Way back in 2014 I wrote a piece titled "So long, Partner," exploring why, even in these slightly more egalitarian times, we don't have all that many names for each other in romantic relationships.
I know what you're going to say. Sure, there are gender-neutral options like "partner," "significant other," "lover," "paramour" (which has the exciting connotation of "illicit lover" — though it's a quick jump to the band Paramore), "smoochy-pants," and "boo" (is anyone still saying "boo"?).
But most of the time, wandering around my part of the world, I hear the same old standard, cisgender terms for being in a socially and institutionally recognized romantic relationship: "husband" or "wife" when married and, prior to being dubbed so by the powers that be, "boyfriend" or "girlfriend." The terminology seemed here to stay, no matter how archaic the roots ("husband" and "wife" go back to the 11th and ninth centuries). The seemingly neutered "partner," which came about in the 14th century, was never going to supplant those other words for the people we love. Or so I thought.
Then I started spending a lot of time in upstate New York with my "boyfriend." In the flurry of introductions being made all over the place to a bunch of new people, I found to my great surprise that very few of them used the term "husband" or "wife." The most prominent word I was hearing to describe relationships, in fact, was "partner" — whether the couples were gay, straight, cisgender, or not. And whether they were married or not, too! I heard it over and over again, "This is my partner, Mike," "This is my partner, Chelsea," "Have you met Boris and their partner, Blake?" I was intrigued: Did they eschew the traditional terms out of solidarity or some other progressive belief? Perhaps they were too serious about each other (or felt too old) to go with "boyfriend" or "girlfriend." Maybe it was all of the above! Maybe they just liked the mystery.
I hadn't noticed people in New York City using "partner" to the same degree, though I was also friends with a lot more single people in the city — and the couples I did know didn't really need to introduce themselves to me again. But, I thought, maybe this is a kind of distinction between city life and country life: In the first, you tend to roll like an individual; in the second, partnerships are key for survival. You need to divide and conquer the workload; there's no outsourcing to Seamless.
Spending time upstate, I found myself changing. I'd long looked askance at "partner," finding it more suited to a business relationship or life on the range than to romantic affiliations, but all of a sudden, my eyes were being opened to its potential. People understood it easily; I never once thought anyone was trying to introduce me to the angel investor in their Etsy T-shirt shop as opposed to the person they were dating. It didn't come with the weight (or the complications) of institutional acceptance. It didn't leave anyone out. You could say it and no one asked you for proof, or looked at your hands for a wedding band.
I started to use "partner," trying it out tentatively. I liked its power. "My partner and I are interested in a joint gym membership" seemed far more likely to result in a good deal; "my partner recently redid the floors, please be careful when putting in the new oven" far less likely to result in an offending scratch. "This is my partner" was the verbal equivalent of designating yourself "in a relationship" on Facebook. Boyfriends and girlfriends came and went, but a partner was here to stay — and if he or she wasn't, boy, people would know to react to it!
Then my "partner" and I kinda-sorta moved in together. I became a true believer in the word, throwing it around to anyone who asked. It felt far more adult than "boyfriend," and unlike husband or wife (which we weren't, anyway, so it would be extra-weird to say), the noun seemed to show a kind of solidarity with untraditional or less societally accepted pairings. Why did you need to have a gender-based noun for your relationship, pinning you to certain expectations that weren't always particularly pleasant? Why, given the state of society, be pinned to society at all?
While before I had thought "partner" a bit suspect because it was so vague, now I loved that about it: It didn't reveal more than what I wanted to share, yet it implied just enough to convey that whatever the relationship was should be taken seriously. Plus, it indicated important aspects of coupling that get pushed to the background of romance, the non-Hallmark stuff: Negotiating, compromise, dealing with finances. Literally partnering, as in the stuff of business partners, except, you know, romantic, too. I don't know how many people kiss their business partners (you shouldn't) but kissing your partner-partner is a-okay.
Of course, "partner" doesn't work for everyone. The guys who delivered our oven kept referring to the person who was so particular about his floors as my "husband" no matter how many times I said "partner." Sometimes I still revert to "boyfriend," a word I've been using for much of my life. And whether I'll ever move from "partner" to "husband" remains to be seen; some of my married friends who find the nouns ideologically problematic confess they can't help using them — there's simply something about "husband" and "wife" that people can't give up. Probably it feels nice, kind of like a hug from a spouse.
For the moment, I'm embracing partner. The only thing better, to be honest, is when my boyfriend gets called "Mr. Doll."