A rumour that Hollywood couple Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise, who are getting divorced after only five years of marriage (for Cruise, the latest marriage), had a “five year marriage contract” has prompted an article in the New York Times speculating on the usefulness of such contracts.

After all, Mexico last year even had a go at legislating for them — not that anyone would normally follow Mexico’s lead in anything, any more than Hollywood’s, if they knew what was good for them.

The writer suggests a 20 year contract might be a step in the right direction:

The rough idea: two people, two decades, enough time to have and raise children if that’s your thing; a new status quo, a ceremony with a shelf life, till awhile do us part.

He put it to a bunch of experts. Three said, more or less, it was high time “to rethink an institution that so often fails.” And two said, hmmm, wait a minute.

Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, thinks “environmental” changes (we’re living longer; we live apart from families and are less inclined to religion, both marriage support systems; technology makes it easier than ever flirt or cheat and fuels instant gratification — plus there’s the discussion about gay marriage) are an argument to be “innovative about marriage”.

We’ve been through a period of “extreme romanticism”, she reckons, and now it’s about dollars and cents. “It’s back to the past, which used to involve dowry, bride price, economic arrangement. Nobody pretended this was not an economic arrangement,” she says. The idea of contracts “isn’t new.” (So it’s not innovative, it’s regressive. Right?)

A spokesman for a divorce lawyers’ professional group generously suggests that divorce litigation — and its enormous cost — could be cut back by calculating alimony payments in advance, with the use of “tables”.

Another sociology professor, Virginia Rutter, thinks a 20 year contract is far too conservative, “dogmatic” even. “She says it presupposes people want to build their marriages around having children.” (How hopelessly old-fashioned!) She wants to see the elimination of any customs that suggest an ideal of marriage, since she thinks ideals are “fantasy”.

So that leaves the two nay-sayers.

Psychology professor Robert E Emery, who has written about children and divorce, says it’s devastating for children and marriage contracts would not change that unless they helped to normalise divorce — and thus mitigate the emotional toll. (All the experts consulted apparently agree in theory on this point.)

But Emery is not optimistic: already people are experimenting with cohabitation and yet it is not making them any happier. While we should not pretend that marriage is a lifelong joyride, he suggests social recognition of the fact that “lifelong coupling, he says, bestows great benefits”.

“There are good reasons to be romantic about marriage,” he said, adding, “The big benefit of marriage is precisely the commitment over the long term.”

Stephanie Coontz (who usually comes across as a marriage revisionist) tends to agree, so long as the marriage in question is a modern one with equality and so on.

She doesn’t think a 20-year contract would make for happier marriages, but she believes there is value in asking people to consider and regularly assess their commitment, not necessarily based on a timetable but around life events: when you have kids, one spouse gets a new job or starts to work more hours, a family member dies, the kids leave home.

All these moments, she said, are when the marriage is most vulnerable.

“My advice would be to suggest a reup every five years, or before every major transition in life,” Dr. Coontz said, “with a new set of vows that reflect what the couple has learned.”

Maybe there is something in that. In fact it sounds similar to what some churches do to support married couples — through enrichment programmes, for example. And speaking of churches, isn’t the lack of a religious dimension (what Dr Rutter would call “fantasy”) to many marriages now part of the reason they are more prone to fail? Without the institutional framework that gives meaning and support to lifelong commitment it’s a mystery why any marriages would last.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet