemly about millions of people making promises in front of their friends and family they have no ability to keep -- merely because the dead hand of tradition demands it. A seven-year option would allow married couples to simply let their marriage automatically dissolve, instead of having to initiate a complex, potentially bitter divorce proceeding. You would have a series of default legal rules for splitting property and child custody. Of course, those who are happy after seven years could renew their vows, presumably by sending in a simple postcard with both their signatures. Or even online!
The typical objection would be: what about the children? Well, first of all, look at the chart above. Family stability is a thing of the past. In Germany, 1/3 of all children are born out of wedlock (g), and the tendency is only increasing. Soon, in all Western countries, at least half of children will be born out of wedlock anyway. Some of those will be born into stable cohabiting relationships, but most will be born to single mothers. It's hard to see a difference between those contexts and a seven-year marriage. Who knows -- the existence of an easy way out of marriage might even encourage more commitment-shy men and cohabiting couples to get married, thus increasing the overall level of family stability. And let's not forget that some of the damage done to children by divorce springs from the fact that their parents once promised they would stay together forever, then break that vow when they divorce.
I think the seven-year marriage is an idea that deserves to be taken seriously, at least. But I'm not holding my breath...