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A new identity for committed couples

July 15, 2011

Creator of "Para-Kin," Debra Chernick and her para-husband.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Wakefield attorney, Debra L. Chernick, was lost for words until her life partner resolved a household catastrophe one year ago and she blurted out that he was as wonderful as any para-hubby could be.

From her experience and this domestic interaction came the word Chernick was looking for to resolve and give meaning to a situation that many couples face; Para-Kin.

According to the word's creator, “para” means to support or to stand next to, such as para-legal or para-medic might do professionally.

Yet the word “para-kin” is much more than its simple meaning. Through her own experience, being with her partner for five years, Chernick recognized a need for a word to describe a significant other who takes on the obligations and responsibilities of a spouse but is not legally married. The gap in language became clear while sitting in a local hospital emergency room, trying to complete the intake paperwork which would allow her to participate in the care of her longtime partner. She looked down at the paperwork. Was she an acquaintance, friend or spouse, nothing which described her relationship. With no time to find the living will or medical proxy, Chernick recognized that the absence of a legally defined word to describe her own relationship was a barrier for her and for others in like situations. She realized she had no legal standing to make decisions on her partner's behalf.

“If you are like me, you are tired of calling your 57 year old partner, 'your boyfriend' and I certainly am not a girlfriend at my ripe old age. For so many reasons, including tax issues, people are not remarrying and yet are in traditional and loving relationships. So, what are we?” Chernick asked. “Our language does not provide adequate words for this type of relationship. In fact, English lacks the words for many loving connections. When people hear 'partner,' they often think of business. When people hear 'domestic partner,' they may think of housecleaning. And who knows what “significant other” means.

The need for Para-kin does not only come from Chernick's own experience, but evolved from what she sees frequently at work. As an attorney, Chernick deals with clients of blended families every day. As an example, Chernick was writing a simple will for a client, Mark who said that he wanted to give everything to the woman beside him, Nancy, who he said was “ my life, my wife, my partner, my world.” Chernick began to write, “Mark leaves all real and personal property to his beloved wife, Nancy.” Yet, Mark stopped her and said that although he and Nancy have been together for 19 years, they were never actually married.
Chernick said she looked at Mark and said, “Is she your para-wife?” at which time Mark nodded enthusiastically and said “Yes, that's exactly what she is.”

However, Chernick had to write that Mark leaves everything to his “beloved friend,” a term she felt inadequately described the relationship between her clients.

Para-kin not only helps give identity to committed couples, it also may provide an alternative for some step-families that are looking for a different term.

“As family court attorneys, we know that our clients are often in situations of blended families. They are parents with stepchildren and for many step families, these words work. Others though, regardless of their love, shy away from the word 'step.' Why? Although this may be without merit, our culture just can’t escape the image from the Brothers Grimm. Para-kin offers alternatives. Of course we love all the children in a family but for those few times when we need to differentiate, we can speak of our P-sons or P-daughters as part of us, as integral parts of our families,” Chernick said.

Chernick said the concept of Para-Kin is to provide identity to relationships where there are no adequate words, to improve communication and understanding, and, ultimately, to promote the commitment of family members to each other.”

“I see Para-Kin as filling the gaps in the language. Chernick said, “In precisely the same way that the designation of “Ms.” filled a void in our language and culture in the 1960s, there is a need to provide positive words to describe the close relationships that exist today.”

As a result of Chernick's belief in the need for Para-kin terms, she launched a website that is gaining in popularity, to spread the word about the word.

For more information, pick up a copy of the Narragansett Times

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