Back in the 1970s the status of two unmarried people living together ranged from the semi-skeezy “shacking up” to the contractually clinical “cohabiting.” There was also the somehow non-committal sounding “living together” and the always popular “living in sin.” (The latter said with an ironic wink by those who actually didn’t think that way at all… and a majority of parents and religious leaders who did.)
But at least there was a choice of ridiculous phrases from which to select.
When a recent APW reader asked for help with what to call their unmarried mate, the choice of nomenclature was (and is) ridiculous, immature, or non-existent. My now wife, Jennifer, and I faced that challenge back in pre-historic days as well. We went through the same litany of awkward labels—usually beginning with who exactly we were to each other. “Umm… well, she’s my girlfriend but we’re umm… committed and umm…”
It was after a couple of years of this that I realized that the answer had been there all along. “UMM.” Seriously. Jennifer was my UMM and by biting off a large hunk of poetic and grammatical license “UMM” stood for Un Married Mate.” It seemed to embrace the recognition that we were each other’s friend, partner, companion, and lover—and that this had all occurred on the not-yet side of marriage
. UMM also inferred a small whiff of the doubt which can occur (even without the tuxedos, gowns, cake, guests, and oh, that legal commitment thing). Legally binding contracts give people pause and they do work things out, and UMM reflected a bit of that pause. UMM was a tad clever and evoked smiles. And if there was one thing couples needed in those tumultuous and revolutionary times of changing values, AIDS, and protest—it was a sense of humor. So UMM it was. I don’t think it caught on. I mean, if it had you wouldn’t be posing the question, and I wouldn’t have attempted to answer it, right?
But never fear. I have finally succeeded.
I’m inspired by my wonderful daughter Amanda’s commitment to the equally wonderful Chris. Yes, like father like daughter. My oldest has been “living in sin”—shacking up, and co-habitating with Chris—for about 2 years. Now, having been to approximately 4,512 friends’ marriages, they are in the talking stages of their own nuptials. Have they set a date? Is there a ring? Not even close.
Any time the wedding is brought up, Amanda takes on a tone which somehow manages to be both patient and exasperated with her father: “Dad, we’re talking about it. We don’t know anything at this time. A year… maybe two. We just don’t know!!”
Now, I have three fantastic kids. Part of the reason that they are so fantastic is that my equally fantastic wife taught me the golden rule of parenting techniques: unless your child shines the parental equivalent of the Batman signal for help directly over your head, it is probably a good idea to keep your mouth shut. And wait. And wait some more. Yes, there are times when what I call a UFO (Unasked For Opinion) is needed but for the most part they’ll figure it out.
But just like my generation, they eventually admitted that they were stumped as to what to call each other—aside from Chris and Amanda. Did I mention that they also live with Nellie, their child/Chihuahua? Okay, she’s now mentioned. Everyone knows that raising a Chihuahua is more evidence that they are committed.
I suggested UMM.
I received in return the kind of tolerant smile reserved for Baby Boomers trying to convince Millennials that the song “American Pie” by Don Mclean is actually great. UMM was deemed “cute” and appropriate for “back then” but not for a modern, cyber-linked, businesslike generation.
So I had to find a phrase that worked for them. One which combined the recognition of a traditional relationship, and the state of being “prior to,” “in advance of.” They didn’t ask me. I saw no Batman signal over my head but I knew they’d thank me. Maybe. If I got it right.
Hmmm… NQF? Not quite fiancée?…No, that sounded too much like something you’d put at the end of a Facebook comment if you wanted to tell somebody to… well, NQF.
But the idea was there. Something that captured that elusive “prior to.” That was when I read about some movie star who was getting divorced and had forgotten to get their now jettisoned mate to sign a prenuptial agreement… a “prenup”…Cost him four hundred million. (Might have been Mel Gibson. Good. He deserved it.) But wait! That “pre” part. A fiancé, an engagement was pre marriage, so a pre fiancé… YES!
A pre-ancé!! Yes! It worked. It was accurate, it was efficient, and it also sounded like the best selling hybrid car. I tried it out on Chris and Amanda. Chris was on board immediately. (He’ll make a great son-in-law). Amanda took a few minutes longer, but she finally smiled and nodded. “Yeah… that’s pretty good,” she said. It is now their “legal” definition. I have even suggested pre-ancé to other couples who are tortured by not having a simple and efficient definition of their relationship. They, too have nodded and smiled. A writer couldn’t ask for more than to have something he created become, even in a small way, part of the language of love. But even more special is that, as a dad, I was able to tuck a small, happy phrase into the lives of my daughter and Chris. Did I mention he’s her pre-ancé?