The Meaning of Married

Embracing "husband" when you're still uncertain about "wife"

Nick’s dad recounted the following story to me the day after our wedding. As he and Nick checked out of the hotel and worked on packing up the car, an employee asked the front desk if we had retrieved the rented tux a groomsman had left behind for us to return. “I’m not sure,” Nick replied. “I’ll have to check with my fiancé.” “Your who?” the employee asked, laughing. It took Nick a moment to realize what she meant. “Oh! My wife. Whoa. My wife.”

Talk about a four-letter word. Thrilled though I am to finally be married to Nick, “wife” is definitely a term to which I am still adjusting. “Fiancé” was not a title I was ever fully comfortable using, at least not in public. While I relished using the term in private, especially in giggly moments shortly after our engagement, referring to Nick as my fiancé in public often seemed to invite a barrage of loaded questions I didn’t always feel comfortable answering. How did he propose? Can I see your ring? When’s the big day? What are your wedding colors? Especially in a professional setting, I sometimes felt squeamish acknowledging that I was engaged. For some reason, it just felt like highlighting my relative youth, and my… femaleness? After all, Nick did not seem to be on the receiving end of such questions when referring to me as fiancé. Admitting that I had a fiancé seemed to emphasize that I was planning a wedding, rather than working toward a major emotional milestone (which was particularly problematic, as we weren’t actively wedding planning for the bulk of our long engagement). So I never fully settled into my role of fiancé. Which is sort of the point, right? Fiancé is, by definition, a transitional title of limited duration, culminating with the marriage.

And now here we are, husband and wife. The word “wife” feels heavy with negative connotations somehow. I know I’m not alone in feeling hesitant about this label. In The Meaning of Wife: A provocative look at women and marriage in the twenty-first century, Anne Kingston writes:

“If you look up the word wife in The Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll come across clues into the meaning but little illumination. Wife is a noun, a passive quantity, eager to conform to adjectival construction, be it a faculty wife, a military wife, a political wife, or a housewife. The word husband is far more flexible, functioning as either a noun or a verb… The role of wife has always defined a woman in the way husband does not define a man.”

“Passive” is not necessarily a term I ever would have used to describe myself. Just as being a fiancé seemed to define me as “girl planning a wedding,” I worry my new wifely title is going to begin to define me in ways being labeled “husband” does not define Nick.

My own ambivalence about the “wife” label aside, however, I have had no trouble wholeheartedly embracing referring to Nick as husband. “Husband” has a ring of permanence to it that “boyfriend,” or even “fiancé,” did not. Within the context of our private relationship, this change in title is not hugely significant. We’re still two people who plan to be together for the long haul and have arranged our lives accordingly, just as we did when we were engaged, and just as we did when we were “merely” dating. But to the outside world, the spousal title seems to carry a certain amount of weight, as some kind of validation or justification of our relationship.

Even when I was a lady in no particular rush to get engaged, I found myself wishing for a label a bit more compelling than “boyfriend” while lying on a gurney at in the emergency room, trying to convince a nurse to go find Nick in the waiting room. Before graduation, Nick and I were both interviewing for jobs in each other’s respective home states. When the inevitable interview question arose about why I was applying to jobs in Ohio, I remember wishing I could openly admit that I was aiming to wind up in the same state as my boyfriend. But my career counselor dismissed my plan to answer honestly. “Boyfriend isn’t permanent enough,” she advised. Moving for one’s boyfriend, apparently, almost sounds immature or reckless. Moving for your spouse seems to be considered much more socially acceptable. As long as you’re not searching for employment, that is. (The same career counselor later recommended that I never wear a ring on an interview, because it would give the impression that I’d be quitting soon to have babies. Notably, Nick has never been given career advice that was tied to his relationship status, or pertained to what he wore on his left hand.)

I appreciate that I can now refer to Nick with the society-sanctioned, sufficiently permanent-sounding, label of “husband.” (Even though I’m supposed to cover up my marriage to make sure I’m taken seriously professionally, while Nick apparently does not have to do so.) There’s no denying the tangible benefits we can enjoy now that we’re officially hitched, which makes it all the more mind boggling that these benefits are not available to everyone. Health insurance coverage and tax benefits are an important tip of the iceberg, but the cultural ramifications go far deeper. We rented a minivan for the week of our wedding to transport barrels of fresh flowers and an absurd quantity of mason jars. At the rental counter, I was informed that I’d pay an extra daily fee to add Nick as a driver—a fee that would be waived if he were my husband. I gleefully informed the rental agent that we’d be getting married that very week, and was sternly informed that the fee could only be waived if we were married on the first day of the rental. (What a buzzkill.) Now that he’s my husband, though, Nick can drive my rental cars and partake in my airline miles. I can use his discount card at our local big box store, and we’re entitled to a “family discount” on our gym membership. Though we considered each other family long before our wedding, we now have a single magic word—married—that instantly conveys our familial status in a way society recognizes as valid.

It doesn’t make sense to me that we receive all these perks now simply because we are husband and wife. It’s not like we accomplished anything warranting special treatment—we signed a form and forked over $43 to the state of Ohio. I love a good discount, but I also don’t understand why my recent marriage is of any interest to a rental car agency, airline, or gym. Tying all these benefits and deals to marriage seems arbitrary at best, and discriminatory at worst, given that marriage is not an institution to which everyone has equal access, or even wants access to.

I’m still settling into our new marital status, and trying to wrap my head around the fact that it seems to represent society’s stamp of approval on our relationship in ways I did not fully anticipate. While there’s something very sexy about referring to Nick as my husband, I am wary of yet another label that suggests things about him that it does not necessarily suggest about me. Luckily, Nick is still referring to me as his fiancé, so it seems I have plenty of time to adjust to my own new title of “wife.”

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