A recent "Herman" cartoon sums up the ultimate "standby relationship." In it, a suitor presents his love interest with a diamond ring, to which she responds: "OK, but only until I find someone better."
While languishing in a dead-end affair all the way to the altar may be the extreme exception, many singles indeed pair up with "meantime mates" whom they have no intention of marrying.
Irvine residents Sarah, 27, and Dan, 26, enjoy such an arrangement. One reason they shirk long-term commitment is that they both "feel too young for marriage." Another is that Sarah, a Boston native, hopes to return soon to her roots, while Orange County-bred Dan refuses to leave his roots behind.
"I was transferred here two years ago by my company," said Sarah, a personnel director. "I've always meant for it to be a temporary adventure; Boston is where I belong. So there's no way I could marry someone who's attached to California."
Dan allowed, however, that true love would win out in a geographical dilemma. "I guess the bottom line is that we're not really in love, although we're best friends," said the restaurant manager. "It's that old cliche: We love each other, but we're not in love."
For the past year, Sarah and Dan have dated two or three times a week. They talk on the telephone almost every day. They escort one another to social events, such as Sarah's office Christmas party. He helped her move to her new apartment; she helped him paint his.
In other words, they behave like a couple.
"I know it seems weird, but it works out well for us," Sarah said. "If either of us were looking for a permanent relationship right now, I don't think this would be a good idea; we're so comfortable with each other that we've gotten too lazy to date around. But I don't plan to be in California in another year, anyway, and Dan's in no hurry to marry.
"Whatever happens, I know this: Dan has made my stay a lot of fun. I would have been lonely here if not for him."
Mission Viejo psychologist Terry Schenk described standby relationships as "very common" today. "They may become more so with (the threat of) AIDS. People are seeking monogamous partners," she observed.
If, as in Sarah's and Dan's case, the relationship is approached with a mutual understanding, Schenk said she sees no real problem with it. "When both people are happy, even though there's no romantic love, there's nothing wrong with that.
"From one perspective, it may be a healthy relationship--they just don't want to get married. But from another, perhaps there's an avoidance of committing oneself to any relationship, not only this one."
While the people involved may claim that they are not in love, breaking up is, nonetheless, hard to do. "Even if you're just friends, you're connected, you're bonded," Schenk said. "One thing I've found: Even if neither person wants to marry the other, the process of leaving is still very difficult."
Many standby relationships are not evenhanded. Often, one partner hopes that something more will develop. "They think: 'I'm a really wonderful person, and when he gets to know me, he'll change his mind,' " Schenk said.
"A lot of times one person will actually verbalize his feelings: 'I don't want to marry you.' Yet the other person doesn't want to hear."
The person who doesn't want marriage isn't using the other, Schenk said. "He just likes the companionship. We've all been in relationships that had no future, but it was easier to stay than to leave."
One drawback to a standby relationship is that it may distract participants from finding more meaningful companionship. Jennifer, 29, an advertising writer in Tustin, said that she has had her fill of wasting time on marriage-proof partners.
"I've spent my entire 20s on three long-term relationships with people I could not foresee marrying," she lamented. "Now I'm wondering, 'What in the world did I think I was doing?' I passed up a lot of nice guys for the sake of adventure, or just plain laziness."
Two of her boyfriends wanted to marry her, Jennifer said. "But one couldn't hold down a job, and I had basic philosophical differences with the other," she explained.
"Still, I enjoyed their company--I've remained friends with all three of the guys. In each case, we made a lot of mutual friends, traveled together, generally had a great time. And there I'd sit--two or three years at a time, in a relationship that I knew wouldn't end in marriage."
However, Jennifer views herself as the marrying type. "I want children, a house with a picket fence and all that stuff." Today, she is in therapy to explore the possibility that she fears commitment. "Never again will I get involved in an affair that has no goals," she swore.
Jackson, on the other hand, would be content to dabble in standby relationships for the next few years. "I divorced two years ago, and I'm not in any rush to go through that again," said the 49-year-old insurance salesman.
But dating a number of women simultaneously doesn't appeal to him, either. "I'm too old for a whirlwind life style," laughed Jackson, who lives in Newport Beach and has been seeing the same woman for more than a year.
"I've made it clear that I don't want to marry her," Jackson said. "She's just a nice transition into bachelorhood after 24 years of marriage."
Schenk said that standby relationships can become more attractive with age--as well as more ensnaring. "The older you get, the scarier it is to leave a relationship. It becomes harder to meet people you're compatible with. So you start to think: 'Maybe there's nothing better out there.'
"If the relationship is meeting both people's needs, who am I to say that it's wrong?" Schenk added. "When people are surveyed about what makes them happy in a marriage, companionship and communication are tops on the list--while sex and romantic love are way down on the list. Romantic love changes over the years.
"So if a lot of married people are companions more than they are lovers, why shouldn't single people have the same sort of relationships?"