With divorce rates in-inspiringly high, many millennials are choosing not to get married at all. Is the institution of marriage in permanent decline as conventions change? Not necessarily. The emergent concept of ‘trial marriages’ is quickly gaining popularity among millennials. Keep reading if you want to explore what a trial marriage is, what its benefits and disadvantages are, and whether it might be for you.
Trial Marriage? Isn’t that…an Engagement?
Because trial marriage is still an emergent and shifting concept, the ‘official’ definition is not yet set in stone. The earliest recorded use of the term (at least that we could find) is in anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons ‘The Family’, written in 1906, which originally popularized the notion. It was followed almost immediately by a comedic short film in 1907 about a man who tries trial marriages with three different women, failing miserably each time. For Parsons (as well as some more modern sources), a trial marriage simply means living together before marriage, in order to gauge compatibility (Britannica, 2022; Psychology Dictionary, N & M.S., 2013)—a concept that is hardly novel to today’s young people.
The next notable publication to take up the topic of trial marriage was the New York Times, in 1972. For the young generation at that time, trial marriage still meant simply living together while in a relationship (Nemy, 1972). The New York Times archives offer a snapshot of what a ‘trial marriage’ entailed 50 years ago. Here are a few key quotes that capture conceptions of trial marriages at that time, from a feminist act to a rebellion to an arrangement borne largely of convenience:
“To some, it is a logical process on the road to a future legal tie, a short-term arrangement or trial for what traditionally considered one of life’s most important commitments. To others, it is a personal rebellion against the idea that a “piece of paper” makes a relationship more binding or meaningful. For some women, it is a declarative stand of equality, a challenge to a double standard and an affirmation of independence.”
““Our ultimate goal isn’t marriage; we consider ourselves married although the public doesn’t,” said a 21‐year‐old recent college graduate, who had been dating a young man for three years and began sharing an apartment with him last year. “This arrangement isn’t to see whether we’re compatible; we did it because it’s the natural thing to do.”
“We like each other and we get along well and we don’t think of next year.” she said. “We’ve both lived with other partners before… and I mean lived with, not sleeping around… to us it’s no worse than the people who keep getting married and divorced… that’s legalized hypocrisy.”
Nowadays, couples tend to follow a trajectory from dating to cohabitation to engagement to marriage. One survey asked millennials whether they would “support a ‘beta’ marriage model that involved a two-year trial–after which the union could be formalized or dissolved, no paperwork necessary” (Fessler, 2014). While this might initially sound exactly like an engagement (Fessler, 2014), there are actually many other models trial marriages can also follow, as we’ll explain below. And as for the model explained above? Unsurprisingly, 43% of millennials would support it.
One approach to trial marriages today is known as the ‘real estate’ marriage (Fessler, 2014). In a real estate marriage, marriage licenses are granted on 5, 7, 10, and 30-year basis. When the licenses expire, the terms of the marriage can be renegotiated or the marriage can be dissolved entirely. A whopping 33% of millennials reported that they would consider trying this model if given the chance (Fessler, 2014). A similar modern innovation on trial marriage is called the ‘presidential marriage’, in which partners’ marriage vows last for four years initially, and after eight years they may elect to choose a new partner (Fessler, 2014). 21% of millennials surveyed would be open to trying the presidential method.
The common denominator with all of these myriad conceptions of trial marriage is that the millennial generation is reshaping the institution of marriage. This is a generation who is accustomed to continually being offered ‘the next best thing’ in a range of categories, from technology to music to social media and online dating. The millennial generation has witnessed a rapid acceleration in technology and the changes that have accompanied it, and they are frequently overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices, leading to FOMO (fear of missing out). It’s only natural that with the backdrop against which this generation has grown up, they would like to beta-test a marriage before making such a long-term commitment. While some might see these tendencies underscoring the shift towards trial marriages as flakey, others see them as a hallmark of flexibility and willingness to adapt to changes.
Benefits of Trial Marriages
How many people can you think of (in movies, pop culture, and your own life) who report a decline in relationship quality and effort after marriage? How frequently does marriage entail a mindset shift that leads to partners taking another for granted and failing to exert the same amount of effort as they did in the early years of their relationships?
Trial marriages can help couples to avoid lapsing into complacency with their relationships. If you and your partner knew that there is a fixed time in the future when the relationship will be evaluated, re-negotiated, and potentially even dissolved, would you feel more motivated to continue investing in your relationship in a thoughtful way, to continue ‘wooing’ your partner in a sense? Citing high divorce rates, and declines in relationship quality, many millennials and Gen Z-ers express enthusiasm for trial marriages because they could help couples not to lose motivation the way one might when they’re totally sure of ‘till death do us part’.
Moreover, we are living during an unprecedented time in which change happens more quickly than before, and we have more options for how we want to live our lives than our parents and grandparents did. Marriage as it has existed for hundreds of years simply might not be a match for the modern world. In this sense, trial marriages pay homage to the fact that splitting up does not have to equal failure. A relationship might work well for a certain period of time or a certain phase in life; outgrowing it or evolving past it can simply be a sign that you’ve learned what you needed to learn from that relationship. Trial marriages which allow for re-negotiation are therefore the perfect answer for couples who are ready for a serious commitment, but who don’t necessarily believe that staying with one partner for their whole lives is always the best course of action (or something that can be predicted and committed to in advance!)
Finally, a trial marriage allows a couple to gauge their longer-term compatibility and explore what a continued commitment might look like, but without all the stress and fuss of the paperwork that comes with a legal marriage and a subsequent divorce that may occur if the couple decides to eventually dissolve their union (Bennett, 2014).
Disadvantages of Trial Marriages
Although some may call them old fashioned, there are still many people who recognize the benefits that a serious lifelong commitment can bring. Knowing a person deeply and being known deeply for one or two seasons of life does not bring the same perspective that knowing and being known for an entire lifetime does. When you are committed to the same person until one of you dies (hopefully when you’re very old), you will be with one another through many seasons of life. You’ll bear witness to the way they change over time, to how they react and adapt to different life circumstances, and to a long timeline of experiences. You’ll be known by them in the same way; is there not something romantic and especially profound about being with someone for the whole series, not just a season or two? Couples with such a union arguably know one another better and are more determined than couples who choose to keep their relationships in perpetual ‘beta’ mode.
Additionally, when you know that you are together for the long haul, you have to (hopefully!) develop the flexibility to accept your partner’s flaws. When you get married, you are inheriting a particular set of unsolvable problems (Gottman, 2015). Learning to live with and work with those problems for an entire lifetime is an extreme exercise in patience and acceptance.
Although those who opt for various iterations of trial marriages may be flexible in terms of partner choice over time, from another viewpoint they are inflexible in terms of learning to deal with difficulties constructively and doing the work to build a deeper and deeper bond over time. In effect, they may be seen as treating relationships as disposable, throwing them away instead of repairing them as soon as something stops working in favor of a newer, shinier model, which will also inevitably break and need to be replaced.
How Would Prenups Work With Trial Marriages?
Would trial marriages necesitate prenups? It depends on the model. If as in the real estate and presidential methods marriage vows are made for a specific period of time, a prenup is likely in order. But how should one design a prenup when they know that the marriage has either a date on which it will expire or be re-negotiated? Many of the questions the couple should ask themselves when writing their prenups are the same as the questions they would discuss prior to a traditional marriage, but some of their answers may be different in light of the unique arrangements of trial marriages. As with a traditional prenup, you’ll still need to talk about financial disclosure. If you’re worried about bringing up any prenup-related topics, here’s how to bring up a prenup without upsetting your partner.
The prenup will need to clarify the following, for starters:
-Which assets will be combined, if any?
-Which assets should be kept separate?
-How will combined assets be dealt with if the couple decides to part when it’s time to re-negotiate the relationship or select a new partner?
-Will the couple invest in property or other assets during their time together? If so, how will the ownership of these assets be managed should the couple decide to part?
-Should the couple (intentionally or unintentionally) have a child or children during their time together, how will expenses related to child-rearing be divided if/when the couple decides to move on?
-What are the roles and expectations of each partner during this trial period?
-How does the couple plan to address conflict?
Even if a couple opts for a simple two-year beta marriage, they might still like to create an informal lifestyle-based document similar in character to the lifestyle clauses which sometimes go into a prenup. In this document, the couple is advised to spell out their roles and expectations within the relationship, as well as contingency plans for how they would like to address difficulties or what they would like to do when they encounter various obstacles relevant to their specific situation. For more information, check out these 3 prenup facts.
In many ways, the demands of trial marriages are not unlike traditional marriages. Couples will still need to learn one another’s love languages and conflict management styles, develop conflict resolution skills, and deal with one another’s attachment styles.
Whatever relationship choice you opt for, one thing is for sure: There are more choices available today than in the past, and our society is more accepting of deviation from the norm than past societies. You can select or design whatever relationship model works best for your unique circumstances. This is an extremely important choice; choose mindfully!
Bennett, J. 2014. The Beta Marriage: How Millennials Approach ‘I Do’. Retrieved from: https://time.com/3024606/millennials-marriage-sex-relationships-hook-ups/
Britannica. 2022. Elsie Clews Parsons. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elsie-Clews-Parsons
Fessler, L. 2014. Would You Ever Consider a Trial Marriage? Retrieved from: https://www.womenshealthmag.com/relationships/a19927376/trial-marriage/
Gottman, John. 2015. The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work: A practical guide from the international bestselling relationship expert.
N & M. S., 2013. Trial Marriage. Psychology Dictionary. Retrieved from: https://psychologydictionary.org/trial-marriage/
Nemy, E. 1972. Trial Marriages Grow in Popularity, For Better or For Worse. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/1972/08/29/archives/trial-marriages-grow-in-popularity-for-better-or-for-worse.html
Julia Rodgers is HelloPrenup’s CEO and Co-Founder. She is a Massachusetts family law attorney and true believer in the value of prenuptial agreements. HelloPrenup was created with the goal of automating the prenup process, making it more collaborative, time efficient and cost effective. Julia believes that a healthy marriage is one in which couples can openly communicate about finances and life goals. You can read more about us here Questions? Reach out to Julia directly at [email protected].