Sisterhood Blog

But My Husband Is My 'Partner'

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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As a straight, married woman, I often refer to my husband as my partner. Sari, in your recent post on The Sisterhood, you wrote that you’re discomfited by heterosexuals’ use of the term “partner” to refer to their significant other.

I’ve used the term consciously not because I wanted to steal anything semantic from gay folks, but because I was trying to make a subtly intentional point about the nature of our relationship. That is, flouting the unfortunate American norm, my husband is my total partner in parenting and keeping our home; we both work outside the home as well.

He does about 98% of the cooking — he loves to do it, and to satisfy his slightly OCD need to have things done just so, insists on washing the dishes. I’m no slob, but the guy even sometimes remakes the bed because I apparently haven’t made it well enough. I, on the other hand, am in charge of laundry (and am particular myself about not mixing whites and colors) and do our family’s bookkeeping, along with what feels like the endless stream of paperwork involved with having three kids in various schools and summer camps.

When it comes to parenting, we really share responsibilities. He probably changed nearly as many diapers as I did, and is equally likely to tuck our children in at night. I buy the kids’ clothes, but he does all the grocery shopping. Luckily for me, particularly because he grew up in the very traditional world of Lubavitch Crown Heights, my husband seems to have no embedded bias about conventional gender roles.

Back to the term “partner.” More than once I’ve said to a gay man or lesbian, “Do you have a partner?” and been met with a slightly angry-sounding “No, I have a husband” or “I have a wife.”

It’s hard for straight people to know what we’re supposed to be using these days. If he hasn’t already, Larry David could do a whole episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” around it.

“Partner” is also the best term to use when you’ve just met someone who you think is probably gay but don’t want to run the risk of getting that one wrong. The term “spouse” just sounds too bureaucratic to use comfortably in conversation.

A hetero who counts lesbians among my good friends and a gay couple as our downstairs tenants, I believe strongly that gays and lesbians should have absolutely equal civil rights of every kind. But I admit to some discomfort when a gay man calls his male spouse his husband. Why? Because it leads to the mental question of “Well then who’s the wife?” I know is an awful, outmoded notion but the one that pops into my (and, perhaps, most straight people’s) head nonetheless.

So you see, the nomenclature to use in these transitional times for gays is confusing to we straights, too. But the transition of language to meet — or lead — changing social norms is nothing new. You can read more in this Wilkipedia entry about the transition of the word gay.

Maybe a few years from now, once California’s Proposition 8 has been overturned and same-sex couples can be married in all of the 50 states, and never again have to worry about visiting their partner/spouse/husband/wife in the hospital, or about their legal status as a parent of the children they’ve had together, we’ll have the language all figured out.

It will probably be just in time for things to change, somehow, again.

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Ross Fri. Jun 19, 2009

"It's hard for straight people to know what we’re supposed to be using these days."

This sentence is truly mystifying, but I think it offers a focused lens on the problematic commitments that drive this post. The construction "It's hard to know what we are supposed to be doing these days" has found its most insidious expression in the anti-"political correctness" rhetoric of the Right, but really it finds echoes throughout the popular culture of contemporary, comfortable Americans. It is nearly always uttered by the socially, culturally, or politically empowered (inevitably the "we" that is referenced is white, middle-class, and heterosexual), and it nearly always signals an anxiety about the loss of status. How else can we explain the bizarre (even hysterical) inversion that the words "supposed to" implies--the idea that somehow the "we" in question is being watched and will be censured if they don’t make the simplest, most modest concession to the cultural claims of others? That's not even to address the implications of the phrase "It's hard for X to know…," which suggests that the preferences of other people are inscrutable, irrational, or hopelessly unfixed.

I have no doubt that the author of the post is an open-minded person, with lots of friends and acquaintances of all persuasions. That doesn't mean, however, that a tolerant outlook can’t be freighted with troubling anxieties or hidden prejudgments, or by a quiet desire to maintain a privileged position in the complex social and cultural politics of contemporary life.

Do you want to know what "we" straight people are supposed to do? Try to be sensitive enough not to appropriate slang, fashions, styles, or any other cultural strategies from groups of people who have been historically disempowered, and who have formed those specific strategies as a way to claim something for themselves.

Toby Sat. Jun 20, 2009

How about not asking someone at all whether they are single or in a relationship? Usually, once people get to know each other, they volunteer such information themselves. At any rate, at that point they are also less likely to be upset by the inadvertent use of the "wrong word," and perhaps to take personal questions as a sign of interest, of openness, of respect.

Beth Parness Sun. Jun 21, 2009

The latin word for husband... is maritus.. Maritare, is the Latin word for marriage, derived from from the word maritus... Sounds reasonable except that to our preconditioned ears, the word husband will always sound gender specific. In some cultures, the words "wife of" are appended to the the husband's last name, which implies notions of ownership and control. Therefore it is interesting to hear that the terms "wife" and "husband" are preferred by gay or lesbian couples when describing their marital status. The word spouse really seems more equitable... I reserve the right to use the words "spouse" or "partner" to describe my marital status and see no reason why anyone would object to their use by heterosexuals, or couples of any other persuasion.

Shulamit Mon. Jun 22, 2009

I have lived in Germany a third of my life and here people use the word partner regardless of their sexual orientation. The word partner usually defines a person's "romantic interest" outside of marriage, yet some people such as myself, use the word to define their spouse. Because people marry here seldom, and if they do, it is mostly if they have children, when I mention I have a "husband" nosy questions about our family planning arise. If I say "partner" no one asks why I don't have any children. Another reason why I prefer speaking of my partner is the fact that it expresses more equality than the words husband and wife, which have unfortunately a "ruler-slave"-type connotation.

Sarah Tue. Jun 23, 2009

In a country where, most places, gay and lesbian couples cannot be married, speaking of your partner is a way of signifying your commitment to your partner. A partner is more than a girlfriend or boyfriend--I understand the term to signify a lifelong commitment to marriage.

I would argue that it is simply unreasonable for heterosexual people who can be married, much the less actually married heterosexual people, to use the word partner, because you have the privilege to choose the words husband and wife without encountering challenge, hate, or the author's confusion. The word partner was adapted to describe romantic relationships by the GLBT community. It carries the awareness that we don't have full marriage equality, as well as the history of loving, committed gay and lesbian partnerships throughout history. There's a reason people assume someone is gay when they hear them speak of their partner. It's our term, and it has meaning as such more than some generic egalitarian, non-gender specific relationship. If you want a term that means "privileged, committed, maybe-married heterosexual couple with equality of labor", come up with your own.

Marylee Raymond Diamond Tue. Jun 23, 2009

My husband is my partner. I regret if such terminology confuses you, but it's up to us, not to society, what we call each other. No apologies. Marylee

Mingo Wed. Aug 19, 2009

I enjoyed reading the article, to be honest I never thought about it. I call my man my partner in life. we've been together now 13yrs this pass July and in every since of the word he's my husband. Both our family's know that but to me he is my partner forever and ever amen who happens to be my common law husband. So until we take that step to be married and after that day ill prob still consider him as my partner. I LOVE MY BOB!

Lisa Wed. Aug 19, 2009

I almost always refer to my guy as my partner. People sometimes assume I am with a woman. I keep doing it anyway since that is the term that fits best, we are not married, saying "boyfriend" makes our relationship sound casual. We are committed to one another even though we are not married, which is why partner seems to be the right word to me. I don't worry too much if other people like what I call him, disapprove of me not being married, or if they are confused at first about whether I am with a woman or a man. Not my problem.

Douglas Bischoff Wed. Aug 19, 2009

"A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

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