Legislators in Mexico proposed a new way to lower divorce rates: temporary marriage licenses. The controversial new law, currently under consideration, allows couples to decide how long they want their marriage contracts to last (two years is the minimum). After that period of time, if the couple is still happy, they can renew their marriage contract. But if they aren’t happy, the contract simply expires and couples are free to end the marriage without having to get divorced (read the full story here).
Ultimately, any effect that this legislation might have for marital outcomes will become more apparent in the coming years. That said, we can apply relationship science, particularly research on romantic commitment, to make educated predictions about how the legislation could help some marriages but harm others.
Commitment refers to a person’s long-term orientation toward her or his relationship and sense of determination to make the relationship succeed.1 People who feel committed to their partners work very hard to keep their relationships intact, often without realizing it. For example, committed people see their romantic partners in an idealized way: they accentuate their partners’ strengths and minimize their flaws.2 Committed people also manage conflict in their relationships more effectively,3 and they forgive their partners more readily.4 Overall, committed partners’ relationships tend to be a lot more stable than the relationships of people who are less committed.
Not surprisingly, married couples tend to be relatively high in relationship commitment. Part of the reason for this is because many married individuals feel that their partners are right for them, and that their relationships make them happy.5 However, there are other factors that can motivate people to stay in a marriage that have little to do with how satisfied they are, such as structural reasons to commit (e.g., owning a house together; depending on your partner financially), and moral reasons to commit (the idea that staying in the marriage is the right thing to do because you made vows; you owe it to your partner, etc.). All of these factors contribute to a married person’s overall sense of commitment to his or her spouse.
The proposed legislation is likely to have some interesting effects on people’s commitment to their marriages. For one thing, this legislation will make it so that unhappy couples will be able to end their marriages without getting divorced, which means fewer feelings of guilt or shame over having failed at their marriage or broken their vows (this may be especially relevant in Mexico — a predominantly Catholic country). By making it okay to “walk away” from an unhappy marriage, people should be less likely to stay committed to their relationships for the wrong reasons. On the other hand, by having marriage contracts that expire and have to be renewed, the proposed legislation could encourage relatively happy couples to reconsider their commitment to one another. Thus, for people who are committed for more intrinsic reasons (“I think my partner is the right person for me”), the new system could cause them to second-guess whether or not they’re making the right choice, potentially making them less willing to work through difficult times in their relationships.
In sum, this new law has the potential to reduce the amount of individuals who feel stuck in unhappy relationships, which is definitely beneficial. On the other hand, it may also cause relatively happy couples to question their commitment to one another, which is not necessarily beneficial. If Mexico approves this legislation, more research will certainly be needed to examine exactly what sort of effects temporary marriage licenses will have.
1Rusbult, C. E. (1983). A longitudinal test of the investment model: The development (and deterioration) of satisfaction and commitment in heterosexual involvements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 101-117.
2Drigotas, S. M., Rusbult, C. E., Wieselqquist, J., & Whitton, S. W. (1999). Close partner as sculptor of the ideal self: Behavioral affirmation and the Michelangelo phenomenon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 293-323.
3Rusbult, C. E., Verette, J., Whitney, G. A., Slovik, L. F., & Lipkus, I. (1991). Accommodation processes in close relationship: Theory and preliminary empirical evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 53-78.
4Finkel, E. J., Rusbult, C. E., Kumashiro, M., & Hannon, P. A. (2002). Dealing with betrayal in close relationships: Does commitment promote forgiveness? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 956-974.
5Johnson, M. P., Caughlin, J. P., & Huston, T. L. (1999). The tripartite nature of marital commitment: Personal, moral, and structural reasons to stay married. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61, 160-177.
Samantha Joel – Science of Relationships articles
Samantha’s research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner?
image source: guardian.co.uk