~ May 2021~ When we talk about sexless marriages, we usually think of them as unintentionally so. Our dominant social script suggests the sexless marriage is not a plan, but a devolution — if an inevitable one — from what was once a loving and passionate union. These days, however, people are entering sexless marriages on purpose. A recent New York Times report highlights the growing trend of platonic marriages, legal unions in which totally platonic friends commit to a life partnership devoid of sex or romance. Essentially, people are marrying their best friends — a cliché partners in traditionally monogamous, sexual relationships often claim is true of their own unions — they’re just leaving the sex and love out of it.
It’s unclear exactly how long these unions have been taking place or how common they really are, as many platonic couples aren’t open about the non-traditional nature of their marriages, though the Times spoke to a handful of couples who have tied the knot on a strictly platonic basis in recent years or plan to in the near future. Partners in such marriages represent a diverse array of genders and sexualities, from two queer women who “are open to dating anyone but each other,” to a union between a non-binary, aromantic and bisexual individual married to their aromantic and asexual best friend.
So what makes someone want to commit to a sexless, legally binding marriage? Turns out it’s not just about the tax breaks and other legal perks the government dangles as an incentive to perpetuate the patriarchal structures on which our cherished American ideals depend. While those benefits certainly don’t hurt, many platonic couples expressed similar motivations for getting married as romantic partners — a desire to tie one’s life to a trusted individual and to officially confirm that person’s position as the most important in the hierarchy of one’s personal relationships. Most of the couples that spoke to the Times seem to do almost everything we assume traditional couples do: they share homes and finances, have joint bank accounts and sometimes even raise children together. Most seemed to share a deep bond of platonic love and commitment. They just don’t sleep together.
The apparent popularization of platonic marriage comes at a time when many other forms of non-traditional romantic and sexual relationships are becoming normalized. As we dispense with dated, rigid notions of gender and sexuality, it’s inevitable that we also begin to outgrow the patriarchal, heteronormative relationship structures that were based on them.
That said, the platonic marriage is far from an entirely new concept. The idea of marriage as a union based on romance is actually a relatively modern one in the grand scheme of human history. As the Times notes, marriage was historically considered a primarily economic arrangement until about a few centuries ago. The rise of the romantic marriage is usually only traced back as far as the 18th century, and you can blame Jane Austen for popularizing it with the famed “marriage plots” she penned in early part of the following one.
It’s also worth noting that even today’s “traditional” marriages between presumably romantic partners have a tendency to become not just sexless, but also platonic at some point — though we don’t often like to admit it. I’ve known a number of married men who refer to their wives as “business partners,” or some other adjacent term to suggest a non-romantic relationship. These are men who maintain a deep bond with their life partner and who have no desire to untangle the joint life they’ve built together, but for whom any romantic or sexual attraction has long since worn off. It’s not a reality most people are fond of acknowledging, particularly within their own relationships, but you can probably think of a couple or two in your own life whom you suspect of maintaining a similar, if unspoken, dynamic.
Love, or whatever it is we’ve vaguely agreed constitutes “romantic love,” fades. Perhaps it was always ill-advised, then, to base a legally-binding union — one we at least pretend is permanent — on something inherently fleeting. If most marriages end up platonic (those that don’t end up dissolved acrimoniously, that is) why shouldn’t they just start that way in the first place?