Joan Covici was a widow living in Texas and volunteering with the ACLU when she began exchanging letters with Michael Jewell, a prisoner serving a life sentence for killing a man. They eventually fell in love and got married, never expecting their relationship to extend beyond the prison walls. But one day, it did; Jewell got paroled.
Realizing the odds were against them, Covici drew up a two-year contract for a trial period. In exchange for giving him a place to stay, food to eat, and money for clothing, she said in an interview with This American Life, he would be her companion. According to the document, his household duties included “50 percent participation in cooking, cleaning, trash takeout, bed making, and minor household repairs.” He was also responsible for “yard and garden maintenance, dog walking, shopping, driving, and car and air travel assistance.”
The contract, the interviewer noted, was very “comprehensive.” Four years later, Covici and Jewell are past the initial trial period, and they are still together.
Few people approach marriage in such a businesslike manner; where’s the romance in a contract, right? But if you think about it, maybe we should, especially considering the fact that the divorce rate in the United States hovers between 40 and 50 percent nowadays.
Vicki Larson and Susan Gadoua are the authors of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists, and Rebels. In their book, which came out in 2014, they question the institution of traditional marriage and encourage couples to approach their relationships more consciously and creatively. One way to do that, they offer, is to instate a renewable marriage contract instead of abiding by the “till death do us part” model.
“The way we judge a marriage as a success nowadays is if you make it until death,” Larson says. “Basically, if someone dies, no matter how crappy they’ve been to their partner, they’re just like, ‘Yay, it’s a success.’” A renewable marriage contract, she explains, would force the couple to talk about their goals, expectations, and values and put them on paper.
The idea has been floating around for a while. Lawmakers in Mexico City, for example, considered changing the civil code to accommodate renewable marriage contracts in 2011.
“A marriage license doesn’t tell you how to live your married life,” Larson says. At the center of the kind of contract Larson proposes are two questions: Why are you getting married, and why are you staying married? The fact that it’s renewable, she explains, keeps people from becoming complacent and also gives them the opportunity to check in and change their terms as needed, especially as they enter new life stages. Having a new contract for each of those phases, she says, from the obsessed-about-each-other honeymoon period to parenthood to becoming empty-nesters, can help clarify responsibilities and how things are going to shift.
While it’s certainly possible a couple may decide not to renew their contract, that’s no different from the way things are today, Larson points out. Anyone can file for a divorce. But a renewable contract challenges couples to really think about what they want in their partnership.
Larson says the current marriage model is dated. “No one really needs to be get married anymore. Women didn’t have choices back [in the 1950s]. Now, we have sex outside of marriage, women are making their own money, people can have children outside of marriage, you can live together and never get married. The only thing that hasn’t changed [in society] is what our marriages should look like.”
“We have hit a perfect time for us to have this conversation,” she continues. “We have so much more that we are able to do as men and women with our lives and the way we choose to live our lives.”
She adds, “A lot of people are fretting that millennials are delaying marriage or not getting married, but I think if you gave them some options, like this, marriage would be more attractive.”