Alternative Forms of Marriage Contract Marriages

About the alternative form of marriage known as contract marriage, history of the practice and people who have them.

Alternate Forms of Marriage


The Practice: Selected clauses in marriage contracts as reported by Time magazine:

1. Husband will lift the toilet seat before urinating.

2. Wife will not say she does not believe her husband loves her.

3. Ralph agrees not to pick, nag, or comment about Wanda's skin blemishes.

4. Wanda will refrain from yelling about undone chores until Sunday afternoon.

By writing marriage contracts, couples attempt to make a legal, civil agreement tailored to their individual situations--even though they may go overboard on detail. Contractual marriage of a more traditional sort existed in ancient Japan, where, according to English psychologist Havelock Ellis, five-year contracts with options for renewal were fairly commonplace. In fact, in many places, contracts for certain lengths of time--from a year to life--have been highly recommended by marriage experts, who recognize that people and their relationships change and who feel that such contracts offer a more realistic and guilt-free way of ending a marriage relationship than divorce.

The German Romantic poet Johann von Goethe advocated contract marriage. So did a member of the court of Louis XIV, who thought it was necessary because marriage was a "betrayal of the self, an unnatural compulsion." During the 1800s in France, as in most places where the dowry was common, contracts for marriage might include such specific details as how much money a wife might get yearly to spend on clothes.

Today's contracts, some of which run on for pages, deal with such items as sexual pasts and expectations, employment, money (how much each party has in a checking account), and so on, to the point where the reader tends to think that what might be gained in before-the-fact agreement is not so important as what is lost in trust and spontaneity.

Practitioners: Robert Dale Owen, son of the utopian Robert Owen, wrote a contract with his wife which challenged the marriage laws of the 1800s: "This afternoon I enter into a matrimonial agreement with Mary Jane Robinson, a young person whose opinions on all important subjects, whose mode of thinking and feeling, coincide more intimately with my own than do those of any other individual with whom I am acquainted ... This ceremony involves not the necessity...of repeating forms which we deem offensive, insomuch as they outrage the principles of human liberty and equality ...Of the unjust right which the [formal marriage] ceremony gives me over the person and property of another, I can not legally, but I can morally divest myself."

Author Samuel Hopkins, who died in 1958, devised a marriage contract specifying an obligatory period of separation after the second year of marriage " during which time each shall honestly endeavor to reconstitute his or her own individuality."

The marriage contract between Jacqueline and Aristotle Onassis covered 170 separate points. In 1969, Kleenex heir James Kimberly, then 63 and wiser than his 19-year-old bride, Jacqueline Trezise, covered himself for an inevitable divorce in a contract specifying that he would not have to pay more alimony than $18,000 for each year of marriage.

Alix Shulman, author of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen and other novels, made an agreement in writing with her husband, Martin, which specified, by days of the week, the sharing of baby-sitting and other household responsibilities. It was widely publicized, and Norman Mailer, noted for his potshots at feminists, said if he had to live by such a contract, he would pick a male roommate.

Where It Stands Today: In 1971 two black, female legislators introduced a bill into the Maryland legislature that would make marriage a three-year contract with options for renewal. It was treated as a joke.

Generally speaking, the provisions of individually drawn marriage contracts are legally superseded by state laws.

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