Marital Completionism: A Bad Model for Thruples and Couples Alike
Why assume you need to make compromises to achieve connubial bliss?
In an article for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan profiles several polyamorous couples and wonders whether more families should consider open (non-monogamous) marriages. Khazan argues that polyamory’s great advantage is that practitioners better divide up and delegate the duties and pleasures of a relationship, mixing and matching for the best of all possible marriages. She writes:
Even many devout monogamists admit that it can be hard for one partner to supply the full smorgasbord of the other’s sexual and emotional needs. When critics decry polys as escapists who have simply “gotten bored” in traditional relationships, polys counter that the more people they can draw close to them, the more self-actualized they can be.
There’s an enormous assumption tucked into that first sentence. Monogamy isn’t premised on the idea that one person can ever be everything to a partner. When a marriage fails to fulfill “the full smorgasbord” it’s not a sign that anything’s wrong. An expectation that a partner (or full set of them) is meant to be a perfect complement is destructive to romantic and platonic relationships.
Unfortunately, the premises of Khazan aren’t confined to a negligible niche (polyamorous or otherwise). A survey commissioned by USA Network of 18-34 year olds in four cities (Austin, Omaha, Nashville, and Phoenix) found that 10 percent of respondents endorsed multiple partners within a marriage, “each of whom fulfills a need in your life.”
What does this mean in practice? One of the women profiled in the Atlantic story explains that she and her husband looked to add partners to their marriages because the spouses couldn’t fulfill all of each other’s needs. Her husband was interested in kinky sex, so he found a woman to practice BDSM with him, but the wife’s new boyfriend was picked for a more prosaic need: the boyfriend goes to the theatre with her and sees shows her husband wouldn’t enjoy.
The reporter asks what she calls “the logical, mono-normative question” why the wife didn’t simply leave her husband for her theatre-boyfriend, but the more relevant question is: why she didn’t just book season tickets for herself and a friend? Kinky sex is, well, sexual, but going out to the theatre isn’t an activity that’s reserved to lovers.
It’s natural for friends to fill the gaps in a marital relationship, indulging interests that aren’t shared with the spouse, providing emotional support, and simply varying our lens on the world. After all, C.S. Lewis’s observation in The Four Loves that “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other. Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest,” wasn’t meant as an aspirational image for spouses.
Spouses shouldn’t wind up completely sated by a relationship, able to retreat from the rest of the world. Married people, just like singles, have some needs that are best met by a friend or by a neighbor or by family. Our mutual, unsated needs draw us together in service to each other.
Few partners will be in danger of making a complete retreat, utterly emotionally self-sufficient as a dyad, but aiming at this goal is as destructive as achieving it. Spouses in this situation are likely to sell their friendships short, failing to rely on them, as the theatre-going wife does.
If the friends of these marital perfectionists are rarely given the chance to excel, their spouses are only ever given the chance to fail. Expecting a romantic partner to be fully satisfactory doesn’t just damage existing marriages, it can preempt them. A person who assumes that their spouse should fit seamlessly into his or her life may pass up several good partners while waiting for the perfect one.
In the meantime, they’ll be missing out on the best part of marriage—the presence of a partner in the ongoing project of becoming better versions of yourself. The spouse you pick shouldn’t be the one who makes you happiest, but the one who makes you more kind, prudent, and generous, and to whom you can give the same gift. You join to grow, not to accommodate the desires of your present self.
“You complete me,” remains a trite and unhealthy declaration, whether you say it to one lover or a full set.