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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  • Sarah

    I can totally relate to this! My partner and I aren’t married yet (waiting 2-3 years for the ducks) but since we moved in together 18 months ago I tend to get frustrated about doing his laundry or whatever when he is too busy with work or study. Never mind that there are a lot of things that he does for me when I don’t have the time… when I am doing his laundry the feminist voice in my head starts asking whether I’m turning into the stereotypical downtrodden housewife. Previously, I loved being able to do things for him! Although sometimes I find the word ‘partner’ a bit non-specific (life/domestic partners vs business partners etc), I love the idea of a relationship as a partnership because I think that sets us up as equals.

  • 39bride

    Such a wonderful, insightful post. Sometimes we overload ourselves, over-thinking what each little thing means in the grander scheme of life when it’s all just really simple. That last paragraph says it all. It’s about two people working together, and how “working together” looks to them.

    “I realized I had turned Nodair into the obstacle I was working against, rather than the partner I was working with.” I think this is a problem for so many people, and I really notice it when my husband and I fight. I stop and remind both of us that we’re not here to win something from each other or control each other; we’re here to work together to make each others’ lives better than we’d be alone.

  • Paranoid Libra

    I get the exact same way in regards to cleaning. I just fear that I am giving in to being a stereo type than just someone who wants things clean. Probably also has a lot to do with growing up with a father who did nothing in the house. My mom always cooked, cleaned, laundry, and anything else stereotypical of a woman. She hates that he will not do the laundry as she has accidentally washed his cell phones numerous times because he already wears heavy jeans for work.

    It’s ridiculous that I feel like that too as my husband will do whatever I ask of him. It might not happen that same day I ask which is generally what I would like to happen (and I should communicate that to him directly since you know didn’t marry a mind reader).

    Just because I want to clean doesn’t make me a bad feminist. Also just because I don’t clean doesn’t make me a good one either.

  • Teresa

    When my now husband and I moved in together almost six years ago, this is exactly what happened to me. Everything was about not wanted to fall into the traditional female role as person who cooks and cleans and I was not always particularly nice about it. It didn’t help that he didn’t really like cleaning and then when I asked him all snotty to help me, we’d wind up fighting.

    It took awhile before I could articulate to myself and then to him how I was feeling and it all came to a head during my first summer off after I started working in the school system. I was home and had loads more time to do all of those things, but I refused to do them until the weekend when he was home to help me. It didn’t matter that if I did some extra things around the apartment, we could spend more time together on the weekends–I was too afraid to fall into that stereotype.

    It took a long time for us to find a balance and to figure out that we can pick up each other’s slack a bit (he hates to dust, so I dust. I hate carrying the laundry up and down the stairs in our building, so he does the laundry.). It also took me reading a comment on APW to stop being such a jerk about cleaning during the summer. The comment said that her dad had given her a piece of advice: “Do more than your fair share and don’t keep score.” Literally, it has changed our lives! I’m so grateful that we dealt with that before we got married because I think I would have seriously panicked!

    • LILY

      That quote has stuck with me, too! Someone out there has a very wise father.

  • When I thought of marriage, “partner” and “team” were always the two first words I’d think of and we had both of those in our vows. I think they may sound really unromantic to a lot of people, but I love the idea that it’s us against challenges and obstacles, together. And yes, a good reminder that it’s not me vs. him. When I start to get frustrated with doing most of the housework (right now, he works and I don’t) I remind myself what I tell the middle schoolers I teach (when I have a job): fair isn’t always equal.

  • RC

    Does anyone else struggle with the terminology? My guy and I have been together (unmarried) for so many years that “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” no longer sound right to us. But “partner” doesn’t feel right, either (people seem to think it must mean we’re gay). I guess labels are always clunky…

    • Labels are clunky. We use partner a lot, but that does sometimes confuse people (especially since I dance, people assume I mean “dance partner”). I use boyfriend sometimes, but try to stick to partner. I like the sexual orientation ambiguity (trying to normalize non-gendered language!), but nine times out of ten, I immediately follow “partner” with “is doing his grad work. . .”

      Good luck on finding a term that works for you. I also like simply saying “my man” or being goofy and calling him my main squeeze.

      • Hannah K

        my awesome boss (who is in her 70s) refers to her boyfriend-guy as “my sweetie” and just lets people deal with the ambiguity, which i greatly enjoy.

    • Sabrina

      I know what you mean. We are not married yet (one year out WOOT) but just thinking about being a “wife” or calling him “husband” kinda makes my skin crawl. So we have taken to calling eachother Smizmar.

    • My mother in law recommended “inamorata”, which, you know, didn’t work for us but at least made me laugh. :)

    • Anonforthis.

      Yes. Before we were engaged, I tend to now just say: “This is [name here]” and let the context (hand holding, smiles, etc.) indicate the relationship. I say fiancee because it’s gender neutral and seems less loaded somehow. I like partner and teammate when we are talking to each other because that’s what we are to eachother, but I personally find those words too ambiguous for daily conversations with others.

      After marriage, I plan to continue with just “name” and, when necessary, “spouse.” For me, this is a reaction ot the way people and society negatively refer to their husbands and wives, e.g., “my wife keeps telling me to do the dishes” and “my husband never does the laundry.” In part because of that, I have never really looked forward to being a wife…the term is just too loaded for me, personally. I am, however, very excited about being a spouse.

      Everyone has to find a term that works for them, but I hear ya – labels are clunky.

      • Hannah K

        spouse ftw. it’s a gender-neutral word that applies equally to both parties and describes nothing but the condition of being married! who doesn’t love that!

        • Yes, I love spouse! My now-husband then-fiance and I lived at the boarding school where he was teaching last year, and pretty much everyone casually referred to all the partners of the teachers as the spouses, which totally cracked me up when I found myself describing my place in the community to someone new by just saying, oh I’m a spouse (which didn’t have any stay-at-home context btw, many spouses worked, too).

      • Carolyn

        It’s not all bad juju that comes with the label; some of us are working really hard here to reclaim “wife” ;)

    • Caz

      Hells yeah labels are clunky! Personally, I can’t wait to be “husband & wife” (6 months to go! Woop!) but since getting engaged, I just can’t say “fiance” with a straight face. Seriously, every time I say it, I put on a silly voice. I want to acknowledge that we’re transitioning from “boyfriend & girlfriend” so mostly use “partner” which feels okay for now. But when we talk about our relationship, we definitely use the word “team”. It’s awesome, and just about us, and I love it!

      Hope you figure out something that feels right for you…

      • Aubry

        Yes! I put on a silly voice when I say fiancée as well! I just cannot take that word seriously, and I feel too pretentious.

        I am also excited about Husband and Wife, and we already sometimes call each other that in private. I try not to though, because I don’t want the “special-ness” of the words to fade before we get legally married (next summer!).

        I agree that boyfriend/girlfriend sounds somehow less serious. My friends who have been dating for a month have a boyfriend, I have something more after 4 years. I usually just introduce him as “my Craig” and let people figure it out.

        I read something online the other day, where the author met an old man and he introduced his partner as “the woman who walks beside me”, without a trace of ownership or obligation. I really like that idea.

        • K down under

          “the woman who walks beside me”

          that’s beautiful.

    • Labels are always, almost by definition, clunky. Whether its own relationships to our significant others, our own sexuality, our friends, our jobs … we’re using single words as catchalls to describe a substantial part of our lives and those words carry all sorts of baggage and various shades of meaning.

    • GeLa

      I live in New Zealand, after growing up mainly in the states, and here the word “partner” is pretty standard to refer to your significant other, regardless of gender, it doesn’t imply same-sex the way that it seemed to back in New Hampshire. And I have really loved that, being able to use partner – since the relationship I’m in is definitely no longer boyfriend/girlfriend – we wear rings – but we’re also not technically married. And I love the implication of being in a partnership.

      That said though, I usually actually use the term “my dude.” People usually laugh and then don’t ask for explanation.

    • Laura K.

      My realtor (who wasn’t sure when she first met us what our relationship was) referred to my boyfriend as my “beau” which I thought sounded a lot nicer. Kinda fancy, not so juvenile sounding as “boyfriend.”

    • Anon

      I LOVE the comments from this post for ideas for what to call your person:

    • Jade

      I found that significant other worked pretty well when we had reached the ‘boyfriend/girlfriend doesn’t fit but we aren’t engaged or married’ stage. But for most cases you mention the relationship once and then just use first names, so as long as the label feels okay it doesn’t really matter what the label is exactly.

  • Britterscotch

    While I am not feeling the oppression of 1950s style chores or the historical implications of the word “wife”, I’m going through something similar, but with a different part of myself. The being an adult part. I think that my partner and I are cool with the term husband and wife, but we got married on the 14th and then my car broke down, our dryer is still broke, and the big cushion of money we were supposed to save to plan our new life together with is pretty much all spoken for. I have to pay those student loan bills, while still juggling my one college class I can afford and work my inspirationless job 40 hours a week. I was never good at being the clean one, for various reasons. We talk a lot about these feelings with each other though. We’ve agreed to take turns being an adult. I will call to get the dryer fixed/replaced, he will call to get my car towed. It’s really amazingly awesome to realize you have someone else to play adult for some of the things in your life that you don’t want to deal with, but there’s still the overwhelmingly scary unknown hovering around about everything else. I just remind myself that I am not in a limbo, I am not stuck, that problems happen, and even in the face of problems I have to remember to clean out the slow cooker and vacuum the stairs every once in awhile.

    • KC

      I love taking turns “being an adult”. It is fabulous and freeing to know that while, yes, you’ll be dealing with all life’s weird little catastrophes together, you don’t have to be the one sitting on hold with [latest company/bank/etc. that has gotten something incorrect or has mucked up their billing] every single time.

    • Kcaudad

      I know it is not the point of your comment, but if you are still taking college courses, then you can contact your loan company to have the loans deferred until you are done taking courses. Then, you won’t have to struggle to pay for the loans and your current classes at the same time!

  • Abby Mae

    “I realized I had turned Nodair into the obstacle I was working against, rather than the partner I was working with.”

    Love that. So good to hear this morning.

    • Marie

      Was about to make the exact same comment. That line really stood out to me, and was exactly the reminder I needed at the beginning of this week.

  • Anna

    “We can survive anything, even laundry.” Perfect end to this post!

  • This is one of my top favorite posts ever. I love that you’re able to feel comfortable as a partner when wife doesn’t feel right. It really does pare down the relationship to its foundation: ultimately, you’re a team, you’re working together, you’re partners.

  • I totally get that sense of being a “tag along,” and all the conflicting emotions that go with it. My husband and I moved to California from Massachusetts for his new teaching job in July, got married in August, and then had to move into a different apartment right after the wedding. I love California, and I’m really excited that we’re here, so for the most part I’m so happy that he got this job and we totally changed our lives for it. But, now we’re starting off our marriage with him super busy with teaching/preparing his new courses and boarding school duties, and me without a job (a “real” job at least, I’m still working on our blog and Etsy shop), with a new last name, and doing ALL the housework and setting up our new home. I actually love being at home most of the time, and I know that my husband needs this support right now since he has so much to do in his new role, but sometimes I sink into the depressing thoughts about being just a “homemaker.” I think part of it is that when he is home from work, he’s often tired and just wants to relax, which I totally understand since the beginning of the school year is crazy, but I’m worried that this is just going to become the norm and he’s going to start getting too comfortable with not pitching in, and I’m going to start getting resentful. Ok, now that I wrote that down, I’m realizing this sounds like a conversation that needs to happen soon… oof.

  • Erin E

    This is so interesting. I’m thinking about this post in the context of a good friend’s recent divorce. She kept telling me “we can do travel, we can do fun, we can do stressful together… but we can’t do NORMAL.” Something about the banal, the day-to-day, the chores… that’s was actually the stuff they couldn’t make work for them. It frightened me! And this post made me think of that fear… not that the author is headed to that same place, but because I think there really can be a difficulty to adjusting to “everyday life” as spouses. How do the routines get set? And mostly, what to do if resentment and boredom set in? Hmm. So thought provoking – thank you.

    • KC

      I know some people who are like this with work – they can do the hard stuff, or crisis stuff, or whatever, but can’t do the day-to-day boring maintenance/progress parts of their jobs, which tends to mean that they create crises, because the stuff piles up and then it’s all urgent (and hence interesting again to them, etc.). Not actually fun to work with – while it’s great to work with people who don’t fall apart in a crisis, it’s *not* great to work with people who don’t know what to do when there isn’t something Big to focus around (and who hence generate unnecessary crises at intervals). They’re sprinters; they don’t naturally walk or jog to keep pace.

      Some people with this issue have figured out how to make their personalities/psychology work for them, not against them, at work (scheduling/deadline techniques, small rewards, Pomodoro, etc.).

      The same might be true of relationships; hard to push through the normal stuff unless there are thrills? Maybe develop some tiny thrill mechanisms or perspective changes to get you through the sorting-the-mail parts, or develop the discipline to tolerate, and then enjoy, sitting still for a bit. I mean, it’s not going to always be totally-crushing-on-each-other levels of thrill/relationship hormones, just from life-exists-and-endorphins-settle-down-and-you-will-not-always-feel-a-full-skydiving-rush facts, but there are sneaky tricks to bump just slightly out of “ordinary” if ordinary is not a place you can comfortably be, and there are ways to get more comfortable in your skin in “ordinary” if ordinary is where you need to be. :-)

    • karen

      One thing that I’ve found about routines (2 years married, 3 years parenting, 6 years living together with some gaps in the middle) is that it is so important not for them to be set in stone. They have to evolve with changing situations – be that work, illness, children, whatever. This does mean revisiting discussion and being open to negotiation – and ultimately both being able to say when something is not working and being willing to find a compromise that works well enough even if it isn’t ideal.

  • Faith

    So often, when I find myself listening to the feminist voice grumbling in my head, I just have to tell myself to shut up and get over it.

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  • Leah

    I occasionally feel a little weird that my guy and I, with the wedding a whole year out (at least), already kind of love the husband/wife thing. He keeps promising to ask me totally everyday questions with: “What say you, wife?”

    It kind of makes getting married feel like going off to be Vikings.

  • Kelsey

    Marriage titles have definitely been on my mind lately. As you demonstrated, “husband” and “wife” have a lot of baggage, and my SO and I are going to have to figure out how we want to navigate this. Thank you for this article—I feel like my experience has been normalized! :)