SPOUSES v HUSBANDS AND WIVES
The word ‘spouse’, according to the dictionary, means either the husband or wife of a married couple.
As modern society finally has grown more accepting of the obvious realities of the natural distribution of sexuality and gender among humans, it’s become clear that our language hasn’t kept up with our understanding.
There are a significant number of people whose gender identities conflict with physical anatomy; similarly, a person’s sexual orientation may differ from “traditional” expectations.
It is certain that it has always been so, and only as modern society ‘grew up’ was it feasible for people to come out and declare themselves, with at least some expectation that society would treat them the way ALL humans are supposed to be properly treated.
And, happily, most people in America today are clearly comfortable with the new landscape, and discrimination, while still quite present, is diminishing.
One of the remaining issues has been nomenclature. In the not-very-distant past, “husbands” were always men and “wives” were always women. The trend toward cohabitation without marriage added the term “partner” to the mix (“life partner” if you enjoy being insufferable), and “spouse” allowed us to skirt the issue altogether. Now, when same-sex couples marry, they may or may not assign themselves “husband” or “wife” roles, but those are, obviously, decoupled from gender, and may or may not be publicly declared.
Compounding the matter: some couples eagerly embrace the traditional nomenclature, while others find it a stifling symbol of oppression from which they are desperate to have new choices emerge. Both are valid viewpoints, and most couples, whatever mix of gender and orientation they bring to the table, can readily agree on such things.
The bigger problem is the people around them who insist on applying old terms to new realities, much the way people still “dial” a phone number. I grew up in a world where most people fit neatly into boxes, and the few who didn’t were outcasts. But in our brave new world, the boxes are of infinite variety, and which one(s) you fit in is for you to decide and declare. We keep hoping for new words and new pronouns, but what we really need is a new understanding; our job is simply to accept people for who they are. If they’ve declared a label for who they are, honor it. If they haven’t, don’t try to give them one, or many.
Today, couples may declare one another “husband” or “wife,” but many choose to not lend credence to what they perceive as gender stereotypes. We’ve easily settled on “spouses” or “partners.” No doubt new words will come along – consider “rom,” a play on romance that is also an acronym for the “rest of me.” It speaks to the essence of a relationship, where “husband” and “wife” speak to either the genders of the relationship or the roles each person assumes within that relationship.
Today, we ask people what gender pronouns they prefer (he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs). In the future, all gender references will likely disappear from the language – problematic vestiges of a bygone era. And while grammarians will cringe at the thought of a world in which everyone is a “they”, it will also be a world in which everyone is “us.” That seems worth the tradeoff.
Until that day, perhaps modern language could be clarified and the words husband and wife consigned to the trash bin, and ALL married people would become simply spouses!