radical unmarrieds: what do you call your sweethearts?

This is part one in a two (or more?) part series about radical unmarrieds. Coming up: How do you handle money?


According to Google, I invented the phrase “radical unmarrieds.” I like it—to me it signifies people of all persuasions who are not married primarily for political reasons. This article (found through Feministing) has me thinking about the old, old question of what radical unmarrieds call their sweethearts. Here’s my take, I’d love to hear yours.

For whatever reason (well, not “whatever reason.” For a very simple reason: patriarchy!), the idea of being called a wife fills me with dread and disgust and existential ick. And I don’t want a husband. I don’t think that the historical associations of those words can be changed to such an extent to make them at all palatable to me, so I choose not to partake in the activity that would necessitate using them.

But explaining the importance of a relationship that has been existing for 12+ years but has no plans to formalize itself into a marriage is tricky. I’ve decided that I don’t really care to explain the importance of my relationship to anyone, just as Jacob and I don’t feel the need to prove our love to anyone by getting married. I feel it’s more special and sacred to love each other outside the bounds of the religious-political-governmental system that we have so many problems with.

But: sometimes that paragraph is too much to say to someone when you just need to pay the electricity bill. So, here are my shorthand signifiers for the signified that is Jacob:

I switch between:

  • “partner” — which I sometimes use when talking to liberals I think will understand. They usually assume after this that I’m a lesbian and though I rather like this [as we all know, I rather am a lesbian] it seems sorta dishonest, so I try to work in “he.” I never use “life partner,” though—uggg, partner is ugly enough.
  • “boyfriend”—used with mainstreamy people I don’t care about, but it never comes out quite right. I always trip over it. As I pointed out last year: “To me, a boyfriend is someone you share a milkshake with two straws with while looking into each other’s eyes, not the person with whom you trade two lawn mows for two cat box cleanings.”
  • Once a year or so I’ll have no qualms about using “husband.” If I just need to pay the damn phone bill and the bill happens to be in his name (we try to do all house bills in both names, but it’s worked out to be about half and half) and the operator asks if I’m “Mrs. Feinberg-Pyne,” of course I’ll say yes. As I would if he was in the hospital or something like that.
  • “sweetheart,”—my favorite because it’s the prettiest. It’s also completely useless, as it is unclear what level of seriousness it conveys. But it’s without a doubt the most accurate: Jacob is sweet, and he has my heart. Easy.

What does Jacob call me? “Lagusta.” Being a crank and a contrarian, he sometimes uses “partner,” but mostly just plunges ahead with “Lagusta,” rude though it can be to people who do not know if Lagusta is a wife, a pet, or, perhaps, a lobster. (I cannot stop pointing out this link! I know I’ve already done it like five times, but I am so obsessed with it.). People catch on eventually: this Lagusta is obviously someone important to him.

I kind of like that things are chaotic and crazy in the name-your-lover department. Just as all marriages are different, all radical unmarried relationships are different. I like that people have to get to know me to understand my relationship—isn’t that how it should be?

(Update: Brittany just passed along this article about this very subject!)

13 Responses to “radical unmarrieds: what do you call your sweethearts?”

  1. brittany

    i love this (as usual) and wish i could also be a lobster (i have dreams to that effect).

    i tend to do partner, followed by a hearty “yee haw!” and maybe even a bow-legged jig.

  2. orlande

    dear lagusta,

    your anti-marriage yet het-ro long term relationship + your (in about a billion ways other than the whole sleeping with women part) radical lesbian-ness qualifies you to be my FAVORITE semi-mightnotidentifyassuchbutistillwannadubyouthis-hetero.

    one of your many ‘mo followers

  3. Dustin Rhodes

    I use the term “boyfriend” most frequently. We, too, have been together almost 12 years, and I know “boyfriend” sounds high school and all that, but I kind of like it for that very reason. I don’t know why.

    I think too much emphasis is placed on relationships in general in our culture. I am proud of the fact that we’ve worked through 12 years, and I think we have an ideal relationship; that is to say, we really enjoy and respect one another. I think romantic relationships are practice for all of our relationships; it’s an intensive way to learn how to listen, be respectful and kind, to learn the art of patience. That’s what I believe is the essence of a romantic relationship. It’s a way of seeing that you aren’t the most important person on earth.

    I just don’t like any of my choices for what I call Bray. Partner is so clinical, politically correct; I feel a hostility toward it, even though I catch myself occasionally saying it. But when I do, I want to vomit.

    I try very hard to not pay any attention at all to what our society says a relationship is supposed to be. If gay marriage is legalized, which of course I hope it is, I am not getting married. At the end of the day, I just want to keep working at it. I know it could end, too, for any number of unforeseen reasons. Not taking our relationship for granted is entirely more important than ever making our relationship legal.

  4. abovegroundpool

    partner makes me want to barf too. it’s always sounded too law firm, and then married hetero-liberals started using it to avoid wife, and then marriage-obsessed gays started using it all over again trying to look like married het liberals. triple barf.

    i still like lover. co-conspirator. bedfellow.

    further complicated by how you refer to their parents, etc. i gave this same topic a little airtime here: http://www.lanternbooks.com/blog/entry.php?id=314

  5. lagusta

    Oh Orlande! You’re so cute!

    Dustin: for some reason, I love it when dudes say “boyfriend.” It seems perfect and adorable and lovely and lovey for guys, to me at least. You can have “boyfriend,” as far as I’m concerned.

    I agree that partner is terrible. But abovegroundpool, do you seriously use “lover” in everyday speak? If so, you are my hero.

    My friend Selma says we should use “pairbond.” It’s what birds use. (Well, maybe what humans use for birds) Then again, she uses lover!! I just realized that.

    OK, I’m off to read your thoughts on parents. One of my clients once mentioned her “mother-out-laws” to describe her lover’s parents, and I LOVE THAT. I usually just say “Jacob’s mom,” “Jacob’s crazy hippie new agey dad,” and “Jacob’s step-mom who is younger than Jacob” (YES) but I secretly really really REALLY want his sister Pohanna to be my sister, and I have called her my sister-in-law before just because I am so madly in love with her.

  6. abovegroundpool

    My friend Bob, 80+ years old, used “lover” ’til the day he died. I adored the reaction it got from people, people who couldn’t imagine an old man being a fag, first, and second that he’d talk about it (and all his way too personal details) so frankly.

    In line with Dustin’s thinking, we need some positive, pro-single words, bad.

    (I love “out-laws!” Excellent.)

  7. danielle

    FWIW: well, i’m not an unmarried…but i like to think of myself as a radical married (i hope I hope!)

    I was so used to calling J “my partner” (to annoy my ultra-conservative family & friends in my wretched home state) that I never have been able to switch to ‘husband’ (not that I particularly wanted to anyhow.) Where I’m from, everyone’s waiting for a ring – well, maybe that’s everywhere these days. But if you said ‘I live w/ my boyfriend & we feel that we’re already as close as can be, so we don’t wanna GET married…”, well, people treated you with pity, like a poor dumb slut who was wasting her time giving out the milk for free to an unworthy (ring-less) jerk. Which just fueled my passion to stay unmarried forever. But ‘partner’ sounded a bit more adult, like it signaled a deeper commitment, made me feel like I was being taken a shred more seriously. So I used that for a good while.

    Then 2 years ago we actually got married* (small, 6 people including us, day dress, the simplest, cheapest bands imaginable) and now people act like it’s SUCH AN ACCOMPLISHMENT, that I finally managed to snag me a man, har har. So to combat all that crap, I now say “sweetheart” or “sweetie” or “partner-in-crime”…and I don’t correct myself when I accidentally still call him “my boyfriend”. I just hate the sound of “husband” and “wife”. So unemotional, terminal-sounding. And I hate to be lumped into the married pile, b/c most of the other married people I know are onl ymarried b/c they felt time was ‘running out’ to do that milestone & they didn’t want to be single ‘forever’. This is the case of most of my girlfriends from high school. Oh, the utterly f*cked-up stuff people put themselves through.

    (If I tell other marrieds this stuff – and that our legal marriage was only for insurance and all that red tape – no matter how left-leaning they may seem they tend to think, again, that we aren’t serious or in love. So thanks for letting me vent here even tho, technically, the question isn’t aimed at me.)

    • lagusta

      No, it was still totally aimed at you! I love your approach to your marriage, and I love the idea of getting (quasi) secretly married. One night I was visiting Jacob on tour and a couple was on tour who were having a baby. We were in Las Vegas and for some reason we all considered getting secretly married. It sounded like fun for a second, but then I remembered I couldn’t be all self-righteous about not being married….and then I remembered that my parents were married in Las Vegas. That was the end of that.

  8. Katy

    I heard David Sedaris a while back discussing something like this about him and his partner, but (I don’t know if this is true or what) he claims that now that they live in France, it is less of an issue. Apparently (he claims), in the French mindset, it isn’t expected that you define others by your relationship with them, so you can just say the person’s name and be done with it (sort of like the Jacob approach). Once I thought about this, I liked it, but still find myself compelled to label people – “my college roommate,” “a friend from home,” etc. – why is this something we feel we must do?

    Also, I made the startling discovery recently that now that I am a single mom, if I ever want to co-habitate again, it looks as if I will be forced to get married because otherwise all kinds of ridiculous and grody accusations can be made. This is terribly annoying on so many points, because, you know, nothing untoward ever happens in families with two married parents, those sorts of things only happen when there’s “boyfriends” afoot. I’m finding this whole thing terribly depressing, actually. Not even worth the bother if I’ve got to hang myself by the golden finger noose.

    Sorry, been a crappy week.

    I like sweetheart best too. :)

  9. lagusta

    Re: David Sedaris and Hugh (I just listened to the audio book of “When You Are Engulfed In Flames” –was it not as great as his other books, or is it just me?) –interesting. Damn free and easy Europeans!

    Katy, remember how Peter [our crazy (crazy awesome!!) one-time Australian housemate] used to say he hated it when people asked him “what he did” and how he felt that was so American? I know partly that because he didn’t want people to know he was a model and that all he did was crash diet (and binge, oh the binges), but it does seem like Americans have a weird need to know all this unimportant stuff and none of the important stuff. It’s all about how much money you make and if you have a ring, instead of if you love your life and if you are in love.

    That said! I am always the person at parties asking people what they do. I just am curious about people’s lives, and I can’t think of many other questions to ask.

    Katy, the outdated and super duper misogynist rules, customs and laws about single moms are yet one more reason to fight for equality for all and marriage for none, don’t you think?

    Oy, what a mess.

    Anyway, Brittany forwarded me this article about this very topic! http://www.usatoday.com/life/lifestyle/2008-06-22-adult-dating-descriptor_N.htm


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