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Five linguistic usages that undermine marriage

Language has always changed, but the Internet has noticeably increased the speed of language change, not always for the better.

It's extremely easy to adopt new terminology unthinkingly because everyone else is using it without realizing the social effects. Language both reflects and influences culture. It's one of those round and round, chicken and egg cycles that can never be precisely pinned down. Lex orandi, lex credendi always has its parallel in the world of ordinary speech.

To move from the general to the specific, I present five more or less neologistic usages, usages that have changed or come into being in the last twenty years at most (by my guess). All five tend to downplay the importance of marriage and the distinction between marriage and non-married states:

1) The use of "partner" to mean "whomever you happen to be having sex with regularly, whether male or female, married to you or not." Not so very long ago, "partner" meant someone with whom you are carrying out a business venture or some other undertaking, such as exploring the North Pole. In the late 80's and early 90's, by my estimate, it started to be a code word for "homosexual lover," because homosexual "marriage" wasn't up and running yet, and "friend" didn't convey what a man wanted to say when referring to this particular category. From there, it morphed into an all-purpose term for "fairly regular sexual partner," presumably because of a vague desire not to use it exclusively and hence in a "discriminatory" fashion to refer to homosexual couples. Now it seems to be used in the way given above.

This usage undermines marriage by implying an equivalence not only between homosexual and heterosexual unions but, even more often, implying that the distinction between married and unmarried heterosexual couples is unimportant. Don't use "partner" this way. Use more precise terminology: "Husband," "wife," "live-in boyfriend," and so forth.

2) The use of "ex" to mean "former boyfriend" or "former girlfriend" rather than a person to whom one used to be married. I think we can be pretty sure that in the country song "All My Exes Live in Texas" the women in question are supposed to be ex-wives. That's what gives the song its slightly bawdy humor. I still find it extremely confusing for a person to use "ex" to mean "ex-boyfriend." It never meant that thirty years ago, and it always makes me do a double-take and wonder if the speaker is actually divorced.

This use of "ex" creates the impression that breaking up with a person you aren't married to is just as serious, or just as un-serious, as getting a divorce. It also downplays the importance of actually identifying oneself as divorced by making it more difficult to distinguish a locution in which a person is implying that he is divorced from a statement that merely implies that he once had a girlfriend who is no longer his girlfriend. Again, it's much better to be clear and precise. Use "ex-girlfriend" or "former girlfriend," or "ex-boyfriend" or "former boyfriend," or even "ex-fiance," whichever applies, not simply "ex."

3) Related to that use of "ex" is the use of "single" for oneself if one is divorced. Yes, we all want our privacy, but actually, it often is someone else's business to know if you are divorced.

I'm sorry, but if you are divorced, you are not unambiguously single. For one thing, some people have metaphysical beliefs about that--e.g., whether divorce is even metaphysically possible. And you never know, they may be true. For another thing, a person who is divorced has, perhaps through no fault of his own, various types of "baggage" that a never-married person doesn't have. To put it bluntly, it isn't fair to someone who might fall in love with you or think of you as a marriage prospect to refer to yourself as "single" when you are divorced, because it might make a difference to that person, and it shouldn't come out as a surprise later on.

This use of "single," like some other usages in this list, implies that the distinction between being divorced and not being divorced is unimportant. That implication, in turn, undermines the importance of marriage. Whatever one's theological or social theories about divorce, we ought to be able to agree that it isn't unimportant. Our language, once again, should be clearer.

4) The use of "relationship" to refer to any sort of serious or semi-serious romantic connection, usually involving sex, whether involving marriage or not. See above on "partner." All "relationships" are not created equal.

5) Here's another misuse of "single"--the use of "single" to mean "not dating anyone" rather than "not married." A young woman, never before married, who has a serious boyfriend is nonetheless single. She may be on the way to becoming non-single, but she is single right now. To imply that everyone who is "in a relationship" or who "has a partner" is not single is ipso facto to downplay the importance of marriage and the distinction between being married and being unmarried.

I first noticed this use of "single" while reading a most unfortunate column by a young woman who was setting herself up to give dating and...other...advice to other young women. The advice came from a decidedly secular perspective. In the column in question she was implying that single people are not having sex, using "single" merely to mean "not in a relationship." What's the implication? That anyone who is dating someone even semi-seriously is having sex and that the only people, poor fools, who are stuck with celibacy are those who can't find anyone to be a sexual partner. Marriage? What in the world is that? This use of "single" causes marriage to drop out of the picture altogether.

What is happening in our world is not that unmarried sexual relationships are becoming more and more serious. Instead, all sexual relationships are being boiled down into an undifferentiated stew of uncertainty, unclarity, and ephemerality. Marriage is decidedly the loser in this process.

So if you realize the importance of marriage and have found yourself unthinkingly using any of these words in these ways, this could be a useful wakeup call to think again and recalibrate.

Comments (19)

1) The use of "partner" to mean "whomever you happen to be having sex with regularly, whether male or female, married to you or not."

Or it's slightly nauseating variant, "life partner". Blech!

Does the word "life" in that phrase mean (allegedly) "as long as you both shall live" or just "in my life right now"?

Bizarrely, heterosexual married couples are now using the word "partner" to refer their spouses. We recently bought a new home, and the seller's agent told us her partner would be discussing certain aspects of the deal with our agent. We thought she meant her business partner, but it turned out to be her husband, who actually did work for his wife. It was rather confusing, especially since they didn't have the same last name. And then she referred to her sellers as "partners" in several emails even though we knew for sure that the sellers (a man and woman) were a 50-something married couple. It's becoming almost like an embarrassing gaffe or an un-politically-correct statement to refer to a married couple as "husband" or "wife".

I never thought of the possible confusions that can arise when the same person uses the term "partner" in both senses within a business context.

Does the word "life" in that phrase mean (allegedly) "as long as you both shall live" or just "in my life right now"?

While advancing the homosexual agenda, it will mean the former; once victory is achieved, the latter.

Here is an example of the insidiousness of the neologisms: My office planned an after-hours dinner party for our business unit, and because it was a social occasion and after hours, we wanted spouses there. But we had to revise the "spouses welcome" to "significant others welcome", supposedly to be fair and open to those whose significant others were not spouses. But of course this is to pretend that being a "spouse" is effectively the same thing as to be a "significant other" or a "partner", even though obviously being not married means that you have willingly chosen NOT to make formal commitments regarding the future.

For society to disregard the difference between spouse and partner is for society to give up on the whole point of the formal commitment, and decide that only the current sense of connection matters, all other considerations being irrelevant. Which is to consign children to a series of random, fleeting relationships between their parent and strangers who cannot possibly invest a permanent relationship with the kids because they can have no expectation that they will be present next week or next year. I.e. there will cease to be any example of unconditional love for them to see, experience, and model. The society of "all-sex all the time" is loveless.

Yes, "significant other" is one of those wussy phrases that I could have included. Had I thought of it, I might have left it out anyway because it is so incredibly obvious as an "all relationships are created equal" phrase. I suppose "partner" is a tiny bit more subtle, though maybe not. Both have exactly the function Tony states.

I would suggest also restraint in using the term "cheating" to describe dating two or more people at the same time. Cheating is deeply connected with adultery and adultery (in secular terms) can only happen with married people. Until a couple has become engaged, it should be called things that imply character unsuitable for marriage, not "cheating."

Moreover, I would take "cheating" to include "having sex." Since the unmarried people shouldn't be having sex anyway, "cheating" becomes confusing at best. Good one, and very much in line with the others.

As Dalrock and others have observed, there is a general culture shift wherein marriage has simply become "that long-term dating relationship with state sanction and admittance to the courts for conflict resolution over rights claims." I don't know what the most effective route to fighting this is, but one possible starting point is to generally regard anything less than a formally engaged couple as having little formal significance. One example would be if someone found out their boyfriend/girlfriend of say, 3 years, was "cheating on them" to respond to them with an attitude that basically says "well, you're neither engaged nor married so precisely what concrete obligation did they have to you?" You can be a traditionalist and still hold that view. You want commitment? Then as the prophet Beyonce informs us... if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.

The first question I would ask under those circumstances, as I indicated, is, "Are you and your boyfriend/girlfriend having a sexual relationship?" That is, if I were a close enough friend to have any right to ask any questions at all. Then the next question is, "Why were you having a sexual relationship without being married?" In other words, on the assumption that the "cheating on them" question concerns _sex_, per se, the question that immediately arises is why these people are treating sex outside of marriage as no big deal in the first place while simultaneously treating sex with someone _else_ outside of marriage as a big deal.

Now, on the other hand, if we are talking instead about some form of flirting rather than sex, and if the original couple was not having a sexual relationship, then one can begin to talk about issues such as deception, emotional faithfulness, and the like. And those are real issues even if formal engagement has not taken place. If A wants to flirt with C secretly while giving B the impression that A and B are "a couple," this is a bad sign about the probable success of a marriage between A and B.

If, on the third hand, the original couple was saving sex for marriage and one of the boyfriend-girlfriend pair is *actually having sex* with some other person, then the other person should run, not walk, out of the relationship, since the other person apparently places no value on chastity (or honesty as opposed to deception).

And one problem with the term "cheating" for unmarried couples is that it doesn't distinguish among these situations.

In general, I think that moral traditionalists need to stop being squeamish about addressing cohabitation and extramarital sex when they are asked for relationship advice and sympathy, even by secular friends. Obviously, it's a different matter to give your advice out of a clear blue sky. But if someone comes to a Christian and asks for help or advice because his girlfriend is "cheating" on him, and the Christian never so much as addresses the elephant in the room--the fact that they are cohabiting--I think this gives the wrong impression. In a sense the cohabitation is at the root of their problems. It's at least *one* of the things that is at the root of the problems. Living together without marriage and then trying to make up rules beyond that for fidelity and chastity is ridiculous ("Your girlfriend is morally allowed to live with you and have sex with you even though you aren't married, but she isn't allowed to have sex with anybody *else* to whom she isn't married"), so sympathizing with and advising someone who is cohabiting without addressing the cohabitation makes it look like there *are* such rules and like the adviser agrees that those rules make moral sense. But I think Christians get various incorrect ideas about this, such as the idea that they can't say anything about the cohabitation since the other person doesn't accept their Christian moral norms or perhaps that the other person "must know" that the Christian disapproves of the cohabitation, so it doesn't need to be said. But how can you help somebody in that situation while tacitly leaving his messed-up sexual norms unaddressed?

When someone says "partner" I know what they mean, but my brain tells me "it." It conjures up no picture of a "couple", like a man & woman growing old together. I then think "dance partner" or "lab partner" or even "buddy system." The usage of "partner" strips any romanticism, any affection, away and just becomes a "pairing."

In general, I think that moral traditionalists need to stop being squeamish about addressing cohabitation and extramarital sex when they are asked for relationship advice and sympathy, even by secular friends.

Very true. And very hard to carry out. You run into it all over the place, at work, at the ball field, etc. It takes a lot of presence of mind and courage to do it, and you cannot be at the top of your game ALL the time. You have to be prepared to be tactful and thoughtful as well as insistent, and it's not easy to do, certainly not "off the cuff." But if we ever want to take back the culture, we have to be prepared to treat cultural settings as the right place to treat traditional sexual morals as normal, and opposed positions as abnormal.

The interesting thing there is that people _are_ so messed up, so it's pretty obvious that so-called "Christian" moral norms are, in fact, not narrowly Christian but rather universal in application and that flouting them results in pain and suffering. They're not at all like kosher diet rules or something. The person who comes for advice or sympathy probably doesn't realize that his problems stem in part from his taking fornication and cohabitation to be no big deal, but they do in fact stem from that. It's just his obliviousness that makes it difficult to come out and tell him.

That's how you spell "vendetta."

As far as that case is concerned, I'll say it right here: Anybody who finds out the circumstances of that whole case and can still give the kneejerk reaction, "But there are a lot of heterosexual divorces that have acrimonious custody disputes" has something wrong with him. It may, in a sense, not be such a person's fault entirely that he has something wrong with him. But something is wrong. I've been really disappointed to see how many people, including those who are not normally kneejerk liberals, blow that case off with such shallow responses.

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