Social Issues

learning the words: partner

Couple Holding Hands on a Railroad Track

Today’s guest post is from Jonny Scaramanga, who blogs about his journey out of fundamentalism and into atheism, as well as his experience with Accelerated Christian Education at Leaving Fundamentalism. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

I used to hear about it when I was a child. Usually it was a customer or business associate of my dad’s, who didn’t have a wife – he had a ‘partner’. I could almost hear the scare quotes even then. If I hadn’t picked up the disapproval in my parents’ voices, it would be made explicit soon enough.

‘Partners’. These people rejected the institution of Christian marriage and instead were living in sin. ‘Partners’ were people who didn’t make proper commitments. When relationships got tough, they just took their partners to the scrap yard and exchanged them for a new model. They obviously weren’t Christians, or they wouldn’t be ‘partners’.

Because they weren’t Christians, they were still in bondage to their sin nature. They probably weren’t even capable of true love or commitment. Those were things that Christians could do, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Without Jesus, everyone was loveless and depraved. These ‘partners’ had meaningless relationships based on nothing more than lust.

Worst of all, the term was gender-neutral. If you met a man with a partner, he might be a gay! At the very least, the partner might be a feminist, which was just another way of describing a woman trying to be a man.

I have been in a relationship with a woman for three years now. We live together, and we are not married. We might not get married. I like the idea of making a public commitment and celebrating that with our friends. I dislike the way marriage divides society between the relationships which are normal and acceptable, and the Others.

Since we are unmarried, we have been discussing what to call each other. ‘Boyfriend and girlfriend’ does not really reflect the seriousness of our relationship; it seems childish. So we are… partners. And it makes my skin crawl.

After all these years, my kneejerk reaction to the term ‘partner’ is still to assume that they must be a terrible person. The thought arrives in my head before I have a chance to react consciously. Partners. Sinners. People without values. Loveless relationships (unlike all the Christian marriages I knew, which were paragons of romance and mutual respect).

The term partner is not heteronormative. When I tell people I have a partner, I try not to give away her gender straight away. I let people live with the possibility that I might be gay for a minute. If that makes them want to talk to someone else, then I didn’t want to talk to them anyway.

There’s something else about the word partner: It implies equality – and Christian marriage was anything but equal. Equality is something I can get behind. I don’t have a wife who depends on me. I have an equal.

I have a partner.

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  • Carys Birch

    I love this post. So very much. I also, for the first time in my life, have a partner. I share your reaction to the word… I have all the same associations, and three same knee-jerk response. As a woman, I have a nearly insurmountable, ingrained need to ask permission from my (male) partner, or apologize for things that aren’t my fault. He hates it. He reminds me, usually by a sarcastic warning that I’m following my “bad early training” or that I’m “acting brainwashed” again. It’s painful but so very good. The mold needs to be broken, the word needs to be reclaimed since the relationship we are building is intended to be a partnership of equals.

    Even as the word makes me cringe, I love it.

  • Thank you for sharing.

  • And for those Christians who insist on complementarian, submissive wives “as God intended,” let us remind them that Eve was the only suitable partner found for Adam.

    In the beginning, God created humans, created equally and as equals to be partners in life.

  • I think this post and the comments so far boil down to one critical point…and I must admit that the Gospel of John is one of my favorites in the Bible. Historically, John has been referred to as the disciple who loved Jesus, and that hits the nail right on its head.

    Christian fundamentalism has been defined as “a form of Godliness from which nearly all love has been drained away.” In fact, a few years ago, I was at a Christian bookstore in a mall and flipped through a book wherein the fundamentalist author was actually denigrating and making fun of the whole concept of Christian love. How he had arrived there, I have no idea. However, as most of us know, the whole concept of love pervades the New Testament, and as Jesus said, all the law and the prophets hang upon it.

    Knowing what we do about this from the New Testament and even the experience of our own lives apart from scripture—in just making friends with other people—we know that a loving and responsible relationship cannot be built under circumstances where one person is the master and the other is a slave. World history teaches us that masters mistreat their slaves, and slaves resent being used by their masters. It is not a relationship conducive to mutual love and affection.

    I think this word “partner” is in some ways a better description of what a marriage relationship should be. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the “Principles of Love,” as set forth by Jesus, should be the central thing in a marriage. I am thinking of a partnership where love is mutual. I am thinking of a partnership where no one lord’s himself or herself over the other person, in effect making the other a second class citizen in their own home. I am thinking of a partnership where self-sacrifice is mutual and wherein each individual also maintains some healthy self-interests. I am thinking of a partnership where two people walk through life at each other’s side rather than one person walking ahead and the other behind. I am thinking of a partnership where two people work together to achieve both shared goals and some that are not. However, as I think Jesus and John would agree, the word “love” should be the center of the whole partnership. This is not to say that marriage or a loving partnership will always be easy going in every way. After 34 years of marriage, I know better. However, I do think keeping the focus on love makes a big difference.

    As one Christian fundamentalist once said to me, “You’re right. There is a name that is above every name—and that name is Bible.” The master-slave view of marriage might be distilled from the Bible by cherry-picking some verses. However, we also need to remember that the Frankenstein monster was distilled from cherry-picking some cemeteries. Unlike Christian fundamentalists, some of us follow a Spirit named Jesus—not a book. And a warm and kind “love” is the essence of that Holy Spirit.

  • Yep. I don’t have any sort of partner right now (except, ya know, my cat) but I kind of freak out every time I use the word to describe other people’s relationships, because WHAT WILL PEOPLE THINK? You’re right — there are so many assumptions that come with that word: gay, fornicators, liberal, egalitarian, sinners, other. So over it.

  • I use the word partner not because it’s a middle-class attempt at being PC, but because telling business clients I have a boyfriend can result in awkward pauses around a conference room. I use it because it means I don’t have to out myself to people who shouldn’t care about my sexuality. I use it because I’ve been beaten up for having a boyfriend and don’t want to repeat the experience. I hide behind it as a phrase because I have to.

    • David, my post seems quite privileged and unimportant compared with this – I suppose I am the middle-class person making the attempt at being PC. Thanks for reminding us about how prevalent homophobia still is.

      • I didn’t take it as that, just providing a different perspective. Every reason given is valid, but some of us use it out of necessity rather than choice.

    • David, your comment hurts. I am a mom of two little boys. My husband and I always tell them that they are free to love who they love and believe what they believe. I hope things are different in this cold world when they’re teens transitioning into adult, but I’m afraid that ignorance and hate may not change much within the next decade.

      I wish you a life full of love, peace, and understanding from your peers.

  • Reblogged this on David Waldock's Blog.

  • Nice piece, Jonny. Rather poignant how indoctrination can instil these instinctive reactions to a perfectly decent expression. Maybe the word “lover” should be more apposite to committed relationships, if it wasn’t for the unfortunate way that word’s been loaded to imply infidelity. Personally I have a partner, a wife and a lover. All the same person. 😉

  • A (Christian and married) friend of mine put it well when he said that it was a shame that what should have been a divine partnership has been transformed into slavery with benefits.

  • Reblogged this on Leaving Fundamentalism and commented:
    I’m a guest blogger again at Defeating the Dragons. Samantha will be familiar to you as a recent guest poster on here. Her blog is fantastic; check out her recent posts on gender, rape culture, and my body is not a stumbling block.

  • While I applaud your intent and use of the word “partner”, I have to agree with an above comment. I use “partner” because I’m afraid to say ‘my girlfriend’. It’s part of the pronoun bingo that allows me to keep my job and work relationships.

    So on one end, I’m happy that more people are using it, because it adds to the normalcy. However, I wish I didn’t feel like I *have* to.

    • Lily, it’s a shame that more people can’t see that love between two consenting adults is love. I’m sorry that you can’t always be open about your beloved.

      Sending encouragement your way.

      • Thank you for the kindness. I have to say that lately I’m more heartened by people than disheartened. It’s an amazing time we’re living in.

  • Jonny, thank you for another great article. You ought to still throw a big party to celebrate your relationship. After all, she is love incarnate. Have the biggest celebration you can because all we really have is the here and now!

    Marriage has been tough for me. I can tell you that Mr. Amazing and mine’s partnership has gone through so much drama in our transition as an Evangelical, Christian couple to an all out atheist marriage.

    I understand about the power of words though, I had an issue with following a blogger for a couple of months. He’s a great writer, but I couldn’t get past the word “blasphemy” in his tag line. Finally, it stopped bothering me and I signed up to receive his updates in my reader. Crazy, huh?

  • I know a family who has 2 daughters, one is in love with a man and the other is in love with a woman. They call both of their daughter’s mates partner, they don’t make a gender distinction and they don’t treat their relationships any different.

  • RickRay

    I’ve been married twice, divorced twice, not my choosing to divorce. From what I’ve learned while being twice married, plus a 10 yr. relationship, plus 3 other relationships of about 2 yrs. I must say, “MARRIAGE IS WAY OVERRATED.” Imagine keeping the same car for a lifetime. LOL People change and so do their situations. True love is a fallacy !

  • Funny, I consider my husband my partner. Though I suspect given his very different upbringing and background he considers me only his wife. It is a point of contention and one that may eventually break our marriage. Words do have power. Society gives them that power, we can hide behind it or we can step out in front of it.

  • Lorne

    I have a shorty

  • Steve.

    What strange worlds many people inhabit, judging from some comments above. Jonny Scaramanga and I both grew up in the UK, but he in small town Wales (I think) and I in The Smoke. I have lived with three partners in my lifetime (and had a few girlfriends who were more transitory). The difference between a partner and girlfriend (or boyfriend I suppose) in my world was that you usually shared a flat and a bedroom with your partner. This was quite normal and quite accepted from my teenage years in the very early seventies.

    As it happens I am actually married to my current partner of many years, but I usually describe her and introduce her as my partner rather than my wife as our legal relationship is not normally relevant to people we meet. Our very closest friends obviously know we are married but there are many people who know us both who do not know – and why should they?

    Christianity, and it’s theological parent Judaism, arose from tribal religions amongst primitive (and originally semi nomadic) groups of semitic peoples in the Middle East, probably originating in Mesopotamia and moving and spreading and migrating as wars, conquests, enslavement and economic necessity moved them around. There is little doubt that the concept of marriage as a partnership between equals would have been regarded as ludicrous by the ancient Hebrews and early Christians (just as it is today by the vast majority of Muslims who also come from the same religious family). Societies in the ancient world were usually patriarchal, and originally polygamous, as Islam still is. The idea of some kind of genuine equality in relationships between life partners is very modern – although well established where I grew up in the sixties and seventies.

    I can understand relatively enlightened and liberal minded Christians seeking to claim that such equality has always been part of their religion’s teaching but I am afraid this doesn’t hold water. It is a product of the post-Enlightenment rationalisation of Christianity that has made it more acceptable to the modern world view held by growing numbers of people (a process which never took place in Islam). Although I welcome this softening of unreasonable and dictatorial patriarchy I am not willing to give Christianity some kind of endorsement or credit for merely adapting itself to some aspects of the modern, secular world – and sadly there are plenty of examples of unenlightened and bigoted Christians around who still hold to the old biblical notions of what marriage is (although they have mostly abandoned polygamy these days).

    • republibot3

      >>I can understand relatively enlightened and liberal minded Christians seeking to claim that such equality has always been part of their religion’s teaching but I am afraid this doesn’t hold water.<<

      Christians (I myself am one) tend to overstate this 'equality' sometimes, but it's important to remember that these kinds of definitions are in relation to what came before. Mithraism became extremely popular in the Roman empire because it was way more egalitarian than the native Greco/Roman religions. Judaism went through an evangelical phase for about a century BC, during which it was extremely successful in attracting female gentile converts. Why? Because women had some legal standing in Judaism, they mattered. Maybe not as much as men, but at least a bit. And a bit is better than nothing.

      Christianity came along, and it was, in fact, quite a bit more egalitarian than most of what had come before. It included women, which Mithraism didn't, its founder expressly didn't care about the social standing of His adherents, and actively mocked the wealthy and powerful.

      So while Christianity may not have been completely totaly equal in the modern sense of the word, it has been since its very beginning, much more egalitarian than the things it grew out of and supplanted. And while it has often, often, often, often fallen short of the mark, and invented hokey medieval rules to justify that, the fact is, a deliberate ignoring of class, culture, language, nationality, and (To a lesser extent) gender has been there from the very beginning. It's expressly written in our scriptures, even.

  • republibot3

    I’m not a huge fan of the word “Partner.” That might be an American thing. Here, it’s overwhelmingly a business relationship (“My partner at the distillery said…”). The momentary confusion when I hear the word isn’t because I think the person might be gay, but simply because I think they’re talking about work, and it takes a moment to realize they’re talking about whomever they’re shacked up with. It’s more distracting than useful, but I’m 46. I may be behind the power-curve on this one.

    Generally, most people still use “Boyfriend” and “Girlfriend,” even if it’s ludicrously infantile to do so. (Weird when a 50 year old woman introduces a 55 year old guy as her ‘boyfriend’). “Significant Other” used to be a deliberately-cumbersome-and-hence-funny euphemism that we used to use in those situations in the ’80s/early ’90s. “Shacked up” was also popular in the ’90s, and around the turn of the century a lot of my unmarried living-together friends used to introduce themselves as “Living in Sin.”

    All clunky, I know. There does need to be an easy term to use, but it seems to me “Partner” is already taken, and is more distracting than apt. I think a neologism or perhaps a portmaneau is called for here.