Lifestyle

‘Meet My [Insert Term Here]’

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It seems absurd that in our mid-50s, my significant other (SO) and I refer to each other, for want of better terms, as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” as if we were high schoolers going steady. There are alternative terms, of course, but none of them seems quite right. “Companion” always reminds me of those genteel but down-at-heel “lady’s companions” of ages gone by. And “longtime companion,” originally a euphemism for same-sex partner, according to the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, is “now a parodied cliché.” And of course now there are companion animals, even companion parrots, indicating that pretty much any being can fulfill that role.

“Lover” spills over into TMI (too much information), and fails to convey a sense of commitment. The Times Manual instructs writers to avoid it and choose instead the “less flamboyant” companion or partner. But “partner,” though it increasingly denotes “same-sex companion,” seems to need clarification or it sounds like a business relationship. And “domestic partner” status, as a friend of mine lamented, “sounds like a relationship where I do the dishes and he vacuums.”

There’s the nifty “POSSLQ” (Person of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters), a weirdly cute label invented for the U.S. Census in the 1970s, which sounds as if it might be a cuddly animal with an inquiring nature. However, people younger than 45 don’t seem to know what it means—and among my acquaintance, I seem to be the only one to find any charm in it. On top of that, it is strangely exclusionary, ignoring committed gay and lesbian partnerships while potentially elevating opposite-sex roommates to coupledom.

“Leman,” an archaic term for a sweetheart of either sex, elevated my hopes momentarily. But, infelicitously, it’s pronounced the same way as lemon, as in those fruits that life sometimes gives you. Another old word for a paramour, “lief,” has a likewise romantic-dampening pronounciation (leaf). I’ve got reservations about “manfriend” and “womanfriend,” a grownup version of boyfriend and girlfriend that one of my fellow unmarrieds is promoting. My oldest brother invented “shack-up-in-law” for my SO, but somehow I don’t see that catching on, with its suggestion of disreputability. Along those lines, my former mother-in-law, not a native English speaker, used to refer to me as her son’s “mistress” before we were married, which I found equal parts hilarious and appalling.

I’ve polled several friends in unmarried partnerships, both same and opposite sex, and nearly all expressed a similar frustration with the lack of precise terminology. Interestingly, all the heterosexual partners (my SO and I included) admitted to using “husband” or “wife” in certain situations for convenience’ sake. For example, one friend referred to her longtime companion as her husband when she recently “called the county weed board” (something I’ve yet to do in my life) and another did so when setting up an appointment with the cable company. It’s as if an unmarried couple’s concerns, regarding weeds or television alike, won’t be taken as seriously as those of a married couple. As one friend in a same-sex relationship summarized: “In our present society, using the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ is the only way people ever get it.”

The problem, in part, is that all the terms I’ve used above—plus a myriad more, including “object of affection,” “main squeeze, “sweetheart,” “other” (or “better”) “half,” and the thankfully retired “my old man”/”my old lady”—come at the subject from different angles. What is the point of this label, anyway? To express commitment? To communicate a sexual relationship? To state one’s unavailability? To proclaim a place in coupledom? To indicate your partner’s gender? To clarify that the two of you are unmarried? All of the above? In that case, “my male lover with whom I share a committed relationship” might cover all bases, but it’s a bit of a mouthful.

On the other hand, is any of this really anyone else’s business at all? Maybe the generic “friend,” or the succinct “mate,” is all that’s needed. Readers: I invite you to weigh in on this pressing, albeit possibly frivolous, topic. What do you call your special friend?
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  • Esther Rosenfeld July 18, 2016 at 8:35 am

    Amy, love….if I were so fortunate as to have a: lover, consort, playmate, mate, partner, I would call him “the man in my life.”

    It too, has seemed to me to be so inadequate a term as boy friend or girl friend, when one is past 50…but I think of mate, in those English movies of the 90’s, when all the girls or boys were called mate, in a romantic relationship. Why are we so uncomfortable with the term “lover” which I think is exactly the term I would want to use, but would hold back on due to social mores.

    Reply
  • Olly July 15, 2016 at 9:36 am

    Amy, you covered every base I know. When I was with the last gentleman in my life (Sal, 11 years ago), I struggled many times with an introduction. Although we knew each other many, many years before we became a couple, once we fell in love I used the term sweetheart. I agree that some of the old terms are cold and almost meaningless in a loving relationship. Companion makes me think of a person who is a caretaker.

    As usual, thanks for a great piece of writing!

    Reply
  • Rick July 13, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    I’m with Wendi. I’ll call Amy my Lady. No possessive connotations of course. And I’ll be her Man. Okay? Schatze?

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  • Wendie July 13, 2016 at 1:51 pm

    Joy Behar used “Spousal Equivalent”. We use it sometimes, but it usually requires an explanation. Does get folks thinking!

    Reply
  • KL July 12, 2016 at 9:51 pm

    My trans kid calls theirs “date mate.” Though I like the playfulness, it seems too impermanent for what you are describing here. Great questions, Amy! Keep asking ’em!

    Reply
  • Wendl in Manhattan July 12, 2016 at 4:42 pm

    My fellah? My guy?
    My former beau introduced me to his friends as “My lady.” I loved it, so Arthurian.

    Reply
  • Stephen July 12, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    I used to be content with “partner,” until I realized people thought my “companion” and I were two old duffs in the sheet-metal business or some such together. I’m considering PSSSLQ–I like a term you can hiss.

    Reply
  • Amy Hughes July 12, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    Thank you, B. Elliott, for an excellent suggestion! I do associate it with monarchy (thanks, Mickey), and may be just too plebian (and American) to use it. Perhaps a whole new coinage is in order. I’m pondering this…

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  • Mickey July 12, 2016 at 12:42 pm

    You have me stumped, too. I looked up ‘consort’, companion to a reigning monarch…okay, that works. But the verb’s definition, habitually associate, usually with disapproval? ‘Friend’ will have to do until the English language’s current culture gets hip. Ha, ha. Thank you, Amy. Excellent.

    Reply
  • b. elliott July 12, 2016 at 10:12 am

    May I suggest consort? Elegant and dignified!

    Reply