Moving In Together…Or Whatever You Call It

January 14, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Cohabitation 1“Now that we’ve come to some consensus on same-sex marriage, let’s move on to the next puzzle: what to call two people who act as if they are married but are not.”  So begins Elizabeth Weil in her New York Times article, “Unmarried Spouses Have a Way With Words.”[1]  Though I suppose I could quibble with whether or not judicial fiat or the vote of some states to legalize same-sex marriage really constitutes a “consensus” on this issue, that is beyond the aim of my thoughts here.  No, the aim of my thoughts here is to address Weil’s call for a new vocabulary to address the ever-increasing number of cohabitating couples.  Weil explains:

The faux spouse is a pretty ho-hum cultural specimen for such a gaping verbal lacuna. But none of the word choices are good.  Everyone agrees that partner sounds awful – too anodyne, empty, cold.  Lover may be worse – too sexualized, graphic, one-dimensional.  Boyfriend sounds too young.  Significant other sounds too ’80s.  Special friend or just friend (both favored by the 65-and-over crowd) are just too ridiculous.

When it comes to people who are living together and are playing the roles of husband and wife, albeit without all the cumbrous pledges, but who are not legally or ecclesiologically husband and wife, there is a yawning verbal vacuum.  Just what do you call these people?

The twentieth century French philosopher Jacques Derrida famously claimed, “There is nothing outside the text.”[2]  Though this famous phrase has been unfairly disparaged and mischaracterized as a wild assertion that nothing exists outside of words in and of themselves, the context of this quote reveals Derrida’s claim to be far more modest.  Derrida is countering a Rousseauian view of reality which see words as cracked and foggy lenses that inhibit and blur the experience of reality as it truly is.  This is why Rousseau, in his writings, yearns to return to a time before language, for he believes that only in a proto-linguistic and, I might add, ruggedly individualistic society can people experience the fullness of reality.[3]

In contradistinction to Rousseau, Derrida takes a much more positive view of language.  In his thinking, there is no such thing as an experience of reality which is somehow free from a person individual’s interpretation of it.  Language, Derrida continues, provides the framework for this interpretation and can even provide a good framework to do good interpretations of the human experience.  Words, therefore, have incredible formative power over our worldviews because words mediate and amalgamate our encounters and experiences with everything around us.

This leads us back to the vocabulary void that Elizabeth Weil decries.  From the perspective of a Christian worldview, the dearth of terms for Weil’s mate that can make Weil feel good about her status and her relationship may perhaps reveal that, when it comes to cohabitation, there is not much to feel good about!  For the vocabulary of marriage – terms like “husband,” “wife,” and “spouse” – grew up around marriage precisely because marriage between one man and one woman is a good and God-ordained institution that needed a full, rich, and positive cache of terms to describe it.  Cohabitation can make no such claim.  Thus, perhaps it is good for us to follow Derrida’s lead and let the vocabulary of one of society’s fundamental institutions inform the reality of our relationships.  Perhaps we would do well to leave behind the verbal vacuum of cohabitation behind for the rich vocabulary of marriage.  After all, words do matter.  And words do shape worldviews.  Why do you think Jesus came as the Word?


[1] Elizabeth Weil, “Unmarried Spouses Have a Way With Words,” New York Times (1.4.2013)

[2] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore:  The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), 158.

[3] See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Essay on the Origin of Languages” (1781).

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