On Companionate Marriages

by Jason Stotts

There are lots of different kinds of marriages, and I don’t just mean same-sex marriages, poly-marriages, and other “non-traditional” marriages.  There are different ways to have just “regular” old marriages between two people.  One kind of marriage is a romantic marriage where two partners intertwine their lives and share a high level of intimacy and sexuality.  Another option is the oppositional marriage, where two people cohabitate, but are always fighting each other.  There are many other style of marriages, but the one I want to focus on here is the companionate marriage.

A companionate marriage is one where two people cohabitate and might share even a high level of intimacy, but have little to no sexual contact.  This kind of marriage looks like it’s between two companions, or friends, who just happen to be married.  It can result from mutual agreement or from one person not being interested in sex.  Regardless, the defining characteristic is the fact that the partners have little to no sexual interaction, even though they might have a high degree of intimacy.

A companionate marriage works well when it’s to the mutual agreement of both partners.  In that case, where the partners just aren’t interested in sex, this kind of relationship lets the partners have all the parts of a relationship they want without any of the parts they don’t.  Unfortunately, though, companionate marriages are much more commonly due to one partner not being interested in sex, much to the chagrin of the other partner.  This presents an insurmountable problem in our culture: marriage is between one man and one woman and they can only have sex with each other.  So, the usual solution is to divorce and throw away all the good parts of the marriage in order for the partners to find other partners with whom they are sexually compatible.  Sadly, if their marriage was otherwise good, this doesn’t always go well.  A good relationship is hard to achieve and it’s common for people who leave companionate marriages to end up in relationships that are more sexually satisfying, but less emotionally satisfying.

What if, however, there was another answer?  What if a person could maintain their companionate marriage and all of the positive values it brings and also have a satisfying sex life? Obviously, this can be done if we throw away the monogamy requirement.  In fact, the emphasis on monogamy is nowhere as destructive as it is in this particular situation.  If a couple in a companionate marriage were to open their relationship, they could maintain their intimacy and the good parts of their marriage and, at the same time, both partners could have the kind of sex lives they want.  The person who wants little to no sex could continue having that with their original partner (or, if they wanted, another partner; although this isn’t likely given their inclinations) and the person who wasn’t sexually satisfied would be free to pursue more satisfying sexual encounters with others.  This could be done on a purely sexual level or it could evolve into polyamory, depending on what the couple wanted to do.  Through removing the monogamy requirement, the couple can end up having the best of both worlds.

Unfortunately, sometimes the partner who is less interested in sex won’t understand the desires of their partner who is more interested in sex and won’t want to open their relationship or engage in sex more frequently.  Sadly, often in our culture, with its christian taint, the person who was less interested in sex will take the moral high-ground and decry the sexuality of their partner and they can hold them hostage: neither having sex with them nor letting them satisfy their desires elsewhere.  This, I think, is completely unacceptable.  Sex is an important part of a human life and a person should not have to go without sex and its pleasures in order to conform to a cultural requirement whose only basis is superstition from an old book.  This is the situation I had in mind when I wrote “The Importance of Sexual Satisfaction.”  Sex is a normal and important part of a human life and a person should not have to suffer its deprivation.  In fact, lots of studies have shown that not having sex can actually lead to all sorts of illnesses including cancer, while having sex improves both our moods and our health.  Forcing your partner to go without sex literally harms them.

If our culture were more sex-positive, then answer here is obviously non-monogamy.  However, even in our culture, a person can still refuse to give up the moral high ground and should openly talk to their partner about the options.  Realistically there are only two: non-monogamy or dissolving the relationship.  In most cases companionate marriages start out as romantic marriages and slowly evolve over time as passions cool, jobs take precedence, kids are born, etc.  To me it makes no sense to throw away a happy marriage, a stable household, your children’s other parent, your shared past, and all the rest, only for the sake of maintaining monogamy.  And this is why a companionate marriage that is sexually open can be the ideal solution in certain contexts: even if it isn’t the abstract optimal condition, it might still be the best option open in a person’s real life.

So, far from decrying the companionate marriage, I think that the companionate marriage can end up working quite well for some couples, especially if the couple sheds their pre-conceived notions of what a “proper relationship” should look like and they look to their real lives and how to achieve their happiness in the real world.

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