The word “spouse” descends etymologically from the Latin word (m.) sponsus/ (f.) sponsa, which meant “bridegroom/bride”, but more literally “betrothed”, from spondere, which meant “to bind oneself, promise solemnly.” This in turn came from an older root related to the performance of solemn religious rites. In other words, to be a spouse is to have bound yourself in a solemn ceremony invoking Someone bigger than yourselves as a witness. In a Christian context, to become a spouse is to bind yourself to another in love as a solemn exchange of persons—yourselves—until parted by death.
On the other hand, “partner” comes from Latin partitionem, which means “a sharing, division, or distribution.” It’s all about property and ownership, and nothing about love and persons.
I understand why this has happened in some cases. We can no longer guarantee that two people living in a long-term relationship under the same roof and with children are married any more. Marriage rates are plummeting and continuing to decline even as we’ve redefined what marriage is and opened it up to all kinds of new combinations.
Even those who are actually married are eschewing the use of “spouse”, never mind “husband” and “wife”, for “partner”, though. I’ve heard some say that “partner” reflects a mindset of greater equality between the couple, but I wonder if they’ve ever heard of minority-share owners and junior partners. And what do you lose in your search for that frisson of equality?
Proudly A Spouse
Melanie and I are proudly espoused to one another. We are bound in a relationship of love, a binding that is not restrictive, but is freedom itself because we freely give ourselves to each other. We have different roles in our marriage, but neither role is better or worse than the other. Neither is our marriage perfect. Yet in our language and our mindset it is founded on an understanding that our family is a covenant, built on a faith in God and in imitation of the self-sacrificing love of Christ for His Church and the love of the Persons of the Holy Trinity for one another.
Melanie and I are partners in many ways, but it’s such a deficient way of looking at our relationship. Marriage has become so devalued today. Even the language we use turns it into a cold, sterile place.