4 Reasons Couples Call Each Other 'My Partner'

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

Image by Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash

I've been in a monogamous romantic relationship with a man for two years. In the earlier days when we first started seeing each other, I called him "this guy I'm seeing." When we became sexually and romantically exclusive, I started calling him "this guy I'm dating." After a conversation we had together a few months in about labels, we started calling each other "boyfriend" and "girlfriend." Today, two years in, I call him "my partner."

The word partner is not new; according to Jen Doll's reporting in the Atlantic, the term arose around the 14th century to connote a more equal relationship between a married man and woman, in comparison to the gendered marriage terms husband and wife that'd been used since the 11th and ninth centuries respectively. Husband originally meant "master of the house," Doll reports, so you can see the need for an update.

And yet the terms husband and wife have endured, and their gender-neutral counterparts still catch eyes. That's why Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who is married to California's new governor Gavin Newsom, made headlines when she announced she'd be referred to as "first partner" instead of "first lady." (Newsom is an outspoken feminist voice anyway, having founded the Representation Project and produced documentaries tackling gender roles, women's rights, and toxic masculinity, so her decision really shouldn't have come as much of a surprise.)

So why exactly do some people choose to use the term partner instead of girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, or any other terms?

1. Partner shirks gender roles.

Even if we don't intend them that way, words carry with them deeply rooted underlying meanings and historical weight, says relationship and well-being coach Shula Melamed, M.A., MPH. Words like "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" may not necessarily suggest an unequal relationship, but they do nod toward the traditional roles men and women have played (and have been expected to play) in their relationships. Girlfriends are cute, needy, emotional, and controlling; boyfriends are protective, clueless, and hard to hold down. These characterizations are obviously not true in all or even most cases, and yet they ring in our ears as truisms because we've been enculturated with them.

And especially when it comes to marriage, some married people "might feel that the terms wife or husband have some traditional implications or historical weight that doesn't reflect their relationship," Melamed says. Using partner, on the other hand, is "a way to express equity in the relationship" with one single word. Partner is free from all the cultural baggage layered onto all its gendered alternatives.

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2. Partner makes space for queer people.

"The term partner has historically has been used by primarily non-heterosexual couples to refer to their other half," Melamed explains. "Some use it to express alliance with the queer community."

Not everybody fits into the categories of "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" or "husband" and "wife." Nonbinary people matter, and we ought to be adopting language that doesn't completely erase them from the picture.

Furthermore, the gender-neutral word destabilizes heteronormativity more broadly by forcing people to ditch their assumptions about what kind of person you're dating. I write about my relationship regularly without mentioning my partner's name, and that word choice prompts you to recognize that you have no clue about what my partner's gender is, and you can assume nothing. That's how it should be any time we're talking about a romantic relationship. (Of course in this case, I've already used his pronouns earlier in this story. But you see my point!)

3. Partner has some gravity to it.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't gravitate toward the word partner initially because I wanted people to take my relationship seriously, even if the two of us are not married. Melamed says she knows many couples who have been together a long time, share a life and a home, and are deeply committed, and boyfriend and girlfriend just don't reflect the depth of their relationship. Furthermore, not all couples intend to get married, and they deserve the choice of a label that's distinct from the ones they used for all their short-lived high school romances.

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4. Partner reflects what a healthy romantic relationship really looks like.

You might be thinking: What about the term significant other? Personally I don't have much of a problem with it, but some people take issue with the way the phrase implies that everyone only has one significant person in their life and that that relationship must be a romantic one. Doesn't that somewhat minimize the importance of friendships, family ties, and our other meaningful relationships? My mother, for one, is certainly an S.O. in my book.

More importantly, partner more accurately describes what a healthy romantic relationship really looks like: a partnership. It's two people who've got each other's backs, who are collaborating on their lives together, and who are tackling life's tribulations and triumphs together in a mutually satisfying way.

At the end of the day, of course, the words you use to describe your relationship are wholly up to you. Use the terms that feel comfortable, that feel good on your tongue, and that make you both feel good.

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