Marrying Friends for Benefits: The Real Threat to Marriage
Upping the ante on friends with benefits, with big consequences.
Posted Jun 10, 2016
You've heard of friends with benefits. Now consider this: Marrying friends for benefits—lots of benefits, but none of them sexual.
As the moral panic over the legalization of same-sex marriage hit its crescendo, we heard all sorts of stories of the horrifying possibilities such a ruling might portend. People might marry more than one person! They might marry their dog! One especially kooky conspiracy website featured a picture of a woman with a seal. Rick Santorum issued his loathsome "man on child, man on dog" comparison (never anticipating how he would get savaged for that).
But I don't think anyone predicted what may well be the most subversive and consequential door that the legalization of same-sex marriage has opened. It is a door to something that is not at all shocking or salacious, but instead utterly reasonable. And it could change the meaning of marriage more than some mythical baby-seal-spouse ever could: People can now marry their platonic friends.
The legalization of same-sex marriage means that there are now twice as many people potentially available as marriage partners. Any adult can now look to any other adult as a possible partner in marriage. As Carol Hynson noted in our discussion of this issue in the Community of Single People, "Nothing devalues membership in an 'exclusive club' more than opening the doors to all."
There are plenty of reasons to marry someone other than romantic love. I cannot count the number of times we have been reminded that legal marriage comes with a treasure trove of benefits and protections unavailable to people who are not married. At the federal level alone, there are more than 1,000 laws privileging officially married people. Many have enormous economic implications, with the potential to transform people's financial lives from struggling to secure.
So if you have a platonic friend you trust—whether same-sex or other-sex—and merging your lives under the official banner of marriage would help you economically and in other ways, too, why not?
Kim Calvert, editor of Singular Magazine, made a compelling case for what marrying a close friend would do for her. In fact, when the Washington Post sent out a recent daily compilation of best stories from the hundreds it publishes every day, Calvert's guest post for the "Solo-ish" column made the list. Here's an excerpt:
"With a signed wedding license in hand and five minutes before a judge, I could be covered by his union-employee health insurance and stop paying a small fortune in premiums and co-pays. Our car insurance rates would drop in price. We could file a joint tax return and write off my business expenses (I’m self-employed) against his W-2 income for a bigger return. If either one of us were to die, the survivor would receive the other’s Social Security benefits instead of all that money being absorbed by the federal government. And the complicated technicalities of major investments, such as buying a home, would simplify dramatically. I could pool my 401(k) funds with his pension. We could make important decisions for each other in case of an emergency."
Calvert's marriage would be "an amicable business partnership." Here are some of the typical elements of weddings and marriages that would not be on Calvert's list:
- Wedding rings
- Wedding "hoopla"
- Romantic love
- The presumption that her partner would automatically be included in all of her socializing
- "…and please don't call me 'wife'"
There are risks to friendship/business-partnership marriages, just as there are with any marriage. To name just one example, married people can get entangled in each other's debts in ways that can be disastrous. That's why a marriage partner, even in this business partnership version of the institution, should be someone you trust and know a fair amount about.
Marrying someone for purely instrumental reasons may seem at least as radical as marrying a platonic friend instead of a romantic partner, but as Calvert noted, "People have been marrying for practical reasons for centuries." Historians have been telling us so. Philosophers have made the case for doing it now. There are writings about contemporary versions of practical marriages. And the dozens, if not hundreds, who have argued for uncoupling marriage from all its legal privileges are also underscoring the vast practical benefits of marrying (as well as the injustice of tying them solely to one kind of relationship).
What I like about Calvert's proposal is its subversiveness. If people began marrying their friends for practical reasons—and did so openly and in big numbers—marriage would begin to lose something truly significant: the fairy dust that its advocates and apologists have been frantically trying to sprinkle all over it.
All the over-the-top celebrations of marriage and couples and weddings that I call matrimania are happening not because we are so secure about the place of marriage in our lives, but because we are so insecure about it. The big, fundamental components of our lives that used to be all wound up in marriage have now come undone.
As I noted in Singled Out:
Although women are still paid less than men for comparable work, and far too many women and men live in poverty, there are currently sizable numbers of women who earn enough money on their own to support themselves, and maybe even some kids. They are no longer tethered to husbands for economic life support. Neither men nor women need a spouse to have sex without stigma or shame. Children born to single mothers now have the same legal rights as those born to married mothers. With the advent of birth control and legalized abortion, and with progress in medical reproductive technology, women can have sex without having children, and children without having sex.
With big-ticket items such as economic security, sex, children all available outside of marriage, the special place of marriage in contemporary society needs to be sustained in some other way. All those unearned benefits and protections that can only be attained by marrying certainly help. So does something else: hype. Marriage, we are led to believe, is magical. It is the coming together of two souls meant for each other. It is spiritual. It is transformative.
It isn't, really.
It is not necessary in the ways that it used to be and it is not inherently special. To keep its emotionally privileged place, it needs to be propped up by all the wedding porn and the cheesy reality shows and the books and movies with marriage plots and all the media fawning and the shameful misrepresentations of scientific research.
All that would be undermined by hordes of people saying, "Maybe I'll marry my platonic friend for the benefits I cannot get any other way. And I won't have a great big party or a fancy white dress and I won't call myself a wife and my partner and I won't socialize all that often and we will not even live together."
Just try to romanticize that.
If you are someone like Calvert, and getting married to a platonic friend might vastly improve your life in all sorts of economic and practical ways, maybe you should consider it. But here is a more important point:
The friendship/business-partnership marriage is a solution that benefits the specific individuals who choose it. We need more fundamental changes that benefit everyone.
No one should ever have to marry in order to be treated fairly. Basic benefits and protections should be available to all humans. No one should be required to have a romantic partner or a platonic friend or any other kind of partner or relationship or qualification to be entitled to social justice, to equal protection under the law. Equality for all, regardless of marital or relationship status, cannot be attained solely by the subversive choices implemented by one person at a time. We need to act collectively to change laws, policies, and social structures.
- (1) Thanks to Unmarried Equality for allowing me to cross-post this article.
- (2) Thanks to Li Hayes and Riza Hariati for raising the issue of the bigger social justice themes in the discussion of Kim's article in the Community of Single People, and to Carol Hynson for letting me use her great quote about exclusive clubs.
- (3) The opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the official positions of Unmarried Equality or Psychology Today.