Reclaiming “Partner”

When terms don't fit quite right


For N and I, our comfort zone has always involved passports and a pair of worn-in backpacks.

Though we met each other in Seattle, we first started dating when N was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia and I was an intern in Egypt. We fell in love in an oasis in the Saharan desert, and I often like to say that our first “date” involved being interrogated by a border official. For six hours. With heavily armed guards. We dated overseas for a year, visiting each other frequently and taking trips to places like Morocco and Istanbul. It was a gorgeously romantic way to begin a relationship, but for us, it was more than that: it was our formative year of building trust, practicing teamwork, and learning we could rely on one another in sticky situations. If we could survive an interrogation together, we could survive anything.

This aura of romantic fate, deep-won trust in each other, and partnership guided us steadily through three more years of dating, now back in the States. I proposed to N nearly every six months. We were a team. We had it all. Why not make official what we already knew in our hearts—that we were a team for a lifetime?

We made the leap one Saturday last September, getting married only three blocks from where we lived, surrounded by everything lovely and familiar. Our families and friends sat in a circle around us; N’s Japanese mother folded 1,001 paper cranes for good luck; we danced to a jazz band, the way we had the very first time we met. It was a day filled with love. Everything we were, and everyone around us, was solid, wholesome, and good.

But all that familiarity quickly melted away. Married on a Saturday, we returned to our respective grad school classes the next Tuesday. Everything looked familiar, but felt so strange in ways that I had trouble articulating. What did it mean now to be married? Power dynamics had never been a problem when we were dating, but now that we were married, I found myself interpreting everything through a lens of women’s liberation. Being asked to do the laundry could reduce me to tears. Refusing to clean N’s dirty dishes became a matter of principle. When we were dating, we had always gone out of our way to help each other, cooking for each other or running errands that the other didn’t have time to do. But now that we were married, I couldn’t square my impulse to help out with my feminist principles. Every chore felt like a return to 1950s domesticity.

I never had a chance to fully work through my thoughts, though, because after a frantic semester, we both boarded a plane on January 1 to Australia, where N would finish out his last semester of his health degree while working at a clinic in Sydney. I was delighted to tag along, and gushed to friends and family about my rare luck in being able to take a “life sabbatical” in Australia, with few work or study obligations to worry about. That we could take this time away together during our first year of marriage seemed especially fitting.

But my “tag along” status soon began to grate on me. N worked twelve-hour shifts several days a week; I took a French class that met for a grand total of two hours. I had plenty of time to take care of those daily chores, but I resented feeling like support staff. Stewing about dirty clothes and dishes, I realized I had turned N into the obstacle I was working against, rather than the partner I was working with.

His internship ended in April and we put our backpacks back on, traveling through southeast Asia for two months as a delayed honeymoon. Back on the road, my feet were on sturdier ground, and my resentments melted away. We were an equal team again: holding tight to each other on the back of a motorcycle, navigating with a GPS through back alleyways, holding each other’s hair back after we ate bad Pho. I serenaded him with our ukulele as he drove a campervan through winding roads in New Zealand. All of the cultural baggage I had assigned to the labels of “husband” and “wife” were irrelevant here, where we so clearly depended on one another. Who cared what we called each other? What we were went so much deeper than the words “husband” and “wife.”

What I’ve come to realize is that, after almost one year of marriage, I’m not ready to reclaim “wife” yet. When N and I first got married, we didn’t know who we would become as married people, how this ceremony and celebration had transformed us (or hadn’t). In the midst of those unknowns, I filled the words “wife” and “husband” with all of my own cultural stereotypes and fears. I could hardly see N anymore under the weight of all of this historical baggage.

“Husband” and “wife” always feel awkward on the lips of newlyweds, as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” had once felt giddily new and shocking for us to say years ago. But it wasn’t just the novelty of the terms that made us feel shy after we got married—it was that N hadn’t yet figured out what it meant for him to be a husband, and I didn’t yet know what it meant to be a wife. It was N who had wanted us to use the word “partner” in our vows. Liking the gravity of older language, I asked for a compromise. And so we made vows to each other as wife and partner, as husband and partner. Looking back, I’m glad that we did. Perhaps we will grow into these formal words of husband and wife, but in the meantime, we are still who we’ve always been: two partners.

So now I let go over my meta-concerns about the ways in which our marriage will or will not contribute to the liberation of women in the United States. Instead, I bring my focus back to the present, and back to who we are as people. We were N and A: two souls, two travelers, two people in love and committed to one another. We had survived an interrogation, a motorcycle crash, food poisoning, and worse while we were together: we can survive anything, even laundry.

Photo: Gabriel Harber

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