What’s the Best Way to Refer to a Romantic Partner?

By Mark Nichol

One of the oddities of the English language is that though many words have multiple synonyms, and we have words for many things we rarely refer to, one of the most ubiquitous concepts in American society has no name: There’s no ideal term for an unmarried party in a romantic relationship.

This glaring omission is partly due to the fact that open societal acknowledgment of unmarried parties — let’s just go with the acronym UPIARR for now — especially those who have no intention of marrying, is a relatively recent phenomenon, but it seems that our culture should have settled on a satisfactory label by now.

The reigning placeholders to describe UPIARRs, in the absence of universally accepted terms, are boyfriend and girlfriend. Despite the fact that my fellow UPIARR and I are AARP members, we have no problem with the terminology — the juvenile connotations of these words is obsolete — but other people, especially those of a certain age, are uncomfortable with them. Unfortunately, the more mature-sounding “man friend” and “woman friend” are clumsy and imprecise.

Paramour (French for, literally, “for love”) is unfortunately unsuitable because its connotation is of illicit love. Lover implies a focus on sex, and most pet terms (darling, honey, sweetheart, and the like) are too intimate for some social situations; informal phrases like “my guy” and “my girl” have the same disadvantage. Beau (from the French word for “beautiful”) is inoffensive but seems too glib and, despite the etymology, is an exclusively male term.

Mistress has a longstanding connotation of “a kept woman,” though for some time, because modern women can more easily maintain financial independence, the term has referred simply to a woman in a romantic or sexual relationship with a married man. But this word has no utility outside of references to marital infidelity.

Suitor is too stiff, does not imply an established relationship, and traditionally denotes a man. “Significant other” and “life partner” both have an artificial, passionless taint, as if inspired by bureaucratic policy. “Domestic partner” shares that disadvantage while also assuming cohabitation.

The prevailing alternative to boyfriend and girlfriend is partner, though the use of this word in other contexts, such as business, makes it unhelpfully ambiguous. “Life partner” imposes the implication of a lifelong relationship.

My favorite humorous designation is “undocumented husband/wife,” but even that implies that the ultimate goal of the relationship is marriage and it isn’t of much use in straightforward contexts.

In most social situations, the simplest solution is to introduce your fellow UPIARR by name only and let nonverbal signals do the rest. However, this website is about writing, not about oral communication, and effective terminology depends on the context of the written communication, so writers must make their own decisions about how to refer to their own UPIARRs or others in that role.

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39 Responses to “What’s the Best Way to Refer to a Romantic Partner?”

  • Ted Wozniak

    German has a good, although not quite perfect, word for this ambiguous relationship. Lebensgefährte (male) / Lebensgefährtin (female). Literally – “life companion” or “co-traveler in life”

  • Purple Helen

    My UPIARR and I were together for 21 years before we married this March – we used to refer to each other as “my partner”, “my other half” or “my husband/wife” depending on the circumstances.

    “My other half” seems to me to denote both commitment and love – without necessarily indicating marriage, and would be my preferred option in a neutral situation. It can also be used in the second person “please bring your other half to the party” without having to be certain of the person’s marital situation, or indeed sexual preference.

    [I was intrigued that you did not mention “significant other”. Here in the UK we have been led to believe that that is a term used in the US – I personally find it pretentious, so I’m pleased you did not use it!]

    Keep up the good work Mark.

    Helen

  • Paul Anderson

    Did I miss it? “Significant other” or “significant partner” seems to be quit prevelant as a clear and acceptable reference for any coupling of people. Once mostly used in same sex relationships I see it used for straight, gay, and lesbian couples.

  • chuck grennell

    This is regarding your post about how to refer to significant others. One o0ld friend of mine used to call his wife his domestic associate, which I always thought of a descriptive, yet non-offensive term.

  • François Spruyt

    Thank you for a fine site/service/etc.

    I have been impressed by your impeccable use of the English language and enjoy your daily doses of useful tips and explanations.

    I was therefore surprised when I read in the third paragraph of today’s DailyWritingTips the phrase, “…the juvenile connotations of these words is obsolete…” English is not my first language, so I may be missing something here, but surely ‘juvenile connotations’ ARE obsolete (not IS)?

  • Kristin

    This is a puzzling question and although there doesn’t seem to be a good answer by the end of the article, I appreciate the back and forth banter you create to display all of the current labels and their shortcomings. Perhaps it is time to invent a new word.

  • Bill

    Your last paragraph sums it up well. In other words, there is no right word. As you note, it is only in recent years that such relationships don’t bear a touch of scandal. Language can take many decades to evolve.
    I’d mention that for now, “partner” is the right word for same-sex relationships.

  • Nancy

    Another inappropriate term that unmarried couples use is fiancé/fiancée. One is tempted to ask, “So where’s the big event taking place?” The two then stumble and mumble. “Boyfriend/girlfriend” is what they really mean, but they think that the French-derived word sounds more sophisticated, perhaps. But fiancé/fiancée means “engaged to be married,” of course. For cohabiting couples who have no plans to legally tie the knot, it doesn’t work.

  • Rolf Heckemann

    How about “loving companion”?

  • Mary

    This can be a minefield if people don’t have a sense of humor abot it. I remember in the 70s someone invented the term POSSLQ — pronounced posselcue — which stood for Person of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters. It was somehow innately laughable, dunno why. Like “Tuesday.” Tuesday is innately funny, viz. Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters — “When shall we three meet again?” — “Umm, let’s see, I think I can do next Tuesday…” It just wouldn’t be as funny if she said “next Wednesday,” or “Sunday afternoon.”

    Anyway, that has nothing to do with the subject at hand. POSSLQ died a swift and ignominious death. It could be revisited, resurrected, and reconstituted for PSSSLQ, “pisselcue,” Person of the Same Sex Sharing &tc., I suppose.

  • Richard Best

    You left out ‘spouse’. In Canada, common-law relationships are recognized by law and the term spouse is used for the partners in most legal documents. However, I do love the ‘undocumented’ option.

  • Matt Gaffney

    No mention of “POSSLQ”? Charles Osgood’s poem commemorated for all eternity the Census Bureau’s term for “person of the opposite sex sharing living quarters”:

    Come live with me and be my love,
    And we will some new pleasures prove
    Of golden sands and crystal brooks
    With silken lines, and silver hooks.
    There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
    If you would be my POSSLQ.

    You live with me, and I with you,
    And you will be my POSSLQ.
    I’ll be your friend and so much more;
    That’s what a POSSLQ is for.

    And everything we will confess;
    Yes, even to the IRS.
    Some day on what we both may earn,
    Perhaps we’ll file a joint return.
    You’ll share my pad, my taxes, joint;
    You’ll share my life – up to a point!
    And that you’ll be so glad to do,
    Because you’ll be my POSSLQ.

    I suppose POSSLQ is somewhat passé, given our so-called culture’s burning need acknowledge, ratify, affirm, approve, endorse, and authenticate the notion that gender plays no essential role nowadays.

    That aside, it’s not “— the juvenile connotations of these words is obsolete —”, but “— the juvenile connotations of these words are obsolete —”.

    I suppose the advantages of UPIARR include its many possible definitions, depending on mood and circumstance, e.g., “ugly parasite in a rotting relationship,” “unbalanced pacifist instigating arbitrary role reversals,” etc. Additional variations might prove a worthwhile competition for one and all. Feel free!

  • Nicole

    What I use depends on the situation:

    Partner (when I want to convey that we are in a committed relationship)
    Fiance (when I want to convey that our money is in a committed relationship)
    Baby daddy (when I know my audience will get the humor)
    Boyfriend (when I am unsure of my audience’s sense of humor)

    I do like “undocumented husband” — I may borrow that.

  • Ester shifren

    I do believe the term “significant other” is often used to describe a romantic partner.

  • Nancy R

    A term that some couples use inappropriately is “fiancé” (and “fiancée”). One could ask the two, “So, where’s the big event taking place?” They stumble and mumble. Perhaps they think that “fiancé” and “fiancée” are more dignified, sophisticated terms for “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” But, of course, the definition of “fiancé” is “one who is engaged to marry.” For a cohabiting couple who have no intention of legally tying the knot, the word does not work.

  • Marc

    in written language this problem is very simply dispensed with altogether. it does not take a clever writer to work out how to make it natural and simple for a reader, even exciting against our historically conservative background. this is not a genuine problem for genuine human relationships.

    at least in spoken english, contemporary etiquette experts agree that the the current standard is “friend”.

  • Scott

    In the gay community most people routinely used “lover”at a certain point (70’s and 80’s iirc) but it seems to have been abandoned since and probably for the reason mentioned — too focused on sex for general use. And though I never came across POSSLQ, PSSSLQ would never have worked for us at all if only due to lack of vowels and resulting unpronounceability, and anyway I have at various times in my life shared living quarters with members of the same and opposite sexes with no hanky panky whatever, and had lovers with whom I did not live, as in long distance relationships. I think the current contender is “partner” (except in 12 countries and 11 states + counting where it is happily evolving into “husband” and “wife”).

  • ben

    How about “companion?” I was once writing up an event and described an older unmarried couple, and the terms boyfriend and girlfriend seemed inappropriate.

    My 85 year old widowed grandfather refers to “ladyfriend”.

  • Carole Raschella

    As a fellow AARP member, I’ve come up against this for a long time…together 4 years, married 9, divorced-but-still-together 5 years and remarried now. Same guy. Ha! find a word to cover all of that! I digress. We went through all kinds of permutations and found S.O. the easiest (maybe it’s California). But only the initials. Significant Other is too stuffy and as you said, “bureaucratese.” Partner is usually OK because the situation usually tells the other person the context. Girlfriend is passable, Boyfriend is NOT. Ladyfriend…bleahhh, takes me back to the disco years. Soulmate is good, but a bit too intimate for general use. Domestic Partner sounds a bit like a housekeeper. So yes, you’re right, there really isn’t a good, workable, across the board expression. Maybe that’s why we remarried – it solved the problem!

  • Kiffin Emanuel

    I use “POSSLQ” (Person of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters”, but can think of several other acronyms such as the easier to pronounce, “UPLIS” (“Unmarried Person Living In Sin” – a tad judgmental, perhaps, but I calls ’em as I sees ’em!)

  • Mike W

    This is my “Other Half” or “Better Half” or my “Soul Mate”. Even though the terms lack any connotation of gender they still indicate a close, romantic relationship.

    MJ

  • Mary Hodges

    A difficult one, this. I still find boyfriend/girlfriend very odd when used of people over about 30. “Partner” needs to be given a context – do the people concerned live together or jointly own a business, or do they play tennis or bridge together?
    In Britain a couple may refer to each other jokingly as “my better half” or “my other half” and of course there are terms like “the missus” – there though isn’t as far as I know any corresponding term for a husband.
    I”ve never come across UPIARR before.
    As for POSSLQ the term used by the British census would be I think be “co-habitee”.

  • thebluebird11

    I share the same irritation of not having one really adequate word. I know that people of all ages, into their 90s even, refer to boyfriends/girlfriends, whether they are living together or not. “Partner,” at least where I live (SoFla), means same-sex relationship. I am twice divorced and then lived with a guy for about 7 years (in my 40s), and we did the boyfriend/girlfriend thing. Meh. Whatever. My neighbor has been with the same guy for almost 15 years, second time around for each. They’re not married but use husband/wife. I guess that different situations might call for different words. In legal issues, either you’re married (husband/wife) or not. In social situations, you can choose to disclose the actual relationship or not. When you go to pick up his dry-cleaning, you can say whatever you please but probably best to keep it simple. “I’m here to pick up 3 shirts for Joe Smith” (or Joe, if you go there often). When I’ve gone to a hospital to visit someone or given someone as a reference, I have sometimes said I’m a girlfriend or cousin, implying that there is a close relationship even if there is not, because of the increased credibility it provides and the doors it might open compared to just saying “I’m a friend of his.” Obviously whoever the other person is needs to be aware that you are doing this, and is willing to go along with it! And if you’re saying you’re his girlfriend, there had better not be another woman saying the same LOL

  • Robinoz

    Why not just call the someone you are with your “friend”? Do people really need to know that you live together in a defacto relationship? Your close friends will know and others don’t need to know.

    On another topic, I’d like to dump the word “gay” in relation to homosexual relationships and use “lesbian” and “mesbian”. L for ladies and M for men.

  • Michael Bearden

    I think we are missing the important part of the discussion. Having a “significant Other”, Partner, Friend, and the list goes on.
    The significant other gives us the ownership of our most valuable resource. A connection with the human race that goes beyond the mundane world of needs and profession. To be “in a relationship” is what differs us from the loneless of individuality that we pretend to pray for and regale in our achievement of obtaining.
    The “significant other” makes us….. significant.
    I have had several ‘significant others’ in my life and feel blessed to be able to call the one with me at the time………….Significant.

  • Vicki

    I actually like the acronym as a word. Upiarr… sounds… romantic, French-ish, intimate, mysterious.

    He looked deeply into her soul and asked her the ultimate question. The question she had been longing for since they had decided to move in together. “Will you be my upiarr?” “Yes!” she breathlessly replied, knowing that the dreaded pre-nup would never be brought up in conversation.

    I do like the word and perhaps someday, -sigh- I can use it in my own life.

  • Stevie Carroll

    AARP is an acronym I’ve not come across before, and rather confusing for a Brit who still sees ARP used most commonly in its second world war context.

    On the other hand I see nothing wrong with ‘partner’ for romantic partner and am used to any other type of partnership being specified in writing, if it’s not immediately obvious from the context.

  • Chandra

    @Stevie AARP stands for American Association of Retired Persons. Don’t know what ARP is, but if it had something to do with a world war, then it is probably a very confusing acronym to compare to conversations about relationships.

  • Susan McCloskey

    As a UPIARR, I began a while ago to refer to the man in my life as my beloved. When I introduce him by saying,” I’d like you to meet my beloved Jim,” everyone, including Jim, seems pleased. So give the term a try. It definitely works for me!

  • Jim L Wright

    I never liked ‘partner’ or ‘significant other’ but I felt I needed something to describe the man with whom I’ve been in love for the past ten or so years. Then, I remembered how my Grandmother always referred to my Grandfather as ‘my Companion’. I think it’s perfect. It leaves no doubt about the relationship without all the messy bits.

  • Sybil

    How about co-vivant, or more properly covivant? I prefer it with the hyphen but I think it’s incorrect. Unexpectedly, at age 70, I got into one of the described relationships. That was nearly three years ago and while I don’t expect it to be permanent, I like covivant better than the other choices, mainly because of the reasons you’ve given. I have used partner but it sounds as if we were in business together.

    Then there is paramate and lifemate. I hear spousal equivalent sometmes but I’ve never cared for it.

  • Alys B. Cohen

    I know married couples, of opposite sex as well as differing, who use the word “partner” as it eliminates the possibility of preconceived gender roles that can come with “husband” and “wife.” Generally “partner” in a business sense will be qualified as “business partner,” or will be mentioned in a business setting.

    TO STEVIE CARROLL: AARP is the American Association of Retired People, and the only qualification is to be over 50 years old.

  • Alan Stransman

    Anything but `significant other`. Who coined that clunker.

  • Rolf Heckemann

    Ted Wozniak: The problem with the German “Lebensgefährte” (life companion) is that like “life partner” it “imposes the implication of a lifelong relationship”, to reuse the impeccable wording from the article. Of course, we Germans have a sense of humour, so we came up with “Lebensabschnittsgefährte” (life episode partner), which imposes the opposite. I suspect that its mindless use has caused many a rift between unmarried couples.

    I’ll be using “loving companion”, as I think it has a nice non-bureaucratic sound to it, it applies to same-sex couples, and it is unlikely to invoke unintended associations.

  • Jean Kearsley

    At the end of August, my wife and I will celebrate our marriage 11 years ago. But the anniversary that means the most to us is May 10th; the one just past marks the 34th anniversary of our first date. For all of that time — both before and after I convinced her to make an honest man of me — I’ve introduced her simply as “my lady” or “my lady Ola,” and I’ve been correspondingly designated, then and now, as “her man.” Those terms, accompanied by a loving look, continue to serve admirably, in expressing every nuance of our relationship, without any of the drawbacks attributed to the various terms discussed above.

  • AnWulf

    As an over-30 guy … well, well over 30 … I find nothing wrong with boyfriend/girlfriend. What else would I call my girlfriend? She calls me her boyfriend. I know many folks over 50 who hav boyfriends and girlfriends.

    There is always leman – a lover or sweetheart (from lief+man). It’s an older word that one finds in writings.

    Bedfellow might be taken as a bit of sharing too much.

    There was no lack of words in Old English (not all of these refer only to an opposit sex companion):

    anlegere – consorting, laying with one (man, woman), only lays with one other (onelayer?) … anlegere wifman – a woman with one husband, a one-man woman

    gebedda – consort, wife, bedfellow
    >healsgebedda – beloved bedfellow (heals=halse)

    evenmatch, evenmate – companion, fellow, consort

    evenling – one who is equal, even

    fera, gefera – companion, one who goes thru life with you (fera from ferian … to carry, convey, journey [ferry])
    >simbelgefera – constant companion

    gesith – companion
    >midgesith – mid-gesith (with companion)
    >wilgesith – willing companion
    >wyngesith – pleasant, joyful companion

    gestealla – companion (gestell)
    > wilgestealla – willing companion (wilgesteald – a desirable possession)

    gesyne (ge-seen) – the one that you’re seen with

    resta, geresta – one who rests with another, consort

    haemer(e) / haemend (haement / heamant) for both men and woman … also haemestre for a woman – consort, bedfellow, the one who livs with you sexually (from the verb haeman [hæman] – to hav sex with, cohabit)

    headmatch, headmate – mate, companion

    wilgehletha – intimate companion

  • DHH

    Perhaps the word you are all seeking is “imzadi.” Pronounced em-ZAH-dee. It describes a relationship as near to you as your beating heart. It is a word that was coined by the television show Star Trek—The Next Generation, and comes from a race of people called Betazed.

  • Renee Mireille Albert

    Depending on the situation:
    My companion (pretty clear you’d be referring to your significant other)
    My spouse (common-law spouses are recognized in Canada)
    My man/woman (reality simply said)

  • Lise Rochefort

    Since 1980, I have been using the term “My Co-vivant”. It’s gender neutral, it’s informative (two…or more, possibly–who knows, who cares?– people living together in a loving, long-term, shared-life situation). It’s a warm, caring and sexy-sounding word without being overly explicit, nor with too much information (that’s not anyone’s business anyway)… It’s also easy to say and, if necessary, explain.

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