"If we haven't found anyone else by 40, let's get hitched!"

Are "marriage pacts" a mature, open-eyed approach to love -- or the ultimate in cowardly bet-hedging?

Published November 19, 2003 12:42AM (EST)

Christine and Max made the pact in their late 20s, while on vacation in Mexico: If neither of them was married by the age of 40, they'd marry each other. Though they'd never been an official couple, their friendship had, over the course of five years, resembled something awfully close. As Christine explains it, in addition to traveling to romantic destinations such as Mexico, "We saw sunsets and held hands and did karaoke and met people together and went to weddings together."

Christine and Max (all names except those of experts have been changed) were both living in New York when they met on the set of a short film. Initially, there had been a reason for them not to become involved -- they'd both just been through painful breakups. Then, after time passed, Christine actually valued Max too much to date him. "I never wanted Max to be an ex-boyfriend," she explains. "It was way more fun to just have a really close good friend that I could count on for anything -- to know what I loved, to remember my birthday."

And yet she was attracted to him, and she could imagine, in the long-term, sharing her life with him. Hence the pact. It was 1996 and Max had recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career. Christine visited him in California, and they went on together to Mexico. "Things were coming to a head," Christine says. "[We were asking], are we going to be together as a couple or are we not going to be together as a couple? I just couldn't make that commitment at the time. But then we made the pact. I was like, 'Look, it's not that I don't love you.' It wasn't really about finding somebody better. I wanted him, but I also wanted something else -- I just didn't know what it was yet."

Christine and Max aren't the only ones making marriage pacts. They are by now so widespread that if you're under the age of 35, there's a good chance you've made one yourself, and if you haven't, you probably know someone who has. Pacts inspired the 1997 Julia Roberts movie "My Best Friend's Wedding," and have served as subplots for episodes of "Friends" and "Ed."

But what do these pacts really mean? Do they imply an absurdly naive and wistful idea of adulthood -- you say it offhandedly, and therefore it will be so? Or is their phoniness implicitly understood, the matrimonial equivalent of saying, "We should get coffee"? Are they the shy person's way of flirting, with the subtext being I'm madly in love with you? Or are they the coward's contingency plan? -- I'm only moderately into you, but if it looks like I'm going to end up alone, you'll do. And finally, what happens when the person you were supposed to marry marries someone else?

The meaning of the pacts, it turns out, depends on whom you ask -- and apparently marriage pacts, like actual marriages, can be pretty complicated. They're often made in jest, but according to Cathie Gray, a Washington couples therapist, it wouldn't be such a bad thing if more people made good on them. "What makes a marriage really work over a long period of time is companionship," Gray says. The two people "trust each other, they respect each other, they feel emotionally safe with each other. I know of people who've made these sort of pacts, and the upside is you're transitioning into a relationship called marriage with somebody [where] there's a secure friendship. That's a positive. The deficit is [the feeling that] the pact is made out of a default rather than an active choice."

The pacts also can be something of a cop-out or crutch, says Rhonda Britten, a Boulder, Colo., life coach and the author of "Fearless Living" and "Fearless Loving." "Most people, if they have a level head, do it more for fun than reality," Britten says. "But some people actually use it to stop themselves from having intimacy. They go, 'I don't know how to have intimate relationships,' or 'I always pick the wrong men' -- [but] I don't have to really try to get past this because George is over here, and George and I get along great."

Britten herself, now 42, has been in such a pact for 13 years. She and her friend Clark went out for a year when she was 29 and he was 25. When they broke up, they promised they'd marry when he turned 30 -- which then turned into 40, "and now we say when we're 50," Britten says. "We're never going to get married." For her, the pact is basically a good-spirited joke -- and, in fact, she was married to someone else for seven years in her 30s -- but for Clark, "I actually believe it has stopped him," she says. "He has said many times to me, 'When I date somebody, I date them for a while, and then I think about you and compare them.' It's like he uses me to avoid intimacy. I've actually told him, 'You gotta go for it. We're never getting married. You gotta get over it.'"

For Alex and Karen, who grew up together in Rhode Island and are now both 28, making the pact definitely wasn't a coded way of declaring their love. If they were to marry, says Alex, "It'd be a pragmatic decision. Here's someone you've known your whole life. All the tough parts are out of the way. Your families know each other, you like the same activities, you have the same values. It would be a marriage of convenience, and you would have to create the physical side. The rest of it would come easy [when] usually it's the opposite."

But "creating the physical side" can be challenging. When there's zero chemistry, says Gray, "that relationship is going to be mighty dull."

If Alex sounds pretty passionless, to be fair, he isn't the one who suggested the deal in the first place. "I think Karen proposed it as soon as she began to get jaded with the world," he says. "Usually it comes up whenever we hang out and have a few drinks. It's in the context of a bigger talk about how guys suck, she can't find anyone else, and all her friends are getting married."

Adam's and Michelle's pact involves slightly more passion -- but not much. Adam and Michelle went to their high school prom together as friends in 1992, and they made the pact at 3 a.m. in a field in upstate New York, while around them their drunken classmates were making out. Adam was a year ahead of Michelle and when they'd first met -- he was a sophomore, and she was a freshman -- he says, "I was desperately in love." But by the time of the pact, which occurred his senior year, "I had given up on that and she had become one of my best friends." In fact, they openly admitted that they were each other's prom dates only because neither of them had anyone better to go with.

Making the pact "wasn't flirtatious," says Adam, now a 29-year-old lawyer in Washington. "It was genuinely [saying], 'You'd be a good person to be married to' just because we got along and knew each other so well. We thought if we're completely alone when we're the geriatric age of 35, why not just get married and comfort each other?"

When Vivian and Tim, both writers, made the pact in 2001, there actually was some genuine romance involved -- at least for one of them. Asked about the dynamic between herself and Tim, Vivian, now 28, says, "Besides me secretly chasing after him, pretending to be his friend?" The two of them lived in Iowa City, Iowa, and while walking around the college town one day, Vivian brought up the pact. "I liked him and I wanted to raise the subject" of being involved, she says.

For those moldering in the swamp of unrequited love, proposing such a pact can feel like a declaration -- but it's actually the ultimate nongesture. It allows the proposer to make a "move" that requires no immediate action or response, and allows the proposee to avoid rejecting a friend. After all, what's the harm in agreeing to an imaginary marriage years away? Not that Vivian was brokenhearted for long. She and Tim now live in different cities -- and both cohabit with the people they'll most likely marry for real. "The key ingredient to this whole thing," Vivian says, "is that when you're so desperate you would make a pact with your best friend, things can turn around in five minutes. You can meet somebody else and ..." she laughs, "forget about your best friend."

David, a 30-year-old English teacher in Boston, made the pact with Nancy when they were college freshmen at Washington University in St. Louis in 1991. They lived in the same dorm, hooked up early freshman year, decided not to keep hooking up, and then just became good friends. "We were really close, like we had a secret handshake," David explains. During college, David went home with Nancy for Mardi Gras -- she was from New Orleans -- and the fact that he got along with her whole family increased his ability to see himself with her in the long-term. At their college graduation in 1995, the two families ended up hanging out. Six years later, at Nancy's wedding, David found himself commiserating with Nancy's mother that he wasn't the one her daughter was marrying. "Her mom said I had lost my chance," says David.

David was "pretty unimpressed" with Nancy's new husband. "The thing about her is that she's 6 feet tall and blond and really pretty, but she always would go for these short guys," says David (himself 6-foot-6). Granting that her allegedly short husband did seem "supernice," David says he was happy for Nancy -- and also "sort of sad because whatever element of youth that led me to have that pact with her had passed, and the possibility of that ever coming to be between the two of us was no longer an option. It made me get more nostalgic and unrealistic about the fact that we should have gotten together."

Acknowledging that the pact had been made "on a whim or a lark," David says it did have a meatier subtext: "It's sort of acknowledging, 'We could be lifelong partners, but I'm 21, and I don't know what the fuck I'm doing, and I want to not know what the fuck I'm doing for a while.' I wanted to go through a lot -- to have different stages in my life that didn't all involve one person."

According to Gray, that's the most positive subtext for marriage pacts (especially as compared to desperation or fear of being alone), and it's the one most likely to result in a wedding -- even if it didn't for David and Nancy.

"Sometimes what [the couple is] saying is, 'You're the person I could see going the long haul with, but in my 20s I need to explore and feel free. If you're still available when I'm done doing that, I could see us being together.'" In this version, Gray says, the pact is about the opposite of desperation -- it's about a connection so profound that even while the man and woman date other people or live in separate places, they keep returning in their minds to each other.

"I know somebody who was in a relationship for four years starting midcollege, and I remember him saying this was the right person but the wrong time," Gray says. "He knew he hadn't really dated a whole lot and he hadn't gotten his career going. He hadn't done a lot of the things he wanted to do. They broke up and each of them over the next four or five years tried out a variety of relationships, careers, graduate school, but they always kept touching base with each other and remained friends. And they did get married but not until they were 28 or 29."

Which brings us back to Christine and Max -- the "friends" who held hands and watched sunsets. In 2001, Christine did get married ... but to Andrew. "I went through several relationships while I was friends with Max," Christine says, "and those relationships were very passionate but [had] lots of madness. [Max and I] always got along. It was always comfortable. Even when we fought, and we did because we were like a couple, it wasn't a manic fight. It was like a discussion. I guess I felt like maybe the two things weren't compatible -- maybe you couldn't have this insane passion, which you sort of crave, and a friendship at the same time."

When she made the pact with Max, Christine says, "I was still looking for those two things to collide and I didn't know if that could happen. So the basis of the pact was, if that doesn't exist, I want to have a family and I want my life to be calm and I don't always want to be searching. If I get to 40, I will find it very appealing to be with somebody that I like."

Lucky for Christine, when she was 33 passion and friendship did collide -- and she and Andrew were engaged within seven months of meeting. But at their wedding, which was held in July 2001, vestiges of her marriage pact with Max remained. "I pulled Max aside during the reception and we had a little 10-minute alone-time hug," Christine says. "I definitely felt like there was a chapter closing." When Max gave a toast lamenting the fact that he wasn't marrying Christine, "everybody was laughing, but I think everybody felt a little tense," Christine says. "My husband was upset about it. He said, why would anybody bring up that they were in love with your wife at a wedding?"

Since then, Andrew has not just grudgingly accepted the role that Max plays in Christine's life, he has embraced it. Christine and Andrew have moved to Eugene, Ore., but whenever they're in New York, they see Max's parents -- and their infant daughter even calls Max's mother Nana. Max, for his part, has a serious girlfriend whom Christine believes he will marry. "And I have to tell you," Christine says, "I'm a little jealous." Even now, when she's talking about Max, it's almost as if she's surprised by how things turned out. "It's so weird that I'm actually not married to Max," she says.

David, too, seems a bit regretful that his and Nancy's secret handshake at Washington University didn't lead to more. "I think we were made for each other," he says. "But it just never worked out."

Then again, it's not always so bittersweet. When Adam, the one who made the pact with Michelle at their prom, e-mailed her last year to say he was engaged, her reply e-mail contained a single word: "Whew."

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We want to make you a part of this series. What is the state of your union? Did you find the one and never look back, or has finding lasting love been a marathon of trial and error? Did you have a fairy-tale wedding only to watch things crumble once the reception was over, or have you glided along in marital bliss since Day One? We want to hear your stories of joy, romance, heartbreak and pain. After all, partnership, as we all know, is a complex concoction of all of those things. (Please remember: Any writing submitted becomes the property of Salon if we publish it. We reserve the right to edit submissions, and cannot reply to every writer. Interested contributors should send their stories to marriage@salon.com.)

By Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels "Prep" and "American Wife."

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