Wednesday, May 31, 2006

In praise of partnership

I woke up with a start last night in the midst of a weirdly hallucinatory dream (about rats--BIG rats--running around a deserted campus somewhere, among the shredded remains of academic robes and leftover commencement food),* to find that my window fan had unaccountably stopped working. It didn't seem broken, but I couldn't get it to turn back on. Disoriented and disturbed by all this, I couldn't fall back asleep for a while, and so, lying there in the overly-warm dark, I somehow started thinking about that word, "partner."

And I'm wondering: when, exactly, did "partner" become the standard generic term for one's significant other? And IS it standard outside of academia?

When I started grad school, I had certainly encountered "partner" as a term for a long-time homosexual companion, although all my actual gay friends preferred "boy/girlfriend" or "lover." But when a faculty member, whom we all knew to be married (his wife was then at another institution some 1,000 miles away), occasionally spoke of his "partner," my classmates and I were completely flummoxed. We discussed it among ourselves. We'd met his wife. He'd introduced her as his wife. So . . . this partner person: who was it?

We gradually came to the conclusion that he must be referring to his wife, although I'm pretty sure that at least one of my colleagues continued to harbor the secret suspicion that said faculty member actually had an acknowledged lover (male or female) in addition to his wife.

And I remember, at the time, thinking that it was a sensible term for a spouse, and that it was an even more sensible generic term for a significant other--equally applicable to gay or straight, married or unmarried--but his usage still seemed forced, and it didn't enter my own vocabulary.

A couple of years later, a young, aggressively hip assistant professor spoke (God bless him) in favor of grad student unionization on the grounds that grad students aren't children and should be able to make their own decisions about what's best for them and their families, rather than trusting in the benevolent paternalism of the university. "Grad students have spouses," he said, "they have partners, they have children."

It was around this time that I started using the word myself--awkwardly at first, and then more comfortably--to describe unmarried but committed couples of any sexual orientation. Not coincidentally, I and many of my friends were finding ourselves in just such relationships, and as we entered our 30s and some of them starting buying houses together it seemed increasingly silly, not to mention dismissive, to speak of their boyfriends or girlfriends as if he were on the football team and she were wearing his class ring on a chain around her neck. Gradually, too, I realized that it was a brilliant way of avoiding making assumptions about marital status OR sexuality: "Oh. . . he commutes from Boston! Does he have a partner there?"

The term also allows one to avoid the heteronormative associations of "husband" and "wife," which do carry a certain amount of baggage, instead emphasizing the ideas of equality, partnership and joint enterprise. (I've always liked the term "spouse" for this reason, too: in elementary school my best friend's parents were German immigrants, and they addressed each other this way in charmingly and affectionately accented English: "Oh, Spouse! Can you come here, sweetheart?")

But although I'm totally on board with the wide-ranging and generic usage of "partner," and my perception is that the entire academy is, too, I'm not sure how common the usage is otherwise. The only non-academic whom I've heard use the term is my old college friend, the militantly liberal labor activist (nothing wrong with militant liberalism--I'm just sayin'). I suspect that, in many places, people would have no idea what you meant if you referred to your partner: business partner? Fellow cowpoke? Huh?

Which is a pity. It's such a lovely word.


*Hmm. Now that's a tough dream to interpret!


Dr. Virago said...

I'm still trying to get used to "partner" myself, mainly because, as you point out, "boyfriend" is so juvenile. But it's not coming naturally to me -- I need to practice.

Meanwhile, I bought a book called "Unmarried to Each Other" (only advice book I've ever bought! I swear!) and according to it, "partner" is the number one term of choice among unmarried couples (gay and straight) in the US after the still more common "boyfriend/girlfriend." So it's not just academics, though I'd bet dollars to donuts that the "partner" demographic skews towards professional class liberals and libertarians.

Anonymous said...

Dr. V.,

No doubt true on all counts about the demographics. I must confess that, coming from a culturally red area, I've been slower to adapt to the use of "partner" than Flavia. It still feels a little uncomfortable coming out of my mouth, even as I've become disgruntled with calling her a "girlfriend" since we've both hit thirty.

Of course, my workplace environment has probably conditioned me to avoid ambiguity about my heterosexuality whenever possible.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

I tend to default to "husband," because that's what I have, though I've been trying to reprogram that to "spouse" as less heteronormative (since I am married, I eschew "partner," though I think it's a perfectly good term). When LDH and I were living together but not married, we occasionally called each other something pronounced "possel-cue", from the tax category Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters, but it never caught on. ;-)

As for the confusion about "partner", that happens in the movie American Beauty, when Chris Cooper's character comes to the door to find the neighborhood gay couple there to welcome him, and they refer to each other as "partner," and he wants to know what they're selling, since if they're partners they must be in business together. Of course, given that one of the central points of the movie is that Chris Cooper's character is in deep denial about his own sexuality, I think he's supposed to be pretty obtuse in not getting what "partner" means in that context. FWIW.

Hilaire said...

In the last few years I've been absolutely STUNNED to hear the word partner used by very unlikely suspects...including relatively conservative, certainly non-academic folks. Like Dr. Virago says, it seems to have arrived - and possibly among a wider demographic here in Canada than in the US. Which is nice - I'm also a fan.

Clare said...

I'd never really thought about it until someone who worked for my boyfriend referred to me as "...and his partner". Now, I'm 24, and she is 20. Although we've been going out a while (2 yrs), it seemed so so wrong! I know I can't keep on referring to him as "me lad", but "my partner"... just seems wrong coming from someone my age.

bdh said...

partner, noun.
"A person who is linked by marriage to another, a spouse; a member of a couple who live together or are habitual companions; a lover. Now increasingly used in legal and contractual contexts to refer to a member of a couple in a long-standing relationship of any kind, so as to give equal recognition to marriage, cohabitation, same-sex relationships, etc." (OED, 'partner', 7.a.)

They give the first usage of "partner" in this sense as Milton's Paradise Lost. I'm a little surprised that the sense of "partner in crime" gets the more prominent position of 2.a. in the scheme of things!

lucyrain said...

I often refer to AntsyPants as "my Gentleman Friend." People seem far more confused by that than when I refer to him as my partner.

Flavia said...

Such good information and so many wonderful options here!

New Kid: am I wrong in thinking that there was a brief vogue, or attempted vogue, for POSSL-Q? I seem to remember joking about that term with my friends long before any of us were in such a situation.

Lucyrain: I've used "gentleman friend" myself, occasionally, but usually only among friends who can be trusted to get it.

Clare: I FORBID you to stop using "me lad," which is clearly superior to "partner," "boyfriend," "husband," etc. And I should say that I don't really have anything against "boy/girlfriend" in causual settings--I certainly use both terms. It's just so inappropriate when trying to identify your S.O. to your landloard, boss, or other semi-official personage.

And finally, BDH: that clinches it. If Milton started it, I'm all for it.

jo(e) said...

I do use the word partner in many situations -- but I have to say that I don't like how business-like or lawyer-like it sounds. I haven't come up with a better word though.

I use the word Spouse as well ... hoping I guess that that word will not always be limited to heterosexual couples in this country. I do know gay couples who use the word Spouse. But language seems way ahead of politics in this case.

Sfrajett said...

It's oddly bureaucratic, isn't it? Gay people talking to gay people almost never use it--it's always "my boyfriend" or "my girlfriend." In my experience it's usually straight people being non-denominational who use it, bless 'em. It's like a regional accent; if they say "partner," they're straight and they know you're gay. It's sweet, actually. I wish its widespread use could be some kind of proof in a larger argument to block these homophobic marriage amendments.

Dean Dad said...

Partner is fine; it's certainly preferable to 'lover,' which is just waaay too descriptive.

A longtime friend used to refer to her partners as her lovers, and even used to refer to 'taking a lover,' which I couldn't even process. I honestly hope she finds another word. Icky.

kfluff said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
kfluff said...

Sorry for the mistake above!

My "partner" and I tried to institute "comrade" for awhile, precisely for the reason that Sfrajett states: partner felt so bureaucratic and corporate. Comrade, on the other hand, felt so revolutionary and "we're part of a global struggle."

No one understood what the hell we were talking about, however. Sigh.

What Now? said...

Sfrajett is way hipper than I am (let's just start with the obvious, shall we?), which perhaps explains why I *always* use the term "partner" to refer to D., no matter with whom I'm speaking (that is, both gay and straight folks). Somehow the terms "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" always hinted at a temporary state to me, which make them perfectly appropriate for young people but not so much for old duffers like myself who have committed to vows before God and community to stay with D. forever. That being said, it would be nice if there were separate terms for business partners and marriage partners, but I tend not to worry about it too much.

Flavia said...

"Comrade"! I love it!

(And welcome to all the new voices--thanks for coming by, folks.)

RH said...

I have to throw in my tuppence on this one. As someone who has been married in the past and always referred to him as my "husband," I'm now in the position (the divorce likely to be final in August) of wondering how I'll refer to any future "companions" (although _that_ particular word reminds me too much of my dog). I _like_ "partner." I'm sure as hell not going to be referring to anyone as my "boyfriend" in my mid-thirties! To me, "boyfriend" is too high-school, too passing-notes-in-science-class, too...I don't know, _immature_. So, "partner" it is, and if people end up thinking I'm gay for using the term, then that's their problem.

RH said...

Although I do have to put in a good word for "beau," which conjures someone wearing a nice suit and bringing me flowers and candy. I like that.

ABDmom said...

In BSUland, partner is the standard term for all relationships--married, unmarried, gay, straight.

I once had a professor who referred to the person with whom she wrote collaboratively as her "creative partner." I've always liked that term.

bdh said...

Not to be crass, but we've forgotten "significant other". I personally prefer this option, since it is not limited to members of the same/opposite sex, but extends outside our species to pets, cars, plants, etc...

[Apologies for crossposting this on blogging the renaissance]

Oso Raro said...

Why don't we dust off that old hoo-hah, "paramour," or maybe revert to the 80s and use "Longtime Companion"? I think Sfrajett is right on the money here, in terms of "partner" being a sort of phrase of translation for LGBT folks.

Of course, all of these descriptives have encoded political and social meanings, which is exactly why they're tussled over. Dean Dad's critique of lover above is funny, because I too find it spectacularly visceral, but coming from the mouth of a str8 woman that would seem vaguely Isadora Duncan. Coming from a gay man, I think of poppers, porn, and Crisco (i.e. the 1970s). I call Mr. Gordo my partner for most acquaintences and in professional settings, but don't really refer to him in any other way among intimates (he is known, obviously, as my BF, but that doesn't need to be identified). I think it is funny that I never think of calling Mr. Gordo my Husband. I wonder if *that* says something.... (?)

Dr. Mon said...

Interesting post. This year was the first time someone (a grad student) asked me if I had a "partner." And it did throw me because the first thing that came to my mind was if s/he thought I was a lesbian. It feels weird to me to call Dr. J my partner or any other label. I'm kinda like Oso Raro in that I don't refer to him by labels because most people who know me know that he is the love of my life. I have been uncomfortable with the term "boyfriend" for years but I do use it most often because my friends and family do.

I find it especially interesting to see that some folks are hearing "partner" from nonacademics, because I have never heard it outside of more educated/liberal circles--especially now that I've moved back to Southern State. I think that race and class play a big role in that for me as well though. As a "shorty" I'm generally asked if a have "a man"--which is a whole 'nother bag of issues....