The struggle continues for the rights of same sex couples to marry, and it promises to be a protracted battle. In the meantime, I am seeing more couples who call themselves “husband and husband” and “wife and wife.” What does this mean for therapists? For couples? Will it change the way we work? Our perceptions?

I’d like to say “no,” but I’d be fooling myself. I’ve been a practicing therapist for twenty years and over that time, I’ve worked with couples — gay and straight and every which way, and I’d have to say that the first time a guy called me — about five years ago — and said, “My husband and I want to come in for couples counseling,” I was startled. Here I am, a veteran of Gay Pride Marches and rallies since 1971 and I was left, well, basically speechless on the other end of that phone. And a little jealous.

At fifty-nine-years old, I’ve been through a lot of terms, none of them satisfactory, when it comes to describing the better half of a same sex couple: “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” or “partner” or “lover”. For better or for worse, I can’t help but think that none of these, for example, quite describe as accurately a particular relationship than that of “husband” or “wife.” Not so long ago, a sixty-five-year-old colleague of mine was introduced at his male lover’s memorial service as the deceased’s “partner for thirty years.” Someone whom he’d never met, later asked him, “What kind of business were you and your partner in?” Startled, he could only utter, “. . .life. . .!”

And yet, the word “husband” doesn’t come tripping off my tongue as easily as it might off those of the young gay couples I’ve been seeing lately. And probably never will. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone yet refer to their same-sex partner as their “fiancé,” yet a heck of a lot of people are rather permanently fianced these days until same-sex marriage is fully recognized.

I said earlier “for better or for worse,” because when a same-sex couple comes to my office I think the three of us find ourselves spending a lot more time actually exploring the definition of their relationship. How they handle finances, relate to each other’s families (for example have they both come out to their families?) or whose children are whose or adopted or biological, etc., and on and on. Often, I have to remind myself, when a “married” couple sits across from me as husband and wife, I simply should not make assumptions about what this actually means.

And so my wish as we, all of us, begin to enter into this new world of marriage equality, leaving behind all of the prejudices and the shenanigans of family protection acts and separate but equal civil union laws, that we don’t also find ourselves slipping into those comfortable terms that we delude ourselves into thinking describe unequivocally who a husband and who a wife might be.

Kent Jarratt, LCSW

Got thoughts or opinions on this topic? A helpful anecdote you want to share? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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