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Rue 89, France

The United States: A Country
Where Unmarried Couples
Have No Name

By Hélène Crié-Wiesner

Translated By Tara Ferguson

6 February 2013

Edited by Gillian Palmer

France - Rue 89 - Original Article (French)

Americans have debated about “marriage for all” for so long that they should have exhausted the subject by now. But no! They love to get married in general and they are constantly adding new angles to the discussion. For example:

-what to call one’s partner when they are not (yet) married
-whether marriage is something bourgeois or revolutionary, calm or exciting, a liberating institution or prison

These debates, which are no longer fashionable in Northern Europe, are receiving more interest in the United States now that civil unions are gaining ground.

At least that’s what the newspapers say. For me, having lived here for 12 years, I’m still amazed at the number of young people still in college and already married, so few adults without a wedding ring and so much general incomprehension of the silly idea of living together without getting married first. This can cause an accumulation of divorces.

It’s not surprising in such an environment that gay Americans have demanded a right to marriage equality for so long, whereas gay French people have remained satisfied for a long time with the civil solidarity pact [form of civil union in France].

Here, Unmarried Couples Have No Status

I wasn’t able to find the percentages in order to compare the status of marriage in our two countries — age, divorce rate, remarriage, etc. — but here are two figures:

-In 2009, less than four weddings were celebrated for every 1,000 inhabitants in France;
-compare this to 6.8 weddings for every 1,000 inhabitants in the United States.

Here, married couples have no status, whereas in France, as explained learnedly to readers in the guide “Just Landed,” people have the choice among three types of cohabitation aside from marriage: “French law distinguishes between partners living together ‘unofficially’ (en union libre) and ‘officially’ (en concubinage).”

General Panic: The Age of Marriage Is Increasing

Still, failing to renounce marriage, young Americans are doing what all young people in the Western world are doing: They pronounce their vows later and later. This of course doesn’t stop them from sleeping together earlier. Hence the panic of churches, family leagues and even government institutions, which are committed to invigorating the institution.

Two books came out almost at the same time in 2012 about the superhuman efforts made by the government of the United States, its states and civil society as a whole in an attempt to halt the decline of marriage, hoping that there is still time to do so:

- “One Marriage Under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage in America” by Melanie Heath details the incredible use of public funds for education and incentives for marriage;
-“Not Just Roommates: Cohabitation after the Sexual Revolution” by Elisabeth Peck retraces the struggle for the right to cohabitation since the ‘60s.

"Husband" and "Wife" Too Old, Too Connoted

Ironically, thanks to the Peck’s book, we understand why some Americans are so attached to marriage, which they consider a social gain that is hard-won. At a time when interracial marriages were forbidden, lovers had no other choice but to live together as common-law partners, an infamous mark of social inequality. It is like gays today in most states.

All the recent fuss in France lately, and the United States for ages, has prompted a writer and wife-to-be to reflect on her own reluctance toward marriage and its vaguely bourgeois and traditionalist resonances. Margot Page explains in the “New York Times” that the appetite of her gay friends for this outdated institution has reconciled her with her own conjugal situation.

Her rhetoric is surprising, but her reasoning is to worth examining. Margot and her husband Anthony have been married for 22 years, but have always had a hard time assuming the “archaic” terminology of the institution. They use the words "husband" and "wife" ironically:

“Language resonates and implicates, and marriage-role vocabulary represented a life I didn’t want to sign up for. For years I tried alternatives, hoping to convey a modern sensibility. At various times I was a ‘partner,’ a ‘co-parent,’ a ‘best-friend-who-also-shared-his-bed.’ But I always felt as if I were stealing — either from my gay and lesbian friends who were denied use of the words I was eschewing, or from braver, nonconforming straights.”

The Gays Love the Old Terminology of Marriage

Lately, Margot and Tony have capitulated, finally accepting to nominally be spouses. What they did not see coming was gay people’s appetite for the same official labels: “Here they were, claiming the old language. Using the lexicon of traditional marriage not as I had, to poke fun and create distance, but in the spirit of the vows they now got to speak. I watched in wonder as my friends claimed the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ with reverence and delight and gusto.”

Margot Page admits her guilt, shamefully asking, "Who was I to act so alternative?" And deeply empathetic, she concludes with a new allegiance to the institution of marriage:

“To my same-sex pals, let me say this: I know that my inability to use a set of words without irony is nothing compared to the long history of our society not allowing you to be those things. And I know that my tiny linguistic win is negligible compared with the victory you have gained in marriage equality. I apologize in advance for the accusations we all know will keep flying from the mouths of some: charges that you have somehow unsanctified the marriage institution. But please know that for this churchgoing heterosexual, with her kids, dog, car pools and yellow house with picket fence, you re-sanctified it. Please know that you revived it. Please know that when I hear you pronounce the words ‘wife’ and ‘husband’ so reverently, so lovingly, I remember that I can, too.”

Unmarried Couples Still Struggling to Find Labels

After this vibrant ode to marriage, how do resolute common-law couples, fierce advocates of free love, brave Americans defying social customs, still dare to take it back with their refusal of this signed commitment?

An excellent story appeared in the NYT in early January, just as long as the previously mentioned article, but I'll summarize more after this introduction: “Now that we’ve come to some consensus on same-sex marriage, let’s move on to the next puzzle: what to call two people who act as if they are married but are not.” Note that we are no longer interested in the sex of the people in question; they could be straight couples or gay couples.

“Lovers”? Too Sexualized

It is not like in France, where, after many years of uncertainty and with the proliferation of civil unions, the terms "partner" and "companion" seem to have entered into common language, at least for adults. In the United States, when a desired child appears, it is still rare that parents are not married.

“Everyone agrees that partner sounds awful — too anodyne, empty, cold. Lover may be worse — too sexualized, graphic, one-dimensional. Boyfriend sounds too young. Significant other sounds too ‘80s. Special friend or just friend (both favored by the 65-and-over crowd) are just too ridiculous.”

Legal lexicography provides no light because, unlike France, where the term "partner" exists in law, American demographers did not feel the need to identify civil unions before 1980. The NYT explains, “Until the 1970s, the American faux spouse was too rare and taboo to even try to track. In 1980, the United States Census Bureau made its first attempt at naming these creatures in order to count them. It really outdid itself lexicographically: ‘person of opposite sex sharing living quarters,’ abbreviated to POSSLQ and pronounced ‘possle cue.’”

Humor, When People Are Not Comfortable

Another term is often used in the media, which is also found in this section of the NYT: "Paramour.” I like it. But not Carmen Fought, linguist at Pitzer College, who believes that funny little names are indicative of a general discomfort vis-à-vis unmarried couples: “Humor is a very common strategy to deal with social awkwardness. When uneasy socially, people also turn to sarcasm.” Carmen Fought uses the example of the title "Ms.," a contraction of "Mrs." and "Miss,” which appeared in the ‘70s and now prevails in the United States for all women. “If you can find the right terminology, you can change the way people think.”

There it is. All these superficial and vaguely off-topic American stories to distract you from the very serious debate in the French National Assembly...



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