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The Dating Game: Say My Name

When I was younger, for a variety of reasons, I was often the dominant partner in my relationships much of the time—something I grew out of once enough heartbreak taught me that being the more dominant partner doesn't protect you from getting hurt.

My senior year in college, I found myself in a serious relationship with Tom, who I'd been friends with throughout much of my time in college—in part because we were very similar people, personality-wise—and neither of us really dominated the relationship. But it was then that I noticed something. Even though we'd known many of his friends individually before we'd become a couple, I slowly stopped being called "Megan" and became "Tom's girlfriend."

And, I hated it. I went from being a person with individual needs and characteristics to being defined entirely by my role in a man's life—and let's not get me started on iterations of it like "the ball and chain." But other than pestering Tom to refer to me by my name around them, and correcting them myself ("Actually, my name's Megan, you might remember"), I didn't feel like there was anything I could do about it.

But then I met and befriended the only other upperclassman in my second semester Italian class: Charlotte. Early on, she made mention of having a partner... and then she referred to her partner as "him." And while it probably seems like stupidly obvious to many people reading, it was the first time I'd heard a woman in a hetero relationship refer to her significant other that way (let alone the first time I'd met a man in a hetero relationship do the same). And I thought it was so cool: I mean, why have a boyfriend, since I wasn't dating a boy?

Tom didn't exactly buy it, but then he didn't end up being around forever either. And the next time I partnered up, more than a year later, I told my new guy, Mike,  that since he was an adult and I was an adult, I didn't want to call one another boyfriend and girlfriend, I wanted us to refer to one another as partners. He agreed, and we both noticed something: our friends and family refused to call us that. But enough corrections, and they didn't call Mike my boyfriend or me Mike's girlfriend, either: I was just Megan, and he was just Mike. Well, according to some of my grad school classmates and a couple family members, I was "Megan the Lesbian," but if the trade-off between having my relationship nomenclature match the equality I wanted in the relationship and having people speculate about my sexual orientation despite the presence of a hairy man-person around, well, I will always choose equality.

 It's not always an easy sell in a hetero relationship, and it was funny running into a few former classmates at an alumni event recently only to be asked if I was still insisting that my boyfriend was my partner (short answer: not the same guy, but, yes, thanks)—but for all the people I've had to correct and all the conversations I've had to have about why it's important to me, it's always been worth it. It's worth it, to me, to ask other people to acknowledge the equality in my relationship, and it's equally nice to leave those who would rather not with no choice other than to say my name—and acknowledge my independence. Besides, why should I have to change my relationship to match someone else's nomenclature or privilege someone else's prejudice? I use language. I'm not going to let it use me.

Image via katerha on Flickr, Creative Commons licensed

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Comments

29 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I go back and forth on the

I go back and forth on the term "partner". Sometimes it feels pretentious, particularly when used by a certain strain of white liberalism where its use (to me anyway) seeks presents heterosexuality as less "boring", thus suggesting that homosexuality is some cutting edge technological advance, rather than just which station a person's directional signal is tuned to.

On the other hand, babbycakes and I are not sharing lockers or making out behind the bleachers and we're kind of old - so boyfriend/girlfriend sounds silly too.

Great post!!!

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

so, how's your girl

My whole idea of relationships changed in seventh grade when I realized that people would talk to me and the first thing would be "So how's ___?" the name of my seventh-grade "boyfriend." (Who like, I didn't even talk to, but that's besides the point. I realized that people saw me as an extension of him, and I made sure that would never be the case again (and it led to the end of a relationship down the road as well, because it was so obvious that to some people I wasn't an individual but someone else's girlfriend.) So thank you for writing about this.

As far as "partner," I'm also kind of conflicted. As a hetero, I feel like I would be co-opting language that gay couples have been able to use to express their relationships, so for now I stick to boyfriend/girlfriend as customary hetero social shorthand.

Partner

@Sherry, as I understand it, the word partner was never meant as a gay-exclusive term, but as an inclusive term that could be applied equally no matter what the gender of the people in the relationship. It's also been advocated as a way to mitigate the perceived worth difference between common law, marriage and dating relationships. So, when it's used regardless of the particular make up of the people involved or the way they have chosen to structure their relationship, it helps to level the privilege playing field a little.

As a lesbian, when I use

As a lesbian, when I use "partner" it's because I want to be ambiguous about whether I'm straight or gay--whether I'm talking to a stranger I'll never come out to, or whether I'm around someone I know and am not out to. So I definitely don't think straight couples who use it are in any way co-opting... in fact, I rely on the fact that straight couples also use it, to make playing the pronoun game easier for me. (God, I hate the pronoun game.)

The pronoun game really is

The pronoun game really is the silliest bit of straight privilege.

it's even more dismal when you're hetero-ly married

Or, at least, I've found. "Wife" and "husband" are depressing, and their cutesy diminuatives are downright nauseating. ("Hubby"? Unless it's in the context of a carton of Ben & Jerry's, I want none of that.) 

My solution is "mate," when I can get away with it. It's sort of Animal Planet-y, with attendent mental images of gorillas holding hands or elephants being all solicitous with one aother. And, like "partner," it carries a sense of having chosen one another. Plus, in other countries it also means "friend," which for me removes it one step further from a ball-and-chain connotation.

Still, not perfect.

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Andi, I love the solution of

Andi, I love the solution of "mate." It's far better than my recent default of "spouse" which sounds so clinical and reminds me of my "Sex Respect" class in high school (ugh).

And Megan, I'm really happy to see you blogging here on Bitch! Great post, I loved that you touched on the issues of naming and ownership - "Tom's girlfriend?" I hate when people call me ___'s wife or assume that I've taken his name. I'm looking forward to your next post.

mate?

I'm sorry, I would never refer to my husband as my "mate" unless it was in some sort of nautical context. That makes it sound like we're both just in it for the mating, which is definitely a fun aspect, don't get me wrong, but certainly not the whole story. We have names and are individuals, but we also made a very public commitment to each other. Being referred to as "Robb's wife" or "Barb's husband" does not make either of us chattel.

____'s wife.

I recently met my fiance's grandparents for the first time and the first thing his grandmother said to me was "So you'll be the next Mrs. (fiance's last name)." The whole family chuckled a bit and finally his father said "That's not really how things are done anymore, Gran..."

To me, "partner" sounds as

To me, "partner" sounds as if it ought to be preceded by "Howdy." Plus, one's partner can also be a business colleague with whom there is no romantic relation at all, so I find that confusing.

Personally, I like "boyfriend" and "girlfriend." The main issue I have with those words is the binary implications they hold (still working out that one...) but I think for binary folk of any sexual orientation there's nothing wrong with them. Maybe it's because I'm trying to reclaim being childlike away from immaturity—both my boyfriend and I are on the autistic spectrum, and we still get excited about little things and dance around randomly like children. That's just how we are, and I find it offensive to suggest that we act like "adults" in order to be respected as humans. I can certainly carry on a conversation with serious people older than I am, but dammit, I don't wanna grow up! This is why I actually prefer being called a girl to being called a woman, even though I'm genderfluid and feel androgynous half the time.

Glad this is being discussed

As a woman who dates other women almost exclusively but is currently involved with a man, I've experienced the name game from a couple of angles in the last few years. While "girlfriend" and "boyfriend" are pretty juvenile terms, I've always enjoyed referring to girlfriends, in part because it provides a casual way to come out. When talking to a new person, mentioning my girlfriend so-and-so in passing clarifies that, yes, I'm queer, without having to have a specific, often framed as OMG-not-heterosexual conversation. ("Do you have a boyfriend?" "Actually...")

However, I never want to refer to the man I'm dating now as "my boyfriend," even though that's what he is. I can't say those words without feeling like a high school girl about which people are gossiping, or like I'm potentially reinforcing nearby less-than-feminists' pigheaded assumptions. ("Oh, those women/girls, so proud to talk about their big boyfriends.") Instead, I speak of him as my "significant other." From my point of view, "partner" implies a semi-permanent commitment, either a legal marriage or its emotional equivalent, so I've never used that one yet, but boy (or girl! ;) ) are people reluctant to let go of their language conceptions. I've been asked, "Significant other? Who says that? What does it meeeeaaan?" though I think the meaning is pretty obvious. Sure, it sounds kind of stiff, but since I'm not comfortable with "partner" at this point, I don't know if there's a better option.

my problem with "partner"...

...is that I've always seen it, when used by gay people, as the equivalent of "husband"/"wife"/"spouse"/what have you, as short for the now dated-sounding (to me) "life partner". In other words, it implies a state of permanence (or intended permanence) that "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" doesn't convey. "Boy/girlfriend" to me, means "person I'm seeing/sleeping with exclusively (or in some kind of negotiated polyamorous deal), but whom I haven't decided is 'it' yet." If someone wanted to start calling me their "partner" at the point in the relationship when usually they'd start calling me their "boyfriend", it would freak me out a bit -- not because the word isn't gendered, but because it would feel like jumping the gun a bit.

Perhaps "lover" (like I said

Perhaps "lover" (like I said above) would be an alternative when "partner" seems too long-term?

re: lover

That always puts me in mind of "I'm Dawn Denbo and this is my lover Cindy." So personally, I would find it hard to call someone my lover with bursting into laughter, but that's just me.

If you think it's complicated already...

First off, I love that last line: "I use language. I'm not going to let it use me."

Want I really wanted to do, though, is throw in my 2¢ as a polyamorous genderqueer/semi-lady-identified person who has been in a relationship with a cis male for quite a few years and also has a some other relationships of varying commitment/intensity/length with folks of various genders and persuasions. Oh yeah.

What I've found is that when talking about my primary relationship with new people, I am careful to use partner, because I've found it's a good way to both signal our commitment and indicate, if the person I'm speaking to is hip to the lingo, some level of queerness.

When speaking with friends or family, though, I've found I often fall back into what feels like the shorthand of boyfriend and girlfriend. I feel like perhaps I'm more comfortable using them in those situations because my gender, sexuality, and relationship structure are already acknowledged by those I'm speaking with, so I don't have to use partner to explain.

Of course, then there's some problematic overlap with the other people I might be seeing at a given time, because I generally refer to those folks as boyfriends or girlfriends when lazy (see above) as well, and, I guess, lovers when I'm differentiating from my main squeeze.

My Boo

It seems that, just like other disputed terminologies and titles, the word people choose to describe their relationship and the person(s) with whom they are having the relationship is specific to their situation. When talking to someone else about a relationship, I usually just see what term they use, and use it when discussing their situation.

I've been in a monogamous relationship with a man for the past 5 1/2 years, and we have lived together for 2 years, and I agree that "boyfriend" seems somehow not substantial enough to describe what we have. "Partner," however, seems to vague and somewhat (to me, anyway) clinical. "Lover" is not something I feel comfortable using around the grandparents and the work environment (my hangup? Society's? I don't know). Usually, I just refer to him by name, although like someone above said, I will occasionally fall back on "boyfriend" because it's fast and easy for many people to understand, even if it doesn't paint the whole picture.

Weirdly, particularly in the context of this article, my boo (<--jocular usage) will occasionally refer to me as his "girl," and the weird part is I think it's cute. I am fully aware of its problems, its precarious placement on the border of misogyny, and yet it still makes me smile. Again, though, I think I'm okay with it because of the specifics of our relationship; it's not used in a possessive or belittling way in our circumstance. I guess it's like me referring to him above as "boo." Maybe I should start calling him my "boy"?

At my wedding I specifically

At my wedding I specifically requested that the words "husband" and "wife" not be used. Our officiant was awesome and totally accommodating. I'm in a hetero partnership and prefer the term "partner" because it engenders equality between us.

I've always thought of us as partners. The words 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend' seem a bit alien to me. I remember someone referring to him as 'your boyfriend' and then your 'fiance' and it always weirded me out. I don't think I've said "my husband" yet to anyone.

In most conversations I'm Jane. He's John (not our real names). But I do feel hesitant using the term partner in front of people who don't know him and therefore would require me to clarify who John is.

Thank you for this post - I'm definitely going to make an effort to break through my hesitation and use the term "partner" more freely. I thought about whether it represents an appropriation of gay relationships, but the term is also used in other contexts (lawyers, police). I really like it, because it makes perfect sense to me when I think about my relationship - my partnership.

Interesting discussion

I'm a lesbian in a committed relationship, and my partner, A, and I usually refer to each other as girlfriends. Personally, I don't have any problem with this, but I wonder if that would be different were I in a relationship with a man. (This is very hard for me to imagine, so I can't really give a straight answer - no pun intended.) The only time it bothers me is when I am speaking about her to someone she's never met - I don't want to keep saying "my girlfriend" over and over again, because then I feel like an ass, but at what point do I slip her name in?

Somehow, though, I feel different about the marriage-y terms. We are engaged, but I feel weird using the word "fiancee." I also feel uneasy about "wife," whereas A is more comfortable with these terms being used about her. It just feels too possessive and normative to me - not to mention inaccurate, since, ahem, we can't actually get *legally* married.

And why is it that "man friend" and "lady friend" have the distinct air of the involved parties being about 80 years old?

In my first serious

In my first serious relationship when I was 16 years old, and my (then) boyfriend never called me his girlfriend, nor did he have any cutesy pet-names for me (like "baby" "sweetheart" etc..). If someone asked him, sure, he'd say "Oh I have a girlfriend." but that was about the extent of it. He also never used my name when he was speaking to me, he'd only use it when he was angry with me/yelling at me. That bothered me the most..I started to hate hearing my name come from his mouth, because it was always when he was frustrated/angry. To his friends, I was "Dan's Girlfriend, Cathy".. that bothered me as well. I was actually surprised when someone said my name aloud. I actually felt quite distant and awkward in our whole 5-year relationship, and a part of it was absolutely because he never addressed me at all besides saying "Hey" to get my attention.. I did manage to become quite zombie-like toward the end of our messed up journey and I had lost who I really was, my likes/dislikes, and my motivation for ANYthing, and while name calling/lack thereof isn't the whole reason, it definitely didn't help any.

Now, I'm 25, and I'm in a wonderful relationship with Mike, but I feel like calling him my "boyfriend" is childlike. I don't mind being called his "girlfriend" but I just wish there was something more mature, but also more pleasant sounding than "partner." He actually uses my name quite often though, when he is speaking about me, and to me. In the beginning of our relationship, it felt weird to hear my name so often.. but my older sister gave me some nice advice: She told me that if someone you're dating never says your name, there's a certain level of respect missing from your relationship. It does take respect and confidence to look someone in the eyes, and say they're name to them. Another thing that's better this time around, is that to our friends, I'm Cathy (and not "Mike's Girlfriend, Cathy")... and he has a cutesy nickname for me ("Cupcake" - because I bake a lot.) I don't mind the nickname, I think it's unique to our situation, and thoughtful (different from your everyday, run-of-the-mill "sweetie" or "baby".) He has admitted that this is the first relationship where he's ever had a nickname for his girlfriend. There is a nice balance of the nickname, and my real name, which is fine. But I've told him (probably 100 times by now) if we end up in our 30's, and not married, I will no longer call him my "boyfriend" and I do not want to be referred to as his "girlfriend" because I feel like the older we get, the less serious that phrase is taken, and maybe then I will have grown to accept the term "partner" as more fitting.

Aside from my personal experiences, one phrase that has always bothered me is: "Man and Wife"
Not "Husband and wife"... but "MAN and wife"
I never, ever, ever want to hear those words at my wedding. Because it's either "husband and wife" or "man and woman" .. but to say "Man and Wife" makes it sound like the man doesn't change anything but all of a sudden the woman loses, well, being a woman, and is now defined as being only a wife. *head desk* I don't hear it that often anymore, but when I do, I get upset.. but everyone just kind of laughs it off and chalks it up to tradition and all this other nonsense. Bah.

I use 'partner'

GREAT article, thanks for bringing this up. I do also particularly like your last line.

I'm a heterosexual woman in my early 30s who has been with the same fellow for 8+ years. We have no immediate plans for marriage and no plans to split up as we both consider this a permanent relationship. I've long used 'partner' instead of 'boyfriend' since it feels really sophomoric to refer to our relationship that way - as if there's a level of impermanence that we don't feel. Plus, you know, we're not in high school. But that's entirely my level of comfort and my read of the word. I would feel weird if he referred to me as his girlfriend, and he both understands and thinks the same way about these words.

We're currently living in the UK, and this is the second time that I've lived here. The first time I noticed it seems that in this culture it's more common for couples to be in long-term relationships without marriage, and they generally refer to each other as 'partners.' This goes for any sexual orientation. Obviously my evidence is colloquial and I can't back that up with studies or stats, but that sort of nomenclature struck me as a good one for the relationship I was in (and am still in.) When I moved back to the US I struggled with the American connotations of 'partner,' which implied that I was either in a business arrangement or a non-heterosexual relationship, and while I didn't have a problem with the misconception I also didn't want to misrepresent my relationship, simply in the idea of being honest. I eventually said 'eff it' to whatever people wanted to perceive of my relationship and continued to use 'partner.'

Another phrase I'm a stickler on is being introduced by name first, as in, "This is Kate, my partner" as opposed to "This is my partner, Kate," the first subtly placing the importance on me as an individual and then my relationship to my partner while the second labels me before indentifying me as an individual. We both make an effort to do this, although most of the time the introductions just go "This is Kate" or "This is Jeff" without any clarifications.

de facto partner

I moved to Australia a few years back with my then-boyfriend (now husband...a word that still feels really strange to say). Here, people say 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend' if the relationship is new-ish (say, less than a year) and if the couple doesn't live together. If the relationship is quite permanent and/or the couple is living together, then 'partner' is used - for every type of couple. If you live together for more than a year (I think - can't remember the exact time period), the government recognizes you as having 'de facto' status, meaning you get the same rights, tax-wise etc, as a married couple. This status is open to same-sex couple as well as heteros.

Australia isn't perfect, by far, but in this respect they're miles (kilometres?) ahead of the US.

Someone's Girlfriend

I didn't have my first boyfriend until I was 16. I remember that first morning at school when we walked through the halls holding hands. I was so happy. Then I got to my first class and a guy I had NEVER talked to before said to me, "Hey, I saw you this morning with your boyfriend." Immediately I was like WTF? I was invisible to this guy before, but as soon as he saw that another male had taken an interest in me I was worthy of his attention. That wasn't the first seed of feminist rage in my life, but it was definitely one of those moments I remember as a building block of my feminism.

still wrestling with these semantics too

My, ahem, boyfriend and I both feel that the words "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" have some kind of diminutive connotation about them, though we haven't yet found satisfactory alternatives. When we were first seeing each other, I referred to him as my man-friend because somehow that implied a mature man (he's now 48) with whom I was not yet serious. We got serious quickly, though, and over three years later, we live like a married couple but don't have the simplicity of the terms "husband" and "wife". In the meantime, when it makes sense, I refer to him as my other half, or when introducing myself to someone who already knows him, I'll call myself "C's other half". I guess "significant other" is the next best thing, but it's such a mouthful.

I feel like being called

I feel like being called someone's other half (or calling someone yours) is even more diminutive than boyfriend or girlfriend, because it implies that neither you nor your partner are full people. I think if I introduced C as my other half, I'd be portraying the sentiment that I'm less without him, that I need him in order for any value to be assigned to me. I've been head over heels in love with "him" for just over three years, and while I understand the feeling of loving and needing someone in such a deep way, I think it's important, especially in the context of a blog like this, to remember that we're all individuals. We've been ourselves for our whole lives, and someone can come along and rock your world and that still doesn't mean your individuality should be sacrificed. I think the key to having a good relationship with someone is to always have a better one with yourself. Why would I wanna be with someone who's half a person without me??? I fell in love with C's heart and mind and talents (okay, and body), because he was an amazing person before I came along and I love getting to be a part of his life, and having him be a part of mine. But if he's gone someday, I have ME! And come on, that's awesome.

Boyfriend

Has anyone besides me used My significant other.
When I'm angry with him I use My Insignificant other.

Sometimes

There's a lot of syllables to it so it gave way to 'partner' for me. Though I used to shorten it to 'sig-o'. Some people caught on.

"Shorty" is clearly the solution here

I've decided whomever I'm in a relationship with next has to call me his "shorty."

This, of course, presents the question of what will I call him? My "tall-y"?

Good post

It's funny to me to stumble on this article because I just asked my...uhm...partner to start calling me his partner and not his girlfriend, about a month ago. I do think it sounds clinical and a bit odd in America for a heterosexual couple to go by the term "partner"--but I told him I don't mind if he calls me his girlfriend to people he knows when I am not around, since people just don't understand the term partner, but that he shouldn't call me his girlfriend to my face. The first time I told him I didn't want to be called his girlfriend, he actually started crying (this was over the phone, so he couldn't tell my facial expressions,etc) because he thought I was breaking up with him! Thank god I explained afterwards. So far, he has slipped up a couple of times and called me his girlfriend...but I think I'll just have to gently remind him. We're both 25 and somehow I feel like I have long outgrown the labels of girlfriend/boyfriend and need a more mature term signifying more permanence as well (we are planning a permanent relationship, and marriage). Anyways this article was cool, maybe I'll send the link to my partner! (sounds very Western...I need to get a cowboy hat)

this conversation about partners and stuff

well im still in school yes i know yall are all older then me but my words my help(i hope) but when i think of partner i think its a little wierd and i like the idea of my signifcant other but its a little grown-up for me to be using lol but use whatever you think best suits you and the way you feel and if your "other" doesnt like this name try to discuss it but in a careful manor dont get angry about the issue just be happy you have and love each other:)