Some years ago, two friends and colleagues of mine in different academic departments, both divorced, started living together and had children. They did not pretend they were married nor did they advertise that they were not. The female member once told me that since they were not married, she referred to the other person as her ‘partner’. She discovered that when she did so, people assumed that her partner must be female as well, since that word is more commonly used by same sex couples. This put her in an awkward position. In the interests of accuracy, she was tempted to correct the speaker. But at the same time, she did not want to give the impression that she objected to being considered a lesbian. Such an assumption did not bother her in the least but we both agreed that some neutral word that did not carry with it any assumptions about the nature of the relationship would be useful.
The variety of long-term relationships is indeed rapidly increasing. Long gone are the days when it consisted (at least officially) of a married man and woman. It is now common to have long-term relationships that involve same sex and opposite sex couples, married and not married. As in the case of my friends, this sometimes causes some confusion as to how one person in such a relationship should refer to the other. I have noticed members of some same sex couples adopting the terminology of married heterosexual couples and referring to the other person as their husbands or wives.
It would be nice to have a simple way of referring to someone in a neutral way that does not imply anything more than that one is living together with someone in a long-term relationship, with no implications as to your marital status or the other person’s gender or the nature of one’s relationship, all of which are, of course, no one else’s business.
I have never liked the phrase ‘significant other’ that is sometimes used. It seems long-winded and a little pretentious. I am coming down in favor of the simple ‘partner’ that my friend used. Some dislike it because it is used in commercial relationships, as in business or professional partnerships, and thus may suggest a more businesslike rather than personal arrangement.
But ‘partner’ also has a collegial and comradely feel to it, and the desirable connotation of equal status. I think it would be nice if words like husbands and wives and significant others all slowly faded from our vocabulary to be replaced by a simple neutral term like partner or another agreed-upon equivalent.