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Married, with an Asterisk

Couples are choosing not to marry for a variety of reasons, but some still use the terms 'husband and wife'


TERMS OF ENDEARMENT Couples are finding that marriage isn't as important as it once was, but what 
they call each other isn't always black-and-white.
  • TERMS OF ENDEARMENT Couples are finding that marriage isn't as important as it once was, but what they call each other isn't always black-and-white.

Although the number of married heterosexual couples has reached an all-time low in the United States, the term "single" has perhaps never been more complicated.

Filing taxes as a singleton or checking the "single" box in the doctor's office doesn't necessarily reflect where many Americans, even those with eventual plans to marry, are with their partnerships or their families. And so some long-term partnered Americans are "upgrading" their terminology to "husband" and "wife," even as they express wariness about matrimony.

In 2012, 56 million American households were made up of unmarried women and men—that makes up 46 percent of households nationwide. But considering that 40 percent of unmarried straight couples in 2012 lived with at least one biological child (of either partner), "single" still falls short of the contemporary landscape of family.

Twenty-nine-year-old Frances Locke in New York says that her male partner is also adverse to using "girlfriend" because he sees it as implying a lack of a commitment. She uses "partner" interchangeably with "husband" when referring to her children's father, but reverts to nuptial language when in the presence of those from a "certain generation" due to lingering social expectations.

"The main reason that we use these words is to avoid the judgment that people have for unmarried couples with kids," says the mother of three. "You would think that this type of attitude would be rare, but we've had people call our kids bastards on more than one occasion. Even my mother-in-law has tried to guilt us into marriage, saying, 'Well, now that the baby is here, it's not appropriate that you're not married.' People see any choice that doesn't vibe with their life view as an indictment on their own choices, and we'd rather just avoid the drama."

Early in their relationship the couple purchased rings, and they have discussed getting engaged and/or entering a domestic partnership. But even though Frances and her partner are on the same page regarding commitment, loyalty and monogamy, apprehensions about the institution of marriage remain—particularly as they relate to the LGBTQ community and women.

"As a bisexual woman, I feel it's pretty messed up that I can only marry because I am in love with a man rather than a woman at this stage in my life, and my partner feels the same way," says Locke. "Now that DOMA has been repealed, we've brought the issue up again, but there are still other problematic aspects of the institution that bother us. Personally, I am uncomfortable with the history of female ownership that marriage comes with."

Sarah (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy), a 35-year-old medical school student in Washington, D.C., sees the traditional big party as an incentive to get legally married. But five years into a relationship that has yielded a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, she feels that ship has sailed.

"We're old enough that our parents aren't going to throw us a nice wedding, and that would have been the main draw for me—a great big smashing party," she says. While she supports marriage as an opportunity to validate unions, she is also discomforted by the societal expectation of marriage, which she says "perpetuates gender-normative behavior."

Nevertheless, she refers to her daughter's father as her "husband" in her professional and academic setting.

"We did pick up on a certain stigma when we moved to D.C.," says Sarah, who made the move from San Francisco. "I would say it might be localized to the administration of my school, and maybe some of my younger classmates. But I've definitely noticed it."

The couple currently has no plans to marry, even though Sarah's partner is not an American citizen. With the birth of their daughter, he has secured dual citizenship. Even if the family decides to relocate to his native country, Sarah would be entitled to the same benefits as a spouse.

But despite resorting to matrimonial language in her daily life, Sarah resists the notion that she would like to pass as married. She views "husband" simply as shorthand for the live-in father of her child, with whom she is entwined financially and emotionally.

Koa Beck is the former editor in chief of Follow her on Twitter @Koalani.

This article first appeared in, at An online version remains in the Salon archives. Reprinted with permission.

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