We’ve all had that moment. You’re talking about that person you’re dating, and suddenly a descriptor pops out of your mouth that sounds a bit off. Or alternately, someone asks you about your “boyfriend” or “partner" ... and it just sounds wrong and you bristle.
Regardless of whether you have a word that you love to use for the people you date or you have a short list of tolerable options, the reality is there are some options out there from which to choose. Each has its own specific connotation — for instance, some people choose “partner” over “boyfriend” to convey a sense of equality and maybe not immediately tell the world the gender of your lover. (There's also a dearth of words for when you’re dating genderqueer people, because so many of the options are gendered.) Other people like to keep it light and funny with cutesy names like “doodlebug” or “dumpling” (hey I don’t make this stuff up, you do).
Regardless of what you choose, everyone’s got an opinion on what they like to be called, and what they like to hear themselves called. So we asked 16 Bustle readers to weigh in on what words they like to use to address and describe the person they're with— and which ones make them want to run screaming from the conversation.
1. Stella, 28
"I really like the word "sweetie" or "lover" to talk about the people I'm involved with romantically. "Partner" feels serious so I use it in situations where people don't take my partnerships seriously (like persons from former generations who don't get my ethically non-monogamous lifestyle) but it seems a bit too much like a legal designation to convey the totally free-wheeling, open, loving thing I’ve got going. I don't love "girlfriend" or "boyfriend" because I date adults damnit! My mom's always trying to get me to use "main squeeze" which I think is delightful and hilarious but has never quite caught on."
2. Russell, 33
"I notice that I tend to shift the way I talk about my significant other depending on the community I'm talking to and how serious or silly I'm feeling. I tend to never use boyfriend of girlfriend because I feel like it places that relationship inside societal expectations of gender roles, which is not something I want — but on the rare occasion I don't want questions and don't want to give too much insight to the people I'm talking to (some work situations), I do use boyfriend or girlfriend. I generally use 'sweetie' if I'm with people who get my lifestyle choices, 'partner' for people who don't, and 'lover' for people who really get me because I can't really say lover with a straight face."
3. E, 29
"There was a long period of time when my SO and I were clear that we wanted to spend our lives together but [were not yet] "officially" engaged. I hated using "boyfriend/girlfriend" by then because (a) it sounded juvenile to me, (b) it connoted a lower level of commitment then what I felt at the time, and (c) I am not a big fan of having to declare my partner's gender when it's not directly relevant to the conversation. I complained about this once to my dad, and together we came up with "life buddy" as a suitable, commitment-appropriate, gender-neutral term. It stuck. My partner and I even ended up incorporating the term into our wedding vows (as well as "accountabilibuddy," which we lovingly appropriated from South Park). Even now that we are spouses, I continue to like using "life buddy" because our legal/formal commitment to one another is less important to me than our emotional/spiritual one, which we had long before we got married.
I am also a big fan of "partner" because for most of my life my parents were in a long-term, committed, monogamy-not-required life partnership. They referred to each other as partners, so that word brings up feelings of home and security to me. When I'm in a more formal situation, or when I don't feel like explaining "life buddy," I usually use "partner" instead.
4. Terra, 26
"The words I use most are sweetie (for someone I'm sweet on, dating regularly), partner for more serious/integrated relationships, and lover or friend/lover for friends and lovers. I also will describe someone as a: "person I like," "person I have a crush on," "dear friend who I sometimes have sex with," and "person I feel sparkly about". I don't use boyfriend/girlfriend for my relationships because I just don't like it, something about the baggage that comes with it and implied monogamy (for me)."
5. Bridget, 27
"I am a married gay lady who is between a lot of words. I live in a very liberal area, so saying "partner" just makes me sound like a really sensitive/hip straight person. I like that "girlfriend" and "wife" confirm that my partner is female, confirming that I am gay. For that reason, I wasn't really into "fiancee" because I didn't want to have to correct people when they asked about "him". Wife sounds too serious and girlfriend doesn't sound serious enough so I've taken the Dan Savage approach (he calls his husband his HUSSSband) and I call my wife my VIFE. It allows me to not take myself too seriously/feel too much like an adult while still acknowledging that we are serious enough to be married. And that when I am forced to move for work soon, she will move with me.
My friends and I all refer to our SO's as our "slam piece" because it is hilarious, fun, and sex positive. Or at least the way we use it, it is."
6. Consuela, 32
"In casual situations I appreciate: fancy friend, special lady friend, my person. In Italian, the word for the person you are engaged to is the same word for the person you are in a serious relationship with — so you can use it in serious contexts: fidanzato/fidanzata. Hopefully, I only find myself in situations where I need to speak about how serious my relationship status is in Italian."
7. George, 32
"The old habit of using "girlfriend" persists, but doesn't feel right. I like "partner" where appropriate, but it lacks the tone of endearment I want to convey when introducing or speaking about her. Lover carries a more sexual connotation than I usually want to convey. I'm still after a term that really feels right, but until I really settle on one (perhaps ladypartnerfriend?) I'll likely continue to bounce between my first two options."
8. Jessica, 28
"At the risk of being entirely basic, I really enjoy the boyfriend/girlfriend monikers. To be fair, I wait a while before allowing someone to assign me that title, but once assigned I wear it like a comfy old sweater. It’s kind of gross and old fashioned but nothing is cozier or makes me feel more secure. And I will also use partner if I feel like being more impressive and au currant."
9. Moth, 27
"We live together, we are not married, and I constantly struggle to find the word that reflects the depth of our connection without the possession that I feel goes along with 'boyfriend' 'girlfriend' or even 'partner'. (Confession: whenever someone tells me about their 'partner' I actually see a cartoon image of two laughing cowboys in an old Western flipping and firing their guns and shouting 'howdy partner!'). I use 'honey' or 'boo,' occasionally 'significant' or even 'S.O.' I often introduce him as my friend. For me, that's the most special kind of human relationship. Other favorites include 'gentleman caller' and 'gorgeous hunk'.
When we first started dating, I actually felt physical revulsion when someone would refer to me as his 'girlfriend'. The revulsion has subsided over time, but the term still makes me squirm. The one thing I could never countenance, no matter my marital status, is for anyone to ever call me their 'wife'. No f*cking way."
10. Zoe, 39
"There are no words I really like for this. I say "boyfriend" to most people for the sake of easy understanding, even though I don't like the word. I am fond of "my man," but that can be confusing when I have more than one. I say "partner" when talking to the ethical non-monogamy community. I say "lover" when I'm not serious about someone. I've been using "mi novio" in South America, and I think I'll use "mi amor" as well in the future (for people I'm very serious about). I love having crushes so I use "my crush" before I'm actually involved with someone."
11. Hannah, 23
"I identify as a 23 year old queer woman interested in women an non-binary people. When dating women I have often defaulted to girlfriend, but always found it quite frustrating when other people used the term girlfriend to refer to their friends because it felt belittling to my very real relationships. I also don't love that the word "friend" is in there because it's not a friendship. This is also hard for dating non-binary people because it requires gender to be part of the word. I've also gravitated towards the word "partner," but it feels a little weighted and legal, like what you would call your wife before gay marriage was legalized. So for the most part I say S.O. or "my person" because that's what they are, another person who is significant to my life."
12. Amanda, 25
"My wife and I have been together for about 4 and 1/2 years? Married for a little over a year. I always use the word 'wife' to describe her because I feel like it makes straight people view our relationship as legitimate (although, of course, it is in and of itself). We had a really long engagement so it was both validating and frustrating to use the word 'fiancé' because it was assumed 99% of the time that she was a man. And then before that, using 'girlfriend' is a minefield too because straight people ALWAYS assume I mean 'friend' before person I am in a relationship with. I absolutely loathe the word partner — we do not run a business together. I also hate the word lover, because it's cheesy as f*ck."
13. Johanna, 32
"I struggle with this a lot. I currently call the person with whom I'm in the most serious relationship my 'partner.' I've found that some people are skeptical that a committed, loving, non-monogamous relationship can also be serious, so I like the gravity that 'partner' conveys. I use 'boyfriend' sometimes, but I don't love it (I'm too old for a boyfriend). The people with whom I have a less frequent and/or primarily sexual relationship I refer to as 'lovers.' My mom refers to my current relationships as 'your young man' when talking about my partner and 'the hot soccer player' when referring to my lover."
14. Olivia, 26
"When I was younger I'd always refer to them as boyfriends, regardless if we were monogamous. My friends grandmother always asked how my "boyfriends" were and I'd respond, "they’re fine". After being engaged twice and learning to despise the word fiancé or boyfriend, I switched to "partner". I feel that when I say partner it implies we are equal, we are serious, and we are malleable. I have run into people assuming that my "partner" is a woman or trans, until meeting him. Before we became more exclusive, my partner referred to me as, "Olivia the person I'm dating" because he likes to evade labels."
15. Nicole, 32
"I love the word partner because it's gender neutral and implies an equality in a relationship that I feel other labels lack. At the same time, I also love calling him My Man because I like celebrating the fact that he's a sexy, kind, intelligent male that I get to come home to every day."
16. Alexis, 26
"My now husband and I have been together since we were 19/20yrs old. Over the past few years, before we got married, we've discussed what we wanted to "label" our relationship. Saying boyfriend/girlfriend felt childish, saying partner didn't feel right to us, and definitely saying husband/wife was out of the question. We finally settled on life partner and soul mate. We both feel that those two have, to us, a deeper meaning. It means we're one. It connects us on a level where we're both equal in our relationship. Now that we're married, we say husband/wife, but still use in private soulmate/ life partner."
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