I've met many couples that declare themselves "friends with benefits," but one of the coolest women I know is in the opposite situation. She wishes to remain anonymous, so let's call her Rudy. Rudy has had the same roommate for two decades: her husband. Well, legally anyway. It's been a long time since she considered him as such. The two of them are more-than-friends without benefits. Legally married roommates. "I wouldn't exactly call him my soul mate," she says. "But he is my best friend."
Rudy's husband, Mark, was the first guy she met in college. "I've known him longer than I haven't," she says. "There's nobody else's company I love as much." The two often eat together, read, play cards, watch television, talk politics, and hang out. He sometimes tells her it seems his friends "don't enjoy the companionship of their wives" the way he does. The main difference between what those guys share with their wives and what these two share, though, is a sex life. "Our relationship is very peaceful," she says. "But the distinction between roommate and husband is intimacy." The two are intimate in other ways—there are certain stories and problems that they only share with one another, and they share the same bed. But sex really isn't a part of it.
When they got married, it had been a long journey already. They had been dating on and off for 15 years. (Yep, that's right. Years.) This courtship included one big breakup and one broken engagement before they finally said "I do." By the time they did get married, it might have had less to do with love and attraction and more to do with their backgrounds, Rudy says.
Rudy comes from a big touchy-feely family with few secrets and many shared meals. She is one of the older kids and always felt a responsibility to take care of her younger brothers and sisters. "The culture of family is very important to me. I'm wrapped up in it, and it's an important part of who I am. Looking back, I might have needed someone who understood that better."
Mark's family life was much different. His parents provided basic needs like food, water, and shelter, but emotional needs were never met. His mother was self-centered, and his father was verbally and physically abusive. When he crossed his father growing up, he was sometimes locked in a crawl space with spiders. "He saw that I was worth waiting for," Rudy says, because she provided what lacked in his family life. But she questions whether he held on for the right reasons. Rudy fills an emotional desire for Mark, but not a sexual one. "He thought I was the right person for him, but maybe I really wasn't," she says.
Rudy's family doesn't understand why the pair remains together as husband and wife. She says she sometimes wonders the same thing. Rudy loves her roommate but questions if this is the kind of marriage she wants to keep. The upcoming challenge for both partners is to determine the "this is what is and this is what isn't" about their relationship, as she puts it. "Is the 'what is' enough for happiness?" she has asked him. "Is the 'what isn't' too much to overcome, and should we both move on?"
A few years back, Mark lost his job and spent two years unemployed. During that time, Rudy supported him with an overwhelming kind of attention he had apparently craved since the beginning of their relationship. Now that he's employed again, she thinks he appreciates her in a new way. Rudy hopes they will both come to their relationship "needing each other more than ever before," she says. "It could be a new beginning for us." She hopes it will renew their physical connection and spark something in their sex life that got lost along the way; it might turn one of those "what isn'ts" into a "what is."
Regardless of the future, they work well as roommates and will remain best friends. "Some people say your marriage comes first," she says. "But I'm a lot of things—daughter, wife, sister, nurse—and you have to find a way to make it work."
The way Rudy sees it, love can come in many forms. She loves her family, she loves her roommate, and she hopes to have a loving sexual partnership in the future. Either way, she gets to choose who to legally share her life with; I don't have that choice.
I have pictured myself in Rudy's situation. If I had dated my partner for 15 years and then spent 20 years not sleeping with her, I'm certain my family would call her my roommate, even if I insisted she was my partner. This situation—a long-term sexless relationship between two ladies—has a name in the queer community: "lesbian bed death." There are also many gay men who end up in a similar spot, who share a living space for so long that they become something more like best friends, with sex on the side. I'm sure many folks refer to both kinds of queer pairs as roommates, while Rudy and her partner are still considered husband and wife. Same situation. Two people who have grown close emotionally but apart physically. A sexless couple. But of the three pairs, only one is recognized as a marriage because the couple involves a man and a woman. I'm going to go ahead and call that ridiculous.
Rudy and I have talked about my imminent plans. The only partnership ahead of me is a long-term monogamous relationship with a future lady, perhaps with a small house and a beagle. A regular old traditional type of thing. But I can't legally have that relationship recognized, while Rudy's is. The two of us agree that this is fairly silly. We both look forward to a time when our families, friends, and communities will acknowledge our romantic relationships equally as exactly what they are: love.