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America’s New Relationship Trend: When “Husbands” and “Wives” Aren’t Actually Married

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

Although heterosexual marriage 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, which comes to 46 percent of households nationwide. With marriage increasingly becoming a luxury good, obtained only by the white, elite, educated class, the rest of our country continues to make families outside the construction of marriage. But considering that  40 percent of unmarried straight couples in 2012 lived with at least one biological child (of either partner) – the new normal according to  USA TODAY – “single” still falls short of the contemporary landscape of family.

“Does anyone really know the function of a bridesmaid?” she asks when observing that the ritualistic pageantry has somewhat tinged the institution for her. Nevertheless, the choice to stick to matrimonial terminologies was “organic” given that both she and her partner are raising a blended family together.

“It seems like the term just automatically grants you more respect for your union,” says Maria, a freelance writer who, like many Americans, doesn’t have the means to fund a wedding. “When I introduce him as my boyfriend, I can almost see the wheels turning in people’s heads – ‘Are those his kids?’ It feels easier to say husband. People seem more comfortable with it.”

While she has occasionally used the term “partner,” she says she’s not entirely comfortable with it because of its sterility. Nor is she keen on using “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” at this stage in her relationship, as those words trivialize the couple’s contributions to their family.

“It feels silly,” she adds.

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. 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.”

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