Tom Stringham: “Beta marriage” and other bad ideas

Some neologisms are wed so effortlessly to the zeitgeist of their time that they are all but destined for linguistic immortality, even from the moment of their conception. One week ago, Time magazine acquainted the world with “beta marriage”, a conceptual try-and-buy marriage which can either be formalized or dissolved at the end of a two-year trial period. In a survey of American adults, 43% of the Millennial generation said they would be interested in this arrangement.

The theoretical appeal of beta marriage is simple. If, at the end of the trial period, a couple found they were not sufficiently satisfied with each other’s partnership, they could go separate ways without legal penalty. This is a horrifying idea to the older generation, but to Millennials it is nothing short of intoxicating.

Leaving aside my personal feelings on beta marriage, it’s clear that generation-specific assumptions about marriage separating Millennials from their grandparents are at the root of this discrepancy. The rising generation is the second (after their parents) to believe that marriage is in its essence a union of love and commitment, and that its defining good is mutual personal fulfillment. Previous generations, in contrast, saw marriage as the way that a couple started a family together—love and fulfillment certainly attended healthy marriages, but these things did not identify or consummate the union.

Millennials with the love-centric view find it difficult to make a philosophical criticism of a trial marriage institution—doesn’t love come and go? Can’t commitment mutually fade? In the conjugal view, however, permanence is imperative because the very appeal of marriage is that it binds a family, so that each child conceived will be born and raised by his or her mother and father.

Why are views of marriage changing so rapidly? The study’s author suggests it’s because Millennials are “nimble and open to change”. But regardless of my generation’s personality profile, it would be almost impossible for their views on marriage not to dissolve into near-meaninglessness given their institutional surroundings. The conjugal, child-centric view of marriage is definitionally offensive to an epicene marriage institution.

As the world watches Millennials ask ever more unsettling questions about marriage—why must marriage be permanent? Why must it be sexually exclusive? Why must it be restricted to two? Why must the government be involved in the first place?—some of us will remain entirely unsurprised. Watch for “beta marriage” to stick around in our lexicon, and for worse and more enterprising marital innovations to come.

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