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.