Thursday, 29 November 2018

Lover, Mother, Other


I recently met a guy at a conference and he described a lady he was travelling with, incidentally one of the keynote speakers as his partner, then clarifying ‘Life’ partner. Of course, I understood what he meant, at least I thought I did until I ruminated on it. What did he mean? Did he mean partner as in associate, did he mean that they had each tendered their CVs and been selected from a number of applicants. Now, this is not an unusual way to categorise a person with whom you have chosen to spend your life with independent of matrimonial ceremony but this time I found it quite jarring. Maybe it was the clarification. Maybe it was the American accent. It struck me how uncomfortable I am with this word to describe a romantic partner.

For me ‘Partner’ is a business word, it conjures images of contracts, budgets and plans, which may be part of a stable relationship but it is sterile, devoid of warmth and emotion. I found myself searching for a more satisfactory epithet. I was at a loss.
There are plenty of euphemisms for wife; such as ‘My better half’ or ‘her in-doors’ many are far less flattering as are the labels for husbands, such as ‘My ole man’. Boyfriend/girlfriend which is not heterosexual specific are pleasant but feel a little awkward when used by more mature couples, they remain the domain of teenage apprenticeships in love and do not tackle the matter of living together and sharing responsibilities. Fiancé is warm, succinct and French and while it is often used by optimistic couples who have an dream of being married, it should be used when some form of formal engagement is in place. It is a pre-cursor of marriage and along with it carries the religious connotations. Shame, it has all the qualities of a good candidate but as so many others it already has its meaning well-defined.
I like the word ‘Lover’ it is warm and spicy but it can no more be disassociated with its synonym of ‘Mistress’ or extra-marital distraction than ‘Partner’ can from business. ‘Soul-mate’ could be a good contender, ‘mate’ is used to describe couples in the animal kingdom, which I see as a positive but when coupled with ‘soul’ it does come across a little tie-dyed and crystals-under-the-pillow.
We live in a time when romantic models come in so many forms and society it going a long way to catching up with this but language is dragging its heels. You may think that this is not an issue but the words are pervasive and the way we label something affects the way we think about it. Words are a network of semantics which colour our attitudes. The use of the word ‘Partner’ blurs the lines between love and labour, it is part of the same attitude that gave us ‘personal branding’ and brings business practises into the home. In an interview with the writer Jonathan Franzen, I read that he also has issue with this term but he chooses to call his lady a ‘Spouse equivalent’. I think this has more to say for his feelings toward convention than the feelings for his lady.
So, what am I looking for? A word, preferably a single word that encapsulates intimacy, sharing and commitment without the endorsement of any ceremonial rite. It needs to embrace all gender preferences. It could be borrowed from another language, let’s face it, languages are franchising words from each other all the time and just as fiancé serves its purpose well, we have moved on and need a secular word that communicates a simple, natural, mature choice complicated only by the flaws and frailty that make us human.   

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