What I mean by "my partner"

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I've met quite a few new people lately. Since we're moving in a month or less, I imagine I'll be meeting quite a few more in the near future. This has me thinking about this situation that almost inevitably comes up, in which the person I'm meeting asks if I am married, and I say no, I am partnered.

From there, the person to whom I am talking generally says one of three things:

1. "Oh, OK," and goes on, assuming that I am a lesbian.
2. "What does that mean?" or "Your what?" or "What's that?"
3. "Do you have kids?" or "How long have you been together?" or whatever other question would have been asked if I had indicated that I was married.

None of these is the "wrong" response. Partner is a term that is still used more among same-sex couples, so it makes sense that some fraction of people will assume that I mean my female partner. I don't correct them--it usually comes to light soon enough, and I don't think it particularly matters in most circumstances. It does occasionally end up funny, though. A couple of jobs ago, I mentioned my partner during my interview. My boss was shocked to find out, several months later, that my partner is male.

When I am asked "what that means?" it gives me an opening to get up on my anti-marriage soap box. Sometimes, I take that opening. Other times (like, say, at a wedding), it seems inappropriate. On those occasions, I usually say something like, "I'm not married, but I am permanently partnered." This gets a bit tricky, because people tend to assume that I mean I am not married yet. That's not the case. Not married is my permanent condition. This condition is by choice. It's not that I'm "not ready," it's that I'm not interested. It is important to me that this be known (otherwise I would just present myself as married and save the whole hassle), but I do want to be situationally sensitive.

The third response is my favorite, because it's easiest for me. I never really know what the other person is thinking and I don't have to craft a reply that is both honest and non-confrontational. Is she confused by my statement, but afraid to respond? Or, is she just comfortable with the idea of an unmarried partnership? I hope to find more and more people in the latter category. Much as not being married is a "political statement," it's also something I don't particularly like to discuss. I have a long list of reasons why I think marriage is a bad plan, but most people are married, and most married people are offended by those reasons, so it's mostly a chat I'd rather not have, particularly with someone I just met.

On the other hand, it's absurd when I hear Mark referred to as my boyfriend. We've been together almost my entire adult life (eight years in September). Most married people aren't together than long before they tie the knot (and a lot of them aren't together for that long afterwards, either). We're as serious as we're going to get. Our not being married is not a comment on the strength or maturity of our relationship--it's a comment on marriage.

Recently, someone asked me if Mark was my "business partner or life partner?" I laughed; I couldn't help it. The idea of Mark and I working together is just that funny. Plus, the term "life partner" just gives me the giggles. It's so serious sounding. But in reality, yes, I suppose he is my "life partner." It shouldn't be that hard to understand, especially for someone who is married--all of those things that your spouse is to you? That's what Mark is to me, just without the marriage. From what I can discertain, my relationship doesn't work much differently than anybody else's, married or partnered, gay or straight. We face things together. We make major decisions together. We raise our family together. We move across the country together. We hang out. We have sex. We talk. We watch movies. We fight. We're partners.

13 Comments

Really love this entry.

As one of the very few not-married same-sex life-committed people I know, I really appreciate this. I do still call Jack my boyfriend out of convenience, but really, it's ludicrous. Sometimes I tell people that since we have a mortgage "we'd need a lawyer to break up anyways!". Sometimes I explain that we got engaged but gave up on getting married and that the reasons are "complicated" which usually makes them think we beat each other up or something. It's never, ever easy to explain. I have a roulette wheel of things to say in my head, and I pretty much use it in a random way. It's so hard for people to get. I don't know if it's my perception, but I think that people often think we just have a bad relationship, or we would be married. In reality it's no more or less work than anyone else's relationship.

Anyways, I have much sympathy. Thanks for sharing your feelings on it!

Out of curiosity, did you at any point feel pressure from either your family, or Mark's family, to get married after being together so long? If so, how did you deal with it? I only ask because I've been getting a couple of "when are you getting hitched" vibes from both my family and Cammie's and am unsure as to how to deal with it without pissing off everyone.

Also, would you ever consider some form of legally sanctioned partnership with Mark (like a civil union) just for the reasons of being able to have the rights of married couples (e.g. health insurance, power of attorney, etc.)? It seems to me that unless there is some major shift in the near future with laws about marriage and the rights conveyed with it, that it's very hard for people to argue AGAINST this rationale for getting married (or eloping, or getting civil unionized, or whatever). It's sad that this is the case, but nevertheless. . .

I thought that your entry was very interesting! As someone who got married (happily) sort of young (22), I have the opposite problem with people: putting into words why I *did* get married. My usual response is "so we can jointly file taxes", but that's really just a convenient excuse.

I have a funny story related to this very topic!

I got hit on by the guy parked next to me. (Actually, he asked me to marry him so I stuck around because I knew it would end up being a great story.) He asked if I had a husband and I said no, I had a partner. He said "what's your business?" I said "deconstructing heteronormativity." He blinked a few times and that gave me the out I needed to get in my car and drive away.

Ron, if your family is the type to get pissed off for not getting married then there's no way to tell them you aren't getting married without pissing them off. We had a commitment ceremony a few months ago and an uncle told me that he wasn't going to come because we weren't getting married. That's fine and good and his decision and all, but I let him know afterwards that my relationship with him was effectively over because I don't share my life/time with people who don't value my happiness as much as I value theirs.

I had every intent of referring to Elise as my partner after we got married, but I'm still having too much fun saying "wife." Also, considering the vast majority of people I meet assume I am gay upon first impression, I have to admit a certain relish in casually delivering the word in conversation.

That said, I have been disappointed by the way it tends to reinforce assumed gender roles, even subliminally. I think after a year of "wife" newness I may switch to partner long-term, and go back to relishing my ambiguity.

Krisis, I know what you mean about the gender roles with wife/husband. I know better, but when I hear someone talk about their husband/wife, the immediate impression my brain gives me is Everybody Loves Raymond. So if a man talks about his wife, I picture her as a harpy bitch with no personality and if a woman refers to her husband, I picture an adolescent man-child having an affair. I can defend this line of thought pretty well, after all, if you're using antiquated words that have a very specific historical connotation, then I can't do much for what society told me to assume. On the other hand, for god's sake I'm so wrong!

I hate it when people constantly refers to their boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/life partner as "my boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/life partner" instead of using their actual name. To constantly hear my husband did this or my girlfriend loves that restaurant is so annoying. Sure once or twice is okay but constantly just feels like you are shoving your loved up coupley status down my throat!

Grace, I'm curious to know if Mark feels as strong about this as you do? Does he also use the term "Partner". I have always admired your relationship and your stance on marriage.

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