Partner, Boyfriend, Significant Other?
My relationship was only a few weeks old when Lee, my new boyfriend, made a scornful noise at a TV character for using the word “partner” to refer to her significant other. “Why does it always have to be ‘partner’ now?” he groused. “Why not just say ‘boyfriend’?”
The distinction seemed obvious to me—the character lived with the guy, they were raising a child together—but Lee and I were coming from opposite ends of the relationship-experience spectrum. Recently out of a 20-year marriage, calling the guy in my life anything other than “husband” still felt bizarre to me. And since Lee’s last serious relationship had been in college, any label other than “boyfriend/girlfriend” felt fussy and pretentious to him. But as I was realizing, the middle ground was fraught with peril. What did all the different words even mean?
The lexical struggle was unfolding on a very personal level. I was 41 years old, and calling him my “boyfriend” felt goofy and almost tongue-in-cheek, like when a maître d’ refers to a sticky-faced five-year-old in a bow tie as “the young gentleman.” But Lee wasn’t my partner; he didn’t live with me, parent with me, even share a cellphone bill with me. I hesitantly settled on “significant other,” though the almost clinical sound of it felt distasteful. Drained as it is of all affection, it feels on par with “paternal figure” or even “the defendant”: a term you cram into a sentence when you’re fighting off the emotion packed into a term like “dad” or “accused murderer.”
Meanwhile, my teenage daughter was taking the debate in an entirely different direction. “Your lover is calling,” she would say when Lee’s name scrolled across my buzzing cellphone’s screen. Yet one day, when she asked me where I was going and I replied, in the same tone she used, “to see my lover,” she shuddered. “It sounds gross when you say it,” she said.
After a while I yearned for an engagement, less because I wanted to get remarried than simply for the social acceptability of saying “my fiancé.” But each of these terms insinuates something quite specific: the sex, the upcoming wedding. What would I call him to affectionately refer to the things we most enjoyed together? My sous-chef? My cinephile? Or, referring to our somewhat embarrassing app-game-based hobby, my Pokébuddy?
Eventually I developed a flexible system based on context. I gave in to the norms of my culture and, in casual conversation, call him my boyfriend. In somewhat more formal situations I’ll use “significant other,” and in those where I need to be taken seriously—like when he was in a car accident and I needed to ask for updates about the situation on a local Facebook group—I’ll go with “partner.” Because the relationship has evolved, too, and that word no longer feels false.
Yet for all my puzzling and redefining, I’ve never heard Lee call me anything except his girlfriend. And that’s really what all this boils down to: that social gender constructs affect language, which is why it feels normal to refer to a 41-year-old woman a “girl” but absurd to call a man of the same age a “boy.” A person can object to this on principle, but the way it feels within writing is still insidious. The best thing to do is to work at being conscious of the underlying gender issues in the language we use and, in writing, to engage with beta readers and editors who can point out issues that might be problematic. “Sensitivity readers” exist to read specifically for such issues, but a good editor or a thoughtful beta reader can often bring them to the author’s attention as well.
Our language could benefit from some new terms to offer respectability to relationships that don’t involve marriage. In the meantime, at least I’ve gotten Lee past his scorn for “partner.” Maybe we’re not living or parenting together, but we share enough of our lives to give that word more credibility. And I’ve offered him one other deep sign of my commitment to him: I switched to his team in Pokémon Go.