When you’re in a serious, long-term relationship, the terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” can begin to feel a bit juvenile, or at least insufficient for describing your level of commitment. But what do you call the person you share a life with when you’re not married, and don’t necessarily want to be? By Erika Allen. Photo by Ryan McGinley.
About two years ago, at a bar, a guy friend introduced me to somebody as “Pete’s girlfriend, Erika,” and then “No, more than his girlfriend.” I smiled and nodded while he continued, stuttering over the introduction, not because he’d given me a weird false title that relegated me to somebody else’s something, but because, to his mind, the title didn’t fit. “Well, not just his girlfriend,” he went on, and I languished there, still drinkless, while he tried to find a way to describe me to some person I would never speak to again.
Several drinks later I felt sort of touched by the whole exchange. This guy had realized something I hadn’t: The terms boyfriend and girlfriend don’t accurately describe our long term, committed, but unwedded relationship.
Since then, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the words. I am a woman, not a girl. He is a man, not a boy. And apart from feeling age-inappropriate, we’ve lived together for years. We text each other’s moms. We pay our bills together. The terms just feel insufficient for describing our bond.
To me a boyfriend is someone you wear a matching bra and panty set for. And who, without very much thought, you’d recognize might not be the last boyfriend to see you in that bra and panty set. But what do you call the person who you, without embarrassment, ask to unclog the toilet for you? The person who you hope will unclog the toilet forever?
I still can’t quite put my finger on whether it is my grown woman status or my relationship status that was making me feel like using “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” is somewhat demeaning. But then, what are we supposed to use instead? It just seems that the nomenclature of relationships is lacking for words to describe adult couples that are unmarried, which is lame, particularly in an era when many people simply aren’t interested in matrimony.
I called Michelle Vilardi, a friend of a friend. She’s 29 years-old and lives in San Francisco with her “boyfriend” Cornelius. Michelle told me that when they moved there from the east coast, someone asked them whether they’d ever considered addressing each other as “partner.” That person also happened to be Annie Sprinkle, the porn star-prostitute-turned-sex-educator-artist.
Vilardi recalled Sprinkle saying, “You guys just moved across the country together, you seem like you’re in a very loving and serious relationship. It sounds a bit juvenile when you say boyfriend. I think people would take your relationship more seriously if you used partner.”
That may be true, but partner is a loaded term, too. There are several dictionary definitions for the word, but in this context, the most common association is LGBTQ.
“Until the law passed legalizing gay marriage, partner felt sort of reserved, in this exact context, for same sex couples,” Vilardi said. “They couldn’t use terms like wife and husband, so ‘partner’ became the official next level. I feel like people automatically associate partner with that, and even though I don’t really care if people think I’m a lesbian, I want to be able to convey my relationship in a clear way. Although I don’t love the term, boyfriend does get across that we’re in a committed, heterosexual relationship.”
I spoke to Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation and That’s Not What I Meant: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships, along with many other books about the way our language affects our interactions, to ask her why we don’t have other words to describe non-married adult pairings.
“The language just hasn’t caught up yet,” she said. “Just about everyone that I can think of who had a permanent, longtime partner after they were about 25-years-old has expressed discomfort with the terms boyfriend and girlfriend.”
Part of that comes from the women’s movement’s effort to stop addressing women as girls in general, since “girl” seems demeaning, but there is no term “womanfriend” so even the staunchest feminists have fallen back on “girlfriend”.
“A lot of people go to partner, but there are two problems with that,” Tannen said. “I have heard that people aren’t comfortable with partner because it sounds like business partner, and that sometimes, if you say ‘my partner’ people will think maybe that person is the same sex, because it was so often used by gay couples.”
So what’s left?
“I hear people use entire phrases, like ‘the man I live with’ or ‘the woman I share my life with’ and I’ve heard people use expressions like ‘sweetheart.’ People struggle and they come up with whatever feels right to them. Often it doesn’t feel 100% right,” Tannen said.
But, as a society, the words we use and the way we use them end up setting the expectations that we have for people’s behavior. So does the lack of appropriate terminology to describe a straight couple’s unwedded status put pressure on those couples to get married in order to use more official titles like “wife” and “husband”?
Tannen believes it probably does. “The way people talk about things does communicate what is accepted. I would be very surprised if people did not feel pressure to get married because of an unconscious feeling that it would be easier to talk about,” she said.
That pressure can feel particularly acute at the almost-30-life-stage, where people refer to summer as “wedding season” without irony, and Instagram and Facebook start to feel like a less chic, less selective version of The New York Times’s Vows section.
Vilardi agrees. “The second you’re nearing 30 everyone is like ‘OK, this is the time! If you’re going to get married and have babies you have to do it now!’ and it’s like, wow, I didn’t realize that was a requirement,” she told me. In addition to near-strangers inquiring about your relationship status, having the “What about us?” conversation with your plus one feels inevitable when you’re spending every other weekend soaked in wedded bliss and (hopefully) top shelf booze at the open bar.
For some, these weddings present a natural and welcome opportunity for having a frank conversation about The Future. For others it’s just straight-up awkward. Interestingly, even couples who have decided together that they’re just not that into the idea of getting married have ended up adopting the language that we associate with it, again probably because it just seems simpler than trying to come up with a whole new set of terms.
Tannen described one couple that, after living together for 20 years, call each other husband and wife even though they aren’t married. Another woman she knows began referring to her fiancé, but when Tannen inquired about their marriage plans, the woman told her that there were none.
“I think fiancé is interesting, because it’s oriented to marriage, so it gets at the officialness and the committedness of things, but you still don’t have to actually do it,” said Tannen. “Words take their meaning from use, never from the dictionary definition, so the best word would be the word that is most commonly used, and I don’t know if there is one.”
Vilardi had a slightly different take. “Fiancé is a word for people who are planning to get married, but what about a word for people who are planning not to get married? There should be a word for that too.”
I have to agree. Not everyone wants to get married. Not everyone who does want to is ready to talk about it. If words are the measure by which we set our expectations and they take their meaning from common use, isn’t it time to establish a new term that concisely conveys a straight, committed, adult relationship that is content as-is?
In the course of writing this I’ve asked literally dozens of people for suggestions for a word that could be adopted, but nothing has struck me as a perfect fit. “Mate” and “other half” just don’t seem right. “Companion” feels close, but not quite loving enough (and for some reason I associate it with the elderly) and “Lover” takes things too far. I’m personally interested in experimenting with “beau” and “my man” also seems sort of easy to move toward. Most couples will probably continue to use “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” and even though they may not feel entirely accurate or age-appropriate, but at least there is parity in that they’re both slightly awkward and demeaning.
P.S. If anyone has any term suggestions, or personal stories about this issue, please share in the comments!
Erika Allen is the editor of the New York Times’ “Times Insider” blog.