Sexless, Open Marriages: A New Trend?
January 17, 2018
Both the secular society and the church have hardly mentioned one, enormous casualty of the sexual revolution---friendship. This latest story about a sexless marriage reads like a satire of its neglect, revealing a complete confusion of categories between friendship and marriage. Here is the opening paragraph:
When New York socialites Quentin Esme Brown and Peter Cary Peterson got hitched in Las Vegas over the weekend in front of a small group of friends — including Tiffany Trump, who acted as the flower girl — they knew that people would make some assumptions. Either they were madly in love or drunk, right? In reality, the best friends said they were neither. They’re planning to make theirs a sexless, open marriage, they explained, and this actually sounds like a pretty wise idea to relationship experts.
Sexless? Open? Wise? It’s easy to read this and lament about how they have the notion of marriage all wrong. And they do. But this whole story reveals that these NY socialites and the “experts” interviewed have not only lost the meaning of marriage, but of friendship as well. And a proper understanding of friendship is foundational to build from in something like marriage.
The so-called relationship experts interviewed concur that this is a wise idea. I would think that if one were a relationship expert, one would then know the categorical distinction between friendship and marriage---one is platonic, one is sexual. Friendship is not exclusive. Marriage is exclusive. You don't have a non-sexual marriage with a friend and have sexual relationships with everyone else, just like you don't stop making and building non-sexual friendships with others once you enter the sexual union of marriage. But the experts have a different take:
Susan Pease Gadoua, a licensed therapist and co-author of The New “I Do,” has yet to meet anyone else with this kind of marriage, but she says it fits in with the way she sees many people deciding to change the rules to suit their relationship needs…
“Basically, rather than being an emotion-based marriage, it’s a purpose-driven marriage, which is kind of a throwback to how we used to marry before the industrial revolution,”
First of all, while this indeed exposes the problem with a merely emotion-based marriage, I have to pose the question: what is their friendship based on? The couple uses rather emotionally charged language to describe their friendship. Brown calls Peterson her “soulmate” and elaborates, “we are just each other’s hearts.”
Peterson explains on his Instagram account, “Esme and I have taken progressive steps towards what we believe marriage should be. I need to be constantly growing, evolving, and progressing…we did this because we want to finalize our commitment to each other as life partners and best friends. Life is short and I just want to be happy.”
And second of all, I’m pretty sure that part of the purpose-driven nature of marriages before the industrial revolution was that they were both exclusive and sexual. I wonder what the purpose of this non-sexual friend, open marriage is? The language of growing, evolving, and progressing is a bunch of psychological gobbledygook.
And how does one finalize a commitment to a friend? The very thought that one would have to marry a friend to show commitment to them reveals how disposable we view friendship as a whole. And the irony is not lost that a society that views marriage as a disposable agreement looks to it as a virtuous commitment in this case. The secular world has stripped sex from all of its meaning, oneness, relational value, fruit, danger, and commitment. Sex has been reduced to a recreational activity. Whereas, Christians are so reactive and guarded to this romanticized and sexualized age that we set marriage up as the ultimate relationship in which all of our commitment, passion, and intimacy is shared and invested. Friendship is minimized in both cases.
The result is that we don’t know how to behave as lovers or as friends. If you want to keep a friendship platonic, marrying them is a bad idea! And if you want to make an exclusive commitment in marriage, having a sexual relationship with someone else is also a bad idea!
Friendship indeed calls us to worthy practices and commitment. Peterson and Brown are right not to want to minimize friendship like so many do. But while they are making a categorical mistake by thinking marriage is the highest expression of friendship, they are also on to something that so many have lost. Friendship is something you do. To be a friend, we need to exercise virtue. It requires moral excellence. This is indeed a demanding kind of moral excellence because it is not primarily for the benefit of ourselves, but through our own sacrifices for another. The beautiful paradox is that this others-centered virtue creates what we call friendship, enhancing the souls of all participants. Friends are advocates who promote one another’s holiness. That is a relationship, unlike marriage, that will carry on to the new heavens and the new earth.
Friendship is not merely companionship. It is not merely recognizing affection for another person. C.S. Lewis reminds us, “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue” (The Four Loves, 57). So I hope that marriages do have a foundation of friendship, even as it is a relationship with exclusive additional blessings and responsibilities.
Perterson and Brown are quite vague about their purpose in their friendship and their marriage, revealing their confusion about both relationships. Again, Lewis is instructive in explaining that the focus of a friendship isn’t on the friendship itself, but rather the pursuit of common interests and convictions. This is also what distinguishes friendship love from erotic love. “In some ways nothing is less like a Friendship than a love affair. Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship” (61). And yet we see the language from Peterson and Brown to be focused on their friendship rather than any actual common pursuit. What is it that they want to evolve to or grow in?
Another “relationship expert” comments:
“To me it seems like they’re creating a family out of two people; it’s a family member you can always count on,” Maryland-based psychologist Samantha Rodman tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “A lot of these sorts of marriages are in response to society getting increasingly isolated, and people want to create a kinship model. You either have to be married or you have to be blood relatives; otherwise, you can walk away from each other.”
Real friends don’t have to marry to be able to count on each other. But it is very perceptive to note how our increasingly isolated society is longing for a kinship model. This is exactly what God gives us in his church, which is a committed body made up of brothers and sisters in Christ, spurring one another on and promoting one another’s holiness as we grow together in his mission of eternal communion with the Triune God and one another. God reveals himself to his people so that he can make friends with us. How well to we represent this to the watching world by our friendships?
Friendship requires rooted identity, mission, holistic value, purity, maturity, and growth. This is costly. Our Savior thought of the cost to be a friend to us, one that we could never afford, and then warned us to count the cost before becoming his disciples. Because of his sacrifice, I want to represent him by being a good friend. Aelred of Rievaulx offers a mindset that will help us represent this in our own friendships: “You and I are here, and I hope that Christ is between us as a third…Gratefully let us welcome the place, the time, and the leisure.” (Spiritual Friendship, 1.1, 55).