In November 1891, the British sexologist Havelock Ellis married the writer and lesbian Edith Lees. He was 32 and a virgin. And since he was impotent, they never consummated their union. After their honeymoon, the two lived separately in what he called an open marriage. The union lasted until Lees’ death in 1916.
This is not what most would consider a model marriage. But perhaps because of its unusualness, Ellis was able to introduce an idea that remains as radical and tantalizing today as it was in his time: trial marriages, in which he envisioned couples exploring a temporary union of varying levels of commitment that allowed them to have sex, access birth control and have an easy divorce if desired, as long as no children were involved. The idea captured the minds of many progressives, including the British philosopher Bertrand Russell and the Denver judge and social reformer Ben B Lindsey, who embraced the new economic and cultural freedoms in the post-Victorian era.
While Ellis gave this type of temporary marriage a name, others had been talking about similar unions years before, including the German poet Johann von Goethe, who entertained the idea in his Elective Affinities (1809), and the American paleontologist E D Cope, who wrote in his book The Marriage Problem (1888) that marriages should start with a five-year contract that either spouse could end or renew with a further 10- or 15-year contract and, if all still went well after that, a permanent contract.
15th March 1964: Actress Elizabeth Taylor marries her fifth husband Richard Burton (1925-1984) in Montreal. (Express/Getty Images)
In 1966, the American anthropologist Margaret Mead suggested a two-step version of marriage – an ‘individual commitment’ that would fit college students of limited means and could be easily dissolved or else converted into a ‘parental commitment’ if they were ready and willing to take on the obligations of children. In 1971, the Maryland…