Calling all partners

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.


  1. says

    I agree with you, Mano. Perhaps if it is used more and more, it will gradually become the general term and lose more specific associations that people still connect to it.

  2. Bainisg says

    I’ve heard the term ‘companion’ used. I rather like it, there are few assumptions that can be made hearing it, and it removes the business/commercial connotations.

  3. says

    My lady and I have been together for twelve years, both of us married twice before and it just doesn’t seem to be that important. I have noticed at various social events, she gets out more than me due to work, when she introduces me as her partner often the assumption made is, “business partner”. As the Aussie above noted, “partner” is accepted usage for non-married opposite sex couples in his country – simply another example of how Americans and other English speakers are “separated by a common language”

  4. A says

    A direct translation of the german term would be “life partner” – if a distinction from business partners is needed.

  5. Mano Singham says

    That’s a good word too. In the old days, it used to be associated with people who were paid to live and travel with rich elderly people who did not want to be alone. The companions were often women who were impecunious distant relatives. But that practice is no longer with us so there is no danger of confusion anymore.

  6. Leander says

    He is most probably referring to the term “Lebensgefährte”, this is used mostly for unwed couples, both homo- and heterosexual.

  7. Dean says

    Considering my guess of the pronunciation of that word, I’m thinking it won’t get used in English. 🙂

  8. rukymoss says

    Many years ago, I read a sci-fi book, can’t remember the author, where there were two kinds of relationships–one’s partner, who could be of any [intelligent] species, and one’s mate, who, of course, had to be of the same species. It was very clear in the book that a mate relationship was just for procreation and childrearing, and might or might not involve friendship or love; the partnership was for love, friendship, companionship. It was possible, but not usual, for one’s mate to be a partner as well. There were many, at least half a dozen, sentient species among whom one could find a partner. Ideas like this were what drew me to sci-fi.

  9. dan-o says

    Are you crazy? Why would you not commit to each other in the ultimate way called a marriage. You are fine to create life but can not fully commit to a marriage. This seems like a cop out to me as well as the majority of people in the u.s. Proud to be married to my beatiful wife (yes I used the w word) of 12 years and 2 spectacular kids during that time. God bless!

  10. Michael Sternberg says

    The crucial phoneme rhymes with “fair”, not “far”. Alas, that won’t make the chuckles go away in toto, as other imported German words with umlauts have shown.

    My dictionary translates Lebensgefährte simply as “partner”.

    BTW, a related tongue-in-cheek usage in German is Lebensabschnittsgefährte, companion for [this] stage of life, emphasizing the inevitably finite nature of any such an arrangement.

  11. Dan-o says

    Just got back from church. Great sermon today but it is not on the web yet. In case you want to watch last week’s sermon “Raising Amazing Kids” here is the link.
    I am not sure when they post todays but I would check back as the minister talks about witnessing a hit & run & then followed him only later to find out through police he was drunk & that was why he drove off after a 7am accident. Way to go!

  12. DB says

    “Mate”. Monosyllabic. Succinctly connotes both friend and sex (person with whom one mates, without anatomical specificity).

  13. carolw says

    I had the same problem as the couple in the OP, I referred to my now-husband as my partner and it was assumed I meant my lesbian partner. I always found “life partner” to be sort of new-agey for some reason. I don’t know why.

    Dan-o, not everyone in a partnership “creates life.” Which is worse on your sin-o-meter, that my husband and I lived together before we were married, or that we aren’t going to “be fruitful and multiply” now that we are married?

  14. DB says

    … and lifemate for a committed, long-term relationship, in contrast to a more tenuous relationship, as connoted by boyfriend and girlfriend. Husband and wife — firmly rooted English words both — would then refer to legally recognized couplings.

    Linguistic heuristic: Eschew the latinate and verbose (eg, significant other), love the Anglo Saxon, and fuck the Normans (but it’s still OK to mate them).

  15. DB says

    Footnote for my heuristic. As Orwell put it:

    Bad writers — especially scientific, political, and sociological writers — are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.

  16. Kimpatsu says

    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.
    Unfortunately, Mano, that’s not completely true. If I MARRY an American, I automatically receive a green card, but if I enter into a civil partnership with them, or just want to live with them unmarried in perpetuity, I can’t, unless I don’t mind being an illegal immigrant.
    So far, all the Science Bloggers seem to have missed this point. Why is this, I wonder?

  17. scotlyn says

    I like the word partner. Not so sure of the word mate – it has a bit of “hello fellow well met” slanginess together with a clinical echo of pedestrian procreative sex. I live on a farm where paying attention to the mating habits of our flock is essential to our livelihood.

    When feeling tongue in cheekly loquatious, I like “next of skin” which nicely bundles hints of family, sex and humour.

  18. Henry Gale says

    Hearing “partner” also confuses me.

    In my circles sometimes we use “mate” when talking about a friend so it wouldn’t be precise enough.

    How about using “my love” and ignoring the entire marriage issue.

    “I’d like for you to meet my love Susan.”

  19. Mano Singham says

    I was only talking about the social issues here.

    The legal rights that are involved is a separate issue. Ideally, the same legal rights should be available to any couple that decides to formally commit to a long-term relationship, whatever it is called, and are willing to go through the paperwork.

    I have the vague sense that I am not quite addressing your issue, though.

  20. Eric Riley says

    In “A Natural History of Love”, Diane Ackerman suggests ‘covivant’ – which has a nice-sounding gallic feel to it (to get us away from the German alternative – and latinate roots aren’t always bad either!). Unfortunately it, even more than ‘significant other’, feels pretentious to the point that while I have always liked it, I never used it myself (I was living with my girlfriend, and now my wife – and previous live-ins have always been roommates regardless of their gender).

    And Dan-O, on what basis do you claim the *majority* of people in the US agree with you? And even if they do, what does that have to do with the fact that there are a *lot* of actual living arrangements out there, not all of which are (or should have to be) ‘marriage’? Aside from tossing a heap of scorn on people doing something you disapprove of, what was the point of post #7?

  21. dan-o says

    Eric my reason for post #7 is let you know how I feel unless you are inferring because I am a christian I can not contribute to this forum. Eric are you a discrimentaing against me? God Bless!

  22. Jared A says

    What’s wrong with “spouse”?

    It does have a formal connotation of legal marriage, but at least in my circles the colloquial use is pretty broad, and I’m used to hearing it used for pretty much any long-term committed relationship. I prefer it because it’s already a well used word, and unlike “partner” or “mate” there’s no confusing alternate meanings, and unlike “consort” it isn’t archaic-sounding. “Companion” is about just as good, but that’s 3 syllables versus just 1. I have been confused many times by acquaintances talking about their partner, but I wouldn’t be confused if they said “spouse”. Anyway, in the type of social situation it seems like is being discussed, who really cares if it’s a legal marriage or not? Some of my gay friends use the term “husband” occasionally even though they’re not married legally.

  23. James says

    I seriously doubt that readers care whether you are Christian or athiest. I think what matters is keeping your comments on point. I don’t see how spamming for your church about an unrelated topic to Mano’s post is on point.

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