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‘Beta marriages’ give institution a trial run

Some therapists say the testing offers no real benefit

Posted: August 18, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 18, 2014 2:00 a.m.

As divorce rates remain high and marriage rates low, some suggest rethinking the institution and proposing trial runs, which would allow spouses to end their marriage without a divorce after two years if they aren’t satisfied.

However, therapists and religious leaders contend these so-called “beta marriages” offer no real benefit, since neither spouse has to put forth the effort to make a serious, long-term commitment.

“The point of getting married is to stop testing the relationship itself, to stop asking whether your current partner is right for you. The time for questioning, putting one another on trial, holding back one’s full commitment, is called dating,” wrote Anna Sutherland, an author for the Institute for Family Studies.

About half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 26 percent of millennials (18- to 34-year-olds) are married, according to Pew Research Center.

An informal survey of 1,000 18- to 49-year-olds by USA Today asked respondents whether they would think more favorably of marriage if the institution was updated to fit with modern values. Forty-three percent of millennials surveyed said they supported the idea of beta marriages.

In terms of new technology or websites, beta testing is the stage in which all the bugs or glitches are found and fixed before the release of the finished product to the general public.

Advocates of “beta marriage” support a similar trial period after the wedding to give the couple a chance to work out their own bugs.

Marymargaret Parker, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Director of the Santa Clarita Stepfamily Association, believes there are still too many factors to be clarified for such a process to be workable.

“I think we’re going to learn a lot more as we go along,” Parker said, “because right now, even though that may sound like good idea, I don’t know if it really ends up being as great for both parties.”

Shannon Stunson, a marriage and family therapist in Santa Clarita, often works with married couples as well as young, single people who are skeptical of marriage.

“I’ve been noticing this mentality a lot,” Stunson said. “For the last 15 years, it’s grown quite a bit. If there’s a lot of fear and they’re worried about their future and putting their kids through divorce, then I can understand their thought process.”

Some have pointed to couples living together as serving the same purpose as a beta marriage. But research from the Journal of Family Psychology and other sources indicates an increased risk of negative consequences for couples who lived together before engagement or marriage. A pre-marriage test run seems to offer little benefit to the couples.

“I think there’s a limited amount that people can learn by living together,” Parker said. “The problem is both people have to be in same place at the same time, and that rarely happens.”

“The most recent research suggests that serial cohabitators — couples with differing levels of commitment and those who use cohabitation as a test — are most at risk for poor relationship quality and eventual relationship dissolution,” Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
Stunson says she doesn’t pass judgment either way.

“If it’s just not working out between the two, this might be a benefit to be able to help dissolve the marriage peacefully,” Stunson said of beta marriages. “Everybody’s different.”


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