Whenever I hear someone refer to their husband, wife, spouse — even their Significant Other, a phrase from a now-distant past — as their “partner,” I think of something Wendell Berry wrote decades ago:
Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate “relationship” involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the “married” couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other.
“Partner” is, in the context of marriage or even long-term cohabitation, an ugly word, connoting as it does a business relationship for mutual profit, ready to be dissolved when the profits aren’t high enough. It should never be used in the context of mutual love.
UPDATE: My friend Andy Crouch has written to me in defense of the word “partner,” suggesting that it “has a wider frame of reference” than I allow, and pointing out that it’s the nearly-universal translation of koinonos in Philemon 17. This is a very good point! I’ll take this under further consideration, but for now, several thoughts:
- The word certainly had a wider referential scope in the past. If you look at the OED you discover that Milton’s Adam says “I stand / Before my Judge, either to undergoe / My self the total Crime, or to accuse / My other self, the partner of my life.” And Robert Southey 150 years later: “So forth I set … And took the partner of my life with me.”
- However, this kind of usage almost completely disappears for nearly two centuries, until it is revived largely by people looking for a word to describe committed gay and lesbian relationships, at a time when such people could not marry. But up until that time, again if the OED is any guide, the business-based meaning had for many decades almost completely displaced all others.
- Thus one could reasonably conclude that the business-based uses of the word have become so dominant that they cast a strong dark shadow over any current use of the word — which is my view. Or recent uses of the term certainly could reasonably be heard as a renewal of older, more richly human meanings — which is Andy’s view.
- So the connotative situation is definitely more complex than I acknowledge above.
- The economic overtones of the word would certainly be displaced if one were to follow Milton and Southey in making it a phrase, “the partner of my life,” or, more shortly, “life partner” — but that, I suspect, is a phrasing most people who employ the term wouldn’t want to commit to.
- Finally: I wonder if, given the connotations the word has acquired, “partner” is a good translation of koinonos, or whether an alternative needs to be considered. I notice that the 14th-century Wycliffite version of Philemon 17 has “Therefore if thou has me as a fellow, receive him as me,” which captures the idea of koinonia as a fellowship — but we don’t use “fellow” that way any more. Maybe contemporary English has no real equivalent to koinonos. That would be a situation worthy of our reflection.