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You may be in a companionate marriage and not even know it. Many modern marriages take this form. It's based on two spouses having mutual interests, and each believes in the equality of each partner. They see their roles as interchangeable.
What Is Companionate Marriage?
Companionate marriage is a union in which the partners have mutual consent and equality. Its purpose is founded on companionship rather than a marriage's traditional functionalities of raising children, gaining financial support, or having security.
While you may be unfamiliar with the exact title, a companionate marriage is by no means new. Its defining characteristics can be traced back to the beginning of the 19th century. "Before the Industrial Revolution, love played a minor role—if it was present at all—in marriage," explains marriage trends expert Susan Pease Gadoua. "Love was a luxury that most people couldn’t afford, and marriage was about the practicalities of life: running the farm, passing the business on to the next generation, keeping property in the family lineage, having enough to eat, being safe, etc."
Meet the Expert
Susan Pease Gadoua, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and coauthor of The New "I Do." She is the founder of the Transition Institute of Marin in San Rafael, California.
These are the underlying functions of a traditional marriage, but with industrialization and modern efficiencies came the opportunity to redefine relationships. "When life became easier, we were able to shift from needs-based relationships to wants-based relationships—we moved away from basics and got into the luxuries relationships could offer," she adds.
Learn the differences between a traditional and companionate marriage below as well as more about what a companionate marriage entails.
Traditional vs. Companionate Marriage
In a traditional marriage, typically the husband is the breadwinner while the wife is a stay-at-home mom or general homemaker. You may recognize these functionality-focused traditional unions from your grandparents' generation, where the relationship is transactional (one provides financial security in return for a clean house, care for the kids, etc.) or raising children may be the only commonality the spouses share.
The difference between traditional marriage and companionate marriage is that the latter is based on the spouses having mutual interests and equitable roles; the primary focus is companionship rather than children or security. It's important to note that romantic marriages are another form of marriage that is traditional, but these focus more on the emotions behind the union rather than the pragmatism of it.
Consider this the Hollywood-style love portrayed in rom-coms. "In traditional marriage, the normal trajectory is to meet someone you are attracted to (emotionally and physically) and believe you’d like to spend the rest of your life with. Everything else is expected to flow from this love (being good co-parents, good social partners, good financial partners, and, of course, good sexual partners)—but it’s a high bar that very few couples can, in reality, get over," explains Gadoua.
"A companionate marriage turns down the temperature on the romantic, be-all-end-all, soulmate aspect of the relationship and places the emphasis on a more grounded love or even just strong like. Often, these two people see their relationship as more egalitarian rather than gender-normed and each person is likely to say they can stand on their own two feet in this world (one doesn’t emotionally or financially depend on the other)."
Pros of Companionate Marriage
Typically, companionate marriages prioritize communication and support between spouses over money and material objects. Couples rid themselves of any financial or economic claims to each other.
"It’s a more stable and more durable relationship," says Gadoua. "Love is a fragile emotion so when it dies in a traditional marriage, that usually marks the end of the relationship even if all the other aspects of the relationship work (such as co-parenting, financial, social, extended family, etc.)."
The same can be said for when the children grow up and move out of the house and spouses are left with the realization that they have nothing in common. Both individuals in a companionate marriage need self-awareness and self-confidence in order for the marriage to be successful. These positive characteristics contribute to the trust, friendship, commitment, and shared values of a companionate marriage.
The benefits of companionate marriages typically surround common interests, including but not limited to the following:
- Birth control
- Divorce by mutual consent
- Equality of the genders
- Work/life balance.
Cons of Companionate Marriage
The primary drawbacks of a companionate marriage are that with stability, equality, and mutually beneficial characteristics can come a lack of excitement, passion, or intimacy.
A one-size-fits-all model doesn’t fit most people, so design your own. "Rather than trying to contort yourself into the romantic love–marriage paradigm, start thinking out of the box and create a marriage that meets your needs," says Gadoua.
"Some people may see it as boring because it doesn’t entail strong attraction, soulmate, or 'love-of-one’s-life' status," explains Gadoua. "Those who think it’s only OK to marry for romantic love may also see a companionate marriage as 'wrong.'" Pop culture, literature, and just about every fairy tale are great proponents of the euphoria that comes with romantic love, which can make any other type of union look like settling.