The Five-Year Marriage: My Brilliant Idea

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854), “Conclusion”

I was reminded today of one of my more brilliant ideas to improve the world by these two paragraphs about Britain’s exit from the European Union:

Every five years, the UK and EU will review the agreement, supplementary agreements and any matters related to it. That corresponds to the standard five-year political timetable in Brussels and Westminster. In other words, each new Westminster parliament, or Council president, or European parliament, is going to have their own Brexit, their own appraisal of the relationship.

This is a pulsating, living deal. The metaphor of a divorce no longer really holds. It’s like a couple splitting up but then buying a new much smaller home where they’ll meet up at weekends. Maybe they’ll be sickened by each other whenever they arrive. Maybe they’ll start to remember what they saw in each other in the first place. Divergence or integration.

—Ian Dunt, “Never-ending story: Deal unveils next Brexit arguments”

This “five-year divorce,” with both parties obliged to reconsider the terms of their separation twice a decade, parallels my own idea, the “five-year marriage.” 

The five-year marriage is a simple plan. Every marriage would have a five-year term that must be re-negotiated by the two parties, and then either renewed for another five years or ended, in which case they shake hands and go their separate ways.

It’s an idea bound to be ignored, of course, because when two people are on the verge of marriage they are definitely not inclined to be considering seriously the terms on which their marriage might end. Only the super-rich have lawyers and pre-nuptial agreements. Moreover, the five-year marriage would have to be adopted by an entire society, or at least by a large group of people, to make it work. Nevertheless, let us consider the possible advantages.

First, marriage “until death do us part” immediately encourages bad behaviour. Why not leave your dirty socks on the floor, or leave the cap off the toothpaste tube? You have a lifetime deal that can be broken only by extreme measures: a messy, complicated, and expensive divorce. In a five-year marriage, you would think at least twice before leaving those dirty socks to annoy or even anger your partner: do you want to risk a good marriage over dirty socks? 

Similarly, if a marriage “until death do us part” is going badly, one or both parties may be tempted to cheat on their partner, leading to all the drearily familiar and ugly consequences of infidelity. On the other hand, imagine being three-and-a-half years into a five-year marriage that is not working out. In that case, why risk all the lies and hurt and anger of infidelity, when you can just wait eighteen months for your freedom?

Second, the five-year marriage plan recognizes a simple truth: we change. Naturally, the chances of two people changing over several decades and yet remaining ideal partners for each other are . . . remote. Most marriages that last, let’s face it, last for other reasons: the kids, the cost of divorce, the fear of change, simple laziness, etc. The five-year marriage, at least, takes the fear and shame and surprise out of separation. (And, if you decide to stay together, you get a new wedding every five years! Florists, caterers, wedding reception musicians, are you listening?)

I offer the world this brilliant idea satirically because I know that almost no one will take it seriously. And yet, I am serious. I am convinced that the five-year marriage would do wonders to improve the quality of our relationships and our lives, not to mention our emotional well-being. When I ascend to a position of sufficient authority, the five-year marriage will be one of my first decrees.


Castles in the air

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854), “Conclusion”