What we have come to: figuring out what to call people who are “unmarried spouses”

What we have come to: figuring out what to call people who are “unmarried spouses” January 6, 2013

Can any of us remember a time, not so very long ago, when this wasn’t even worth serious discussion?

But the New York Times goes there:

Now that we’ve come to some consensus on same-sex marriage, let’s move on to the next puzzle: what to call two people who act as if they are married but are not.

“I went through a phase of just calling him Eric, even to people who didn’t know who that was,” said the master wordsmith Ann Kjellberg, 50, editor of the journal Little Star and the literary executor of the poet Joseph Brodsky. Eric Zerof spent 15 years as her live-in not-spouse and is the father of Ms. Kjellberg’s child. “I kept thinking, ‘This should not be this hard!’ I was very unhappy about the situation. I could never find a word I liked.”

One might imagine we would be less tongue-tied. The faux spouse is a pretty ho-hum cultural specimen for such a gaping verbal lacuna. But none of the word choices are good. Everyone agrees that partner sounds awful — too anodyne, empty, cold. Lover may be worse — too sexualized, graphic, one-dimensional. Boyfriend sounds too young. Significant other sounds too ’80s. Special friend or just friend (both favored by the 65-and-over crowd) are just too ridiculous.

Faced with such weak English-language options, Janna Cordeiro, 43, a nonprofit and public health consultant in San Francisco, settled on calling Sebastian Toomey, her mate of 23 years, “mi hombre” — my man. (Pronunciation: deep and forceful, with rolled r, as in a Western.) “My daughter goes to a Spanish-immersion school,” Ms. Cordeiro explained. “When she started kindergarten, I started asking the Spanish-speaking parents how to introduce Seb. Everybody kept saying, ‘mi esposo, mi esposo.’ I kept saying that was wrong and started saying, ‘mi hombre,’ and it stuck.”

Anne Tierney, 32, a bodyworker in West Palm Beach, Fla., went for “fusband,” which, she explains, is a catchall for “fake husband, future husband.” (Ms. Tierney’s fusband, Ozzy, calls Ms. Tierney “wifey.”) Technically the two are engaged, but Ms. Tierney said: “The word fiancé makes me cringe. What am I, in France?”…..

…Forty-four percent of American adults are unmarried. Seven million Americans live with a paramour who is not a spouse. The median age of those marrying for the first time is rising. The percentage of children born out of wedlock (an atrocious term itself) is rising as well.

In his book “The Marriage-Go-Round,” Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University, details the dizzying, perhaps even nauseating, American way of marriage. We marry, unmarry and remarry again more quickly than the citizens of any other Western nation. What this means, Mr. Cherlin wrote, “is that family life in the United States involves more transitions than anywhere else.” Transitions are the hard part. Little wonder many people want to stop the marriage carousel and get off.

Read more. 

UPDATE: Here’s a new one on me.  A colleague at work said he knows who used to refer to her daughter’s significant other as “My sin-in-law.”


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