Leandra Medine: I have been thinking a lot about the term “wife” and what it means — whether we should be comfortable being called “wives,” and calling ourselves wives, whether it means something finite and rigid as opposed to personal and malleable, and we’re having this round table conversation from the perspectives of four working, married women. Are we wives? Or are we women who are married? Rosie, you’re coming up on your ten year anniversary, how do you feel about being called a wife? Do you find it kind of archaic? Do you feel like there is a reclaim that needs to happen?
Rosie Assoulin: I don’t know if this makes me seem dead inside, but I have no problem with it. I don’t feel like it contracts my identity. I think that as you get older you get more responsibilities and commitments and this is just one of those things; you’re responsible for another human being and they’re responsible for you. I don’t like making any of these hard and fast rules about it to be honest. I think it’s about sharing your life with someone — although even saying that feels very trite sometimes. I guess it’s just another place in my life that is sacred, and everything is based on those building blocks and although it’s something that signifies more responsibility, it’s also where you get more strength from.
LM: Here’s my question, you don’t even flinch when Max [your husband] is on the phone and you overhear him call you his wife?
RA: I know this sounds weird but I feel so —
LM: Fuzzy!? Me too and I think the reason I wanted to talk about this is because I recently overheard Abie [my husband] on the phone say, “My wife does X Y and Z.” I don’t know if it made me feel comfortable and warm because he’s talking about a wife that by virtue of who she is rejects the societal definition of the word, and if that makes me feel like he’s reclaiming the term for all women, or if my hearing his call me his wife stands as reconfirmation that I won.
Esther Levy: I definitely think it depends on who the “wife” is.
RA: And who the husband is.
EL: Right, because then there’s the question of, what are the differences between the implications of the words husband and wife? It’s because you’re such an independent person and you can function on your own, that when he says, “my wife” it sounds more like a point of pride.
RA: It’s also part of his identity. He’s presenting himself and who you are is a part of him.
LM: That’s an interesting point — that it depends on who the husbands and wives are. When you look at a marriage that you don’t necessarily identify with and you hear the man say, “My silly wife did X,” it’s still that sort of acknowledgment of a choice — a decision that he made. Not necessarily, “this is my property” but rather, this is something and someone I am entirely comfortable associating myself with.
RA: Doesn’t it make you like Barack Obama so much more, knowing he married Michelle? Like, he has good judgement. He picked a good one. Or Eleanor Roosevelt; these strong women and men only made each other better even though they had their own stuff and we don’t know what goes on between a couple, but for the most part, they make each other better in terms of their contribution to the world. They’re both taking responsibility for one another.
LM: I feel weird about the word husband, and about calling Abie my husband. When I’m speaking about him publicly — meaning when I’m writing about him — I tend to call him my roomate, my parter-in-sex or the only man I’m sleeping with.
EL: I cannot put that word in writing. It seems so old school to me. I think it also has to do with the fact that I got married young, and saying “husband” at the age of 22 makes me feel silly.
Lauren Sherman: I think more people say, “partner” now.
RA: It’s so PC! Don’t be afraid to claim it and own it.
LM: That’s another thing! Did you see that Jonathan Chait piece in NY Mag? About how nobody is saying what they want to be saying because they’re too afraid to offend?
LS: The term wife doesn’t bother me. I started dating my husband when I was 24, and we knew each other for a year and a half before that. We’ve been together for 10 years. I like the idea behind partner because there are less people getting married and I like the idea of being able to say I’m in a committed relationship. I also like the idea that it’s a partnership, and to me that’s what marriage is. This person is the person I’m going to build my life with. I think it took longer for me to start calling him my boyfriend because I had never been in a serious relationship before him.
RA: I don’t think I’ve ever said “boyfriend” about anybody.
LS: Leandra, where did you meet your husband?
LM: We met at a holiday party when I was 17 and he was 21.
RA: And Abie had all these rules right? “I’m not getting married until I’m 30,” etc.
LM: Yes, and when I met him I immediately felt this sense of tragedy overcome me because I thought, I can’t believe I know who I’m supposed to spend the rest of my life with at this tender age of 17. And then he was like, “Slow your roll, I don’t want to know you.” And then he broke up with me and I was hysterical and called Rosie and she told me I needed to fight. And so I did, for three years. And now when he calls me his wife it reminds me that I won!
LS: My husband had these wild dreams of moving to Poland to become a country singer, and they weren’t even that unfounded. Two or three months into us dating he was like, “I’m not looking for love.”
RA: Are they ever looking for love?
LS: I was like, “If you want to date other people, fine.” And he said, “I only want to date you I just want you to know I’m going to move to Poland.” I wasn’t worried about it, I was like, “Fine, let him think that.” And then two months later he said, “I love you.”
LM: Esther, what was the genesis of your relationship with [your husband] Zukie like?
EL: I always say that he could’ve brought home any woman from the deli downstairs and his parents would have been like, “WE LOVE HER!” Because he too didn’t have marriage in his future and wanted to move to California — it’s no Poland, but to them it might as well have been.
LS: I think name-taking is interesting in this context. You know what I did? I changed my legal name but I kept my maiden name for work. We’ve been married for almost four years and to me, that was important because I worked really hard with this name but at the same time, I want us to be a family. He didn’t care at first, but now he does and I still have my maiden name on my debit card. That’s something that I think more and more women do take issue with. It’s not about him or you or the context of the situation, it’s about family.
RA: And creating a unit.
LM: Rosie, you also struggled with whether or not to call the collection Rosie Mamiye or Assoulin, right?
RA: I did.
LM: And you ultimately decided on Rosie Assoulin, why?
RA: I think a part of me wanted to do it for teenage Rosie, but this is who I am now. These are my kids, this is my life, this is my identity.
LM: Kids change everything.
RA: I was married for many years before I had kids, and I hadn’t changed my name on my license. I had it amended on my passport, but I hadn’t done it on my ID. I went — not kicking and screaming — but I ultimately changed my name. I called myself Rosie Assoulin, but was hesitant up until that point to change my name. I don’t know what it was. Maybe I missed my family.
EL: I go by three different last names right now (Levy, Chehebar and Levy-Chehebar). Your last name was such an integral part of your identity for so many years and then all of the sudden, you’re expected to let that part of you go.
LM: It’s sort of like this lost legacy. It’s this legacy you leave behind before you’re even able punctuate it.
RA: Well it’s the end of a chapter, but it’s also the start of one — I can’t believe how many cliches I’ve thrown out in the span of ten minutes. But it is the start of something new, and men make changes too. I think that you can’t do it alone. You can’t be in a marriage by yourself. It’s not a business deal like it used to be; I’m going to get this much cattle, gold and spices…
EL: But sometimes the changing of the name can feel like a transactional formality.
RA: Maybe it’s more for men than it is for us. It’s no longer that women are absorbed within the man’s family and you live with them, etc. Maybe the formality exists because he needs to know that you were part of his responsibility and unit.
LS: I think a lot of guys are insistent on having their wives change their names, or really want it. My husband at first did not care, but now, the fact that I did it is meaningful to him. Because so many of my friends knew me before I got married, they call me Lauren Sherman but he calls me Lauren From
mer, and has me as Lauren Frommer in his phone.
RA: Esther, how long have you been married?
EL: A year and a half.
LM: Do you feel like the second year has been easier than the first?
EL: I’ve definitely learned how to pick my battles —
RA: It’s a marathon, not a sprint! Oh my god, the cliches.
EL: I think that as a couple, emotionally and professionally, my husband and I are still in that stage where we’re trying to, “find ourselves.” So I think just being sensitive and aware and to check yourself when you begin to think that your goals and aspirations are more important than his and vice versa. I think the struggle to not be so selfish has been the hardest because ultimately — it seems obvious — but when you get married you’re agreeing that you are different people who like different things, but are coming together.
LM: I think in this era of overt political correctness — in which nobody is saying what they want to say — that marriage has become a hot topic amongst feminists, and feminism is beginning to represent the larger loot of us.
RA: Is it just me or are we in an extreme transition as a globe and country? It’s very hard to call things by their old names and still have a new understanding of them. Maybe we could reclaim the word “wife” once equality for women in the workplace is established. But maybe this sort of resistance towards it stems from this transitional phase.
LS: I would assume for a lot of same sex couples that they’re so happy to call each other husband and wife because they couldn’t — formally — for so long. So for them it’s this really meaningful thing because it’s so symbolic of so much else. Is there a movement towards not using the term “wife”?
LM: I’ve sensed it. Maybe it’s because when I’m writing I have such a hard time referring to my husband as my husband. Or when I’m speaking to someone and it comes up in conversation that I’m married, it seems so inconsistent with the persona that we portray as a collective at Man Repeller. I felt that this was an interesting conversation to have with women who have their own careers, are professionally and independently charged, and yet are in happy marriages. Fundamentally, marriage is a form of codependency.
RA: I think it’s a great thing, I think that the covenantal responsibly you make to take care of each other — calling it by its name or having a specific paper you have to sign — is part of the building blocks upon which you build your life. There are ten billion ways to have a relationship — there’s no one way — and so maybe I’m old fashion but I think there is a need to call it by its name. Everybody has their own way of doing it though.
LM: Do you think that maybe all of the pressure women put on locating marriage has stigmatized the institution?
RA: Like a TLC special?
LS: We all married young, I wasn’t that young but I was young for New York standards, and I feel like so many of my friends have had relationships and been single again in the time that my husband and I have been together. I think that in particular, I’m experiencing that with the baby thing right now. We got married young but we’re not ready to have a baby, and it’s like, is something wrong with me that I don’t want to have a baby right now?
RA: You’re just seeing it now. It doesn’t have to be the next step but because in our minds it’s, “relationship, marriage, kids, house, etc,” it just seems that way. There are so many different types of relationships and ways to go about them. Everybody is different and has their own way to it. But it’s like a spider that has its tentacles everywhere, and it’s part of this larger structure and identity.
EL: I think that the PC conversation is an interesting one. I don’t know if it’s because I’m in grad school now, and I’m in a non-fiction program which means I’m writing about my life — something I do enjoy writing about is young marriage — but it’s such a point of insecurity when I have to explain to a room full of twenty-somethings that I’m married and have been for a year and a half, and that I’m 22 years old. I’m almost scared to admit it. I feel like I have to justify myself by saying, “Oh, I’m not like that.” Or, “Oh, you don’t know us, we’re different.” And then I wind up having to use self-deprecation as a way to manage that insecurity.
LM: It’s also your identifying an insecurity, right? That you’re an employed young woman in New York paving her own way, and yet you’re married; why does that have to be an inconsistency?
EL: Right. Why should that represent a setback? Why should marriage not be aligned with that philosophy?
RA: I don’t feel that way, I wonder if that’s because of the school environment.
LS: I think there is a stigma in New York. I feel like a lot of people from the Midwest would say, “My friend got married a year out of college and then had kids two years later.” So I could see, you know, that some people are probably judging you or thinking that they can’t believe you’re married. Although it’s like anything, once you get to know someone and you understand their position —
RA: They become more dimensional.
LM: I felt that a lot through my engagement actually. I was very defensive. It was like, yes I’m engaged and I’m getting married but no, you don’t get it.
RA: You have to do this whole explaining game.
LM: And I wonder if why I don’t feel that way now is because I’m 26 and married, which makes it’s more societally acceptable.
EL: I think the only reason I look forward to my birthday each year is because I’ll be one year closer to an acceptable age to be married. When you’re young, you have this whole vision of yourself and what you’re going to be like, no matter what that may be. And then life doesn’t work that way because you end up doing the exact thing you said you never would.
RA: There are all of these little boxes that people want to put you in, and no person wants to feel misunderstood or not seen for who they really are. Or to be judged.
LM: Or sometimes they don’t want to be found out.
RA: I don’t know if it’s that as much as it is they don’t want to give you this sort of 1+2=3 equation for their entire existence. They want to be free from any expectations for their own selves and any one they may be compared to.
LM: Because don’t you feel that when you hear about a girl getting married young — who is unrelated to a religious community where that may be the norm — it seems endearing?
EL: Yeah! It seems like a very mature decision to make at a young age.
RA: I think it’s almost up to us to define the word in how we live our lives and how we see ourselves. Again, there’s this transition happening in the world where it’s not just one defined idea anymore. I’ve heard a lot of gay people say that they might have not wanted to get married, but they now see it as their civic responsibility to do so. Even though they’ve been in a committed relationship for many years, it has now become their civic duty.
Nobody wants to feel like a statistic, right?
LM: We all seem comfortable with the word “wife,” which makes me think that maybe I was wrong and like there’s no reclaiming of the word to be had.
LS: There was one time that I felt a little weird about it. My husband and I met at work and then we dated at his second job before we got married, so all of my friends know me as Lauren, not Dan’s wife. But at this new job he started at a few months ago, I knew of some of the people he worked with but I didn’t really know them. So when we would go to work events — we’re both journalists — it felt a little weird, because we have very similar jobs and always have, just in different fields. I felt like sometimes when I would go to work events with him I’d be playing the role of his “wife.”
RA: Don’t you find it a little bit fun though?
LS: It’s fun but it makes me a bit uncomfortable because it could so easily be the opposite, and I could so easily be the one working there. I really like his coworkers, they’re great, but I also feel like I need to act a certain way so that they think he has a “nice wife.”
LM: I’ve never experienced that because Abie never takes me around.
EL: I’ve actually never heard my husband call me his wife, now that I think about it. But there totally is a power structure at play there.
LS: It’s very fascinating.
LM: Relationships are curious.
LS: I think it really is about a certain mindset; you have to really want to have a partner.
RA: And do whatever you can to make it work. It’s part of your priorities.
LS: Both my husband and my parents are divorced, but my grandparents were together for 60 years. I remember my grandma — before she passed away — my grandpa had really bad Alzheimer’s and he had to be put in a nursing home. And I used to say, “Why don’t you come visit me in New York for the weekend! I want to see you,” and she wouldn’t leave him. They were married for 60 years and drove each other insane. She used to call him her stalker because he used to follow her from room to room. But she made that commitment. They were religious, and I think that was part of it, but for me I’m not religious but it still stuck with me that you make a commitment to a person, and you build a life with them, and you need to want to do that. I think a lot of people go into marriage just because they think that that’s what the next step is supposed to be, and they don’t necessarily feel that way.
LM: As an institution, marriage is a beautiful concept that works.
RA: If you use it for good, it’s the most amazing and wonderful tool. If you use it to bully people it can be evil, just like anything else.
LM: It’s a prison or a fortress.
EL: Well, maybe that’s how marriage has evolved. It’s less of an institution and more of a concept that is representative of commitment.
RA: But it should still be an institution!
EL: Technically, it is because you sign the papers and go through the motions.
RA: You say it to your government, you claim it to your family, spiritually. In all aspects of your life you’re making the commitment either on paper or verbally.
LM: And what is possibly, I think, really important to remind ourselves, specifically in relation to being called wives and maybe this is why we’re all kind of okay with it, is that we choose our partners — right? As adults, we come together and decide together that we would like to stay together, until “death do us part.” That’s a lot of power — and it’s a luxury that can’t be overlooked. Choice is the fortress.
Rosie Assoulin is a fashion designer. Lauren Sherman is a writer whose work has appeared in Business of Fashion, Ad Age, Elle.com, Women’s Health, the Wall Street Journal, InStyle, NYmag.com, and Style.com, among others.
More MR round tables coming at you.