Using Labels for Better Love
It was the second day of our honeymoon and I was sitting on a couch in the cabin we were at, curled up in his arms, crying my eyes out.
“I don’t want to be your wiiiiiiiife….” I sobbed.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“I really, really don’t want to be your wife,” I said again. “I suck at the things a wife is supposed to do. I’m not going to be all nice all the time; I’m going to call you on your shit. I don’t clean house very well and I don’t want to be the only one cleaning. I’m way better at money and math than you are. I won’t be shiny and happy every day after you come home from work. I don’t want missionary sex every Thursday at 7:30. I can’t be a wife!” I was truly worried and frustrated and sad at the fact that I’d just gotten married and now had to be a wife. Day Two of Being Married and I was ready to get divorced.
My husband was a little freaked out, understandably. But he heard something underneath what I was saying and began to ask questions.
“Okay. It’s not like I have those expectations for you as my wife. Do you think you now have to act certain ways because we’re married? Do you think I want you to magically, overnight, become someone else? Not the woman I fell in love with? I don’t want you to change. And if you don’t want to be my wife, that’s fine. But I want to be married to you.”
And that idea, that we could be married without me being a ‘wife’ was the new perspective I needed to, in fact, stay married to him at that moment.
We went further into discussion and figured out what ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ meant to each of us, what we liked and didn’t like about those labels, and we came up with the label ‘partner’ for each other. For many years afterwards we used ‘partner’ to describe our relationship and it worked to help us stay away from the stereotypes and boxes that both ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ can put people into.
As you might have guessed by now, I’m not much into boxes or stereotypes. I guess there are situations where they can be helpful- as a kind of roadmap or basic concept to start from – but after Life gives us any experience with such things, I believe we are obligated to re-write stereotypes and break boxes. Because, in the end, they don’t really serve the greater good.
One of the biggest boxes I am working on breaking is around women’s sexual and relational needs. Specifically, more acceptance for different types of relationships across the lifespan and inside of marriage. I’m a big fan of Dan Savage’s “monogam-ish” perspective and the stereotype of French marriages (yes, that’s me using stereotypes!). I’m also a fan of the idea that we should be working on our ‘stuff’ so that we’re not making decisions out of self-ignorance or denial. Which means, sometimes we need to look at our own stereotypes and labels. Especially in marriage.
The words ‘wife’ and ‘husband’ carry a lot of weight and baggage in our society. There are certain behaviors, expectations, ideals, and stories we have with each of those words. I believe we are changing them, but you still know there is a difference between ‘lover,’ ‘boy/girlfriend,’ ‘partner,’ and ‘husband’ or ‘wife.’ Each of those labels signifies different things to those who use them and to those who hear them used. And I think it’s really important that we unpack what those things mean to each of us, and to our partners, to see if we’re giving them too much weight, or if they don’t mean what they used to for us. Or to see if we even want to use them anymore! Because maybe we don’t.
Some things to think about:
- what does the word ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ mean to you? what does a ‘husband’ do? what does a ‘wife’ do? do those things fit your marriage as it stands today? do those things fit what you want marriage to be?
- have you ever thought about using another word to describe the person you’re married to? what word/s? why?
- do you wish you could change the meaning of ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ to suit you and/or your marriage better? (pro tip: you can!)
- is your marital partner still a ‘boy/girlfriend,’ a ‘lover,’ or ‘friend’ to you? why or why not?
Over the last few years, I have really opened up the labels I give my husband. Sometimes he is my ‘lover’ because we’re all sappy and sexy and googly-eyed for each other. Sometimes he is my ‘boyfriend’ because I get tired of calling him my ‘husband’ and I want some freedom and flexibility from the strength that ‘husband’ conveys to me (and see, that’s my issue, not his!). Tonight me and my lover are going dancing at a local bar that is playing a 90s set. Saturday me and my boyfriend are going to a grown-up prom. Changing up the names allows us to have more fun, explore more of who we are, and takes the pressure off some of the more difficult names. (It also helps our sex life- I’m way more likely to give my ‘boyfriend’ a blowjob in the car than I am to do it for my ‘husband.’ And that has a lot to do with my own issues with those words, but we make it work for us.)
Taking a good, deep look at your labels- what they mean to you, what they mean to your partner, seeing if they work anymore – is a really useful exercise. We outgrow things, we change, and our labels for our marital partner just might need to change, too. Labels can keep us living inside a stereotype or a box and that’s the last thing a happy, healthy marriage needs. Dare to ask the questions, dig deep, and find what works for you.