Howdy Partner

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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.