On Terms of Endearment

There’s a lot in the Urban Dragon series to offend people with delicate sensibilities: violence, language, gore, sexual assault, sex work, diversity, dick jokes, etc. So when my dad complained about my writing, I wasn’t surprised that he took offense so much as the thing he took offense about:

I’d referred to Boxy as my partner, rather than my husband.

My dad wanted to know why. The short answer is because ‘partner’ has always sounded right, and ‘husband’ has always sounded wrong. But the question’s been mulling around in my head long enough that I’ve got a more articulate answer.

(Note: All of the stuff I’ll be talking about here specifically refers to heterosexual married relationships. While the same can apply to same-sex couples, I’ve seen dramatically less of it, possibly because terms like ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ mean something completely different if you’ve spent the last fifty years fighting for the legal right to use the term.)

Culture sets a precedent

I’ve only really seen married couples in one of two kinds of show:

In sitcoms (Family Guy, The Simpsons, King of Queens, etc,) the husband was typically an incompetent manchild whose idiocy drove the hijinks of the week and the wife was usually a shrill nagging killjoy who had to clean up after him. You’d hear them refer to each other as ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ quite often– usually when one was using the other as a punchline.

In murder mystery/monster hunter shows (Castle, Bones, Fringe, X-Files, etc), the couple would treat each other with respect, they’d bond over small things, they’d talk to each other, they’d treat each other as equals. They’d take a bullet for each other (and often do). Usually it’s because the source of conflict was the monster/murderer of the week, rather than one of the protagonists, and usually they’d be referring to their relationship as partners because at least one was a police detective or FBI agent, but the consistent language left an impression.

Self-censorship

I’ve noticed that a lot of the times when somebody mentions their partner and they share a positive relationship, they refer to that partner by name, regardless of whether the listener knows that person. I’m much more likely to hear somebody refer to their partner as ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ if they’re about to complain about them.

Condescension

This one happens much less frequently, but on the occasions when a stranger asks if my husband is available, it’s with such an utterly condescending tone that I end the conversation then and there.

Awkwardness at home

What really hit it home, though, was how utterly uncomfortable I’ve gotten using the term ‘husband’ in public. A lot of times when I’m thinking about making a larger purchase, I’ll call or text my partner to make sure we both agree it’s worth the money.  But when I say as much to the salesperson or the auto technician breathing down my neck, there’s often a weird look that crosses their face. Often I wind up having to explain that I’m an adult who values communication and financial stability, not the victim of a controlling or financially abusive husband. The look and the feeling of discomfort never arise when I refer to him as my partner.

It’s versatile

My dad’s main objection to my using the word was that people might think I was a gay. (Ace, actually, but thanks for asking.)

While ‘husband’ is rife with connotations, ‘partner’ works just as well whether you’re married or committed boyfriend/girlfriend/whatever, whether your partner is cis or trans or agender or genderfluid or something else entirely, whether you’re monogamous or poly. The word reveals nothing about the state of your relationship beyond the fact that it’s based on commitment and equality.

And really, isn’t that what relationships are all about?

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