Thursday, April 5

That's not my partner, that's my wife

[ I've rewritten parts of this item since its original post – Ian Skinner]

Photo shows Prime Minister John Howard with wife Janette
The caller sounded a bit of a nutter, but he got through to Prime Minister John Howard on the radio in Adelaide. "I am now about to go on a sex strike, and I am calling on Mrs Rann, Mrs Downer and your partner . . ."

He got no further. Howard snapped back to say he didn't have a partner, he had a wife. The caller found himself disconnected.

A trivial thing, recorded by Strewth! columnist Sian Powell in The Australian. But it set me to wondering whether the growing use of "partner" reflected some change in the way people see their relationships.

What's wrong with regarding your wife as your partner? Surely if anyone is entitled to be regarded as Howard's partner, it's Janette. She's said to help him scan the media each morning, and he listens carefully to her advice.

One quick and easy answer may be that Howard snapped an unthinking reply to an irritating pest.

Another, which may be more convincing, is that Howard sniffs some political correctness in calling your wife your partner. Howard is a social conservative, and proud of it. Many Australians share his views on social issues.

For them, the term "partner" may be disturbing because it can include those in relationships once called trial marriage or living in sin, or homosexuals who've decided to share their lives.

Is it also a generational thing, a word (and a concept) seldom used by those over 60, but common among younger people?

I still introduce Merry as my wife, and she presents me as her husband. Yet I can say that for at least four decades – of our 46 years married – I have thought of her as my partner (and she calls me her best friend).

Does it really matter? What's the difference between wife and partner? My answer is tentative. It works for us, but perhaps not for everyone.

To me, "partner" supports a mindset which puts a greater emphasis on equality in the relationship. Also, "wife" and "husband" seem to imply defined roles, perhaps the wife as homemaker and the husband as breadwinner, rather than the flexibility which enhances the lives of so many couples today.

Some Christian churches (and other faiths) even spell out inequality – in marriage, the man must be the head of the household. My memory dims, but I seem to recall that in our wedding vows we changed a word, dropping "obey" and inserting "cherish".

Do more rigidly defined roles in marriage work? To a point, they may. Or perhaps did. Many people have lived long and fulfilling lives in marriages in which they had a clear understanding of one another's roles, and accepted them in faithful companionship.

But come down to the club with me and meet a few widows. They'd love to get around independently, but their husbands always did the driving, and now they think it's too late to learn.

Or look at that elderly couple getting on a crowded train. They're visibly distressed when they have to sit apart. They've always done everything together since they married.

Nor should we ignore that in those earlier times, marriage sometimes became a miserable trap from which escape was difficult.

A woman whose husband could not pass the pub on payday might have to take in the neighbours' washing. If she got a job, and it was not just menial "women's work", she still received only about two-thirds of a man's pay.

If she had to grab the kids and flee her husband's violence, she had few places to seek refuge.

Some of those people should never have married. But in an age when we gave teenagers little guidance about their developing urges, "heavy petting" – remember the term? – sometimes got out of control. I think many of us attended the shotgun wedding of a cousin or workmate who really wasn't ready to face the responsibilities of marriage.

What makes a good marriage? Perhaps fundamentally, nothing all that different from what made a good marriage 50 years ago. But in today's world, those people who would describe themselves as partners may be better placed to achieve it.

I dislike the idea of a marriage in which each partner is discouraged from doing something not shared with the other.

The most loving and fulfilling marriage is one in which each party helps the other fly as high as possible, and sometimes solo – as when I encouraged Merry to fulfil her dream of seeing the Antarctic from the air. As when Merry supports my blogging, despite the unmown lawn.

Oldies may be disconcerted as their offspring move through a number of live-in relationships before finding one to which they're prepared to commit. But that commitment, when it comes, usually is impressive.

Much more than in the past, the relationship might offer a women career opportunities and personal fulfilment of which their mothers might only have dreamed. (When we married, our employer, West Australian Newspapers, required Merry to quit.)

In such a relationship, the man might find an involvement in family life much more rewarding than that achieved under the old patriarchal model.

If those people want to call themselves partners, I'm in there cheering for them. If they'd rather be wife and husband, I don't mind a bit.

And while we're wandering around looking at labels that couples put on themselves, whatever happened to
de facto?

A year or two ago I clipped out a witty explanation. I can't find it now, but I think it came from Macquarie Dictionary publisher Susan Butler. I think it went like this:

There's this woman, Shazza, outside a Housing Commission unit, a cigarette in her mouth and four kids – all by different fathers – hanging off her hips, and she's answering a guy with a briefcase.

"You lookin' for Kevin? That'd be me de facto
. He's in jail."

Yep, de facto just isn't trendy any more.

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