7 Alternatives To Traditional Marriage

by Emma McGowan

What does it mean to have a successful marriage? Many would say a successful marriage is one that’s literally “death do us part,” only ending when one half of the couple dies. We describe divorce as a “failed” marriage or one that includes other sexual partners a “bad” marriage because our image of success is rooted in lifetime of monogamous commitment. But what if that’s not the only model for success? What if there are alternatives to the traditional marriage model?

That’s the idea that Vicki Larson and her co-author, Susan Pease Gadoua, propose in their book The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists, and Rebels. Larson tells Bustle that the idea came from their own experiences, Gadoua as a licensed therapist who was seeing an increasing number of divorced couples at her practice and Larson as a two-time divorcée. “I’ve been married and divorced twice, so obviously I’m a f*ck up, right?,” Larson says. “I’m a failure. And I don’t know what commitment means and something is wrong with me. So, I was feeling that shame, too.”

"Getting married now should mean something different, but we still have it stuck in our heads that marriage looks a certain way."

Larson explains that the “traditional” model of marriage is based on the fact that, for a long time, women didn’t have many options. For hundreds of years, married women couldn’t own property or sign legal documents. The whole idea of “becoming one” was taken really literally, as the below quote about marriage from an 18th Century jurist shows. “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing,” she says.

That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Not that we have perfect gender equality these days, but women can vote, own property, sign any damn document we please. Theoretically, we can do any job we want — and, theoretically, we should be paid the same amount. And yet, so many of us are still clinging to an idea of marriage that’s based in the crappy circumstances outlined above. “We don’t have to get married now just to have those rights,” Larson says. “Getting married now should mean something different, but we still have it stuck in our heads that marriage looks a certain way.”

So if we take away the till-death-do-us-part part; if we strip back the assumption of monogamy, if we really examine marriage as an institution, what can we come with? Larson and Gadoua did exactly that by looking at how marriages are actually functioning in 2017 instead of how they “should” function based on outdated ideas of gender, sex, and love. Here are seven alternatives to traditional marriage that they uncovered.


Starter Marriage

"A Starter Marriage is a 'trial' marriage, giving spouses a chance to see what marriage is really like."

A Starter Marriage is an opportunity for a couple to give a marriage a shot, without making a lifelong commitment. While the official contract is a regular marriage license, people in a starter marriage also write their own contract and set an expiration date for their marriage. Once that date roles around, they can decide whether or not they’d like to convert their starter marriage to a different type of marriage — or part ways. Couples in a Starter Marriage agree not to have children during the duration of the initial contract. The authors recommend this type of marriage especially for young people who don’t have a lot of life experience yet and aren’t sure they’re quite ready for lifelong commitment.


Companionship Marriage

"A Companionship Marriage is less about passion-filled romantic love and more about practical love."

A companionship marriage skips right to the “practical love” and focuses on a friendship-based marriage. The authors point out that it’s common for older couples and those whose children have already left the house. It’s for people who don’t want to grow old alone, but aren’t expecting that romantic energy anymore.


Parenting Marriage

“Kids need a peaceful, respectful environment in order to thrive, not parents who love each other.”

A Parenting Marriage is exactly what it sounds like — a marriage whose main focuses is raising children. The main purpose is not romance or even sex but instead raising children together. That means it’s a kind of marriage that can even occur between two people who’s sexualities don’t match, like a gay man and heterosexual woman. In a Parenting Marriage, two people agree to stay together until their kid is an adult.


Living Alone Together Marriage

“Not everyone is cut out to live with other people. It doesn’t mean they don’t want commitment or a relationship.”

The Living Alone Together Marriage is when a couple lives in different places — either different cities or just different houses — while staying married. The authors see it as a good option both for couples who are easing their way into a marriage and for those who have been together for a long time and need a break, but don’t want to get divorced. It requires really strong trust between partners, excellent communication, and can lead to some creative forms of intimacy.


Covenant Marriage

“In addition to making marriage more pliable, you can also agree to add more legal restrictions to make your marriage stronger and more durable.”

While most of the marriage alternatives listed in The New I Do provide more flexibility than traditional marriage, a Covenant Marriage provides less. A Covenant Marriage is a legal alternative marriage document (the only one in the U.S.) that is available in certain states. In order to enter into a Covenant Marriage, couples have to attend premarital counseling and meet other requirements. If they want to get divorced, they have to 1) prove that they’d done everything possible to repair the marriage and, 2) meet certain legal requirements. If they can’t meet those requirements, they have to wait two years before divorcing. Covenant Marriages are popular with people who are highly religious.


Safety Marriage

“A Safety Marriage puts the need for financial and even emotional security on par with (and perhaps even higher than) love as a reason to marry.”

A Safety Marriage is one in which one half of the couple is marrying for financial security. Larson and Gadoua point out that marriage is always a business contract and a Safety Marriage just takes that a step further than traditional marriages. However, the authors caution that an ethical Safety Marriage includes explicit conversations about why each person is choosing to be married.


Open Marriage

“An Open Marriage acknowledges that humans are sexual beings who may have physical attractions to a number of people at the same time.”

While traditional marriage puts a high value on monogamy, people in open marriages agree that they will emotionally committed to each other, but that they’ll also have outside sexual experiences. Each couple has to decide on their boundaries and limitations for those outside experiences, of course.

Do any of these alternatives to traditional marriage catch your eye? Even if no one model seems like the perfect fit for you, I hope that you walk away from this really thinking about marriage. What does it mean to you? It’s a question that only you can answer.