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By Randall Smith   
Saturday, 19 May 2012

I’m just back from England, where I experienced one of those troubling presentiments of “things-likely-to-come” for us. People I met in England always referred to their “partner,” never to their “husband” or “wife.” I’m told the same is true in Ireland. 

At first, I thought this was merely the result of meeting people who weren’t married, until a lovely Catholic professor explained to me that, in her circles at least, one never refers to one’s “husband” or “wife,” always and only to one’s “partner.” To do otherwise would be thought rude and, worse yet, “discriminatory.” 

Using these forbidden words suggests you might actually believe there’s something different going on between two people who are “sexually involved” and two people who have, before God and all their friends, publicly committed themselves to a lifetime together in a sacramental bond of marriage.

So in order to avoid the risk of making anyone feel bad, it is simply not allowed for people who are married to use words that suggest they are. 

Whatever benefits accrue to these linguistic austerity measures, there are often problems. One involves knowing whether the “partner” is a man or a woman. One often anxiously waits in such conversations until the speaker finally uses the relevant pronoun (he, she, or it) before asking the usual sorts of friendly questions: “How long have you known her?” “Where did you meet him?”  But I suppose the lack of clarity about gender is part of the point: such distinctions are the sort of “discriminations” to be avoided.

But the other problem with the “partner” designation is that it’s so fungible. It’s hard to know what relationship the speaker has in mind. After all, one often has in life a host of different “partners”: business partners, tennis partners, workout partners, dancing partners. 

When a man tells me, “My partner is in France right now,” what am I supposed to think? That he’s suffering from a lack of tennis? That he’s got a great business deal going down in Paris? Or is he interested in an affair? It’s all so unclear. But never mind all that; one mustn’t risk making people feel bad.

Perhaps it’s just the mischief in me, or it may be because I’ve lived in Texas so long, but whenever someone introduces me to his or her “partner,” I’m tempted to greet him or her with my slowest Texas drawl: “Well, howdy par’dner.”  

But even when I manage to avoid that temptation, there are other questions that naturally bubble-up given the flexible nature of such “partnerships.” 

How long have you been with your partner? 
Do you work in the same office as your partner? 
Do you live in the same house as your partner? 
Do you live in the same country as your partner?
How long has it been since you last saw your partner? 
Does your partner have many other partners? 

It’s all so confusing. But then again, I suppose that’s the point.


        Partner or partner? (Illustration by Laurence Fellows, c. 1935)

The pressure for doing away with the distinction of “marriage” comes, oddly enough, at a time when gay couples want to be recognized as “married.” The wonder is that gay people care about getting “married” when heterosexuals have done so much to de-value it and render it a sort of non-entity. 

Indeed, one wonders whether gay couples, having achieved the status of “married,” will subsequently refuse, like everyone else, to refer to their “spouses” at all (whether husband or wife) and simply refer to their “partners.” Either way, the source of the problem isn’t gay couples. It’s the mess heterosexuals have already made of what used to be called “marriage.” 

God works in mysterious ways. It would be an interesting development if the pressure for gay marriage caused people to think more seriously again about what marriage really is and about what distinguishes those who are “married” partners from those who are just “partners.” 

If there’s really no difference, then why are some people trying so hard to gain the distinction of “married”? What do they understand, albeit perhaps only implicitly, that many of the rest of society seems determined to forget? 

Is it that an undefined “partnership” is not a thing at all? We seem to suffer from the illusion that we can define our relationships the way we think we can define ourselves: according to our will and whim. The reality, however, is that you can’t get the benefits of commitment without commitment. 

In his essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel speaks eloquently about how in authoritarian regimes, everything becomes a lie, even simple things. One of the great acts of revolt the powerless can engage in, in such circumstances, argues Havel, is to speak and act in such a way as to “live in the truth.” 

He imagines the case of a greengrocer who puts up a sign in his shop window that says, “Workers of the world, unite!” not because he has given a moment’s thought to the slogan, but merely because it is expected of him. Havel asks us to imagine that “one day something in our greengrocer snaps, and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself.” 

“In this revolt,” says Havel, “the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.”

Let other people refer to their “partners.” There’s no need to be critical. They can do as they like. Catholics, though, should make clear that we have “husbands” and “wives,” not only by our words, but by how we live together and treat one another in marriage.

The goal should be to show that there can be something better than what a lot of people are allowing themselves to settle for.

 
Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.  
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.
 

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Comments (22)Add Comment
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written by Curple Turnle, May 19, 2012
I don't mean to be rude, but I'm not sure what the author is talking about. My husband is British, university-educated, and from a middle-class family. I just asked him whether it was normal in Britain to refer to someone as one's partner when the couple is married, and he said no. I've never encountered it myself when I was in England. Who on earth was the author talking to?
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written by Manfred, May 19, 2012
On the pages of TCT we often see More, Fisher, Belloc,Chesterton et al. referred to as though they had passed a week ago Tuesday. We have to accept that Catholicism is "dead" and It will not return in areas where we live. The growth religions in the U.S. are non-denominational "christianity"(?) and Mormonism. Neither are true despite whatever good they might achieve. When my wife and I began our marriage, we both were trained to know what Catholicism was AND WHAT IT WAS NOT. Now,46 years and seven children later, we all thank God for the Grace to sustain us through all these years. We haved LIVED and practiced the Religion in which we were raised and trained and the benefits of our Faithfulness are apparent. ALL of our children and their spouses are practicing, believing Catholics. I am in an 80 member "service club" which changed the designations from spouse to "partner". I went before the Board to have the title spouse restored. I was turned down ten to one! Undaunted, I waited until we had a new president whom I took to lunch. I explained that the duty of an organization is to teach norms to its members and we could not be seen to be teaching them false and damaging ideas. A few months later,a fresh membership list was broadcast. All married members and their SPOUSES were shown as such. It takes conviction and effort. It can be done, but if you are childish and passive, you are lost.
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written by Sue, May 19, 2012
In coming times we may be forced to submerge sex, as in forms that require only "parent 1" and "parent 2". Ideas and distinctions drive policy. I say we must fight for "la difference".
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, May 19, 2012
I have noticed that, in France, mon époux (épouse) or spouse is increasingly used to describe what used to be referred to, officially at least, as a concubin(e) At least, in French, one is left in no doubt about the gender.

In Scotland, we used to use "bidie-in" for those who shared an abode without benefit of matrimony.

Curiously, for my parents' generation, (I am in my sixties) to refer to "my husband" or "my wife" was considered very infra dig; it was always "Mr X" or "Mrs X" or "the Doctor/Minister/Colonel" although friends would enquire after "your good lady." or "Your man."
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written by Emina Melonic, May 19, 2012
Great article! And great sense of humor too! It's amazing how awkward this "inclusiveness" is...and tiring too. Let us also not forget anxiety inducing: the anticipation of finally learning whether the partner is a he or a she. But of course, I am being ironic about anxiety--the best thing to do is not to submit to such silly social experiments that are thrust upon us. The best thing to do, of course, is to affirm reality, and not allow absurdity to suppress one's true identity, in one's relations with such linguistically exhausting men and woman--sorry, "partners."
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written by Dave, May 19, 2012
Manfred: the Faith is alive wherever believers practice it, even if the numbers be few, even if the Church be beleagured. Have faith! The nightmare we are living may even get worse, but the gates of hell will not prevail. Spain fell to the Moors and eight hundred years later began a Catholic renewal that spread the Faith to the four corners. If it happened there, it can happen here, provided we have the Faith. "Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world."
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written by Tony Esolen, May 19, 2012
There's another thing going on here, too. If a man says, "This is my girl friend, Tina," that means that he and Tina are seeing one another, and it does not necessarily mean more than that. It doesn't even mean, necessarily, that they are sharing the same bed. If he says, "This is my partner, Tina," that evidently does mean that they are sharing the same bed, but they might not be married. Frankly, I don't care to know that two unmarried people are sharing the same bed. The same applies in spades to two men.
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
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written by Frank, May 19, 2012
Great article! That this will all end according to God's will is assured. It's the "HOW" I'm rather puzzled about and must admit ignorance. "For my ways are not your ways and my thoughts not your thoughts says the Lord," in Isaiah 55:8-9. Why marriage? The ultimate societal hot button has finally been pushed and this current President just pushed it. Like the little pebble now sent down the hill, the avalanche has begun and I have this strange feeling this President will rue the day he started the avalanche that will engulf him. Indulge me my friends to offer my explanation. One thing out of my Lutheran upbringing has always stuck with me when the Pastor of my church stated, "Marriage was God's idea, not man's idea." I'm sure any Catholic Priest would say something similar. The Pastor said this to me and other 13 year olds during a Sunday School class something akin to CCD. And so it follows that if marriage is not the idea of man, neither is it the idea of the Magna Carta, the Hammurabic Code OR the US Constitution. Those documents might mention it or allude to it but do not and never will be able to define or claim exclusivity to it. Thus, the actions to define marriage in accordance with these documents is simply to take away (or more aptly an attempt to take away) something God created, instituted and gave to us. This is of course consistent with Socialist, Marxist, Post-Modern thinking that man can become the solution i.e. a perfectible power like God." What this twisted logic and those who espouse this "new thinking" deny is that it is what got us into trouble with God in the first place. "You will not die the serpent told Eve, for God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God." So there is nothing new under the Sun contrary to those who stridently parrot the "conventional wisdom."
After many years of thinking about marriage in light of emerging social pressure and changes, a thought came to me just a few years back that I would like to convey here. God gave us marriage to provide us some very very small finite idea of the love, joy, COMMITTMENT, and mystery of the Trinity. God is mostly mystery, indirectly parceling out to his children that which He knows our finite minds can comprehend. We are all made in His image but we are finite creatures of finite intellect and capacity. The fullness of the relationship, interplay and intimacy of the Trinity is not something we understand nor is God willing to fully share with us. Has any of you had a child come to you in their adolescence or young adulthood and posit the question to you that they don't understand what makes you and your spouse tick? What brought you together? What keeps you together? What makes you love one another so passionately? That's a mystery our children don't understand. My daughter once asked me that question and I told her that I pondered the same about my parents and I don't have a satisfying answer on that one either. I am here because of that marriage and she is here because of the marriage of myself and her mother. Beyond that, don't try to figure it out, the answers are really not her concern and she will realize the same when she gets married and has children. Marriage therefore, is the exclusive mystery only one man and one woman share unto themselves in the fullness of every dimension of love simply because that's how God designed us? Why? I don't know, I just accept it. Once again, God provides only the insight He chooses to reveal and no more. It is enough to know and be assured of where marriage originated and be aware of the ultimate consequences of those who wish to define it outside the parameters that God has set. There will be a reckoning on this one, when and how I do not know but like John Paul II, Poland, the Soviet Union, and the rest of the World, God has a way of getting the point across to us in ways well beyond our imagination. I take comfort in this and know that despite the current condition that marriage as we know it is under attack and for now the battle is being lost. We might lose the battle temporarily, but the war will be won for eternity. My thoughts. Yours?
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written by Louise, May 19, 2012
Two thoughts on your essay, Mr. Smith.

1.
I thought surely you were going to suggest that the definitions of "husband" and "wife" might well evolve to mean the person of the same sex as the one speaking. If heterosexual people can only say "partner" and homosexual people say only "husband" and "wife", isn't that the likely outcome?

2.
' “In this revolt,” says Havel, “the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game.'

Which is exactly why I never use the word "gay" to refer to homosexual people. To do so is to follow their 'rules of the game", to participate in their lie, and to accept their terms of the debate--immediately conceding your ground. If truth is one's only weapon against tyranny, that truth must be expressed in truthful words--and I don't care WHAT the American Heritage Dictionary says on the subject.
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written by Walter, May 19, 2012
- Agree with Curple Turnle: I've never heard this in England (visit many times for work), and my friend's English spouse agreed over lunch today.
- Agree with Manfred: "spouse" is a good phrase to incorporate into our lexicon. I still use husband/wife for married couples. Spouse is a good descriptive and differentiated choice for the reality of gay couples who enter into some sort of permanent legal arrangement.
- Agree with Tony: I have no need to speculate about what anyone does in their bedroom.
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written by Manfred, May 19, 2012
Dave: Thank you for your comment. Cdl Ratzinger forecast the Church would become "more a minority Church; she will live in small vital circles of really convinced believers who live the faith." (hat tip to Tom Bethell). Our FSSP parish is our "small vital circle". Louise: Thank you for your always "right-on" comments as well.
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written by Lucia Maria, May 19, 2012
This has been happening for years in New Zealand. When my husband and I first moved back from Australia (after an absence of 13 years), I didn't quite know what to think when various people asked about my "partner". Now that I've had time to get used to it, if anyone asks about my partner, I will preface what I'm about to say with "My husband ...". It's seriously annoying, and I too wrote a post about it on a previous blog of mine.
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written by Pattie, RN, May 20, 2012
Excellent article!

May I add another new "fashion", at least here in the upper southern states, amongst young people who are sharing a bed and often children without the benefit of matrimony?

This is referring to the other as my "Fiance/Fiancee". This is not coupled with any plan for marriage, ring, date, or anything like that. It is a very pretty lie to avoid using the correct term of "someone I have sex with and share a trailer with and some kids, too, but I don't know if I'll stay or not."
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written by LindaF, May 21, 2012
My HUSBAND is far more than the person that I share a house with. He is:

- the father of my children
- my friend
- my business partner, and
- an equal participant in the management of the household

However, as my HUSBAND, he is also, thanks to the wedding ceremony, my KIN. He was, by that sacrament, made one with me. We were adopted into each other's family.

Just as you can't divorce your sister, you truly can't divorce your husband or wife.

That's what a Catholic marriage is.
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written by Jacob, May 21, 2012
This is what happens when those Catholics who have an influence on culture turn into wimps--people who would rather appease and be a part of the secular party than stand up for God like men.

When pagans take over you can expect all sorts of lunacy! (It seems quite silly to be surprised by it.)
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written by Maria33, May 21, 2012
I lived in England for two years recently, and I can attest that this indeed was the case, everyone used the term "partner" married or not. I used husband and wife, but I was American so they expected all sorts of oddness from me.
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written by Filipe, May 22, 2012
Nick Hornby is a great example of this. In his book Fever Pitch, an autobiography through the lens of his passion for football, he constantly refers to his partner. This caused great confusion in the mind of the Portuguese translator who rendered it into the masculine "parceiro", basically turning him into a homosexual.
Thanks for this article, I selected it for the Portuguese translationand it will be published tomorrow on www.actualidadereligiosa.blogspot.com
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written by Paul, May 25, 2012
Thank you for your article. I think this is an issue we should be talking about. I like what you had to say, but I think you missed something important about the term "partner." I believe you're right and some people use partner so as to be ambiguous and non-discriminatory. However, there is another way people use it that you didn't address. For some people, the term partner has more meaning to them than simply husband and wife. I, in agreement with you, would have qualms with that, but it's important to acknowledge it. My first thought about why this is, is that some people see that those terms may refer to traditional male and female roles in a marriage and those represent an unequal relationship. As is pretty obvious, many feminists would have issue with the terms husband and wife for these reasons. The element that is at the core of what they are trying to do, is emphasize that the relationship they are describing is indeed captured well with the terms partner. For some of the people that use partner, it means more to them to call their significant other partner because in the most simple way that means someone with whom, they are in the relationship together, living their lives together working towards greater love. That is very powerful and I have a lot of respect for that. It is an attractive concept for many because in that sense, partner, one with whom you are in the pursuit of love and living life together, evokes something more personal and intimate than husband and wife in a world of broken relationships, a high divorce rate, imposed traditional marriage norms, and other things. I wont disagree with you, that we should maintain our usage of the words husband and wife because for us Catholics those words have very deep meaning and capture the essence of how God calls a man and a woman to be together, but I urge you to see the deeper meaning in the use of the world partner for some people that you failed to mention in your post.
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written by L Brown, May 26, 2012
I live in England, and the term "partner" is a trend that the media have promoted aggressively in order to equate the relationship between two people who simply live together as if married with the relationship between legitimate spouses. However, I have not shared the experience of your professor friend who has found the use of the word "husband" or "wife" to be viewed as rude or discriminatory. I do think it's a slippery slope, though, intended to devalue marriage. But this is all the more reason to use openly the words "husband" and "wife" as now, more than ever, the terms proclaim one’s exclusive commitment to another person.
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written by anon, June 24, 2012
I don't have a partner/fiancee/live-in/lover/roommate. I confess I am a 'wife' and I possess a 'husband'. However. "Wife" conjures up a shrew with old fashioned curlers in her hair, wearing a bathrobe and slippers, cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, holding either a rolling pin or spatula. This creature is in thrall to "Husband", a balding specimen with ear hair and a beer gut, sitting in a shabby recliner drinking beer, watching Tha Game.
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written by Jim B., August 05, 2012
Dr. Smith!

The theme of your article reminds me of the title of a Josef Pieper book: "Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power". Given that I have only read the Ignatius Press short-description on the novel, all I can vouch for about the book is from that very description:

"One of the great Catholic philosophers of our day reflects on the way language has been abused so that, instead of being a means of communicating the truth and entering more deeply into it, and of the acquisition of wisdom, it is being used to control people and manipulate them to achieve practical ends."
--
When we think through the historical themes of our terminology shift, one astute student can see a constant theme of "empowerment" behind these occurrences. Every radical philosophy turned political movement has sought it, through blunt, or more subtle tweeks. I think this sort of melds what Pieper contends and what you contend.

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