His Husband, Her Wife

As ought to have been expected, the older concept of marriage (a man and a woman) has yet to be fully extinguished even in the minds of those taking advantage of the new civil-legal dispensation (any two adults). Long-standing customs and expectations are not as easily displaced via statute, judicial opinion, and the sheer force of sincere insistence as some may have hoped.

Writing in a confessional mode, “Russell Saunders” ((He recently noted on Twitter that he is using a nom de blog.)) has posted on “the language of marriage equality,” describing in personal terms his uncertainty or, as he puts it, his “little frisson of apprehension” when introducing the man he used to call his “partner” as his “husband”:

I’m not sure what I’m bracing myself for, but brace myself just a bit I do. Insofar as I can read myself, there are no tics to betray this subtle misgiving, no quaver in my voice. When I told the woman at the Mexican place that my husband had called in our order and thus I wasn’t entirely sure what was in it, I felt just a tiny bit vulnerable even as my timbre held steady.

In the above vignette as throughout the post, Saunders shows much less interest in language per se than in the circumstances surrounding particular speech acts: He does not ask or invite us to ask whether “husband” is the right word for his spouse, but only whether it will in fact be taken as such by someone else. To put the matter more starkly than Saunders himself does, he seems to suffer from a fear of embarrassment or rejection, though he is also embarrassed to be embarrassed, and determined to reject rejection: “I’ve had almost ten years to get used to having a husband,” he says. “It’s high time everyone else got used to it, too.”

Yet the word itself may be part of the apprehension that Saunders confesses, and, with this possibility in mind, we can ask the question that he ignores: Is there something wrong with the word “husband” for both of two men married to each other? The question seems worth asking in part because we do not seem to possess any fully acceptable, utterly natural alternative term for Saunders’ not yet entirely familiar family position. “Spouse” seems artificial and bureaucratic, even slightly archaic. In addition to being unwieldy, “co-husband” would emphasize the absence of a “wife” or seem oddly to leave the position un-filled, either way underlining a remnant difference between the new equalized marriages and those conforming to defunct social and legal as well as verbal conventions. Alternatively, reference to a man as “wife,” or to one lesbian spouse as “husband,” would, one may strongly suspect, introduce a new “frisson” or a few. An adjustment to “his husband” and “her wife,” two simple phrases that combine extremely common words, but that not too long ago would have been rarely or never encountered in common speech, seems inevitable.

For Saunders as for most of us, “husband” seems intended to signify “male spouse,” nothing more or less, but the word “husband” refers, or once referred, to the “master of the house” or “male head of household.” ((“Hus” refers to “house.” “Band” refers to the “dweller or freeholder,” though at some distant point it meets the ancestors of “band/bind/bond.” Put simply, a household belonged to one husband only, as a husband belonged to his household: The usage referred to and confirmed a specific and singular role and an identity.)) The present difficulty may not be in the male or house references, but in the “master” or “head”: For political or polemical purposes the emphasis regarding resistance to marriage equality will be placed on accusations of homophobic bigotry, but the intellectually more interesting if less immediately emotional question would be whether a household or any group can function optimally or survive at all with two or more or no “masters” or “heads,” under whatever terminology. The traditional answer was simply that there can be only one husband per home, just as there can be only one final decision-maker, one finally responsible party, one boss, one king, one president, one leader, one sovereign, one captain, and so on. A household with two “heads,” each the other’s husband – like Saunders’ household, we are given to assume, since he never supplies or contemplates any alternative designation for himself or his husband other than the obsolete “partner” – would perhaps have been imaginable, but in the way that an animal with two heads would have been imaginable, a mythological creature or doomed “monster.” ((The word “monster” was once conventionally associated with “misbirth.”)) Complementarity within a marriage, as once upon a time between “wer” and “wif,” might have been promoted and acknowledged to varying extents, but in law and tradition the implication was commonly that, at least as far as the external world and relations to it were concerned, the word of the patriarch overruled all others, above all in the marriages of his offspring. ((In this connection, resistance to “marriage equality” can quite rightly be taken by marriage progressives as resistance to sexual equality at all – presenting a particular problem for female social conservative politicians, especially those seeking executive offices who also claim to recognize scriptural commands to be submissive and obedient to their mates.))

Champions of marriage equality as well as of sexual equality may reject any assumption that a marriage or household can be assessed in the same way that a business or a sports team or a platoon of soldiers might be, or according to any beliefs merely because they are thought traditional, but the counter-position is not understood unless it is understood as a position on organic necessity – or, as some might say, biological determinism, not the same as but also not excluding “essentialism.” ((Essentialism refers in this context to notions of masculine and feminine “essences,” and may be inseparable from monogamous marriage as essential ethical concept derived from the union of “opposites,” but the reference here would also be to irreducibly male vs. female biological functions.)) As we have discussed before, marriage as an institution in conformity with the requirements of human sexual reproduction, with unchanging “facts of life,” is what conservatives mean or ought to mean when they speak up on behalf of the natural, not just in the sense of the comfortable or habitual, or in relation to a Natural Law tradition, but in the sense of self-reproducing and effectively unalterable. ((The non-equalitarian or complementary marriage was and remains for marriage conservatives “what comes naturally” not just as an effect or attribute of social life under “the Laws of nature and of nature’s God,” but as actual basis and cause of every possible society – i.e., the existence of human beings themselves, as re-produced in one way only. To say the least, this understanding of marriage as the union of organically complementary rather than simply equal beings was once very widely held, or was, generally speaking, neither questionable nor questioned. Marriage was not based on a comprehension – it was held to be such a comprehension. (See Note #5 above.) It was believed to be reflected and equally to originate in the difference between the male and female roles in the perpetuation of the species, even in the sex act itself, in the “generative” act or the act of “procreation,” and in the spontaneously arising and diverging tendencies of male and female parents in relation to their offspring. The concept was concrete: conception of all conception and by all that it entails – meaning everything: human existence on Earth, not just ontological but ontic, the becoming of becoming at the conjuncture or conjugation of idea and reality. (The puns, or seeming puns, on “conceive,” “conjugal,” “generation,” etc., mark as well as derive from the union of opposites – which in a related context Hegel half-jokingly attributed to Nature’s sense of irony.) The appearance of alternative inclinations and exceptional situations would be from this perspective as irrelevant to the main question as predictable, a matter merely of incidental variances across a large population.))

The “liberal” or “progressive” mindset entails a determination to discount such notions as mere abstractions or as naive ascriptions of higher purposes or values to morally inert facts. ((I refer here to the classic fact-value distinction, the fallaciousness of whose dissolution has since Hume rightly or wrongly been taken as itself a fact of great and innate moral significance, since it undermines any and all other ideas of facts of innate moral significance. Even setting aside suspicions of ulterior motives – as to the reproduction of power relationships as much or more than the reproduction of the species, which latter it is presumed will go on anyway – the liberal-progressive defaults to the the ideal of human equality, and to aspirations for its fuller realization. Even nominal conservatives pay tribute to this notion, at least in America and under the influence of the modern dispensation, and in any event the naturalness of a concept or the superficial conformity of an institution to a biological impetus carries little or no moral force for the progressive, who may further identify artifice or innovation, in defiance or negation of the supposedly natural, as a or the specifically and very naturally defining human characteristic. For those sensing a paradox, the progressive may even choose to identify paradox as an element of human nature: For human beings self-contradiction may be the only self-consistency.)) Yet for better or for worse, and for that matter in sickness and in health, innovation in social institutions remains disruptive, and will be perceived as such even and especially by its most ardent proponents. Because such disruption or, if you prefer, such evolution or progress in the marriage concept would furthermore be occurring in relation simultaneously to biological “conception” of human beings – in other words on the level of the human concept altogether, on what human beings are or can be and how they come to be – it may (or perhaps must) carry implications that will be difficult or impossible for anyone fully to comprehend. The conservative recoils at such a prospect under whatever name or according to whatever theory, and seeks out that which, since it is inherited, can be taken also to be time-tested, including familiar words spoken in familiar places entirely without hesitation or uncertainty, words like “husband,” “wife,” “father,” “mother,” “marriage,” at least until recently. ((Those of a conservative temperament, even this late in the political-historical day, may therefore remain somewhat mystified by the idea of “equal marriage,” since what the words are meant to signify is not and simply cannot be what they take the word “marriage” to have signified previously. If the word “marriage” must now be taken to mean, legally and therefore civilly, the “equal marriage,” including the family headed by two husbands or two wives, or not headed at all, without even symbolic reference to the procreative principle, or, indeed, with the procreative principle specifically and demonstratively excluded, then marriage conservatives may decide they need another word or phrase, whether or not enshrined in the law some day (or some day again). They may choose or feel compelled to think of themselves as beyond or outside a society as ordered by laws they do not recognize as rational. They may with great reluctance abandon the old concept – once thought settled, natural, necessary, and unquestionable – along with their concept of themselves: For them, the last is akin to leaving humanity behind, leaving the prospect of a comprehensibly good life behind. Less apocalyptically, if still speculatively, marriage conservatives may also believe that they neither can nor should leave their social concept or concept of the good life and of human nature behind.)) Some conservatives may also remain confident, or, if they believe their own statements they ought to be confident, that, the latest headlines and all conventional progressive opinion notwithstanding, in the end they or their viewpoint will win, because it must, after the experiment has finally run its course, after whatever consequences have registered, after an unavoidable backlash or correction has had time to develop, perhaps over the course of generations. Some conservatives believe their victory will and must come at great cost – an estimate expressed in a religious vernacular as the wrath of God.

When Saunders experiences apprehension in referring to his husband, he very probably is not thinking about the wrath of God, nor conceding any other, presumably lesser but still potentially valid justification for self-consciousness and uncertainty. He and others who more or less successfully suppress judgment or discomfort or shock of the new, at least prior to confession via blog post, yet who are aware of their own effort, may not know exactly why they feel it. The explanation may be that, if a word as spoken does not contain the entire history of its usages, neither does it offer any defense against them. To say so may, however, put a writer in somewhat the same position as Saunders, fearing or expecting that his or her words will be taken amiss by those working under different assumptions.

7 comments on “His Husband, Her Wife

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  1. To “traditional marriage” conservatives, a question: what should gays do?

    Their answer tends to be “conceal your gayness in public”, if not “stop being gay!”. In order to protect their social construct from what they see as its negation they call for individuals to negate their very being. That is why they get the bigotry accusation.

    As for head of household type questions, I’d think relationship parameters should be defined by those in it by agreement. Though I feel the need of a “leader” overrated (of course…), if one member sincerely wants to be submissive, whatever, that’s them.

    • Self-identified conservatives who respond in the way you describe probably deserve any number of accusations, including of bigotry. One temperamentally conservative response might be in favor of sexual restraint in general, regardless of personal preferences or inclinations: “Be gay – or straight – or celibate – or into horses – or whatever you are or aren’t – there’s no accounting for tastes and it takes all kinds – but please don’t bother the rest of us with it.” That this response is very much not something nominal conservatives are willing to rest on consistently – especially since self-consistency would also require restraint in the matter of requesting sexual restraint – goes to the problem of un-conservative conservatism that I’ve tried to address in the prior post and others. One result of bigoted overreaction – or over-expression – appears to have been the still ongoing rout of political conservatives on the civil-legal issue, and little or nothing achieved on their supposedly primary concern with supporting or saving traditional families or the institution of marriage. Part of the reason in turn goes to your statement below, and, again, to the prior topic: The identification of nominal conservatives with radical “anti-collectivism” and “anti-statism,” a peculiarity of American political conservatism, hobbles any effort to put the administrative state on their side – say, via systematic enhanced support for childcare. It also points to a potential split within the conservative coalition, currently papered over with ludicrous symbolic initiatives, “War on Christmas” and the like, pandering to a religious sensibility that cannot be allowed to take any other form.

  2. Before marriage equality picked up some steam, the word “partner” had substantial currency among progressive types to describe long term sexual relationships no matter what the gender composition. So sometimes “partner” could refer to an unmarried homosexual partner, and at other times to a heterosexual partner either married or not. That effort then was to replace husband/wife with partner across the board.

    It also become I think common to, in marriage vows to pronounce the participants as “husband and wife” rather than “man and wife”. I’ve never heard of a ceremony pronouncing the participants as “man and woman” or now, “man and man” or “woman or woman”.

    Personally I find this solution kinda appealing, so Russell could introduce his erstwhile partner as “his man”, and I could refer to Karen as “my woman”. It carries a bit of Neanderthal conservatism and ironic progressivism at the same time.

    • In the improved version of the post, I’ll have to address those two alternatives. “Partner” seems to connote the transactionalization of the marriage relationship: as more like an enterprise or business, susceptible to cancellation as soon as it is deemed unprofitable or inadequately rewarding. Though many treat their marriages or relationships that way, it deprives the institution of its “magic” or its character of “eternal bond,” and so on – whose recognition for gay couples marriage equality romantics want to celebrate.

      Way back when, when I used to have real relationships with real people[*], what except for the absence of offspring might have once qualified as “common law” marriages, I also was attracted to the idea of referring to a “serious girlfriend” as “my woman.” In some languages one word still serves for both “wife” and “woman” and another for both “husband” and “man.” It appears that “husband” may have replaced “wer” in Old English (I’m approximating here pending closer research) in relation to historical changes, including the adoption or imposition of a more organized and hierarchical social structure, but I’m not confident in this position yet.

      [just kidding here – I know youse guys are realish as anything or -body.]

      • No offense taken…I spend considerable effort in undermining my sense of myself as realish.

        Further complications occurred to me as soon as I hit “Post Comment”.

        My non-op transgender nephew and his woman considered marriage before they broke up. I don’t know if they got as far as considering how t refer to each other in their theoretical marriage vows. Karen and I have been to know to refer to him/her as both him and her in the same conversation – old habits die hard. He/she said he/she in fact does the same occasionally, and not to worry about it.

        He has no desire to undergo the surgery while identifying as male. So just as a matter of talking to say restaurant staff, the man/woman thing gets confusing fast.

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