Saturday, July 09, 2005

Parsing Marriage, Husband, and In-Laws

Nearly four years ago, my husband and I stood up before God, family, and friends, and exchanged mutual vows of lifelong loving commitment. To my mind, that was a wedding, we are married, and he is my husband. Whether or not the State recognizes our marriage does not change these facts. Unfortunately, in our society, the concept of marriage is deeply muddled together with getting a license from the State. This gives some people hesitation to call our wedding a "wedding", our marriage a "marriage", and to call my husband my "husband". Even I, who am completely clear on the fact that I'm married, have to carefully parse the question "are you married?" according to the context of who is asking and why. Because of the conceptual muddle, in some contexts, the question may have specific legal implications, in which case the most honest answer may be "no, but...", "yes, but...", or "it depends". For instance, on financial or real estate documents, there is often a question about marital status on the form, and the proper answer must be "not married", because they are specifically wanting to know about legal marriage, and whether there is someone else who has automatic legal claims and obligations along with me. (And even then, it may be appropriate to write in "domestic partner", since that status in California has all of the same legal implications, e.g., for joint responsibility of debts and obligations.) I also remember one time when I was on jury duty, and had been empaneled, and each of the prospective jurors were to answer a standard litany of basic questions, including occupation, marital status, and if married, spouse's occupation. So when my turn came, under penalty of perjury, I stated "... I am a software engineer, I consider myself married although the state does not, and my husband is an X-ray technician." (The judge grinned.)

When it comes to social situations, I find it's much simpler to stick with "husband" and "married". I simply talk about my husband and my married life just the way anyone else would, and nobody is ever confused by that. Even if they hadn't known my marital status or orientation, they readily understand exactly what I mean, and these days they seldom even blink. On the other hand, my husband is not quite as comfortable with the term "husband", and he will often use "partner", especially around his extended family (who are mostly of a conservative religious background). Recently, there have been a couple of events (a graduation and a wedding) where I've had occasion to meet more of his extended family, and out of deference to him I used "partner" a few times in explaining our relationship to folks I met. Ironically, I found this caused much more confusion. I'd get questions like, "so what sort of practice are you two in?" I'd then have to explain, no, not that kind of partner. "He's my husband." There'd be an embarassed laugh because of the confusion, but that would be it. I've never had a bad reaction from anyone yet. So I'm sticking to "husband", just because it is the most straightforward and least confusing.

The term that I do have some trouble with, though, is "in-law". One of the great things about being married, is that I now have a bigger family because I have a mother-in-law, a father-in-law, and sisters- and brothers-in-law (wonderful people, all of them). But the problem is that it's not in law. To call them "in-all-but-laws" would be closer to the truth, but that's way too unwieldy. A better solution I came up with is to talk about "in-loves" instead of "in-laws". I have not just one sister-in-love, but three. (That accounts for not only my husband's two sisters, but also the woman my brother is all-but-married to.) I like that, because it succinctly conveys the idea, while underscoring the point that it's not in law for us (yet). Unfortunately, while I like the "in-love" idea in theory, it's never felt natural to me in practice. There's always that confusion and having to explain it. So I've tended to just talk about my "in-laws", because it's the most straightforward and least confusing. Everyone gets it. And more importantly, I think my very casual (never pointed or in-your-face) use of "husband" and "in-laws" helps people to get that my marriage is no different than anyone else's. Isn't that ultimately the point?

(Now that I've cleared all that up, faithful readers note that my husband and I are going up north for a long weekend with the in-laws, and I probably won't be back to blogging before Tuesday.)

1 comment:

KipEsquire said...

Wonderful post.

If it's not too private, would you be willing to share any legal gymnastics you two have had to perform, such as living wills or beneficiary designations? Have you had any extra legal expenses to replicate a legal-status marriage?