This summer, I went on two very different reporting trips. One was to Austin, Texas, where I mostly hung out with conservative, Christian, stay-at-home PTA moms. Seemingly the only thing I, a 30-year-old lefty feminist from New York City, had in common with these women was the fact that we were married. One casual mention of my husband and they “got” me. In their eyes, I wasn’t slutty or career-obsessed; I was someone with whom they could relate.
A month later, I was shadowing a few strapping freshmen boys at a small liberal arts school in New England. I couldn’t help but be flattered that everyone mistook me for a student. By the third day, I was tapping into my single, collegiate self. So when one of them asked me if I lived with roommates, I said, “no, I live with my … boyfriend.” All of a sudden, I wasn’t old, boring, or spoken-for. I was just like them.
My friend Mercedes calls it the “marital code-switch.” It can happen with newlyweds, who may still feel stuck between two worlds. It can also happen with feminists, who might wrestle with their ambivalence about marriage. There’s much to gain (respect, inclusion, relief from a sleazy asshole’s advances) but also, perhaps, something to lose (sex appeal, mystery, a right to self-definition) by offhandedly evoking a husband. Marriage can be both a giant privilege and, in less tangible ways, a disadvantage. But unlike race or gender, marital status is invisible, and married people can choose to wield it or not depending on the situation.
Let’s get this out of the way: The vast majority of married Americans do not code-switch. Most people fully embrace social, economic, and legal status bumps bestowed on them after their weddings. But for some, it’s a little more complicated. Lauren, a fellow reporter friend, just celebrated her 12th wedding anniversary, and she still has a hard time saying the word husband. While reporting in Iraq or on the evangelical youth movement, “the fact that I was married put people at ease.” But usually, she “winks it off in the language of screwball or film noir,” calling her husband her “fella” or “ball-and-chain.” For Lauren, husband is too loaded and finite. It doesn’t reflect her reality.
“Husband can connote ‘I got mine’ in a way that can be hurtful,” Lauren says. “I’d rather bond with someone about how we haven’t figured it all out than present a notion that I have.”
Even in 2014, when Beyoncé can pole-dance to a song about oral sex as her husband and toddler watch, wife still conjures up all kinds of words, both positive and negative: domestic, traditional, motherly, responsible, settled, grounded, bored (and boring), feminine, codependent. Single woman evokes others: sexy, adventurous, frivolous, modern, desperate, lonely, ambitious, independent.
I code-switch because I feel like I’m juggling lots of those.
Like Lauren, I’m philosophically opposed to what traditional marriage means, and I often take pains to explain that Aaron and I aren’t one of those Smug Marrieds. We got hitched on the fly for health insurance, and we are allowed to hook up with other people when one of us is out of town. To me, the term wife signifies to others that my adventures, sexual or otherwise, are over. As Lauren put it, we “want to walk into that party as charismatic, sexual women,” and whether or not we plan to actually sleep with that cutie in the corner, “being a wife defangs that.” It also feels feminine in a way that irks her: “I’m happy to wear red lipstick,” she says, “but I don’t want to be anybody’s wife.”
So when I’m surrounded by single people, feminist activists, and/or some of my more irreverent friends, my husband becomes my “boo” or my “man-piece.” Instead of settling for vicarious Tindering, I’m free to tell stories of my actual Tinder date last Tuesday. I, too, roll my eyes about the wedding industrial complex, explaining that Aaron and I city-halled it. In these circles, referring to Aaron as my husband not only sounds like bragging, it also increasingly makes me an outlier; more than half of Americans are now single, and cohabitation has become an accepted alternative to matrimony.
But the fact is, I am a wife. I married at 24—younger than all my friends—and have remained that way for half a decade. Using the husband moniker can be a way to seek common ground with elders or, say, Christian moms in Austin. It’s incredibly effective when dealing with bureaucrats. Sometimes I want to desexualize a situation, whether it’s a skeevy guy on the subway or a male co-worker I want to take me seriously. Husband comes in handy for clarity or brevity. And truthfully, embarrassingly, it can be comforting to be accepted by society at large, to play the part of “normal” and “stable” once in a while. (My recently-married friend described this as “almost like playing dress-up.”)
Some people in my life think my code-switching is a cop-out, including Aaron, who has little patience for fibs or euphemisms. “We are married, dude,” he says to me. “Deal with it. Anything else is a lie.” As Jessica, a 31-year-old feminist, put to me, “Let’s reclaim words we don’t like, rather than turn up our noses at them, shall we?” One of my friends, who is black, told me she didn’t have the luxury to downplay her status. Playing the “married” card was a way of employing “respectability politics”—the nuptial equivalent of a black student slipping a cop his college ID upon being pulled over. Another friend, Becca, who is a lesbian Lutheran pastor, says being married “legitimizes” her professionally (a dynamic which takes the argument for gay marriage to its logical conclusion). And I recently had a Facebook argument with a friend of a friend, who said it “rubbed her the wrong way” that I was calling for a nuanced approach to relationships before all gay people had the legal right to toggle with their marital status. The outsize value our culture puts on marriage is precisely the reason why LGBT people are battling for the privilege.
But regardless of your race, gender or sexuality, there’s something satisfying about nixing words that render your private life public. It’s the same reason why Anderson Cooper felt reluctant to announce to the world that he was gay. Marriage invites others to judge and dissect our personal lives, to categorize us and assume they know us. Mercedes, who just got married this summer, simply introduces her new husband as “Ryan.”
“I’d rather have people see me as me before I start adding on all kinds of other labels and qualifiers,” she says. “Whose business is it but mine?”
By Nona Willis Aronowitz. First published in The Cut