The meaning of marriage matters. A common understanding about important social institutions is that they create pro-social norms that positively guide our behaviors. They can nudge us to become our better selves. They erect guardrails that prevent unnecessary carnage by keeping us within lanes that lead to better outcomes. In the context of marriage, cultural norms shape how we share funds, time, domestic labor, children, our bodies, and many other aspects of our mutually joined lives.
It’s this sharing of our lives that struck me a few days ago when I read in the New York Times the latest journalistic effort to turn marriage into a Sunday brunch buffet rather than a core institution with tangible boundaries. The article highlighted and cheered the anecdotal advent of sexless marriages by design—legal, platonic marriages between friends. Platonic couples make it clear to others that their unions are platonic; it is not a quiet secret.
Of course, we know that there are and have always been sexless or sex-starved marriages—by neglect or circumstance—but such marriages were not intentionally designed to be platonic. The latest innovation is. Thus, it challenges the most basic social and legal understanding of marriage as a sexual union.
Sex has long been at the core of marital meaning. Even in the debates about marriage over the past twenty years, sex has been at the heart of the disagreements. Our modern trend of accepting sexual relationships between consenting adults of the same sex ultimately created the demand for marriage to open its doors to homosexual couples. Elsewhere, I have noted with concern calls for acceptance and recognition of polyamorous marriages, or consensual non-monogamy, which seeks to accommodate sexual desires that do not fit comfortably within the traditional boundaries of heterosexual monogamy.
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Having remodeled marriage to accommodate same-sex couples (and with intellectual momentum building for creating space to recognize polyamorous marriages), it’s easy to wonder why we can’t further amend marriage to accommodate those who want the benefits and responsibilities of marriage but don’t want the sex. Those who identify as “asexual” can now find a place within the institution of marriage, as can those who have just sworn off romance, are uninterested in maintaining a committed romantic relationship, or just prefer to separate sex from marital obligation.
Of course, it’s evident we can amend the modern meaning of marriage; we can take elements that once were pillars supporting the meaning of marriage (e.g., permanence, sexual difference) and remove or modify them. Legislation and court rulings have shown that this is possible, even as we debate and continue to study the impact of these changes on the institution.
Coming up with a court case that challenges the sexual meaning of marriage will be trickier than previous debates over the meaning of marriage, because no one is excluded from the institution in this instance. However, consanguinity laws, which prohibit certain kinds of marriages to close family members, could come under increased pressure. If marriage doesn’t have any necessary connection to sex, then what’s the problem with marrying one’s sibling? It’s possible, too, that a case could arise if a justice of the peace declines to marry a couple who have made it clear that their “besties” marriage will be platonic, because that view of marriage does not align with its legislative meaning and once was grounds for fraud and annulment.
I think it matters deeply that we continue to define marriage as a sexual union. It matters because the continual pruning of marriage reduces its core purpose to something that does not really set it apart from other committed relationship possibilities. This ongoing thinning of marriage’s meaning leaves less and less of the concrete conjugal elements that can bind marriages together. Also, it seriously erodes the legal justification for the benefits, responsibilities, and protections with which the law endows marriage.
I also suspect this ongoing thinning contributes, at least indirectly, to the decreasing marriage rate. If getting married doesn’t really create much of anything that is unique, then the motivation for marrying is merely personal, more of a lifestyle choice than an ethical endeavor and a contribution to our communities.
Platonic marriage lacks the richness and color that sexual union bestows on relationships. Our culture should not deny or marginalize that beauty. Yes, friendship is important. A common platitude about successful marriage is that you should “marry your best friend,” and this has some validity. The noted marriage researcher John Gottman argues that friendship is at the very core of a strong, healthy marriage, and that struggling couples often are struggling because they have lost track of that important element of their relationship in the demanding busy-ness of their day-to-day lives. And, as any marriage therapist will tell you, sex is often a source of significant conflict and disappointment in marriage.
But sex makes marriage much more than just friendship with “benefits.” The sexual excitement, the powerful bonding, the oneness, the potential creation of human life, even the vulnerability—all of this alchemizes friendship and sexual attraction into marriage. We have been separating sex from marriage for decades now, with foreseeable destruction. This latest innovation adds more fuel to the inferno.
Moreover, we don’t really know how stable platonic marriages will be. Yes, subtracting sex from the equation removes one potential element of disagreement and discord. But a host of social science theory and scholarship documents the obvious point that sex bonds married couples, both directly, through bonding hormones released during sex, and indirectly, through the children that may result. These bonds make relationships more stable, a key ingredient for children’s well-being. How sticky will the glue of platonic friendship be in the face of colicky infants, defiant teens, parenting style disagreements, dirty dishes in the sink, and unexpected bills?
Will in-laws embrace these new-age families as they do sexual unions? Researchers find that such social acceptance is an added adhesive. And when your parenting partner is spending all her spare time with her new lover rather than your children, how will the relationship fare? I suspect most platonic marriages will be chosen as a pragmatic way to rear children, more as a parenting plan than a companionship commitment. Other ways of doing the family thing have yet to match the stability of the traditional sexual union of two people who are biologically bound to the babies they make. It takes some faith to believe that platonic marriage will finally be the exception that breaks the rule. How will courts handle these unusual, complex family forms when they break down?
Accepting platonic marriage is not just accommodating another progressive idea that celebrates the diverse choices that people make in their family lives. It challenges a powerful shared meaning of marriage and diminishes its normative power. Many will assume that this choice will be rare, New York Times clickbait rather than a noteworthy emerging phenomenon. But given the number of people who chronically struggle to maintain long-term romantic relationships, but have good friends who are already providing some of the functions of marriage (companionship, co-residence, shared childcare, financial help, and so on) without the legal benefits and protections, it could become a popular choice.
Secular and religious marriage officiants may give legal status to platonic marriages, but we shouldn’t celebrate them, because they ask us to diminish a beautiful and powerful meaning of marriage. That meaning matters. If platonic couples want to build a life and family together, they can do so with the blessing of some new form of social contract. But please: let’s leave the sexual core of marriage intact.