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UPIARR and I are AARP members, we have no problem with the terminology — the juvenile connotations of these words is obsolete — but other people, especially those of a certain age, are uncomfortable with them.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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41 Responses to “What’s the Best Way to Refer to a Romantic Partner?”

  • Steve Dell

    Most of these words work seem to work best in a verbal or informal context.

    Sadly my beloved partner passed away last week and I am now trying to write her funeral announcement in the local newspaper which goes to press in two days’ time.

    Compared to familiar descriptions of her relationships with her family members, like “mum” and “aunty”, the word “partner” sounds too distant in this written context, while others like “soulmate” sound too twee. Furthermore, I want to precede it with “beloved” so possible contenders like “loving companion” don’t work.

    We had lived together for all but the first few months of the 23 years we had known each other, got engaged in the very early days but never married. The best I am able to come up with is “fiancée and partner”.

    Any bright new ideas out there?

    PS: Like Stevie Carroll above I am British. For those of you across the pond and unfamiliar with ARP, it is a very well known acronym for Air Raid Patrol. In the much loved 1960s/70s comedy series “Dad’s Army”, the ARP warden was one of the figures of ridicule.

  • Malia Ariadne

    I am chiming in several years late on this thread but here goes. I made up a few I think work well.

    -EO- Essential One
    -TOL Treasure of Life
    -FO- Fundamental Other
    -COMU- Center of my Universe

  • 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.

  • 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)

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Alan Stransman

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

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