“Romantic love is preferred over friendship”

The philosopher Sabine Hohl considers it unjustified that a particular form of relationship has a special legal and cultural status. She brings the idea of marriage with friends into play and sees advantages for everyone if friendships and romantic relationships were to be equated.

Ms. Hohl, what do you base the social preference for romantic love on?

Sabine Hohl: There is a legal and a cultural level. On the one hand, there is a legal entity for romantic love with various rights and obligations: marriage. There’s no such thing for friendships. Or at least it is not expected that friends would legally secure and commit themselves through marriage.

Would that be possible?

Nowadays, since you can marry people of any sex, you could theoretically marry a person of your choice with whom you are friendly. But the intention of the state is, of course, different, something that becomes most obvious when you marry a person from another country of origin: If you don’t have a romantic relationship, you can be charged with fake marriage. And that in itself is already a tangible disadvantage of the legal disparity in the treatment of romantic and friendly relationships: No matter how important a close friend from abroad is to you, you can’t marry him to live with him here.

“Hardly anyone asks: Who are you friends with?”

How is romantic love culturally preferred?

This is reflected in the fact that romantic relationships enjoy a special social status that friendships do not have. People often ask each other: Do you have a partner, who’s your partner? Hardly anyone asks: Who are you friends with? How’s your friendship going? As a result, most people invest a lot of energy in romantic relationships, and not as much in friendships. The US philosopher Elizabeth Brake speaks of “amatonormativity”. This is based on the assumption that everyone should have a romantic relationship and that it is more important than other relationships. If someone is single, this status is considered temporary and certainly a deficit. This is also reflected in many films, most recently in the Norwegian Netflix series “Home for Christmas,” in which the protagonist is desperately looking for a partner to introduce to her parents at Christmas.

With negative effects not just for singles, right?

That's right. On the one hand, people without a relationship are often annoyed by others with questions and confronted with a supposed deficiency: asexual or aromantic people as well as voluntary and involuntary singles. For single parents, everyday life is made more difficult because schools and workplaces are designed with the idea of there being another partner. But there are also disadvantages for people in a romantic relationship. A lot of men have very few friends. If a couple separates or their partner dies, they find themselves in an extremely difficult situation because their network of relationships was so strongly focused on that one person. Women in heterosexual relationships, on the other hand, often focus primarily on their husbands. They put almost all their energy into their relationship as a couple, or into the family when they have children. There is often little space and time for friendships.


"The social preference and special legal status of romantic relationships are unjustified."

What should change from a philosophical point of view?

At a collective level, it’s clear to me that the social preference and the special legal status of the romantic relationship are unjustified. An institution like marriage should not favor a particular way of life. Marriage should be opened up to all those who wish to enter into these rights and obligations. The way in which these people are connected shouldn't concern the state.

What could that look like in concrete terms?

There are various ideas for this. About ten years ago, Elizabeth Brake introduced an exciting, modular approach under the title “minimizing marriage”: She suggests unbundling the various aspects that are automatically regulated by a marriage, such as visiting rights in the hospital, mutual financial support, inheritance issues and parenthood. Brake suggests that you could – if you wanted to – engage with different people on individual aspects. This would mean that some friends could be designated as heirs, while the others could be granted rights in the event of illness. You have financial solidarity with one person, you live with someone else, you share responsibility for a child with a third person. You are free to decide whether you want to share it all with the same person or several, whether you want to share it with a friend or a romantic partner.

About the person

Sabine Hohl

is an ethicist and political philosopher. She worked as a postdoc at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Bern. From spring 2023, she will head up the project “Just Parenthood: The Ethics and Politics of Childrearing in the 21st Century” which is being subsidized with a starting grant from the SNSF.

Many aspects could already be lived this way today.

That’s right, there are people who raise a child as friends, and you can grant a friend visiting rights in the hospital via patient decrees. However, on the one hand, it’s more complicated and time-consuming to regulate, and, on the other, people just don't think about it or are perhaps even intimidated by it. Cultural norms have a strong impact. It helps when something is socially and legally recognized.

Do you see advantages when friends share parenthood?

They discuss co-parenting much more explicitly and concretely: How do we organize ourselves, how do we divide up the care work, what is important to us in education, what are possible conflicts, and how do we deal with them? Heterosexual couples often ask themselves these questions too little in advance. Same-sex couples also have a head start here: They have to put more effort into becoming a parent, so they have to think about it more. They are also often pioneers in friendly co-parenting, for example, where lesbian couples raise a child together with a biological father. I would argue that all parents should consider the levels of co-parenting and the romantic relationship separately. This can help to clarify the roles of parents and not to completely neglect the romantic relationship. And it also helps in the event of a separation or divorce.

"I advocate that all parenting couples consider the levels of co-parenting and romantic relationships separately."

Why does romantic love retain its special status despite the many separations?

I think this is where the prevailing heteronormativity comes into play, according to which the man-woman relationship, including the founding of a family, is still considered a central goal in life. Of course, it is also due to the fact that romantic relationships with a lot of commitment create stability. However, since they often fail, this stability is somewhat illusory. Many people would also say that they want to give priority to romantic relationships. This is perfectly legitimate, but I think it should be a deliberate decision.

What exactly are you advocating?

On a personal level, I would advise people to: Think about the role friendship and romantic love play in your life and whether you have the right weighting. Who would you like to live with? Who would you like to share the child-rearing process with? What relationships are important to you and how do you want to live them? Maybe you should try going on holiday with friends instead of with your romantic partner?

What would we gain if friendship and romantic love were of the same importance?

It would be more relaxed! Those without a romantic partner would be freed from social expectations. We create so much pressure by privileging romantic relationships. You have to find the right partner – if there is such a thing – and that one person has to represent so much. If the romantic relationship fails, it is often a disaster. Maintaining a network of people close to us makes us more resilient when circumstances change. And we can meet our needs with different people. How often do people force their romantic partner to go to the movies or go out for a walk when that person simply doesn’t feel like it? Last but not least, having several close relationships can also be very valuable and contribute to a good life.

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