The People Fighting for the Right to Marry Their Friends Could Change the Nature of Marriage (and Friendship)

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The pervasive narrative is this: you’re born, you grow up, you date people. Eventually, you stop dating people, and you get married to one person, a person with whom you have a singular romantic connection. Progress toward marriage equality has — belatedly and humiliatingly slowly — extended the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. But the basic understanding of marriage is the same: a state-recognized tie binding a romantic partnership. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s time for unions between two friends to be recognized as well.

“Right now, nearly half of all American adults, 18 and older, are not married. So about 50-some percent of adults have a spouse,” Dr. Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out and visiting professor at University of California, Santa Barbara tells me. “How many do you think have a friend?” The vast majority, probably. All of them, I hope. But as things currently stand, those platonic relationships — despite their obvious emotional (and logistical) importance — don’t have any legal clout. There are tangible legal and financial benefits to marriage — you can leave your social security benefits to your spouse after you die, for example. If you’re single (or in a non-state-recognized committed relationship), though, that money goes back into the system. You can generally be on your partner’s health insurance, but you usually can’t be on your best friend’s. If your “person” isn’t your legal partner, you’re out of luck. And as DePaulo writes in Psychology Today, given that a lot of people are single, and a lot of those single people say they expect to stay single, that’s a problem.

But the solution, DePaulo argues, is pretty simple: give friends of single people the same rights partners get. “Mate-rimony,” UK insurance sales site calls it, because “mates matter more.” It’s a good word. (Also, a word designed to sell insurance to new markets, but whatever.) The point isn’t to say that friend relationships are exactly the same as romantic relationships, same-sex or otherwise. The point is to value them for what they — important, even primary. Benefits come with taking on substantial responsibility for someone else’s welfare, but as the system stands now, that “someone” has to be a spouse. But what if that’s too narrow? “I have always thought that you should not have to be in any kind of couple (same-sex or heterosexual) in order to have access to the fundamental rights and protections that same-sex couples have been seeking,” she says. Unmarried Equality, an organization dedicated to exactly what it sounds like, agrees — equal rights for unmarried people, whether committed friends or romantic partners who haven’t tied the knot. When you put it that way, it’s hard to argue with (“no you cannot designate your social security benefits”?).

Still, there are critics. In a 2008 Boston Globe article on the topic, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow writes that some skeptics of the idea see friendship as a fundamentally different kind of relationship, one that doesn’t “warrant the same kind of recognition and support.” Other opponents, she says, have a different take: it’s not that friendship isn’t worthy of legal regulation, but that friendship isn’t served by it. “There is an ethos that if something is important, the law should be on the scene,” Columbia law professor Katherine Franke tells her. “I think we should resist that urge.” Then there are the logistics. How do you make sure the system isn’t abused? How do you sort out the paperwork?

To DePaulo, though, the fact remains: people, regardless of marital status, should get the same rights and the same social supports — not because friend relationships are the same as spousal relationships, but because they’re equally important kinds of relationships. For people who would benefit from it directly, the reasons for mate-rimonial arrangements are obvious. But couldn’t there be benefits for everyone else, too, with the possible exception of the social security administration?

Friendships obviously don’t need legal validation to thrive. The whole concept of mate-rimony only makes sense because so many people do have such strong platonic friendships already, without legal protection. At the same time, DePaulo’s analysis rings true: we tend to value “romantic relationships…to the exclusion of other kinds of relationships that are significant in our lives, such as friendships.” “Matrimania,” DePaulo calls it — an cultural obsession with all things coupled. Being able to leave your social security benefits to a friend probably wouldn’t change that. Changes to health insurance policies are unlikely to threaten the power of romantic love — everyone and their marriage is going to be fine. But what a policy shift could do, DePaulo says, is help us “start recognizing big, broader meanings of love and the many different kinds of relationships, beyond romantic ones.” Benefits are about taking responsibility for welfare. If the government valued friendship more, would we?

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