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Until Death Do Us Part?: The Economics of Short-Term Marriage Contracts

Stefania Marcassa and Grégory Ponthière

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At the end of the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham, father of utilitarianism and the Panopticon system (1) posed questions about the possible social benefits of “short” marriage contracts. Contrary to traditional marriage contracts, these ones would not last, by default, as long as the lives of the married couple, but would limit their engagement to a certain period. Bentham considered that such a marriage contract would allow young people to establish stable affective relationships without entering into a classic marriage, which was too demanding in an era when divorce was not (yet) tolerated. Nearly two centuries later, when the already unprecedented divorce rate keeps increasing, again the question arises, though in a very different context, about the desirability of “short” marriage contracts.
In this article, Marcassa and Ponthière study the desirability of such contracts compared with traditional ones, in a society in which divorce is tolerated, but costly. They formalise a model called “collective decision household”, in which individual choices (about matters such as work time and leisure activities) depend on decisions taken by the collective unit, covering two age periods – youth and adulthood. They then show that, based on a wide range of assumptions about both the production technologies of the household (2) and individual preferences, “short” marriage-type contracts would, if available, become the dominant type not only among singles, but also among people in traditional marriage relationships. Thanks to their greater flexibility – allowing exit from marriage, without cost, on a given date, with the possibility of renewal – this kind of marriage contract could replace some standard marriage contracts that generally end up in expensive divorce processes.
(1) Bentham’s architectural Panopticon model for prisons, factories, schools and hospitals was designed to elicit “appropriate” behaviour from inmates through the belief that they could be seen at any time by their guards.
(2) This refers to a mathematical formula that transforms certain “inputs”, such as available time and or physical capital (e.g. electrical goods) into certain “outputs” or goods - such as domestic activities – which are produced outside the market.

Original title of the article : “Until Death Do Us Part?: The Economics of Short-Term Marriage Contracts”
Published in : Population Review SDP, Volume 53, Number 1, 2014
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