Alternative Forms of Marriage Trial Marriage

About the alternative form of marriage known trial marriage, history of the practice and people who have entered into them.

Alternate Forms of Marriage


The Practice: Caution--or not buying a pig in a poke--seems to have been a trait of human beings since prehistory. One of our elaborate methods of hedging our bets to avoid disastrous consequences is the trial marriage. It goes back a long way.

In all its variations, it involves a simulated marriage situation--a rehearsal for the real thing--in which a couple lives together, often for a set length of time, before making a real commitment. Usually, if the couple wishes to separate after the trial marriage, it is easy for them to do so without a feeling of failure or bad conscience. Dissolving a committed marriage is far more difficult. If the prospective bride has a child or is pregnant at the end of the trial period, marriage may be obligatory, though among primitive people it often isn't. Trial marriage differs from casual sexual encounters and "shacking up" in that the thought of eventual committed marriage lies at the heart of it.

Practitioners: Some of the Essenes (pre-Christian Middle Eastern sect) allowed couples to live together without marriage; only if the woman became pregnant was the relationship solemnized.

In many European countries, trial marriage was once very common. German peasants could, if they wanted to, try out a candidate for marriage in a series of trial nights. If one series didn't work out, it was on to another. Since one person could with impunity flit through an almost unlimited number of "nights," abuses of the system were probably common. This custom persisted in rural Germany well into the 19th century. In Scotland, during the Middle Ages, trial marriages were more serious. There, by holding hands and making a pledge, a couple gained approval to live together a year and a day. After that, they could marry if they wished to. Pregnancy or the birth of a child did not oblige them to marry. In Yorkshire. England, a man could announce a trial marriage by saying, "If my bride becomes pregnant, I shall take her."

The colonial American custom of bundling, in which a single man and woman lay in bed together with only a board between them, was a kind of trial marriage. The two did not always get past the symbolic board to sexual relations, but serious intentions were implicit.

Some Eskimos, American Indians, Icelanders Africans, Arabs, and Sinhalese practiced trial marriage. The length of the trial ranged from a single visit, as among the Chippewas, to a one-year period, as among the Icelanders.

Where It Stands Today: Legally, trial marriage is in a kind of limbo. Not recognized by the courts, except as common-law marriage, it could be prosecuted in the many states where nonmarital cohabitation is against the law. However, so many single people live together today that such prosecution is unlikely. Not all nonmarital cohabitation is trial marriage, because many people who share bed, board, and income have no intention of marrying.

Margaret Mead, the noted anthropologist, suggests a two-stage marriage. The first stage, individual marriage, would involve a commitment between two people, who would agree not to have children. Easy to dissolve, individual marriage would last as long as both spouses wanted it to. The second stage, parental marriage, based on the intent to have children, would involve far more; the couple would have to show that they could support a child, would go through a formal ceremony, and would be expected to stay together for life. Bertrand Russell--philosopher, mathematician, and iconoclast--believed in a similar arrangement.

Attorney Harriet F. Pilpel, who thinks along the same lines, suggests that a childless marriage could be made official merely through a trip to a registry office. The couple would then be considered legally married and eligible for some benefits, like social security, but not for others, like the automatic right to inherit money from each other. This marriage could be easily terminated by either party. In the second kind of marriage, which would be far more formal, parenthood would be involved.

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