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When does a boyfriend or girlfriend become a ‘partner’?

Posted by
Emily Reynolds
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When does a girlfriend or boyfriend become a partner? This new study reveals all.

We spend a lot of time analysing the myriad steps of a new relationship. When do you go from ’dating’ to ‘seeing each other’? When – and how – do you go from ‘seeing each other’ to ‘exclusive’ to ‘in a relationship’? Do you need a big chat for someone to become your boyfriend or girlfriend? Does it happen naturally? There’s so much to think – and talk, and text – about.

What we spend less time thinking about is when a boyfriend or girlfriend becomes a ‘partner’ – or if they ever do. ‘Partner’ suggests something somewhat more serious – someone you’re not married to (or even intending to marry), but a step up from a boyfriend or girlfriend, which can sound a little more casual. 

Often, our use of boyfriend, girlfriend or partner is interchangeable: we use different terms for different settings, often instinctively. But new research from YouGov suggests that our age may have something to do with how we talk about our other half. 

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A survey of 37,000 Brits found that 43% would call the person they’re in a relationship with their boyfriend or girlfriend, whilst 41% would say partner – a pretty even split.

Things start to get a bit clearer when broken down by age, though. Younger adults – those in their early twenties – are far more likely (71%) to say boyfriend or girlfriend. As we age, however, this number starts to creep down. The crossover point is our mid thirties, when 44% would choose partner and 43% boyfriend or girlfriend.

Use of the word is most prevalent amongst 50 to 55 year olds: 53% of people in this age group prefer partner to boyfriend or girlfriend. 

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So how do we choose when to change the way we describe our partners? Anecdotally, it seems to be based on what life stage we feel we’re at.

“I started referring to my boyfriend as my partner after we moved in together,” says Lara, 28. “Saying he was my ‘boyfriend’ didn’t feel enough when we were splitting bills, sharing rent and talking about having kids.” 

Sam, 30, has similar motivations. She started referring to her girlfriend as her partner after they decided to save up for a flat deposit together – it elevated the relationship to a new level of seriousness, she says. 

“And, as a gay woman, I find it pretty tiring to deal with people’s perpetual shock at the simple fact I live with a woman,” she says. “Sometimes I just don’t want to have to deal with managing people’s feelings of surprise that I’m gay or have a conversation about it. ‘Partner’ obscures the gender of who I’m with – which means I can just get on with what I’m trying to say.”

Image: Unsplash

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Emily Reynolds

Emily Reynolds is a journalist and author based in London. Her first book, A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind, came out in February 2017 with Hodder & Stoughton. She is currently working on her second.  

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