You’re telling a story and your partner is in it. If you find yourself saying “my husband”, “my wife”, or “my partner”, to an unpartnered person, you might as well be saying “my Maserati”, “my holiday house”, or “my triple figure salary” to a houseless person. The implications are the same. Oh, and by the way, it’s not your fault that you do this. It wasn’t a decision.
Couples privilege is huge. Let’s start with the obvious: Money.
For nesting partners, there are two incomes and only one dwelling. Real estate’s current affordability would be comedic if housing wasn’t y’know, a human right. This privilege is only expanding with growing housing crises. Housing affordability in itself makes nesting partnership a hefty financial privilege, just like gender, race and class are, but housing is just the tip of the fiscal iceberg.
Married people make more money. No, not when you add the incomes together, although that’s obviously true. Individuals in a marriage make more money than individuals not in a marriage. And not by a little bit. A recent study helps us to understand why:
Having a nesting and investing partner is like having a free insurance policy for everything. If you lose your job or your health on a Monday, you won’t just get a hug on Monday night, you’ll have another income to feed you and pay the rent. If, upon losing your job, you forgot to lock up your bike and it’s stolen on Tuesday, you likely can borrow your partner’s bike or car to get to the next job interview.
Insurance isn’t just helpful in the case of disaster. It also allows people to take important risks. A key finding from the study above is that partnered people are less pressured into taking shitty jobs — they can keep looking until they find a good one. At least, they can do this for longer, and with less anxiety, than an unpartnered person. The dollars are adding up, aren’t they? Now extend this privilege to all decisions (“should i buy this car right now or wait til find a good deal?”, “should I spring for a taxi to meet the plumber in time or is my partner able to meet them?”, “should I buy groceries at Jones the Extortionist where I currently stand, or can my partner pop into the supermarket?”) and you can build a picture of just how enriching one or more nesting partners can be.
Late-stage capitalism is hard on all of us. We’re drowning under expectations, most of which we simply weren’t designed to satisfy. Nobody rates A++ at all of the cooking, cleaning, planning, tinkering, earning and caring. That’s why, for the eons that preceded urbanisation, we lived in small bands of several dozens of people and collaborated — not just at “work”, but at home too. The things we were good at, we did lots of. Things we couldn’t do, someone else did. Or, if we were to learn new skills, we did so insured and safe in our collective. Today we expect people to do these things alone. We prepare our children for a life of doing so. And when they can’t, we call them disordered. ADHD and “executive dysfunction” are charges laid at the feet of of many who are least suited to our corporate expectations. No, our ancestral environments, though undoubtedly peppered with their own problematics, were not on fire with individualism — the expectation that each person must do-all-the-things alone.
Partnership softens this expectation. If I am good at cooking and my partner is good at washing, then that’s what we’ll do. If I love the home front and they love their job, we’ll accommodate those preferences, together. Nobody who’s spent time in a nesting partnership believes it’s that simple, and half a century of feminist thought reminds us that no partnership is magically fair. Oppressions and inequities within partnerships exist, but the partnership itself creates a wealth. It spreads the expectations thinner. It repopulates our silo.
Like most privileges, the partnership prize is not just financial. It’s medical, legal and social too. The hospital asks if your partner can pick you up because that’s who typically can. No lift? We can’t operate then. Like all such privileges, partnership’s absence intersects with other marginalisations in wicked ways. Medics have a creepy habit of asking the spouse of a uterus-owner for their permission to do stuff. Yeah, really.
Updating one’s next-of-kin can be an ongoing task for single people. If you’re trans and changing your name and gender with those institutions at the same time, and spouselessly advocating for yourself to an unyielding medical system, you’re going to get really tired, really fast.
When our closest person is not officially our partner, they can’t hold our hands while we’re dying in hospital any more easily than they can advocate after we die. Gay people fought long and hard in courts of law and public opinion for these rights. And now unpartnered people must do the same thing. At the moment of publication of this essay, there were 1049 federal statutory provisions in the USA in which benefits, rights, and privileges were contingent on marital status. It’s no surprise that partnered people enjoy a vast health advantage.
I’m queer. My friendships are queer. Some friendships include sex. Some don’t. I love one kind of friend no less nor more than another. I used to have awkward moments when telling a story with a lover-friend as a character. There’s a storytelling trope in play. When you label a person in your story who you sleep with, invest with, or nest with, you’re expected to reveal that when you say, “My partner/husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend/ -theyfriend/lover”. And so I wondered, “what word can I use to convey who this person is to me, that is both honest, and won’t rub it in if the person I’m speaking to is unpartnered?” I was silly to try. In what world does our audience need to know that the person in our story shares a bed, or a house, or a bank account with us? What kind of linguistic tick is that? Ooh, ooh, I know this one. This is the generosity of pronouns — whereby we reveal something the audience has no business knowing; their gender, their sexuality, their job, or in this case, not so much something about them, but something about us—our status, our privilege, the insurance that sits behind our every decision.
So what are we to do?
One can announce one’s privilege to various effect: “I’m a white heterosexual cis-gendered man” is an acknowledgement. Whereas “I’ll just go get my Porsche” is a pose. When we say “my partner”, it’s a pose, albeit an unconscious scripted one. But it’s not an imperative. We have options.
These days, I go with “my companion”. To me, that means; the person who was with me during this story. But feel free to mix it up! “My sidekick” adds some superhero whimsy to the vibe. “My passenger” suggests you’re in charge. “My buddy” says you support each other. “Comrade”, “associate”, “mate”, “ol’ mate”, “chaperon(e)”, “assistant”, “bro”, “sis”, “sib”, “teammate”, all provide a different flavour. As long as you’re holding court, make it a great show. Get creative!
There may be many thoughts going through your considered awareness when you choose a term: “partner”, “husband”, “fiancee”, whatever it is. Perhaps your partnership is a big part of your identity. Perhaps you’re queer and fought long and hard to be able to say “my husband” or “my wife”. Unless your identity, or your relationship with that person, are key to the story however, unless you need the audience to know this person is your second income, or the person who drives you home from the hospital, or the person who insures your every decision, or the someone who does half the washing, cooking, cleaning and shopping, and makes you richer than single folk, you’re saying more than you think when you follow the script.