“Boyfriend”, “girlfriend”, “partner” – cohabiting couples are the UK’s fastest growing relationship type, but the words we use to describe them feel outdated. Here, one writer reveals her quest for a term that does the man she has loved for nine years justice.
When Graeme Gibson, Margaret Atwood’s partner of 46 years, sadly died a few months ago in the midst of her promo tour for The Testaments, the novelist’s official statement on her bereavement was as beautiful, moving and pragmatic as you’d expect. “We are devastated by the loss of Graeme, our beloved father, grandfather, and spouse,” it began. But one word caught my eye for different reasons. She called Gibson her “spouse”, and has done in earlier interviews too. Except the couple weren’t married.
‘Ooh’, I thought, ‘interesting.’ As someone who also has a long-term (although at nine years we’re amateurs by comparison) non-husband, I’m always on the lookout for ways to describe our relationship to people, without the solid, easily-recognisable parameters of marriage and children. But even in 2019, in a dictionary brimming over with new ways to sum up the ever-shifting nuances of modern life, there aren’t many.
There’s ‘partner’, obviously, but I’ve never fancied it much. Too formal, too businesslike, too easily transferrable from the object of your love and desire to your teammate at the office away day. Too hard to say without adopting a cowboy voice, although perhaps that’s just me. I mostly call him ‘my partner’ to strangers, in situations where I feel immature and want to leach a little vicarious authority. “I’ll discuss it with my partner,” I say. Or “my partner will be in to sign for it”. Or “my partner seemed to think drilling through that cable was a good idea”. But in more casual, conversational settings, it makes me squirm.
Some days I enjoy “boyfriend” because it makes me feel young. As though he might turn up in a Cadillac and take me to the funfair. But other days, “boyfriend” feels too flimsy and lightweight for the role he fulfils. It’s too skimpy to sum up all the years of history under our belt, and I resent sharing it with people who have only been dating for six months and haven’t yet nursed each other through Norovirus, or had a fight over the correct way to ball socks.
I balk at “other half”, with all its connotations that a person is incomplete while single. “Significant other” feels technically correct but oddly bureaucratic, as though you might be listing them on a hospital form. “Baby daddy” might be fun, but we should probably have kids first. “Companion” is sweet, but we should probably stop having sex first. And while I’m sure there are many people capable of pulling off “the fella”, “my old lady”, “him indoors” etc with the necessary blend of humour and credibility, I’m not one of them. I accept this. See also: “lover.”
When I pose the question on Twitter, few people have a solution but plenty are searching for one. “Ugh, this is such a thing. I usually go for ‘partner’ but I don’t love it,” agrees Jen, 31, who has been with hers for six years. “But ‘boyfriend’ makes me think I’m in year seven and arranging a date to McDonalds after school.”
“I say ‘my girl’, ‘my darling’ (which started ironically but now I can’t shake it), and sometimes even ‘my lesbian’,” says Magic FM presenter Miri Green. “Although I usually say ‘partner’ if it’s a stranger. I hate it, but people know it.” To her, the word can feel like a deliberate omission. “Like you’re still scared to say you’re gay outright, so you’ll make it obvious but not conclusive,” she says. “I feel ashamed when I say it because I think I should be more ‘proud’, but ‘girlfriend’ doesn’t sound serious enough.”
Then there are the terms that are plenty serious, but hard to say with a straight face. “My person”. “Preferred human”. “Paramour”. Terms that court raised eyebrows and further questions. Which is great, if setting yourself apart from the masses is what you want. But personally I’d like a word that does the opposite; something universal and gender-neutral that communicates my relationship as entirely ordinary, humdrum, legitimate in its own right. Not just a strangely protracted layover on the way to Marriage Town.
In lieu of that perfect term, sometimes it feels easier to borrow other people’s. I tend to refer to my boyfriend’s family as my in-laws, although I know they’re definitively not that. But “boyfriend’s parents” feels too distant for people I’ve known for almost a decade and spend alternate Christmases with. At this point, they’re my family too.
Maya Rudolph, who I like to think of as a good yardstick for most things, told the New York Times last year that she refers to her partner of 17 years, Paul Thomas Anderson, as her ‘husband’ because “people know what that means”. She says: “It means he’s the father of my child, and I live with him, and we are a couple, and we are not going anywhere.”
Emma Bunton, who has been in a relationship with Jade Jones (yes, from Damage) since the late 90s, does the same, while batting away questions about when they’ll “get around” to having a wedding. Meanwhile the producer and script editor Emma Freud, who has been happily unmarried to rom-com king Richard Curtis for 28 years, delights in still calling him her “boyfriend”. Sometimes her “current boyfriend”.
And as for “spouse”, a quick Google revealed that in Gibson and Atwood’s native Canada, the word is used to refer to common-law partners as well as married ones, who share many of the same rights. Over here, there’s no such legal inclusion and common-law marriage doesn’t actually exist. Balls.
But not every language is so lacking. As usual, German comes up trumps with “Lebensgefährte”, which translates literally as “companion through life”. Spain’s “media naranja”, which translates as “my half-orange”, might be just as retro as “other half” but at least it has an endearing, vitamin-rich twist.
The Irish have “mo chuisle”, which means, adorably, “my pulse”. Old English had a romantic plethora of terms including “simbelgefera”, which means “constant companion”, “healsgebedda”, which is “beloved bedfellow”, and my cerebral favourite: “headmatch”.
I’d be tempted to co-opt the Betazed word “imzadi”, if it was a real language and not something out of Star Trek. And I got very excited when a friend’s mum told me about “bidey-in”, the Scottish nickname for a live-in partner – until my own Scottish bidey-in claimed he’d never heard of it.
The live-in part is a key point though. Cohabiting couples are the UK’s fastest-growing family type, up 25.8% since 2009. And while bricks and mortar don’t necessarily define a relationship any more than a ring does, living together often feels like the point where your relationship deserves a linguistic promotion. Something that expresses the weight of commitment and responsibility you’ve taken on together, with paperwork and Ikea battle scars to prove it. You have co-ownership of a pedal bin now, damnit. This is serious.
For a while after we bought our flat last year, he addressed me as “my joint tenant”. It was partly a naff joke, partly a tribute to the greatest act of commitment we’d ever made. “Marriages are easier and cheaper to get out of!” we’d quip to friends, shivering with the knowledge it was probably true.
Then, a few months ago, I went back to my high school to do a careers talk, and bumped into one of my former teachers in the staff room. “How are you?” she asked, and then before anything else, “Are you married?”
To my shame, rather than a snappy retort about the patriarchy, I found myself scrambling for a crumb to offer her instead. “No,” I replied, “but… but… we have a mortgage!” Gross.
What I should have said, what I’d like to say, is that our vocabulary should be scrambling to keep pace with the changing world and our ever-evolving relationships. That whether you’ve been together a couple of years or a couple of decades, whether you have a house or kids or plants, or just an incredibly poetic WhatsApp history – long-term relationships built on love, patience and loyalty deserve their own status and respect.
But until I can encourage “half-orange” or “headmatch” to catch on, I’ll probably stick to the introduction that feels most natural, and most personal: “This is my… Matt”.
Images: Getty, Unsplash