New York might be the singles capital of the country (if not the world), but that doesn’t mean the unhitched here aren’t covering their marital bases. As the average marriage age climbs, and people still aren’t finding their one true soul mate, some of those singles are considering a more practical solution to the marriage conundrum: the backup spouse.
“I have what I call a ‘banker,’ ” says Kristy, a customer-service manager rapidly approaching the big 3-0. “He’s my brother’s best friend: We work together, get along really well, he’s witty and thoughtful, and he’s always helping me out of sticky situations.” But they’ve never taken their relationship further because when one’s been single, the other’s been taken (not to mention the unwritten fraternal rule that you steer clear of your buddy’s sister). “Despite how uncomfortable my brother might be, we have decided that if we’re not hitched in four years, we’ll marry each other, live in the country, and have four children and two dogs!”
When My Best Friend’s Wedding became the feel-good comedy of 1997, college kids and twentysomethings across the country took a tip from the movie and jokingly adopted their own runner-up fiancés: “If neither of us is married in a decade, let’s just tie the knot,” they told each other. But now, as those self-imposed deadlines loom, they’re starting to give those arrangements some serious thought.
Kristy worries that substituting great friendship for passion might be their undoing. In fact, about half the people with backup plans we spoke to shared this fear. “I think there’s a kind of understanding that comes through sex,” says one gay man, who has what he calls a “nonsexual life partner.” “When you have feelings attached to the act, there’s a deeper sort of intimacy that develops that I don’t think you can get from platonic love.” Jennifer, a thirtysomething publishing exec, has what she calls an “aspirational spouse”—someone she’d marry tomorrow if it weren’t for their lack of chemistry. “I doubt that sex will become less important to me anytime soon,” she says, sighing. But she hasn’t given up hope yet: “Every so often we’ll stay out late, get drunk, and make out, and each time I hope it will be different.” Her aspirational spouse is completely in the dark, however—he just thinks she’s indecisive.
The other half thinks it’s great friendship, not sex, that builds longevity. James, a straight man with not one but three backups, believes two people who are really good friends can make a marriage work: “After all, your life partner should be your best friend.”
This notion of friendship as imperative to a successful marriage is perhaps what drives so many straight women to adopt gay male companions as their backups, à la Will & Grace, Jennifer Aniston in 1998’s The Object of My Affection, and Madonna’s 2000 The Next Best Thing. Take 41-year-old writer Jackie: Her friend Ross is more than a backup spouse; he’s her honorary husband. “Ross has been there for me every single day for over thirteen years. He has been everything to me, including a father for my son.”
Besides the issue of sexual compatibility (which Jackie admits is “very, very, very important”), what keeps her from making their marriage official is that he’s already married … to his own backup. “She’s bisexual and has always had either a boyfriend or a girlfriend over the course of their ten-plus-year marriage,” Jackie explains. “So that arrangement works for them.”
So what is it that persuades us to consider settling just so we can settle down? James, our practical friend with three backups, puts it best. “As far as I see it, a backup takes away some of the worry. If you’re not scared of being alone, then you won’t go rushing into something simply to avoid that situation. I think maybe it’s like religion: If you believe in heaven, then you are no longer scared of death. It’s a safety net for life.”
That safety net, which gives us the courage to hold out for the “real thing” (whatever that means to each of us), might explain why, for the most part, the backup spouse is still more punch line than happy ending. “I doubt I’ll ever marry my gay friend,” admits straight lady Tobin, 30, a writer. “But we do already have names for our kids: Petri for a boy and Petriella for a girl, since they’ll have to be made in a dish.”