American culture needs to develop a new language to describe relationships of love and commitment. Husband and wife are too narrow. Partner too broad. Boyfriend and girlfriend focus on young people and the “not married.”
For gays and lesbians they have had to rely on the use of “partners” or if gay, “husband,” or if lesbian, “wife.” I feel these are temporary terms as we struggle to find more fitting terms.
This is not just an issue for same sex couples. It is also an issue for heterosexual couples in committed relationships that are not traditional marriages.
My sister-in-law Jacquie and Srulik are in a committed relationship. However they have not married in a religious ceremony or civil ceremony.
When my sister-in-law once referred to Srulik as her partner, she saw either puzzlement or astonishment in the reactions of others. Was Jacquie now a lesbian? To use husband and wife might confuse people who might respond, “So when was the wedding?” or “So why were we not invited to the wedding?” We need to do better.
I would suggest that “partner” has never reflected the love and commitment that these relationships deserve.
I suggest that we turn to the Jewish tradition of Song of Songs.
Song of Songs is accepted as the most superb book of love poetry. Our ancestors may begin to help us. Maybe by looking at our past, we can create a future.
In Song of Songs, there is no use of “husband” or “wife.” We hear “Tell me, my love, where you feed your sheep,” “how fine are you, my lover, what joy we have together,” “I choose you from all others,” and “Come with me, my love, come away.”
“My lover” today often refers to a relationship outside of marriage. “My love” is pretty good.
However, the most quoted line in Song of Songs is “I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me.” Beloved in this sense can be assigned to a committed relationship without sex or gender, race or ethnicity or religion. I often refer to Jessica as my beloved. This may be a way to start.
Allen B. Saxe is a retired anthropologist who taught at Livingstone College. His beloved is Jessica Schorr Saxe. Readers can write to him at email@example.com.
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