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Take my partner, please! Couples embrace new term for each other

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Durba Mitra, with her partner, Jeremy. The married couple live in Atlanta. (Photo Courtesy of Durba Mitra )

When Matt Stending visited graduate programs this summer, he always mentioned moving with his partner. People he met assumed they were picking up on a hint and started speaking of Stending’s significant other in masculine terms.

But Stending, a heterosexual, was speaking of his longtime girlfriend.

“I usually quietly responded with feminine pronouns,” said Stending, an English doctoral student at Princeton University. “It doesn’t bother me at all but I think it brings out the kind of assumptions that people will make about gender and sexuality.”

In an age of increasingly diverse and complicated relationships, couples are searching for the right term to call their one-and-only. Many are turning to the term partner to describe everything from a wife to a casual boyfriend.

While the change can be attributed to new social mores, including the increased openness of gay relationships, some people are frustrated by the ambiguous term and want to call a spade a spade—or a spouse a spouse.

“Partner is a generic term that can be used for lots of different common romantic relationships,” said Niall Bolger, professor of psychology at Columbia University and researcher at the Columbia Couples Lab, a program that studies interpersonal relationships. “It’s around because of two major classes or relationships that are relatively new. Gay and lesbian relationships are becoming more mainstream and heterosexual adults, who are not necessarily married but in a committed intimate relationship.”

While for many the term “partner” may connote a gay couple, in reality the term was used up until the late 20th century to refer to two heterosexuals who were living together sans marriage vows.

But towards the end of the 20th century it began to be used to claim rights for people in same-sex relationships. In 1982, the term “domestic partner” was first used legally in a lawsuit filed by Larry Brinkin, an employee of the Southern Pacific Railway who after the death of his partner wanted the paid bereavement available to married employees. And as more laws were created to find solutions to the questions arising from public gay couples, “partner” seeped into the national lexicon as a term referring exclusively to gay relationships.

But now straight couples—both married and not— are embracing the word.

It’s “a post-queer move to delink gender, intimacy, and partnership in the face of uneven entitlements to marriage,” said Elizabeth Bernstein, a sociology and women’s studies professor at Barnard College.

Translation: Straight couples are adopting the term partner, not to reclaim it, but as a show of solidarity with their gay friends who can’t get married.

“More and more, marriage is looking like a white-only restaurant,” said Bernstein, who uses “partner” in her personal life.

The perceived elitism of marriage is one reason Durba Mitra, a 26-year-old history graduate student at Emory University, chooses to call her husband, Jeremy, her partner. One of her closest friends is in a long-term relationship with another woman and Mitra wants to acknowledge the equivalence of their relationship to hers.

“I have a claim to being married that she won’t have unless she moves to Iowa,” said Mitra.

But Mitra has other reasons for her choice: her dislike of the W-word.

“I hate the term ‘wife,’” she said. “‘Partner’ speaks more to the idea of the relationship itself.”

Words like wife, husband or spouse can carry along with them connotations of historical inequality and discrimination, said Steven Mintz, chairman of the Council of Contemporary Families.

“Rather, the word ‘partner’ is associated with equality, sharing and companionship, reflecting a new conception of bonding,” Mintz said, adding that partner is a business term that connotes work, meaning that society has now realized relationships involve work.

Though there are a lot of positives to the term, it can also be confusing because of its ambiguous nature and lack of socially agreed upon definition.

For Demetri Blanas, a first-year medical student, introducing his wife of two and half years as “partner” has caused a few raised eyebrows. “It definitely leads to some discussion,” said Blanas. “People are curious about what it is about.”

But in a revolution it can be prudent to pick your battles. “When talking to someone who is older and they might not understand,” Blanas said, “I will say wife,”

“I am selective about the context,” agreed Stending, who comes from a very traditional family that would not understand the term “partner.”

And some just aren’t sure when to use the term at all. Bea Sanford Russel, 24, finds herself using the term “partner” when she is with people who are gay or who use it themselves.

“I feel awkward,” she said, explaining why she only uses it in those situations. “What else am I supposed to say-- I’m sorry I can have a husband but you can’t?”

“This is a shift in terminology that is fraught with meaning,” said Mintz, adding, “it is not just a change in words but a shift in values.” However, he notes that there is some irony in the way it’s used—since a partnership can also be dissolved.

Despite its rise in popularity, it is doubtful that everybody will jump on the partner bandwagon. “I don’t think there is any need for everyone in the world to be the same, said Av Sinensky, a New York lawyer who doesn’t know anyone who uses the term. “I think it’s a little silly to have to use generic terms in order not to insult anyone.”

And while romantic relationships of more than 20 years may describe one another using the term “partner,” it is still considered by some to be a step below marriage on the commitment ladder. “It’s a double standard that exists in America that despite significant changes, ‘partner’ is accorded less respect than ‘spouse,’” said Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage; A History.”

She cites the example of the popular 2001-2003 reality TV show “Temptation Island,” where couples in long-term committed relationships are placed in various compromising positions in an attempt to break them up. But when it was revealed one couple was married they were kicked off the show.

Some aren’t happy about the word’s evolution at all. Some, such as Ivan Ortiz, a gay PhD student, question the right of heterosexual couples to use a word previously reserved for the gay community. It was “one way to lay the cards on the table in a ‘by-the-way’ manner, rather than a direct ‘Hi, I’m gay and my name is Suzy’ kind of way,” said Ortiz, who describes the new use for “partner” as annoying.

But even partner proponents agree that the word may not be ideal and use it because of lack of a better option.

“The word ‘partner’ is so ridiculous,” said Mirta, “When my dad says it he sounds like he is doing an impression of a cowboy movie.”

E-mail: sgb2115@columbia.edu