Do celibate partners “complete” each other?

We’ve been approached by many people who wonder why our relationship began in the first place and why it’s not “good enough” for us to live as celibate singles. Frequently, people assume that we’re together because it’s the best way of coping the loneliness of celibacy. At the same time, it’s not uncommon for those who have met us in person to suggest that we are absolutely perfect fits for one another. We addressed the loneliness question a while ago; today, we’d like to share briefly about perfect fits and the idea that partners should “complete” each other.

We have a lot of fun together as we embark on one adventure after another. We’re reasonably confident that sharing our lives enables us to become our best selves. We are confident that Lindsey empowers Sarah to do things that would otherwise be impossible for Sarah, and vice versa. We love working as a team through thick and thin. Nevertheless, we are also certain that neither one of us could ever meet all of the other person’s needs.

When we tell the story of how we met, we reference that we fell into a pattern of sharing life together easily and unexpectedly. Our friendship continued to grow where we found ourselves naturally supporting each other across many areas of life. We’re grateful for the ways that we stretch and push each other to be better people.

But stretching to share life with another person doesn’t complete anyone. In many ways, sharing life introduces new challenges. No matter the level of sexual activity, every couple encounters problems that affect each partner differently. Relationships require adjustment when the lesser-affected person chooses to opt into a new way of life. Even the seemingly benign choice of sharing life together creates a rippling of change where all of a sudden little things really matter. People in committed relationships have to compromise, adapt, and embrace never-before-considered opportunities. Not only that, but they also need to learn to recognize instances in which certain needs can’t be met within the context of the partnership or marriage alone.

We think it’s especially problematic, to the point of being deeply spiritually harmful, when partners believe that they can or should be able to complete each other. We think this for several reasons, one being that such an approach to committed relationships risks isolating the couple from their friends, geographical community, and faith community. Leah Libresco at The American Conservative wrote an insightful article in July 2014 on problems with marital completionism, stating the following:

Spouses shouldn’t wind up completely sated by a relationship, able to retreat from the rest of the world. Married people, just like singles, have some needs that are best met by a friend or by a neighbor or by family. Our mutual, unsated needs draw us together in service to each other.

Few partners will be in danger of making a complete retreat, utterly emotionally self-sufficient as a dyad, but aiming at this goal is as destructive as achieving it. Spouses in this situation are likely to sell their friendships short, failing to rely on them, as the theatre-going wife does.

We couldn’t agree more. Whether a relationship is a marriage or some other kind of committed partnership, it’s curious that so many 21st century westerners (particularly Americans) assume that the goal of doing life with another person is finding total satisfaction in that relationship. It seems unlikely to us that many partnerships that strive for such will actually become islands unto themselves, but even attempting is a recipe for destruction.

We struggle to understand why the completionism model appeals to couples in the first place. It’s rooted in our culture’s myth that romantic love is the solution to most of life’s major problems, and that there’s one special person somewhere in the world who is meant for each of us. Many churches help to perpetuate this myth by upholding marriage as an ideal state of life for Christians and emphasizing “the two become one flesh” to the point of shaming married people who seek out support and love from the community as individuals. But our question is, why is this arrangement desirable? It’s possible that more people than not see marital completionism as an expectation. People learn from their churches and the broader culture that most aspects of married life should be exclusive to the two partners, and this becomes a goal for the couple — sometimes unconsciously. Still, we wonder why more people aren’t challenging it.

Though our relationship is not a marriage, we see regular evidence of marital completionist ideology in our interactions with folks who are interested in learning more about how our relationship works. We get questions like, “How can celibacy possibly be challenging or sacrificial for either of you? You have each other,” and, “Why are you experiencing a problem with x, y, or z? You’re going to love each other no matter what.” It’s true that our life as a celibate couple differs in many ways from the lives of celibate singles, and that we’re always going to love each other no matter what comes our way. But we don’t complete each other. Being in a loving relationship does not mean that we have all the resources between the two of us to face every possible life issue that could arise. It also doesn’t mean that having each other is or should be “enough” to prevent loneliness, sadness, boredom, or frustration. We feel so strongly about this that when other people tell us, “You two fit perfectly together like pieces of an incomplete puzzle,” we are quick to remind them that even small puzzles usually have more pieces than two. We never would have found each other if either of us had been looking for the person who would make us perfectly happy. To quote from Leah’s article again:

In the meantime, they’ll be missing out on the best part of marriage—the presence of a partner in the ongoing project of becoming better versions of yourself. The spouse you pick shouldn’t be the one who makes you happiest, but the one who makes you more kind, prudent, and generous, and to whom you can give the same gift. You join to grow, not to accommodate the desires of your present self.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. This is just as true for celibate partnerships as it is for marriages. Though we do bring each other a great deal of happiness, our relationship works not because we bring pleasure into each other’s lives, but because we are better people together than we are apart. Sometimes, one of us is not at all happy with the way the other is posing a challenge in a given moment. It’s a ding to the ego. Spiritual growth can be painful as well as joyous, and we’re willing to stand by each other through all of it as well as reach out to our friends and community during good times and bad. As we see it, marital/partnership completionism stands in the way of growth toward unity with God, and this does no one any favors.

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