Words I Don't Like: "Partner."

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

“Spouse.” I like spouse.  If I tell you I have a spouse, I’m revealing nothing about my preference.  Oh, it is often assumed my spouse is a woman – and in this case she is, for like the majority of America, I’m heterosexual.
But I also think that a numeric majority isn’t reason enough to appropriate a word, and I have many lovely gay friends with same-sex spouses.  Hell, I have poly friends with “spice,” as the plural of spouse. It’s a great word that covers either gender with aplomb.  Spouse?  It lets you acknowledge your life-partner in a conversation anywhere you damn please without getting bogged down in unwanted politics.
I’m a spouse who has a spouse, and that reveals precisely as much as I’d like – go ahead and assume, but by God I’m not being evasive if you assumed my “spouse” was a girl but it turns out my spouse is a six-foot Freddy Mercury look-a-like.  (Which, you know, I love Gini, but hey.  Freddy Mercury.)
Yet if I tell you my son has a partner, well, crap.  Under current American parlance, that’s pretty much a sign that he’s gay.
Not that I particularly care that he is gay.  But there are times, when discussing teenagers, because I value their privacy, that I often don’t feel like signalling what their sexual preference are to strangers – and I don’t feel like lying, as “boyfriend/girlfriend” will do.  “Lover” seems a bit too intense, particularly if it’s a fourteen-year-old girl we’re talking about.  “Sweetheart” or “beau” feel also a little gendered, as well as outdated, and though I could use the term “steady” I feel like I’ve teleported back to the 1950s.  “Companion” feels like they’re travelling through time in a phone booth.
After that, it feels like I’m down to either mangling the language in awkward ways – “Yes, she went out with that person she is dating” – or being far too clever in saying, “Yes, she saw World’s End with her swain.  Isn’t her suitor wonderful?”
I dunno.  I want a nice, simple word that neither forces me to dance around gender issues nor avoid them, usable when a seven-year-old girl announces she’s dating whoever the heck she adores on the playground this week.  There may be words that suffice, but they’re not comfortable words, and damn if I don’t want one.


  1. Penn
    Aug 21, 2013

    Significant Other. It’s not elegant, but it covers pretty much every combination.

  2. SaraB
    Aug 21, 2013

    I second “significant other,” and would add Special Friend (said with a tongue in cheek attitude) or Date.

  3. Hel
    Aug 21, 2013

    I like “sweetie”. Her sweetie. His sweetie. It’s good for relationships that don’t warrant “SO” use.
    And I tend to use SO for serious relationships regardless of whether they’ve been formalized by marriage or not. Spouse can be a problem because, obviously, it’s not legally true for all relationships in all states. It’s only been this year, for example, that my brother and his SO had the choice to make it legal, but they’ve been together as long as I can remember.

  4. Robyn
    Aug 22, 2013

    At my house, we use “sidekick.”

    • TheFerrett
      Aug 22, 2013

      I hear that in Bruce Campbell’s voice from SKY HIGH.

  5. J
    Aug 22, 2013

    My now-ex-partner is genderqueer; when we were together, common language severely limited our options. “Partner” or “significant other” was pretty much it–sie isn’t anyone’s “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” So, “partner” was it, though it felt unromantic.
    “Lover” has a less-than-committed connotation (regardless of whether it should have that connotation). I sometimes said “my love, so-and-so,” but that can sound a little odd in conversation.
    So basically, yes, I share your desire for another word.

  6. Stephen Eley
    Aug 22, 2013

    Your objections to sweetheart and companion seem a little thin. I’ve been called sweetheart by my sweethearts all the time. And do you really think ‘companion’ is unsuitable because it’s been used in a popular television show?

  7. tess
    Aug 22, 2013

    The problem with “spouse” is that it only really applies to married couples. If you’re not married, you cannot have a spouse. If you’re not married, you cannot be a spouse.
    I use “partner” because that’s what my paramours are — we are a team, partnering with each other in life. It doesn’t automatically communicate anything about sexual identity anymore to use the term “partner”.
    I also use “significant other”, and “boyfriend”, and “paramour”, and whatever other word might possibly work, given my audience. There’s no one right word. But for those of us who aren’t married? There’s definitely a wrong one. 🙂

  8. therufs
    Sep 1, 2013

    I have ‘used ‘main squeeze’ a lot, but do so now somewhat advisedly since ‘does that mean you have other squeezes?’ can no longer honestly be laughed off when occasion warrants.
    I like sweetie and paramour, tho they’re not interchangeable, and I use ‘dear’ as a title less often than I’d like.
    And I’ll probably continue using ‘partner’ to refer to my long term hetero partner, because, well, that’s what he is!

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