Twenty-six-year-old Chiderah and 31-year-old Deidre met on a dating app in Toronto before the coronavirus pandemic. On their first date, they went to a bar and talked about their dreams of moving to Europe one day. Realizing they weren’t a romantic match, they continued to meet up and co-work in cafes.
During the pandemic the pair relocated to Berlin, where Chiderah experienced the "worst low of her life." Career troubles and financial difficulties combined with breakups and bed bugs in a moment of complete despair.
As Deidre held her and told her that everything was going to be okay, something clicked. "At that moment, I looked at this person and said: 'This is the person I want to spend the rest of my life with,'" says Chiderah. Two weeks later, they were ceremonially married in their small Berlin flat, surrounded by a few friends.
Theirs is a platonic marriage. It is a legal union solidifying their relationship, which is based on spiritual connection and practical love as opposed to sexual or romantic love. According to a recent report in The New York Times, Chiderah and Deidre’s decision to formalize their partnership reflects a growing trend for platonic marriages.
U.S. marriage rates have been on the decline, but it’s worth noting that, as things stand, there is no category for recording platonic marriages so it’s impossible to know how many have taken place.
So what makes someone commit to love and cherish their friend platonically 'til death do them part?
"We live together, we have plans of owning a home together, we love each other in sickness and in health. We communicate every day. If there is a decision that needs to be made in my life, I will use her as a point of guidance," explains Chiderah, who works in PR and as a model. "Deidre is the person I turn to in everything. Oftentimes in friendship you don't talk every day. There can be distance in terms of communication. Deidre knows me better than anyone in this world and I love her."
Many platonic couples cite similar motivations for getting married as their romantic counterparts: a desire to tie one’s life to a trusted individual and confirm that person’s position as the most important in their life.
Despite these changing attitudes to marriage, romance remains king in the hierarchy of personal relationships. It is the goal that most people pursue while dating. By shifting the script and placing friendship at the center, platonic life partners are disrupting the norm. They are taking up spaces normally reserved for romantic and sexual partnerships, showing us that these relationships can be just as fulfilling, even if there is no physical intimacy.
"You can have both romantic and platonic soulmates," says Deidre, a writer and filmmaker. "Of course there are some needs that Chiderah can’t fulfil but in terms of a partnership, the foundation is unwavering love and support."
"Deidre acts as an anchor for me emotionally because sometimes romantic partners don’t get it," Chiderah adds. "Sometimes in romantic relationships we are trying to reconcile the version of romance we grew up idealizing with the person who is actually in front of us. But when you have no romantic attachment to somebody you meet, you can accept them for who they are."
If you think about it, such relationships are everywhere in pop culture. Consider Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang’s symbiotic best friendship in Grey's Anatomy, whereby they continually describe each other as their "person." Or Thelma and Louise. Or the stories of platonic love in Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love, an ode to her friends.
The idea of centring friendship over romantic attachment does challenge the way that we as a society view intimacy and care. But as all of the above examples show, love is not necessarily beholden to romance and sex is not the only expression of love. If we move beyond patriarchal expectations, love holds space for many forms of expression.
In November 2020, after nearly 10 years of best friendship, 24-year-old Jay married Krystle, 29, in a ceremony complete with wedding gowns, rings and vows.
"We don’t have any romantic or physical involvement," Jay says. "We got married so we could raise our now fully adopted son together. We co-parent, we share finances, we live in the same house, we share a bed but we are not in love and we are not having sex."
Jay questions the idea that you should wait to build a life with someone based solely on physical attraction. They made the decision to build a life with someone they trusted, who shared similar morals, values and life goals. "People get married for a lot of reasons. People get married for financial reasons or for having kids. My marriage, just because it has a lack of sex and romance, doesn’t make it any worse."
In terms of a partnership, the foundation is unwavering love and support.
The rise of the romantic marriage is usually traced back only as far as the 18th century, popularized by the likes of Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. Even in 'traditional' marriages, the transition of a romantic relationship into something that resembles platonic partnership is more common than many would care to admit.
Dr Kathy Nickerson, a licensed clinical psychologist and relationship expert, believes everyone should have access to the benefits of marriage. "If two friends decide they want to get married because they want the mutual support and financial benefits that a marriage offers, then that's great," she explains. "For too long, marriage was seen as some sort of exclusive club that only certain people could access. It shouldn't be that way. Everyone should be able to access insurance benefits, economic advantages and the emotional support that a marriage or personal partnership offers."
As long as both partners have the same vision of what marriage looks like, Nickerson doesn’t see any downsides. "The most critical thing is that whatever partnership you enter into, you communicate in detail and clearly about what you want, need and expect. Then once you're married, don't change the deal you've made with your partner without a lot of communication and agreement."
For Chiderah and Deidre, communication is key. They have since made the decision to divorce themselves from the term 'marriage' and refer to themselves instead as platonic life partners.
"We are currently entering a new iteration of our dynamic, simply because we felt immense pressure from the outside world projecting versions of marriage from an ideological standpoint onto us," Chiderah explains. "It became a thing of enmeshment. We could not exist as two people who live rich, separate lives."
Chiderah also says that some of the negative responses they have encountered have attempted to trivialize and undermine her and Deidre’s partnership.
"People’s negative or confused responses made it seem like our union was a gimmick," she says. "But we did this out of love and what followed suit was beyond our control. It felt like we were losing sight of what we were to each other. In the divorcing of this term we have released a weight off of us. We don’t feel like we have to perform marriage anymore."
By focusing on friendship as a radical practice, one that might be capable of upending hierarchies, building community, and producing social change, Jay and Krystle and Chiderah and Deidre show that you can prioritize love beyond romance.
Social theorist bell hooks reiterates this idea of radical friendship. In Communion: The Female Search For Love, she writes that women who have close friendships "want these bonds to be honored cherished commitments, to bind us as deeply as marriage vows." Romantic relationships and committed friendships can be seen as two sides of the same coin rather than singular concepts.
"There can be soulmates in life that don't have to strictly be positioned for romantic partnership," says Chiderah. "Soulmates are people that make your life better, someone that holds your hand in life. We wanted to share this story to tell people that it is okay to be different or to choose a different type of love that suits you. You can live life on your own terms and that is okay."
Romance fades. Perhaps the idea of basing a lifelong union on something inherently fleeting was always idealistic. If we are told from a young age to marry our best friend, what is controversial about doing just that?
This story was originally published on Refinery29 Australia.