Not long ago, I watched a rerun of “Seinfeld,” and I found one scene especially problematic. With the banter and timing reminiscent of the famous Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” bit, the characters Jerry and Elaine engaged in a unique version of the “define the relationship” (DTR) conversation. In this case, they had a “define the sexual relationship” (DTSR) conversation. In short, they were trying to determine if they should be friends or “friends with benefits.” This is how it went:



Jerry: Why shouldn’t we be able to do that (sex) once in a while if we want to?

Elaine: I know. I know.

J: What’s the big deal?

E: It’s not complicated.

J: Of course, maybe some little problems could arise.

E: Sure. There are always a few.

J: Of course, if anything happened that would stop us from being friends the way we are now that would be really bad.

E: Devastating”¦

J: Because this (friendship) is very good.

E: And that would be good, too.

J: The idea is to combine this, with that, but this could not be destroyed.

E: We just want to take this and add that.

J: Of course, we would have to find a way to avoid the little things that could cause problems. We need rules or something. For example, now, I call you whenever I am inclined and vice versa but if we did that we might feel a certain obligation to call.

E: Well, why should that be? I have an idea. No calls the day after that.

J: Beautiful. Let’s make it a rule.

E: All right!

J: Now, here’s another little rule. When we see each other now, we retire to our own quarters. But when people do that, they feel a pressure to sleep over.

E: Hmm. Ok”¦ Spending the night is optional!

J: Ok! Now we are getting somewhere!

Of course, later in the episode, Jerry and Elaine had sex and, aside from George wanting to know the details, all was well and Jerry and Elaine went on to share some happy “episodes” together.

After hearing this exchange, a few things occurred to me. First, I thought how simple the rules would have been if Jerry and Elaine were “friends with wedding rings.” They were trying to figure out how to “couple” without becoming a couple, especially a married one. Indeed, married folks have the luxury and benefit of being able to simply focus on how to couple “” sexually and otherwise.

 This is a major benefit of marriage because, as we all know, sex is complicated. Despite our best efforts, we just don’t seem to be able to have sex in the same way that a plug goes into a socket; a little heat, some electricity, and that’s that. We just aren’t wired that way. We always seem to leave some of ourselves behind, and we carry some of the other person away with us. That’s why sex within marriage works so well. Indeed, Jerry and Elaine’s approach is like trying to enjoy a powdered donut without getting any of the powder on you; it’s possible but highly improbable.

Second, this Seinfeld scene reminded me of a conversation I had with a group on the importance of encouraging marriage instead of cohabiting, which is a more structured “friends with benefits” arrangement. At one point, a person who was not particularly a fan of marriage said to me, “Really, it’s not marriage that’s important. We just want people to have healthy relationships.” So, I asked, “What’s a healthy relationship?” Well, the only thing that folks seemed to agree upon was that there should be no domestic violence. And it occurred to me that people have been using this term but it’s really undefined and flexible. Therefore, it’s easy to think that a healthy relationship and a marriage are the same thing.

Interestingly, this is very different from what happened when the term “healthy marriage” became part of the public lexicon, at least with public policy folks in Washington, DC. There were lots of meetings, conversations, and documents that sought to define exactly what a healthy marriage was and wasn’t. This made a lot of sense. After all, if we are telling couples to consider heading to a specific location, it’s wise to tell them where it is and what it looks like. Moreover, a marriage has some agreed upon very specific commitments, assumptions and attributes that define it in the public square.

For example, consider how differently you would””and would be expected- to answer the below question if you are married compared to if you are cohabiting: 

  • Are you and your mate in agreement regarding how long your love for each other should last?
  • Is it OK for you and your mate to have sex with other people?
  • Is it OK for you and your mate to date other people?
  • Would you delay your education so that your mate could pursue theirs and would you expect them to do the same for you?
  • Would you pay for your mate’s education and expect them to pay for yours?
  • Are you and your mate in agreement about how long your relationship should last?
  • Are you expected to save for your mate’s retirement and do you have the same expectation for them?
  • Should you care or provide for your mates family members and are they expected to do the same for yours?
  • Do you expect to be put in your mate’s will and are you expected to put your mate in yours?
  • Should you have input in your mates career decision?
  • Are you willing to delay your career advancement so that your mate could advance their career?
  • Do you expect your mate to delay their career advancement so that you could advance your career?
  • Should you help pay off your mate’s debts?
  • Do you expect your mate to help you pay off your debts?
  • Are you and your mate in agreement regard how long you should stay in this type of relationship?
  • Do you expect your mate to care for you when you are sick or disabled, even if the sickness is terminal? Are you expected to do likewise?

Interesting”¦right? You see, when you DTR marriage compared to other relationships, healthy or otherwise, it is a lot more “complicated” and more of a “big deal” than Jerry and Elaine’s sitcom exchange reveals. But, then again, who would take relationship advice from a show about nothing?