How do you refer to someone’s romantic partner?

If they’re married, you can say husband or wife.  If they’re engaged, there’s various spellings of fiance.

What about all those other situations?

Boyfriend and Girlfriend sound a bit adolescent.  As do “young gentleman” and “young lady.”

We use partner a lot, but we’ve heard people complain that it often signals a non-heterosexual relationship or a couple that does not believe in marriage, and so it’s too focused to be used more generally.  (We use it anyway, just not with people who complain about it.)

#1 is a big fan of significant other, or SO for short.  She picked that up from her mom.  But Debbie M suggests that she has many others in her life who play significant roles, “Highly significant other–in a good way”–isn’t quite right either, though.

Sometimes I’ll say, “your guy” if I can’t remember the guy’s name.  (Shhh.)  But it doesn’t seem to work so well in my mind if the significant other in question is female.

We don’t say, “your old man” or “your old lady” anymore.  And with good reason!  My grandma used to say beau.  Does anybody say swain anymore?

Soulmate seems a bit personal.  I figure people can make that determination about their own partners but probably not about other couples.

Mi mama sometimes says inamorato(a).  What can I say, we’re a family of romantics.  (Though with exes, it is always “former flame”.  What can I say, we adore alliteration.)

Some other suggestions:  helpmeet? life partner? partner in Romance?  Most significant other?  Best beloved?

How do you refer to someone’s romantic partner?

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47 Responses to “How do you refer to someone’s romantic partner?”

  1. plantingourpennies Says:

    “other half”, “lovely lady”, “lady friend”, “man friend”, and then there are some more choice words that I use in my head to refer to the romantic partners that I don’t approve of, but I suppose that wasn’t what you were asking, huh?

  2. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    I think that significant other should suffice in most situations. I can’t think of any reason that someone wouldn’t approve of the term.

  3. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Is that your new lay? Is that your new f*ckbuddy?

  4. Emily @ evolvingPF Says:

    You struck a nerve with me on this one! I reeeeeally dislike the trend of using ‘partner’! I feel like on the one hand it’s been made too specific because I’m unable to use it to refer to other types of partnerships besides romantic ones. On the other hand it’s too general because it doesn’t give any information about the other person (gender) or the legal relationship between the people like the other terms do. I get it for same-sex relationships where marriage is not legally an option, but couldn’t we continue to say “life partner” – that’s the derivation, right? I prefer “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” for now (mid-twenties) but I’ve also heard “manfriend” or “gentleman friend.” For genderless I think SO work. For people who could get married but aren’t but want to connote a relationship that’s more stable or serious or whatever than a boyfriend/girlfriend, add “live-in” or “long-term.” I’ll get the point. “Partner” is too nebulous. Either you’ve made a life-long public commitment to one another in marriage(/civil union-ship?) or you haven’t!

    One time right before I was engaged I ran into someone I had met once before and she said, “Is your… husband? boyfriend? fiance?… here tonight as well?” and I just laughed and said “My boyfriend, yes…” If she had asked me if my ‘partner’ was present to avoid revealing that she didn’t know the status of our relationship I would have looked at her like she had two heads.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Some people like other people not knowing about their relationship status because that’s their business. And, of course, as an outsider I can’t make judgments on other people’s relationships– I often don’t know how serious a couple is and it often isn’t my business to ask.

    • Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

      Sir John and I were married in San Francisco at a historically significant time for gay rights, though we are a heterosexual couple, and pronounced “partners for life.” So we have made that commitment, and we can use the word “partner.” One of the lovely things about “partner” is precisely its open-endedness.

      But then there was the time we were at a wedding, and a man sat down at our table and said, “I’m going to save this seat for my partner, and let me introduce my wife.” For both of us, our initial internal response was something like “How . . . broadminded!” (aloud, we just said “how do you do”) before realizing that he meant his partner at his law firm, not a life partner. Sometimes you can be a little too open-ended, I guess. Or maybe we just have dirty minds.

      • rented life Says:

        ha! That’s great.

      • The Frugal Ecologist Says:

        I also like partner for its open endedness & inclusiveness. With good friends I usually just use the partner’s name…e.g., Is Jon here tonight?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        My newly hired male colleagues are all at that fortunate age in which their wives are named Jennifer. That makes some things easier. Sadly, husbands have more variety.

  5. becca Says:

    I use partner for Carebear and I, and for most other people who haven’t expressly asked to be referred to as something else. Precisely because hir gender and our legal status is NOYDB, and you shouldn’t be treating us differently based on those factors in the vast majority of social situations.

  6. Thisbe Says:

    We use “partner” on purpose (when we didn’t live together, I used “suitor” and I don’t know how I was spoken of when I wasn’t there). People periodically ask me why I use that instead of a more specific term – I am always upfront about how it is because I think the ambiguity is a good thing. It does make some people uncomfortable, and I welcome that (sorry, upthread Emily) – if someone is uncomfortable because they want to know more than they do know about the gender of my partner, our sex life, and our commitment level, I am okay with that and I encourage anyone who feels annoyed because of this lack of knowledge to work on getting past it.

    Subsidiary reason: the more people there are who refer to their romantic (or whatever) partners just as “partner”, the less likely it is that a homosexual couple will be de facto outed accidentally and discriminated against just by saying “partner”.

    Commonly when I say something about the partner, my interlocutor will respond with something of the form “…oh, and does he? she? want to come along …”, which is slightly less direct than just asking if I am referring to a man or a woman but expects the same form of answer. The best response I have ever gotten was from a professor who said something like, “Well, it sounds like that person is really great to have around” and moved on to another topic.

    I guess I should admit that I frequently make the attempt to exclude gendered pronouns from my language when I don’t think the gender of the person I’m talking about is important to the story. I’m not talking about using “ze”, though I’m not against it, nor about incorrectly using “they/their” – just restructuring sentences so that it’s not necessary to say. It does make people uncomfortable.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m reminded of our thread the other week about how once you are in a position where you might be capable of reproducing, all of a sudden your reproductive life becomes everybody else’s business. But it isn’t.

    • Dr. Koshary Says:

      The last woman I dated on a serious base convinced me that we should use the word ‘partners’, since she felt like boyfriend/girlfriend was too immature. I had my doubts about it, but I have to admit that since my time with her, ‘partner’ actually has subtly romantic cast to it in my ear. It’s all in the inflection.

  7. Leslie Beslie (@lintacious) Says:

    Unfortunately this is an American thing. I was happy to learn that couples living together but never marrying is so common in Sweden that they have a special word for a more-serious significant other.- http://blogs.transparent.com/swedish/swedish-relationships-%E2%80%93-the-sambo/

  8. rented life Says:

    I’m going to start calling husband Best Beloved. I like that so much better. I hate “the wife” (which is language husband has picked up from his male co-workers. I’m tempted to call and say “Is husband there? This is THE WIFE” with evil music playing in the background.) I also don’t care for hubby, but I suspect people say that when they also don’t remember names. I’m likely to use partner or SO if they person is my age or older, but younger friends/family it’s boy/girlfriend. This gets tricky though when older family thinks girlfriend is friend who is girl, when girlfriend is lesbian partner.

  9. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    English has a lot of gender specific pronouns. I was made acutely aware of this in a speech, once, where a woman asked a question about how to convince her “partner” of something. She somehow managed to describe the situation without using a gender-specific pronoun, but then I had to answer her questions with no gender specific pronouns either, since I didn’t want to assume one way or the other. Not easy.

  10. chacha1 Says:

    This may seem kind of boring, but I usually refer to them by their name. :-)

  11. Debbie M Says:

    I call my boyfriend my boyfriend even though we are now age 50 and 51. Other people call him my husband–sometimes I am too tired to contradict them–what do I care what the waiter thinks? I’m not exactly wild about the phrase “He’s just my boyfriend.”

    As for introducing other people, if I can’t use “husband” or “wife” (or “brother,” “sister,” “friend,” etc.), I’ll use the word “with,” when introducing people. As in, “That’s A, she’s with B.” Or if it’s so new I don’t even know if it’s romantic, “She came with B.” If I’m asking someone about his or her SO, I’ll refer to that person by name. When I’m in the market, I might ask, “Is he seeing anyone?” if I know he’s not married or “Is he with anyone?” if I don’t even know that.

    For generic other people, I’m glad we have the word “spouse” for married people and I think I use “significant other” for others.

  12. Donna Freedman Says:

    I’ve been saying “partner” but I feel like I’m in an old Western when I do so. ;-)
    “Life partner” is OK. I much prefer his names for me: “goddess,” “treasure,” et al. He may have a new one: When a former co-worker found out we were an item, he congratulated DF on his “nice catch.” So I may well be referred to in fishing terms for a while.
    On my site I refer to him as “DF,” for “dearest friend,” for reasons I explained in our Valentine’s Day coming-out post. (Thanks again for your screamin’ comment on that one.)
    Sometimes I say “my sweetheart” when I’m talking about him to others, but only because “meat puppet” embarrasses the children.

  13. Linda Says:

    I think Mutant Supermodel linked to something recently about using the term paramour instead of boyfriend and consort instead of girlfriend. It certainly lends an old-fashioned flair to a pretty common relationship!

    I refer to my guy as “boyfriend” when I’m not referring to him by name, although it does seem an awkward term to me at our ages. Sometimes I’ll use the word guy, as in “my guy.” “Partner” sounds sort of sterile and juiceless to me, even if it is practical.

    I liked that Swedish term, but I think using the word “sambo” in the U.S. would lead to all sorts of awkward and potentially tense interactions with others!

  14. First Gen American Says:

    I use names whenever possible. I don’t mind partner. The idea that a relationship is a partnership is pretty appealing to me.

  15. darchole Says:

    I use husband when discussing things in person to people that I work with as some people there are very religious and conservative and I don’t need to start a sh*tstorm. I use SO when posting online. I prefer non-gendered terms, because it shouldn’t matter if my SO is my husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend or blow up doll.

  16. min hus Says:

    I prefer boyfriend, though you’re right, nothing fits perfectly. We’re in our mid-30s and have been living together for 6.5 years. Partner feels weird, probably for the reason you mentioned.

    I had a discussion with my mom a few years ago when she introduced my boyfriend as “my friend.” I was like mom, my friend? He’s a little more than a friend, isn’t he? We LIVE together. So five minutes later she introduces him to someone else as “this is my daughter’s lover.” Mothers, yeesh.

  17. Rosa Says:

    We lived together not married for 13 years, so i have a lot of practice with this. “Partner” made people think I was gay and then sometimes they were kind of angry when they found out otherwise, so I mostly stuck with boyfriend.

    Then when we got married I had a really hard time transitioning to “husband” and confused people by going back and forth between “husband” and “boyfriend”.

  18. Susan Says:

    We happily unmarried and have been so for 13 years now (sheesh, time flies).
    I dislike ‘boyfriend’ and never use it, because I am not 16.
    I dislike ‘partner’ and rarely if ever use it, because I feel it primarily describes business relationships and is actually pretty vague due to its use in business.
    I use ‘SO’ – and end up needing to explain that it means ‘significant other’ – the majority of the time. I’m often surprised at how few people are familiar with the term or concept.
    I’ve used ‘husband’ only on the very few occasions where it’s someone I’ll never meet again and need a very simplified explanation, and usually this leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  19. J Says:

    Funny that lots of people who could use wife/husband like partner for its ambiguity, and to make other people think. I’m a woman and when married to a woman (we’re divorcing now, alas), became fond of using “my wife” precisely because it made people think. (I remember being taken aback the first time a woman introduced me to her wife, and I kind of liked the idea that someone might have that reaction when I used it, and then get used to it so it didn’t sound so strange anymore.) I tend to use SO in a generic way, have lots of straight married friends in academia who use partner for their spouses, and in the lesbian sub-community people do tend to say “my girl” or “your girl” to mean girlfriend or wife or anywhere on that spectrum.

  20. Sensible Says:

    This is timely for me. I don’t like boy/girl-friend (because I’m not 12, and because I prefer to keep things as gender neutral as possible). Currently, I am working with “main squeeze,” although I do think “consort” has potential.

  21. monsterzero Says:

    I usually refer to her by name or as my girlfriend, but I think it would be neat if everyone started saying “my sweetie”.

  22. What do you call your own partner? | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured Says:

    […] we talked about what to call other people’s significant others.  But that was cold and impersonal.  What about the special someone (if any) in your own […]


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