A Catholic priest once shared with me an insight he’d gleaned during years of preparing engaged couples for marriage. Whether the insight was his own, or something he’d picked up from reading or listening somewhere, I don’t know. I just remember the phrase and how it stuck in my mind. Increasingly, he said, he’d found that couples showed a tendency to “want to spend a lot more time and effort preparing for the wedding, which lasts a day, than they do preparing for the marriage, which lasts a lifetime.”
It’s a pithy statement; and it rings true. As divorce rates have risen dramatically in the course of the last several decades, surely the question of preparedness for marriage must be part of any analysis of the trend. On the other end of the question is the matter of marriage being delayed for many couples until later in life, if not foregone entirely—replaced by years-long, live-in relationships with no legal (but no fewer emotional and psychological) strings attached. It’s gotten to the point that, in the rare instance of a couple getting engaged in their early twenties, the reaction of society is such that one would think the young lovers had expressed their intention to fly to and colonize one of Jupiter’s moons.
A piece published this week at The Atlantic provides some insight into at least one aspect of how young people may be ill-prepared to enter the marriage contract, lacking the affective maturity necessary and also having wrong-headed ideas about what makes marriage the special relationship that it is. The piece, by writer Rhaina Cohen, is entitled, “What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?” and it details the experience of many people who have faced a particular dilemma in their romantic relationships: they are uncomfortable with the idea that such a relationship can in any way supplant or supersede their existing friendships. In the first paragraph, Cohen illustrated the case-in-point by way of quoting the experience of one young woman named Kami West, who after “a distressing experience in her mid-20s” with a boyfriend who seemed jealous of her best friend, a woman named Kate Tillotson, henceforth took pains to make sure the confusion that had distressed her would never be allowed to arise again. With her latest boyfriend, West explains, she laid it all out for him:
“‘I need you to know that [Tillotson’s] not going anywhere. She is my No. 1,'” Cohen quotes West as telling her boyfriend. Cohen goes on: “Tillotson was there before him, and, West told him, ‘she will be there after you. And if you think at any point that this isn’t going to be my No. 1, you’re wrong.'”
“She will be there after you.” This single phrase sums up one aspect of how West’s view of her romantic relationship is out of step with conventional and traditional understandings of marriage. For, after all, if West is planning—or at least open—to marrying her boyfriend one day, then it seems odd to speak of a relationship coming “after” her relationship with her boyfriend: because marriage is a life-long commitment, ‘until death do us part.’
Cohen details the experience of many other individuals in her story in order to illustrate her point. More on these later. But first, what is that point Cohen is seeking to demonstrate? She writes [emphasis added]:
In the past few decades, Americans have broadened their image of what constitutes a legitimate romantic relationship: Courthouses now issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Americans are getting married later in life than ever before, and more and more young adults are opting to share a home rather than a marriage license with a partner. Despite these transformations, what hasn’t shifted much is the expectation that a monogamous romantic relationship is the planet around which all other relationships should orbit.
By placing a friendship at the center of their lives, people such as West and Tillotson unsettle this norm. Friends of their kind sweep into territory typically reserved for romantic partners: They live in houses they purchased together, raise each other’s children, use joint credit cards, and hold medical and legal powers of attorney for each other. These friendships have many of the trappings of romantic relationships, minus the sex.
It is telling that it is Cohen herself that connects the emergence of such trends around friendship with the rise of same-sex ‘marriage.’ One of the sets of friends whose experience she covers is two gay men named Joe Rivera and John Carroll, who “met at a gay bar in Austin, Texas [where] Rivera was the emcee for a strip competition, and Carroll won the $250 cash prize.” The men live together, and Cohen describes their relationship as being “like brothers,” though Cohen quotes Carroll as describing their situation thus: “we have a little married-couple thing going on even though we’re not married.” Cohen calls this one of many typical “mixed analogies” that describes the new phenomena of intimate friendships she is investigating. She later details more about the men’s relationship, wherein she seems to make clear that their living situation is platonic and non-sexual. But at the same time, she quotes Carroll in a telling passage where he explains his view of his relationship with Rivera in contrast to “expectations” about romantic relationships and friendship more generally:
Carroll, who met his platonic partner, Joe Rivera, at a gay bar, describes [the] type of romantic relationship [where people ‘rely… on their spouses for social and emotional support’] as “one-stop shopping.” People expect to pile emotional support, sexual satisfaction, shared hobbies, intellectual stimulation, and harmonious co-parenting all into the same cart. Carroll, 52, thinks this is an impossible ask; experts share his concern.
Note how casually “sexual satisfaction” and “harmonious co-parenting” are thrown together as mere items in a list, clearly suggesting that they have nothing to do with one another and are easily extricable from one another.
Cohen is right in one respect: experts are concerned about this. But it is a different set of experts, and a different manner of concern, than what she chooses to focus on in her piece. She quotes “sexologists” and psychotherapists who all seem to think the traditional idea of all-encompassing conjugal union unhealthy and outdated; for example, a philosopher named Elizabeth Brake who “takes issue… with the special status that governments confer on romantic relationships” and the fact that “access to marriage currently hinges on (assumed) sexual activity.” All over this piece is the implicit challenge: What does marriage have to do with sex? Why should it have anything to do with sex?
This is precisely the challenge that the other experts mentioned above—the ones left outside Cohen’s research—have been preoccupied with for many years. In their 2012 book What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, authors Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George foresaw how this problem is tied up directly with proposals to grant same-sex couples the privilege of ‘marriage.’ In a section of their book headed “Undermining Friendship,” the authors explain how changes to views about friendship and the “revisionist view” of marriage go hand-in-hand:
Revisionists cannot define marriage in terms of real bodily union or family life, so they tend to define it instead by its degree or intensity. Marriage is simply your closest relationship, offering the most of the one basic currency of intimacy: shared emotion and experience. As a federal judge recently put it in a case striking down California’s conjugal marriage law, “ ‘marriage’ is the name that society gives to the relationship that matters most between two adults.”
The more we absorb this assumption, the less we value deep friendship in its own right. Self-disclosure, unembarrassed reliance, self-forgetfulness, extravagant expressions of affection, and other features of companionship come to seem gauche—or even feel like unwelcome impositions—outside romance and marriage.41 We come to see friendships as mere rest stops on the way back to family life. It becomes harder to share experiences with our friend that we could just as well have shared with our spouse, without seeming to detract from our marriage.
The conjugal view, by contrast, gives marriage a definite shape, as ordered to true bodily union and thus to family life. If the revisionist view sees single people as just settling for less, the conjugal view leaves room for different forms of communion, each with its own distinctive scale and form of companionship and support. It keeps from making marriage totalizing: it clarifies what we owe our spouses in marital love; what we owe it to them not to share with others; and what we could share now with them, now with others, without any compromise of our marriage.
In short, what the authors mean is simple: if you remove sex from marriage, if you make “sexual satisfaction” and “harmonious co-parenting” mere incidental list items of things two people can do with one another that have nothing to do with a life-long conjugal union of monogamous and exclusive intimacy, then marriage is just another form of friendship: and it therefore comes into conflict with and can be pitted against friendship in general, or with this or that particular friendship in the instant.
The logical end of this is the reversal that Cohen’s piece seems to push toward, quoting figures like Carroll and Blake: why shouldn’t friends be allowed to marry? If marriage is no longer conjugal, no longer tied with procreation and parenting, is just seen as being a particularly intense friendship, why do we still narrowly view marriage as having an implicit connection to sex? But of course, perhaps the crises marriage faces with respect to divorce and so much else are bound up precisely with the increasing pervasiveness of this logic. Committing to a friendship has no essential or rational demand of exclusivity, permanence, or monogamy, those characteristic features of the conjugal union.
Kami West, in explaining her friendship with Kate Tillotson, demonstrates the topsy-turvydom that comes from mixing up these categories: her friendship is the thing that’s permanent, that will last, but her relationship with her boyfriend, even if it becomes a marriage, might be a transient reality: Tillotson “was there before him,” and she would be there “after [him].” In West’s case, the juxtaposition has already become complete: for her, marriage has become friendship, and her friendship is like a marriage. But when marriage and friendship are blended together in this way, the result isn’t that either institution becomes stronger: it is that we lose both. And it seems that’s what Cohen would have us do.