There’s a guy in my life. We sit next to each other and watch TV. We share a house, share a bed. We share some of our money. We’re invited to parties together. Sometimes we fuck. We report each other’s incomes on our tax returns. We reported every last detail of our relationship to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship so that I could come and live here.
But I don’t know what to call him.
It’s a strange thing, not having a go-to word for that person; I think it comes from a few places:
Heteronormativity means that unless I make it explicitly clear, most of society will assume that the person I’m talking about is a woman. Sometimes this will be because, well, society just assumes people are straight, but bizarrely this will often be out of some strange, misguided ‘politeness’ where, based on gay stereotypes, they’ll assume I’m gay but pretend to assume my [whatever we want to call them] is a woman so as not to offend me.
(To be clear: this offends me.)
Internalised homophobia contributes to this dilemma in a huge way too. And it is, in a way, working with heteronormativity but in the opposite direction. Not always, but sometimes, I feel the desire to hide, and to keep the gender of him as ambiguous as possible. It’s absurd, and as I’ve discussed before I’m very much “out”, and it is a very rare thing that I feel a need to actually hide my sexual orientation out of fears for personal safety etc.
Put these two things together, and combine them with a desire for honesty as well as warmth, and I’m left with essentially zero good choices for what that guy actually is.
Partner is the one people like to use to sound inoffensive, and whilst it doesn’t necessarily offend me, it does make me want to vomit. It’s so sterile and bland, makes our relationship sound like a business arrangement, transactional. It is totally unrepresentative of a relationship based on love and mutual admiration.
Lover. Fuck off.
Spouse crops up on forms and official documents. The Immigration Department uses spouse and I don’t like it at all. Partly because it’s incorrect (yes, de facto spouse is correct I suppose, Border Force), but we’re not married, we have decided not to get married, and we don’t like the idea of marriage. Our relationship looks a little bit like a marriage, at least from the outside, but that is certainly not what it is. (I also really dislike the word, aesthetically.)
Husband is a word I sometimes use to piss people off, but mostly I don’t like it. Again, it’s too marriagey for my taste, and if I’m honest it makes me feel subordinate.
I sometimes use Other Half but I don’t like it all that much. It implies that people are not complete unless they’re in a relationship (and note the “half” – it could never be “he’s one of my other thirds”, which is another reason – even though I personally am not polyamorous – I dislike it). It’s slightly better than Better Half though, which makes me see red.
Related is Significant Other, which I suppose isn’t too bad, but it feels a bit glib. He’s more than just “significant”, but like other half, I feel it does downplay the significance of myself in my own life.
I used to dislike Boyfriend intensely. It seemed okay for young people, or people who hadn’t been in the relationship for a very long time, but for a co-habiting couple in a stable, long-term relationship, it always sounded a little immature. My feelings on that have changed a little now. Using boyfriend feels like a rejection of societal norms. It feels like an acknowledgement that marriage is not some ideal or a goal to aim for. And I like that it pisses some people off or confuses them (as I’ve said before, I’m over caring whether people are confused or not).
Still I don’t call him my boyfriend nearly as often as I’d like. Maybe it’s a feeling that I ought to hide something about him, maybe it’s a desire to be taken seriously. It’s all indicative of an urgent need to unlearn all this rubbish that surrounds relationships and society’s ideals when it comes to talking about them. But I’m working on it.
I’d be interested to know what words you like, dislike, use and avoid. Let me know in the comments or in a tweet!
7 thoughts on “The language of love”
I have never and will never like the term “partner”. It makes me feel like we’re entering into a business contract and I should be submitting a P.O. for a certain number of hours per week of work. Now I can call John my fiance and eventually he will be my husband, but it always felt weird to call him my boyfriend when we knew we were more than that. I want to punch puppies when people actually introduce the person they’re with as their soul mate. I will sometimes refer to John as my soul mate when we talk about how we met and only if I’m being all sappy and starry-eyed, but I would NEVER introduce him to someone using the phrase, “This is my soul mate, John.” Figuratively punch puppies.
Oh god ‘soul mate’ ick! Yuck!
As for ‘boyfriend’, I don’t like the idea of “more than that”, but I understand you in the sense “that’s not relationship we have now, so that would be the wrong word”.
I often use partner, but that is mostly because it’s the most socially acceptable, I actually hate it! I am legally married, so I like to use husband, although I probably don’t use it very often. I found your article really interesting, because it’s a struggle to chose the correct term or the one that feels right for us. I am going to make a conscious effort to find terms that I am comfortable with now! Never again will I use partner!
I talk to so many queer people who use ‘partner’ because it’s socially acceptable, even though they dislike it. I find rejecting what society finds acceptable so cathartic sometimes.
Do you find ‘husband’ accurately describes what he is to you? And do you feel like ‘a husband’ yourself? What does that particular word mean to you? JA
I see that you have a bit of an issue with the marriage thing and the term husband, but I actually like it! I feel a sense of pride in calling him my husband. It doesn’t work for everyone, but I think it does for us. Its the closest to traditional that a non-traditional couple can get! But you are right about rejecting society. We got married because it’s what we wanted and our expectations of marriage are crafted by us, not social norm. We accept the elements we believe are important to making our relationship work, but exclude the social pressures that are not relevant to us. Sorry long reply! (but you asked hehe).
I don’t have an issue with marriage, except for us. We’ve decided we don’t want to get married, but for other people (including you), that’s the format you want your relationship to take, and since it is YOUR relationship, that’s perfectly valid and I think it’s wonderful.
I’m curious because I don’t feel that any particular word really is suitable for our relationship. I don’t *feel* like a husband or a partner or a lover or anything else.
Some people look to marriage as a validation of how they feel (or how they think they should feel). I think it’s great if you’ve both decided it’s not for you and are on the same page as to what you want. There are a million ways to try and say it, but 99% of them just feel really wrong. At some point I hope you figure it out, but at the end of the day it’s just a word!