As a writer, I’m in the business of naming. But despite some skills and a better than average comfort with language, I’ve never been content with the limited terminology available to name those with whom we share an intimate or romantic relationship.
Even as a teenager, I felt there was something unduly possessive (and faintly embarrassing) about the word “boyfriend” and then in my later teens, “girlfriend.” I think it might have been the requirement to add “my” to the term. That was more than the commitment-phobic younger me could allow.
When I first came out in the late 1970s, I fell in with the prevailing trend of using the defiant, blatantly erotic “lover” as a description of my romantic interest, if, considering the context, for no other reason than its shock value. Now I find the term makes it sound as if we never got out of bed, but I was in my late teens and early twenties then, so there is some truth in that. It was fine for girl-talk and gossip, but as I matured, I realized it just didn’t work for things like joint mortgage applications or at work, to describe the person who needed to be called should I perish at my desk or by kidnapped by an angry client. By my mid-thirties, well into a long-term relationship, neither “girlfriend” nor “lover” really cut it. Lover sounded like we were trying too hard. “Girlfriend” sounded like someone who slept over on the weekend, someone transient, not someone I owned a home and car with. Plus my more militant friends had warned me that girlfriend was sexist, that as an adult woman, my…her…well, she was no girl. Lady friend? No way. Old lady? God no. Main squeeze was starting to sound promising.
In the more pragmatic but far less sexy 90s and the scary zeros, people of both genders and various sexual preferences employed the broad and bland “partner.” Not me. Too many years spent in the advertising industry made me suspicious of the term. Not only did I expect money to change hands, I had seen too many quarrelsome creative partnerships and doomed business partnerships to want any part of the term to describe someone I planned to share my life with.
Minutes away from walking down the aisle, our wedding officiator turned to my love and I, and asked which we preferred at the end of the ceremony: “I now pronounce you wife and wife” or “I now pronounce you partners in life.” There was no need to confer; we didn’t even turn to each other, both of us clearly stating that we jointly and separately preferred the latter to the former. We had agreed prior to buying the license that neither of us had any interest in being anyone’s wife, a word too laden with all the sexism and conventionality that we’d strove to escape by avoiding matrimony—and for that matter, heterosexuality. Housewife. Fishwife. Even to some extent, midwife. All archaic and all rife with the idea losing oneself to in the service of someone or something else.
Admittedly, when absolutely necessary, like on insurance forms, I now use the more clinical “spouse” but I’d much prefer to simply call my love by her given name. Those who know her already know the nature of the relationship that exists between us, so a definition isn’t required. As for those who don’t me well enough to know her, does it really matter? I think not. And no one needs to know that at home, she’s more apt to get “sweetie” than anything her momma called her.
All in all, I’m still haven’t found a term I can live with. I could ponder it more, but right now, it’s nearly Saturday night and I’ve got to wrap this up. I’ve got a movie date with what's-her-name to catch up on episodes of Dexter.