Do Millennials Really Value Marriage?

For better or worse, for a limited time


Recently, I read an article in Time magazine entitled “The Beta Marriage: How Millennials Approach ‘I Do.’” The article described a survey in which trend researchers asked respondents how they felt about different types of “test” marriages, entered into for various renewable terms ranging from two to thirty years. The idea is that you can use these trial periods to “test and de-glitch” your marriage, before fully committing to “till death do us part.” If you run into trouble along the way, you can use the opportunity to “work out kinks”—or, “simply abandon course without consequence” by dissolving the union without the hassle of paperwork or a formal divorce proceeding.

The study itself seemed a bit tongue-in-cheek—listing potential marriage models including the “presidential” and “real estate” arrangements, in addition to the “beta marriage”—and the conclusions drawn by the article were similarly flippant. But it raises the question: why might some people think, at least in theory, that an arrangement like this might be appealing?


Is attempting to “beta test” a relationship really a workable solution to allaying anxieties about marital longevity? If the purpose of beta testing is to work out the kinks before an official launch, doesn’t a two-year trial period seem woefully inadequate? I’m just rounding the corner on six months of marriage, and I find it hard to believe that a significant amount of “kinks” could be worked out before the initial two year expiration date, or even by the five, ten, or twenty year mark. There are so many challenges we have yet to face, and there’s no way to do a “trial run” to cover every eventuality. Isn’t that part of the point of marriage—that you go into it knowing that you’ll keep changing and encountering new obstacles, but you’re going to face them together?

Practically, I’m not sure how much a “beta marriage” would differ from simply cohabitating before getting hitched, which more and more of us are doing these days, anyway. I was adamant that Nick and I would try living together before we got engaged, and while I don’t regret taking that route, I’m not sure how much it really “prepared” us for marriage. Learning to fight over socks left on the floor is one thing; having that fight with the internal monologue of Oh My God, there will be socks on the floor for the rest of my life what have I gotten myself into? is another.

Do you have the same incentives in a “beta marriage”? Does knowing you’ll be renegotiating your relationship in a matter of years keep you on your toes, constantly trying to satisfy your partner and keep them happy so they’ll want to re-up when the contract expires? Or does the knowledge of possible impermanence allow indifference and apathy to creep in more often than it otherwise might? The same questions can be asked about traditional marriage, where “till death do us part” is the goal. Does knowing you’re locked in for life allow you to slip up a bit, taking your partner for granted? Or does it motivate you to be extra kind and patient, knowing that this is your person for life, and you better take care of them? Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle.

why might the idea of a “beta marriage” appeal to millennials in particular?

As the Time article acknowledges, several anthropologists have advocated for short-term monogamous relationships or renewable contractual agreements, and lawmakers in Mexico City even proposed granting temporary marriage licenses, where couples decide on the length of the marriage, with a minimum starting period of two years. So while the concept of a short-term marriage isn’t new, the study’s findings about exactly who might prefer this type of arrangement stood out: forty-three percent of Millennials (eighteen to thirty-four year olds) said they would be interested in following a marital model where the “union can be formalized or dissolved after a two-year trial period.”

The Time article speculates that a favorable view of the “beta marriage” is a natural extension of the Millennial generation’s tech-savviness and “constant FOMO.” As a Millennial, myself, I’m not sure I buy that explanation. Yes, Millennials are notable for their “technological exceptionalism,” and the heightened social connectivity can certainly make cheating—or at least scoping out the options—more accessible. But I’m not convinced that a cavalier attitude toward monogamy, or the “YOLO” culture, is what’s causing some Millennials to view marriage with a certain amount of skepticism.

We’re a generation that has grown up watching a lot of typically stable institutions become distinctly unstable. Despite being the most educated generation in history—and racking up equally historic sums of student loan debt—we graduated to dismal job prospects, and aren’t seeing a return on the investment in our higher education. Ninety-one percent of us expect to stay in our jobs for less than three years. And why not? Many of us have seen our parents endure layoffs and demotions throughout the recession, and we’ve learned the hard way that job stability or employer loyalty are not necessarily things we can count on. Many of us may never quite recover from kicking off our independent financial lives in a recession, and we’ve become the lost retirement generation, lacking the benefit of pensions enjoyed by earlier generations, faith in Social Security, and the necessary funds to make up the deficit with our own savings. Forget about homeownership, once a hallmark of stability and permanence—one in eight Millennials over age twenty-two say they’ve moved back into a parent’s home due to the recession.

In short, we’re a generation that has learned the hard way that many of the hallmarks of adulthood which previously seemed stable and secure simply don’t exist for us, and maybe never will. Having come of age at a time of such uncertainty and impermanence, is it any wonder some Millennials are wary at the prospect of yet another institution that promises stability and longevity?

certainty within the uncertainty

A few years back, I was at the dentist’s office flipping through Good Housekeeping and came across an interview with Kyra Sedgwick. Discussing her marriage to Kevin Bacon, she described a six-month-long fight they had about whether to live in Connecticut or Manhattan. “We got through it just by knowing that no one was going anywhere,” she said. I thought about that quote a lot as Nick and I worked through our own lengthy disagreement over where we’d move after graduation. It’s hard to find compromise on an issue as large as where to live, but knowing that we were both fully committed to our relationship, and that we weren’t interested in living apart, changed the conversation entirely. Eliminating the option of leaving each other—through the slammed doors and tears and hurt feelings—has a way of clarifying the issue a bit. To me, this is what differentiates marriage from other types of relationships, beta or otherwise, no matter how much we fight, no matter how badly we screw up (and we will screw up, from time to time), we’ve got some common ground in the fact that we’re both committed to working it out.

The Millennial generation faces a host of uncertainties and this necessarily shapes our outlook on life, as compared to other generations. But personally, this Millennial likes the certainty of knowing she’s got someone to face the uncertainty with.

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