Mexico's 'temporary' marriages: till death – or two years – do us part

Like so many brides before her, Luz Maria Ortiz, standing in front of a judge at a Mexico City civil registry with her fiancé, Jorge Valero, says she is both thrilled and nervous. "Life will change forever," she says after the ceremony.

But her wedding jitters could be a thing of the past – if legislators get their way in Mexico City.

The left-leaning assembly is studying a new initiative to introduce temporary marriage licenses that would expire after two years if the couple so desires.

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The proposal, intended to reduce the bureaucratic costs and emotional toll of divorce, has garnered as many fans as foes: Some see it as a pragmatic alternative, while others, including the Roman Catholic Church, see it as an attack on family values. It comes as Mexico grapples with its own culture war in the world's second-largest Catholic country.

“The centrality of family in Mexico is changing,” says Norma Ojeda, a sociologist at the San Diego State University who has studied the evolution of marriage in Mexico since the 1970s. “That is something that is part of a global social change in many countries.”

To its authors, the proposal reflects social changes in Mexico City, where they say most divorces occur in the first two years. If after two years, couples decide to until “death do us part,” they can renew their licenses. If not, the proposal specifies how children and property are handled.

"The proposal is, when the two-year period is up, if the relationship is not stable or harmonious, the contract simply ends," Leonel Luna, the assemblyman who co-wrote the bill, told Reuters. "You wouldn't have to go through the tortuous process of divorce."

It’s a sobering sentiment upon any bride’s wedding day, but many in the Valero family, who surround the bride and groom on a bright sunny morning in Mexico City, embrace the idea.

Luis Arturo Valero, the groom's brother and twice divorced, says he hopes his children could be "temporarily married" as a way to avoid his fate. "I think it's an excellent idea to go through a trial period to really get to know one other," he says. He says there are still taboos about living together before formalizing a union in Mexico – the reason that such a plan is needed.

Divorce has been on the rise, especially in urban Mexico, causing all sorts of complicated, and often painful, conflicts for families. “We are in favor of any pre-marital agreement,” says Alejandro Heredia Ávila, the head of the Association of Mexican Parents of Separated Families, which fights for parents denied rights to see their children.

But the Catholic Church has denounced the new proposal as an attack on marriage.

This is not the first time the church has butted heads with the capital, which critics say is liberalizing its conception of family much faster than the rest of the country. Mexico City became the first city in Latin America to legalize gay marriage in 2009. Under the leadership of Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, himself married three times, the city also legalized abortion.

Claudia de la Peña, cousin of the bride, has mixed feelings about it. She herself has opted for a legal union instead of marriage, but she says she worries that it could undermine customs. “It’s almost like playing a game. I think you should think well before you get married and make a commitment,” she says. “If you want to leave, you will leave, whether you are married or not.”

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And many see the initiative as unnecessary, especially because "express divorces" have been implemented in Mexico already, in 2008, expediting the procedure. Nationwide some 70 percent of dissolutions end up in separations, not divorce, anyway, says Ms. Ojeda. And the number of "consensual unions," a kind of unofficial marriage dating back to colonial Spain, is also significant and increasing.

"I don’t think a two-year contract will increase the marital stability of the Mexican family,” she says.

So-called temporary marriages have a long history though. References to “handfasting,” or a temporary betrothal period , appear as far back as the Middle Ages, and the Incas of South America practiced “trial marriages.” These arrangements were not always good for women, easily abandoned as single mothers.

But bride Ortiz sees a flip side for her gender, especially those in abusive households. “When they are getting hit, it is very hard for them to leave, the man never wants to,” she explains. The two-year license proposal in her city could make women’s lives easier in such scenarios.

But, she doesn’t regret that the proposal is not yet law for her wedding day. She and her husband, together for three years, chose not to live together first, and they both see their vows as the beginning of an entire lifetime, not a test run. “I feel that if you get married,” she says, “it should be forever.”

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