January 2, 2014

"A lad is good friends with a woman who admitted she has a crush on him. He doesn't feel the same way about her..."

"...but knows she would make a great life partner. Should he suggest a companionate marriage from the get-go?"

The link goes to a podcast, and this part begins at 13:36. Unfortunately, there's no transcript. Also, the question-answerer is Dan Savage, and I already know some of you resist the charms of Dan Savage. Let's not get distracted by the difficulty of sitting through audio. (I recommend listening to podcasts when doing things — like putting on your makeup and making your coffee.) And let's not bother with the usual taking shots at Dan Savage. (We know about Dan Savage and the doorknobs, and I could lick a doorknob at night.) Let's get right onto the topic, which I will summarize for your convenience.

A heterosexual man and woman are true friends and get along great, and he's in his 30s and thinking he'd like someone to settle down and grow old with, but he has no sexual interest in her. He's had plenty of women sexually, but none of them are suitable life partners, and he doesn't think he'll ever meet another woman who'll feel like such a great wife. He thinks this woman might be up for any sort of proposal he'll make to her, so could/should he offer to marry her in a "companionate marriage," meaning he has no sexual interest in her and she should never expect to have sex with him, but he's committed to everything else about the life partnership?

You might want to know how much does she desire sex from him? Maybe there's some way he could first find out how interested in sex she is. Would a sex-free marriage in fact be a positive thing for her too? It seems unlikely, but that's a moving part in the analysis that he could try to pin down first. Also, would he give up sex for rest of his life? I think this particular man wanted to propose a marriage where he had freedom to seek out sex with other women, so the idea would be that she'd be agreeing to this arrangement, which would include his conducting these outside liaisons with discretion and respect and disease-prevention precautions. He'd grant her corresponding freedoms if that's what she wanted.

Note that this model for a marriage would enable gay people to marry someone of the opposite sex. It would also enable sexually unappealing persons to form life partnerships.

Savage's actual answer has a lot to do with the age of the man asking the question. He's in his 30s, but he contemplates the value of having this woman keeping him company when he's in his 80s and he imagines sex won't matter at all in half a century.

The term "companionate marriage" has been used to mean different things over the years. Searching the term in the NYT archive, I see that it was a big topic in the 1920s, and Bertrand Russell's name keeps coming up. Here's his 1928 article, "Is Companionate Marriage Moral?"

Russell defines the term to include a 3-fold legal aspect: 1. Recognition of unions in which the production of children will be avoided (at least at first) by using birth control, 2. Allowing divorce by mutual consent as long as there are no children, and 3. No alimony upon divorce where there are no children. The idea is obviously avoiding children, not avoiding sex.

In addition to the legal aspect, there is, Russell says, a "social" aspect. Conventionally, a married man and woman are expected to live together, with the man providing her economic support. But that's because children are supposed to arrive. If children are avoided, these expectations are not present, he says.
[T]here is no reason why the wife should not earn her living, and every reason why she should. There will be no interference with each other's work, none of the fuss and flummery which at present make marriage disgusting to young people of spirit, none of the foolish pretense of protection by the male and dependence on the part of the female. 
The moral topic here is whether a man without the means to start a family should be allowed to marry a woman so he can have sex. The "sexual instinct does not wait" until the man is economically ready to support a wife and children. Yes, a man could go to prostitutes, but:
Nowadays, young women, for the most part, no longer feel bound to abstain from extramarital intercourse, with the result that unmarried men can have decent relations with women with whom they have much in common mentally — relations not founded on a cash nexus, but upon mutual affection.
Companionate marriage, then, was a way for a young couple, sexually attracted to each other, to live together openly. This was recommended over the alternative, which was "surreptitious," and tended to be "frivolous, promiscuous, and unduly exciting."

But our "lad" in the Dan Savage question wasn't fretting about "unduly exciting" sex. He was talking about no sexual interest at all. And the "fuss and flummery" of marriage seemed not "disgusting" at all, but the best part, desirable without any sex at all.

But that's what the term "companionate marriage" has come to mean these days. These notions evolve, and no one seems to wonder anymore about how to deal with raging sexual passions. Today's problem is lack of passion or lack of passion for anyone you'd want to live with along with a desire for long-term, committed companionship.


George M. Spencer said...

"A lad and a woman..."

A lad?

Anyway, bad idea. If it was a good idea, women and lads would be doing it in droves.

Ann Althouse said...

"A lad?"

It's a way to say — with a very short word — you're too young. Said by an old man to the young man.

Ann Althouse said...

That makes me remember that in another podcast recently, Savage referred to being in one's 30s as "middle aged."

(Savage himself will turn 50 later this year.)

MadisonMan said...

I don't watch "upworthy" videos, and I'm not gonna listen to a podcast.

If two grown adults want to do this, I say let them. I think they will live to regret it, however. But I'm not the one who is in charge of their lives. I guess they did ask for advice. So here it is:

I think you should explore why you can't find a woman you want to settle down with. Every *other* advice column I read says that single available men in their 30s are a rare species. What is wrong with you?

Tarrou said...

Sounds like a recipe for resentment to me.

Sex is what binds men and women together. It is the post-orgasmic release of oxytocin and other brain chemicals like serotonin that hardwire an irrational desire to stay with one mate into the brain.

And on a less scientific front, how the hell are men and women supposed to get along if they aren't screwing? No offense ladies, but without sexual desire, the vast majority of men would find the vast majority of women profoundly uninteresting and annoying. And I'm sure there's a parallel for women.

Hammond X. Gritzkofe said...

What's the point here? Taking another sword slash at the definition of "marriage?"

Most folks are not going to get exercised over two - or more - adults of whatever sex living together however they want, so long as they mind their own business.

Those of us who have chosen a life-long committed relationship with one person of the opposite sex, the creation and raising of children, used to have a word to describe that.

You want to live some other way, fine. But make up your own word to describe it. Ours was already being used.

Fucking bullies!

Will Cate said...

After close to 30 years married, I think the most important thing for a married couple to have is a vision-in-common of the way they want their lives to be. There's no reason these persons shouldn't marry, if it's what they both want.

Ipso Fatso said...

Based on Ann's post, we don't know what the woman thinks or wants. I have a hard time believing that she would settle for a guy who did not find her appealing sexually. To live with a guy who felt that about you would be throwing your life away for nothing. IMO. Also the guy sounds like an a-hole--look at me, I am so wonderful....if he were so wonderful he would have found someone by his 30s to settle down with. It would be interesting to get the take on this guy from the other women who he dated but found wanting. Chances are he is not the catch he believes he is.

Renee said...

Why need marriage, just call it best friends?

A lot of older divorce/widowed Catholics, will refer to a person of the opposite sex as 'their companion'.

Why marry?

Left Bank of the Charles said...

Suggest from the get go? Would you spring this on the first date or wait until the third date?

This obviously is a question of settling for the good life partner, rather than the good sex partners who you don't think would be good life partners.

The question is, will you be unhappy staying in the marriage if someone better comes along. And will she?

Some people can make this sort of thing work, other people can't. Are you a Bill Clinton? Or an Anthony Weiner?

Lyssa said...

I agree with Mad Man - he's got some sort of hang-up here - either he's requiring something sexually of women that limits him from finding a good parter (i.e., he's only turned on by crazy drama queens), or he's demanding something unrealistic in a life partner. He should work on that. (She probably has issues to work on, too.)

This relationship would likely be disasterous. If she wants to be with him, and he rejects her, she will certainly grow to resent him and hate herself, making them both miserable. Plus it will keep both of them from finding relationships that actually work for them (and, if one or both of them are getting some on the side, then it's probably only a matter of time until one meets someone who does work, likely to lead to a messy breakup).

Also, if he's into screwing crazy drama queens, it's only a matter of time until one gets knocked up. All kinds of fun there. Don't screw crazy, and don't tie your life to someone who does.

Renee said...

"Also, if he's into screwing crazy drama queens, it's only a matter of time until one gets knocked up. "


rehajm said...

If it works for them live and let live but why the necessity for the label 'companionate marriage'? Are those born in the age of everyone-gets-a-trophy worried their relationship isn't as bona fide as 'marriage' so they must have the label of legitimacy? It's like all the world's a Richard Scary book where you're nothing if there's not a label floating over your head.

And since we're labeling, let's label this guy- narcissist.

And where's the feminist rant for this spinster woman? Isn't she entitled to sexual satisfaction despite societal constructs labeling her as unattractive? Naomi Wolf on line one, Dan...

Mark said...

Humans being what they are, I'm sure there are plenty of male/female pairings that could work in companionate marriages. (There may be fewer than there are pairings where screwed-up men are looking for mommy figures to have at home, and women who want to be mommy figures, but hey....)

Renee, assuming healthy psyches are involved, there are lots of legal and economic benefits to marriage, not to mention that having and rearing children (turkey basters could be employed as necessary) is a lot easier under the institution of marriage.

Matt Sablan said...

I think it is a pretty bad way to start a marriage, so I'd say no. Even if we reverse the genders, or we change it to a non-traditional marriage.

Marriage is pretty serious; I think a one-way "crush" is a terrible foundation for a marriage.

Fritz said...

Putting on my make up didn't last long enough to make it through the podcast.

Ignorance is Bliss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ignorance is Bliss said...

If the plan is to allow sex outside the relationship, then it is not a marriage. Period.

As others have said, find your own word. This one is taken.

Wince said...

Hammond X Gritzkofe said...
What's the point here? Taking another sword slash at the definition of "marriage?"

That was my first take. Seemingly, in no time after recognition of same sex marriage, Savage is out peddling exactly what same sex marriage opponents warned of: open, uncommitted redefinition of marriage free of the usual commitments of sexual fidelity.

Of course, Savage introduced the notion in the context of strange heterosexual arrangements.

Experience tells me this is an interest for gay men, but not lesbians.

Freeman Hunt said...

The woman should watch the movie Marty.

You don't have to be attractive to be happily married to someone who loves you.

This guy sounds like a jerk. I hope the woman stops liking him so much.

Freeman Hunt said...

Has anyone ever seen married people before? A parade of average married people is not a parade of super models.

Renee said...

Look at the recent talk about income inequality/mobility.... the biggest gap is children with single moms.

Children are a lot of work, I need a man who just doesn't like me. I need a man to love me so much, to deal with stress and not walk away.

If a man and woman love one another, the children will be loved. People forget the love part.... the children are a result of LOVE!

traditionalguy said...

Sounds like a Friendship analysis to me. Friendship is a very good thing.

But friends come in circles of closeness. There are great numbers of Friends at level 3 seen regularly but not trusted with important life stuff.

Then there are a number of Friends at level 2 that are permanent and invited to most events, who know a lot about your life and are semi-permanent, but are still not soul ties.

Finally you have level one of completely trusted, possibly 2 or 3 at most in a lifetime, friends that would die for one another.

Problems are always level one, which must be mature people who want the best for you....a wife/husband meets that definition.

Renee said...


Oprah did shows on this stuff all the time when she was on the Network stations.

Now on cable she talks about fatherless.

Matt Sablan said...

Also, as an almost-30, single man, I can't think of a worse reason to get married than some girl saying, "Hey, I like you," followed by me saying, "Let's get hitched!"

cubanbob said...

It's all in the timing. If they were both thirty or more years older it could work but in their thirties? Not likely.

traditionalguy said...

A religious person will also note well the necessity of a Covenant in human relationships.

Marriage IS a Covenant. Each party takes covenant vows before God not to abuse the other one's trust in a no secrets relationship where each knows the other's weaknesses.

People are so fickle that even God refuses to have a relationship with people out side of a Covenant that makes it safer for both parties.

The Lord's Prayer even reminds us fickle folks to throw in, "...lead us not through temptations..."

OK, all we want to talk about is sex, sex, sex. Doesn't anyone have intercourse anymore?

MadisonMan said...

This guy sounds like a jerk. I hope the woman stops liking him so much

Oh, but her love will change him! Pop culture says so!

MadisonMan said...

Would a church marry this couple? I suppose it depends on how much pre-marital counseling they have, but if they're Catholic, and the answer questions truthfully, I can't see a Priest marrying them.

test said...

If she has a crush it seems overwhelmingly likely she'd desire sex with him. If so accepting the agreement described would likely be with the hope of changing his mind or a major sacrifice on her part, one she'll likely come to regret. I think the chances of the arrangement ending up successful are very low.

So what he should do is tell her bluntly he's not attracted to her so she can move on emotionally.

Bob Boyd said...

Sounds like a plot for a reality show, like Duck Dynasty, but with a different kind of beard.

RBB said...

I've been in a version of this marriage. I would not recommend it.

MayBee said...

I agree with Marshal. She'd go into thinking she can make him love her.

It could work if they are both disinterested in each other sexually.

But really? The guy can't imagine having sex with a woman he likes? Even occasionally? That sounds more feminine than masculine.

MayBee said...

My gay male friends here (London) call gay guys "lads".

wildswan said...

It's hard to imagine a woman with a "crush" who won't want sex and who won't be crushed when the guy explains no sex because no attraction. The situation has to fester. And why go through all the horrid contortions to the inevitable end - which will not be sixty years later but will be two and half years to ten lost years later? Should we stop them? Should we ban substances which damage health such as sugar? and is it the same to ban situations which will harm health? because this situation will cause drinking, drugs or overeating, I guarantee.

Clyde said...

Why buy the cow when you can not get the milk for free?

slarrow said...

This may be the first time I've ever heard of a guy trying to put a woman in the permanent friendzone.

William said...

GBS said that marriage is popular because it combines the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity. Unless the woman involved is a dead ringer for Lynne Stewart, I wouldn't rule out the total absence of sex.....,But all this is academic. It's just a matter of time before Sony brings out Playstation XXX. It will have, of course, vaginal and/or phallic attachments and even a doohickey that licks you behind the ear. The various games--deflowering the maids at Downton Abbey, a weekend with Obama, et al--will make ordinary marital sex seem very pedestrian. I suppose there will always be some who will stick with organic marriages, but this is definitely the wave of the future.

Meade said...

Fritz said...
"Putting on my make up didn't last long enough to make it through the podcast."

LOL. I get an image of Fritz humming to himself, I Say A Little Prayer. At work he just takes time, and all through his coffee break time...

Anonymous said...

It sounds to me like the man would benefit from some serious psychoanalyzing to resolve his patent Madonna/whore complex.

Aside from that: Once marriage is no longer legally viewed as a conjugal relationship, in which there is at least the fiction that children may arrive, it really doesn't matter what name, shape, or form it takes. It no longer means anything worth forming laws around.

Anonymous said...

It sounds to me like the man would benefit from some serious psychoanalyzing to resolve his patent Madonna/whore complex.

Aside from that: Once marriage is no longer legally viewed as a conjugal relationship, in which there is at least the fiction that children may arrive, it really doesn't matter what name, shape, or form it takes. It no longer means anything worth forming laws around.

pdug said...

They could just be friends.

Why can't friends be married?

Are we going to stipulate that its unfair to people who just want to be very close friends that they can't be legally married?

Alex said...

I was once a lad, 'twas but a fleeting instant.

ALP said...

The letter writer appears to think that a marriage certificate confers a guarantee that he won't be lonely in his old age.

Why he believes this is the important question. Why does he think he needs to marry this woman, rather than simply live together and agree to be best friends until death?

I suspect the woman has money.

pdug said...

Thinking about this more:

He want's someone to be a companion with and friend into old age.

But will he ever really Know her?


F said...

And so the modern world, led by the USA, continues to redefine what "marriage" means. We've reached the tipping point on two people of the same sex marrying each other (but have to add a qualifier to the term "marriage". And there are rumblings that a tipping point is not far off for multiple parties to marriage, but that's still far enough off that we're not even debating the qualifier we will tack onto the word "marriage" when we decide to legalize this.

Even a little further off in the distance we appear to be considering marriage to underage partners -- same and opposite sex -- but that's far enough off that we're not even looking for a name for that relationship.

In any case, until Hollywood puts out a film on Savage's proposal we probably won't see it come to pass. Once it gets filmdom's blessing, with Leonardo deCaprio in an onscreen companionship marriage with Merryl Streep, we can't consider it a serious social construct. Or deconstruct.

I agree with previous posters who say "get your own word for this -- 'marriage' is already taken".

JoyD said...

Oh, who cares. At all.

Strelnikov said...

That was no lady, that was my companionate.

Still needs work.

Strelnikov said...

"But will he ever really Know her?


Well, not in the biblical sense.

Strelnikov said...

Strelnikov's corollary to Harry's Unified Theory of Relations Between the Sexes: Any heterosexual man and woman living for an extended time in close proximity will eventually have sex, regardless of initial desire.

Unknown said...

I haven't noticed if anybody said this, but if she is making him think she would be a great wife, then she is mounting a major charm offensive upon him, and it is working. She's probably bringing her A game as far as being sweet and feminine and nurturing. It's the kind of thing that makes a guy want to love a woman forever.
The man in question seems to think she's just that way, and perhaps to some extent she it, but I'd take tall odds that she's trying to get him to fall for her.

Biff said...

I've occasionally seen elderly siblings living together for convenience and companionship for many years after their respective spouses have died, and that led me to wonder if some sort of "companionate marriage" structure wouldn't be worthwhile for people in those circumstances. For example, most of the time, it seems extremely unlikely that either individual would remarry in any traditional sense, and while there is no romantic/sexual aspect, the personal commitment to each other is likely to be lifelong, so why not allow a pooling of interests and legal benefits comparable to traditional marriage? (Note that I'm not raising the issue of gender, which I think is generally irrelevant for this type of relationship, nor am I raising the issue of children, which may introduce complicated issues of inheritance.)

I can't say I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, so, aside from traditionalism (and perhaps the inheritance rights of children), are there any other obvious practical reasons why this would be a bad idea?