At a party over Thanksgiving weekend, Stephanie introduced me to someone as her “partner.” It was the first time I recall her using any word to describe me, much less “partner.” Later, she said she was just trying it out, wanted to see how it sounded. I thought it sounded fine in theory, sufficiently reflecting the seriousness of our relationship, but in hindsight we agreed that there was something not right about it, something lacking. She said it felt too sterile – like how you might introduce Bob from the Office – lacking the admittedly-sappy love and romance gurgling between us.
Going through a list of potential names for romantic partners, we were perplexed that nothing jumped out, nothing seemed entirely right. Even now, I’m not sure one exists.
When meeting people after I got divorced six years ago, I began referring to my ex-wife as “my former life partner.” Most of that was me intentionally using a vague term to signify that I had merely ended a serious relationship, and whether it was marriage or not, I reserved the right to not get into all that if I chose. “Ex-wife” always sounded a bit too country music for me, a honky-tonk moniker that carried too much stigma. If you’ve broken up with your girlfriend, no matter how serious, you’re experienced. If you have an ex-wife, you’re damaged goods. Or so I thought at the time. How I referred to my ex-wife had to do with how I wished others to view me, how I felt about myself and my situation, and societal stigmas.
And that, I find, is why so many of us have trouble coming up with what we choose to call the people we’re involved with when we’re not married. Unlike a pet name – schnookums, babycakes, whathaveyou – which are usually private and likely arbitrary, the euphemism you use to describe your romantic entanglement is, by definition, public. And there’s so much to convey in a label. Here is my assessment of some of the more common monikers for a female mate:
Friend: The safe choice if you’ve been dating for four weeks or fewer. The unsafest choice for anything longer than that.
Significant other: Great if you’re looking to sound vague or like a robot. Like calling your dog “my special animal.” Might as well say, “The earthling I do all of the things with.”
Girlfriend: The standard bearer for the unmarried. However, the person in this scenario is rarely a girl and does things friends don’t normally (there’s another term reserved exclusively for those kinds of friends).
Partner: I used to associate this one with committed gay couples. Now co-opted by heteros across the land, it implies a level of domesticity and seriousness but can make your babykins sound like an asexual roommate if you’re not careful.
Girl/Woman: These are great if you’re trying to come off as objectifying or possessive. However, the male equivalent of this is something like “my guy” or “my feller,” which don’t sound nearly as bad.
Lady friend: This one is endearingly antiquated and a strong contender, but I can only think of the exchange from “The Big Lebowski”:
The Dude: Look, just stay away from my [bleeping] lady friend.
Da Fino: Hey, I’m not messing with your special lady.
The Dude: She’s not my special lady, she’s my [bleeping] lady friend.”
Old lady: Only works if you’ve been together for a few decades and/or that old lady of yours rides a Harley.
Honey/Honeybun/honey-dew/honey-anything: Reserved for when you want others to hate you for being intolerable.
In the end, only one sounded right for me: lady friend. After hearing this, Stephanie said it was fine but that she would now be introducing me as her gentleman caller.