What to call an unmarried spouse?

Elizabeth Weil / New York Times News Service /

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.

“I went through a phase of just calling him Eric, even to people who didn’t know who that was,” said the master wordsmith Ann Kjellberg, 50, editor of the journal Little Star and the literary executor of the poet Joseph Brodsky. Eric Zerof spent 15 years as her live-in not-spouse and is the father of Kjellberg’s child. “I kept thinking, ‘This should not be this hard!’ I was very unhappy about the situation. I could never find a word I liked.”

One might imagine we would be less tongue-tied. 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-older crowd) are just too ridiculous.

Faced with such weak English-language options, Janna Cordeiro, 43, a nonprofit and public health consultant in San Francisco, settled on calling Sebastian Toomey, her mate of 23 years, “mi hombre” — my man. (Pronunciation: deep and forceful, with rolled r, as in a Western.) “My daughter goes to a Spanish-immersion school,” Cordeiro explained. “When she started kindergarten, I started asking the Spanish-speaking parents how to introduce Seb. Everybody kept saying, ‘mi esposo, mi esposo.’ I kept saying that was wrong and started saying, ‘mi hombre,’ and it stuck.”

Anne Tierney, 32, a bodyworker in West Palm Beach, Fla., went for “fusband,” which, she explains, is a catchall for “fake husband, future husband.” (Tierney’s fusband, Ozzy, calls Tierney “wifey.”) Technically the two are engaged, but Tierney said: “The word fiance makes me cringe. What am I, in France?”

The engagement process, according to Tierney, was also a bit of a debacle: “I was sitting on the ground. Ozzy was standing up. Little Ozzy” — their baby, now a toddler — “was crying.” Big Ozzy gave Tierney a necklace. She said she thought, “Why is this guy giving me a necklace?” Then he gave her a diamond ring that, because they had not planned on marrying, she assumed was fake. (It wasn’t.) The two have not set a wedding date and probably never will. Tierney said: “If I ever get the urge, maybe I’ll drag him to a wedding shop and we’ll take a few pictures. If he could just come and stare at me lovingly, that would make me happy.”

Demographers, tasked with counting the hombres, “mujeres” and their relationships to one another, are not doing much better than fusband. Until the 1970s, the American faux spouse was too rare and taboo to even try to track. In 1980, the U.S. Census Bureau made its first attempt at naming these creatures in order to count them. It really outdid itself lexicographically: “person of opposite sex sharing living quarters,” abbreviated to POSSLQ and pronounced “possle cue.” The CBS commentator Charles Osgood had his way with the acronym, publishing a poem riffing John Donne’s “The Bait.”

You live with me, and I with you,

And you will be my POSSLQ.

I’ll be your friend and so much more;

That’s what a POSSLQ is for.

How, at the dawn of 2013, can the POSSLQ remain a form of love that has a hard time speaking its name? Forty-four percent of American adults are unmarried. Seven million Americans live with a paramour who is not a spouse. The median age of those marrying for the first time is rising. The percentage of children born out of wedlock (an atrocious term itself) is rising as well.

In his book “The Marriage-Go-Round,” Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University, details the dizzying, perhaps even nauseating, American way of marriage. We marry, unmarry and remarry again more quickly than the citizens of any other Western nation. What this means, Cherlin wrote, “is that family life in the United States involves more transitions than anywhere else.” Transitions are the hard part. Little wonder many people want to stop the marriage carousel and get off.

For many POSSLQs, being unmarried is as much a psychological state as a legal one. Joan Linder, 42, an artist and associate professor of visual studies at the University at Buffalo, lives with the man she winkingly calls her baby daddy. They have been together for seven years, share a house and a mortgage, and have two kids. “We behave a lot like a nuclear family,” Linder said. But her baby daddy — Paul Vanouse, 45, also an artist and professor in her department — is definitely not her husband, nor does she want him to be. Being unmarried makes her feel good. Linder said, “It’s the last stage of connection to rebellion, punk rock, countercultural — all those pieces of my youth.”

Vanouse feels the same. “If I’m trying to seem less weird, I’ll call Joan my wife,” he said. But he does not like the implication: that their relationship is sanctioned by the church or the state. “I would just as soon the state didn’t know I existed,” he said. “I feel the same about the heads of every religious organization.” Recently Linder and Vanouse’s older son — age 5 — came home and said, “Papa, you should call her wife!”

“He seemed to know that was kind of funny,” Vanouse said. “The way he said the word ‘wife,’ sounded so medieval.”

Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of “The Myths of Happiness,” suspects couples like Linder and Vanouse are onto something. Adapting to a situation tends to decrease happiness, she said, and bucking social norms tends to slow the adaptation process.

“This is just a speculation based on research,” she told me, “but when you get married, there’s less novelty and more conforming” — quicker adapting. “When you remain unmarried you keep a little bit of surprise.”

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