Romantic marriage is dead, long live platonic partnerships

Why wait for 'the one' to come along when you can share life's responsibilities with your real ride or die?

by Isabelle Truman
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10 March 2022, 8:00am

When I was four, I married my best friend Clare in the backyard of the house we shared with her mum and mine. We’d moved in a few months prior after my dad disappeared, leaving my mum broke, unemployed and with a toddler to raise. Bridget, Clare’s mum and my mum’s best friend, didn’t hesitate: we’d live together as one big family. Though not your average picture of love, they shared finances, raised each other’s children and supported each other emotionally. I remember thinking life doesn’t get better than this.

Society perpetuates the notion of a monogamous — and heteronormative — ‘happily ever after.’ It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry that makes up around 80 percent of all the films and TV shows we consume. But in reality, we’re in an increasingly single world. Americans today are less likely to partner up and get married than ever and figures from the UK Office for National Statistics show only one in six people believe in ‘The One’. By 2039, the same data shows that one in seven people will be living alone. We’re up against a housing crisis, a loneliness epidemic and a sexless society. In the face of it all, a rising number of people are choosing to put friendship over romantic love — merging lives the way my mum and Bridget did — by platonically marrying their best friends.

On November 14, 2020, Jay and Krystle walked down the aisle wearing wedding gowns, read vows, exchanged rings and shared their first and only kiss. They live together, share finances and raise their adopted son, Eddie, as any married couple would — minus the romance: they sleep separately and have no sexual relationship. The pair met in 2012 at their local LGBTQI+ centre and instantly knew their bond was special. Without yet having the vocabulary for it, they’d call each other “soulmates” and “twin flames.” Like many best friends, they’d often joke about getting married to each other, but it wasn’t until Eddie came along — and with him a sudden need to be legally and socially recognized as a family — that they donned sparkly dresses and said ‘I do’. “I discovered a word a month before our wedding: ‘querencia,’” Jay explains. “It means a place like home from where one draws their strength. My vows were built upon that word as that’s what Krystle is to me.”

photo of two best friends jay and kristle getting married
Jay and Kristle.

Relationships similar to Jay and Krystle’s are being dubbed ‘platonic life partnerships’ (PLPs) online, as more people become aware of the concept through social media. On TikTok, the term has over 11.5 million views. A couple at the centre of the trend is April and Renee. The pair grew up together in Singapore and were inseparable, experiencing every milestone beside each other: first boyfriends, first heartbreaks, first jobs. Their families eventually merged and would vacation as a group. When April left their home of Singapore for Los Angeles, they started spending each day on FaceTime, eventually realising long-distance wasn’t a viable option for them and Renee.

“During the pandemic, we started to hash out exactly how we wanted to be involved in each other's lives. We were like, why don’t we move in together? Why don't we start a joint bank account or retirement fund together? Why are we waiting for a romantic partner to do all these things with?” April says. When Renee eventually moved to LA to join April, the heartwarming and undeniably romantic TikTok of their airport reunion went viral. They now have over 50,000 people invested in their relationship and comments such as “You’ve cracked the code” are constant. “We’ve both never felt this serious with our romantic partners, but when we envisioned this future together, we would do it in a heartbeat. So we decided to commit to that.”

Steph and Helen didn’t have the vocabulary for their connection until they saw one of April’s TikTok videos. They met on New Year’s Eve of 2012, are getting engaged this summer and planning for a 2027 wedding. They will soon be co-parenting the child Helen is in the process of adopting. “When we’ve spoken about the gravity of our relationship to people it’s never been taken seriously. It’s always been met with ‘Oh, you’re great friends,’” Steph says. “Covid brought to light how frivolously people take relationships like ours; it’s not valued in the same way as traditional marriage at all.” Aimee and Aluna feel the same. They met at the gym and instantly hit it off, proving opposites do attract: “She wears all beige and I wear all black to a silly degree,” Aimee says. “We even have matching yin-yang tattoos. Most people from the outside think we are in a relationship,” she continues. Despite living in a “spiritual town” in Arizona called Sedona, which is “a new-age melting pot,” Aimee says there’s a “surprising lack of open and alternative relationships there.”

The term ‘platonic life partners’ is relatively new, but the notion is not. Documented from the late 1700s onwards, ‘Boston marriages’ – a term derived from Henry James' novel The Bostonians, which depicted two women living together platonically – was a common phrase used to describe women who lived with and “married” other women. Through to the early 20th century, passionate, devoted same-sex friendships, called “romantic friendships,” were common and unstigmatized. Some of these friendships were likely hiding then-illegal lesbian relationships, but in many cases, historians think they embodied platonic love in its purest form.

“The belief that there is a hierarchy of love and at the top sits romantic love is false,” says Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist and the author of Why We Love: The New Science Behind Our Closest Relationships. Science shows us platonic relationships are underpinned by the same biological and psychological mechanisms and are as beneficial to health and wellbeing as romantic love. Any hierarchy of importance is a cultural construct. We need to learn more about love to understand that we can access it in so many ways and none is more valuable than any other.”

Historically, marriage was an economic proposition but it has since shifted to represent an all-consuming relationship with romantic love at the centre. For many, the pressure of this sort of relationship is unrealistic and unattainable. We expect our partners to be reliable but spontaneous; to want to tear our clothes off and to take the trash out. Lust and passion fade, but what any happily married person will tell you is that you need a good foundation. “I think a lot of romantic couples who have been together for a long time have that romantic love, but also have a layer of platonic love underneath that keeps them together,” April says. “The best friend, the loyalty, the shared experiences.” She continues, “You could say we got there without that romantic love part. It feels like we've been married for like 10 years, but have never had a sexual urge to sleep with each other. That doesn't mean that we're not committed. We see each other as family.” Her theory seems to resonate: on a TikTok apartment tour, showing her and Renee’s separate sleeping and living spaces in their studio apartment, one person wrote, “Not a lot of difference between this and a lot of married couples tbh, especially after many years.”

“PLPs raise an interesting question about what elements are most important in a marriage,” says psychotherapist Nadia Addesi, whose informative videos on relationships and emotional intelligence have garnered her over 3 million followers on TikTok. “They’re empowering because they allow people to have more options when reflecting on what they want for themselves and their future, and the opportunity to prioritise values and friendship over romantic love. It’s no longer a ‘one size fits all’ solution.”

“PLPs challenge the classic conditioning of the marriage system,” adds sex and relationship therapist MoAndra Johnson. “The monogamous model suggests one's hierarchy of need must include a romantic match who progresses with you throughout life. But PLPs encourage the idea that different types of love and familiar structures can be just as important to life and one's hierarchy of need.” Like any marriage, the key to making a PLP work is both parties having the same intentions and clear communication. “Constantly checking in with one another and ensuring you are meeting each other’s needs is a necessary step in any successful partnership,” Nadia adds. “Respect, trust and honesty are crucial.”

In a world that projects that romantic love and sexual desire are paramount, those who identify on the asexual or aromantic spectrum have found an alternative yet equally fulfilling route. This is the story for Krystle in her PLP with Jay, as well as Lindsey who’s been in a PLP with her partner James for over a decade. When they moved in together, it felt like “the most fun best friend slumber party” everyday, she says. They’ve since lived in four different houses and two different states over 10 years. “Living with them is the best thing in the world to me. When you find someone that sees and understands every bit of you, and they still want to be there for you through it all, it's very special and you do what you can to protect it.”

For those who do date romantically, a common question arises: what happens when you – or they – meet someone and fall in love? The misconception that PLPs are placeholders until ‘The One’ comes along couldn’t be further from the truth. Andy and Eva* live together in St. Louis. They date other people — they’re polyamorous and both “mostly gay” — but their relationship “transcends” all else. When they were each early into their transitions  — Eva is trans feminine and Andy is trans masculine — their relationship became a “cocoon”. Their connection is even written in the stars: “We’re almost perfectly compatible according to Co-Star,” Andy says. “A week after the 2016 election, I went out and bought an engagement ring, and I proposed to her one morning. I told her that no matter what chaos ever happens in the world, I would always be by her side; we would always have each other. There’s no one that I love more, even my romantic and sexual partners. She is the most important person in the world to me.” Of course, like the chance you take in every romantic relationship, circumstances can change. “If James were to ever get into a serious relationship and want to move out, that would be a ‘beautiful bittersweet thing,’” Lindsey says.

April and Renee, too, are both dating — April, who identifies as queer, is in a committed relationship with a man who gets along well with Renee, and Renee is exploring her bisexuality through casual dating. They’ve both found that having their stable foundation takes the pressure off romance. Suddenly, there’s no worry about the future, finances, children or whether this is a ‘forever’ thing; that part is already sorted. “After 12 years and romantic partners coming and going, this is still the relationship that feels the best for us,” April says. “People assume romantic love is the best kind of love there is. But our experience is that this constantly wins.”

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