In the comments of this post the other day, someone pointed out that I referred to the LW’s significant other as her “boyfriend” when she had referred to him in her letter as her “partner.” The commenter said:
Wendy, he is not her ‘boyfriend’, he is her partner. Why do you always respond to people who reference their partners by referring to the partners as boyfriends/girlfriends? The term ‘boyfriend’ (or ‘girlfriend’) is dismissive and disrespectful when used in reference to adults, as it implies that the relationship is immature and invalid only because it is not bound by traditional marriage. This man is not a boy, nor is he a friend; he is an adult partner.
The commenter is both right and wrong here. I don’t “always” change the descriptor to boyfriend and girlfriend. (Here’s one example of many where in lieu of a descriptor from the LW, I went with “partner” in both the headline and my response.) But if someone gives me the language he or she wants used, that’s what I should use, and I haven’t always done that. I didn’t even realize I was making this switch as often as I do, but I don’t think my subconscious reason for the switch is to be dismissive or disrespectful. I think in headlines, “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” is a little more descriptive. Does “partner” mean “business partner” or “romantic partner”? It’s unclear. There’s no confusion with “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” I also think people are more likely to find my posts doing Google searches for “my boyfriend” instead of “my partner,” so for SEO purposes, partner doesn’t work quite as well. But, whatever. Those aren’t big things, and I will be better about honoring the phrases and descriptors people use in their letters to me, qualifying their relationships.
This got me thinking about the language we use for our relationships, and I wanted to find out if I somehow missed the memo that everyone has switched to “partner” except me. Or maybe it’s a generational thing and Gen Xers like I am are more apt to go with “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” to describe a significant other one of us is committed to but not, like, super committed to as in life partners with yet. And maybe it’s just the younger generations – millennials and Gen Zers – who use “partner” for significant other. I posed the question in my instagram stories, asking if people use “partner” exclusively for their significant other, or if they use “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”
I got lots of varying responses:
It seems that if there was a consensus, it was that people – across generations and across sexual identities – definitely still say “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” though “partner” is common, too, and most people wouldn’t be offended if someone else referred to their significant others as any of the above. The commenter who said my use of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” is dismissive and disrespectful seems to be in the minority in feeling that way (and, as BGM pointed out here, some gay people don’t like the use of “partner” because of it’s historical anti-gay marriage use). But I’ll pose the question here, too: What language do you use to describe a significant other? If you use “partner,” is there a time frame – say, six months, one year – or a milestone – like moving in together – when you start using it? Do you always avoid “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” or “partner,” and, if so, why?