The Subversive Implication of Same-Sex Marriage that No One Predicted

two women at beach, from back

Marrying a platonic friend for financial and practical benefits can be a deliciously subversive individual act, but for social justice writ large, we need more.

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! The kooky conspiracy website, WND, featured a picture of a woman with a seal. Rick Santorum issued his loathsome “man on child, man on dog” comparison (never anticipating how Dan Savage would savage him for that).

I don’t think anyone predicted what may well be the most subversive and consequential door that the legalization of same-sex marriage opened. It is a door to something that is not at all shocking or salacious, but instead utterly reasonable. It is something that can 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 on the planet 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 even count the number of times we have all been reminded that legal marriage comes with a treasure trove of special benefits and protections unavailable to people who are not married. Just at the federal level, there are more than 1,000 such 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, no matter 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 its daily compilation of best stories from the hundreds it publishes every day, Kim’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.”

Kim 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 Kim’s list:

  • No wedding rings
  • No church
  • “No wedding hoopla”
  • No honeymoon
  • No romantic love
  • No 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 Kim 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 Kim’s marriage proposal is its subversiveness. If people began marrying their friends for practical reasons – and they did this 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. 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 what Kim said (my paraphrase): “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 Kim, and getting married to a platonic friend might vastly improve your life in all sorts of economic and practical ways, then 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.

Unmarried Equality needs to keep up the good fight. 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.

[Notes. (1) 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. (2) The opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the official positions of Unmarried Equality. (3) The comment option on the UE website has been invaded by spammers, so I have disabled comments for now. I’ll post all of these blog posts at the UE Facebook page; please join our discussions there.]

Bella color, square, 376 dpi

About the Author: Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of  How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century and Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.

 Previous columns:

#14 Journalists and Social Scientists Glorify Married People. Will We All Look Back in Shame?

#13 Why Is Marriage Still So Glorified When So Many People Are Not Married?

#12 Beyond the Nuclear Family: New Policies and Practices Are Needed for the Way We Live Now

#11 How the Washington Post (Almost) Published a Week of Respectful Articles about Unmarried Life

#10 Unmarried Status Is a Diversity Issue

#9 Unmarried Americans as home buyers and home creators

#8 The right to be single

#7 Nuclear family privilege: Naming it and slaying it

#6 Is marriage a greedy institution?

#5 Housing Discrimination against People Who Are Not Married: What We Just Don’t Get

#4 Now It’s Really Time for Unmarried Equality

#3 3 Roads to Social Justice – For Lasting Change, We Must Follow Them All

#2 The Global Struggle for Unmarried Equality: The Case of Finland

#1 The Marriage Opportunists Are Coming – We Need to Be Prepared (or click here for a version that includes links)

About Bella DePaulo