“Partner” is a term people use to refer to their significant others. It’s used by all sorts of couples, regardless of the gender identities of the people in the couple.
Why would somebody use “partner” to describe a significant other?
Writing for Bustle, Averi Clements laid out six reasons, one of which is that “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” sound too juvenile to some people:
If you think of a pair of awkward sixteen-year-olds getting tangled up in each other’s braces when you hear the terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” you’re not alone. The words seem almost childish (not that “manfriend” and “womanfriend” sound a whole lot better), and then we have to clarify what we mean when we hang out with our platonic “gal friends” or “guy friends” so no one thinks we’re just dating our entire social group. The word “partner” sounds a lot more grown-up and a lot less like you’re clinging to middle school memories.
So it’s a substitute for “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”?
Some people might use “partner” and still also use those terms. Some people might also use “partner” instead of “husband” or “wife.”
Why would someone use “partner” instead of “husband” or “wife”?
Because, Clements explained, partner has the advantage of being gender-neutral:
There are lots of people who don’t feel like they fit the traditional label of being male or female, so it would seem obvious that words such as “girlfriend” or “husband” might be a bit too rigid for them. The word “partner,” however, doesn’t have a gender, which makes it great for people who identify as a third gender… Even if you and your S.O. are perfectly happy identifying as male or female, it’s kind of nice just to be able to use the same term to refer to each other.
So if one of the people in the couple is non-binary, then “partner” is perfect.
Are there other reasons why married people would use “partner”?
There are! Lindsay King-Miller explained in a piece for Role Reboot why she prefers “partner” over “wife”:
When someone says “wife,” I picture a very specific kind of person. For me, the word conjures June-Cleaver-esque middle-class white femininity, a certain kind of aesthetically pleasing docility and domesticity. For you, it might be something somewhat different, but I’d be willing to bet there’s an image in your head of who a wife is, what she wears, how she interacts with her spouse. Same goes for “husband.” Partner, though—it’s wide open. Who can be a partner? Anyone who is working with someone else. To what end? It’s up to the individuals in question. Partner means charting your own course.
So married people also use “partners”?
Some do, and some do not. It will depend wholly on the couple. Washington Post columnist Steven Petrow explained that when he and his husband got married, dropping “partner” was a no-brainer:
First of all, it is confusing. Before we married, Jim and I called each other “partners,” and I can’t tell you how many times we were asked, “What business are you guys in?” I also asked Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami, plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case that overturned Prop. 8 in California, for their take: “Once married, we switched from calling each other ‘partner’ to ‘husband.’ We have personally fought so hard to use that word and it DOES matter. Everyone knows what that word means. It has global recognition. And we love saying it, too!”
“Partner” does sound like a business relationship, doesn’t it?
It can, though writer Jen Doll explained in a piece for The Week that in most contexts, people will get what one means by “partner”:
I’d long looked askance at “partner,” finding it more suited to a business relationship or life on the range than to romantic affiliations, but all of a sudden, my eyes were being opened to its potential. People understood it easily; I never once thought anyone was trying to introduce me to the angel investor in their Etsy T-shirt shop as opposed to the person they were dating. It didn’t come with the weight (or the complications) of institutional acceptance. It didn’t leave anyone out. You could say it and no one asked you for proof, or looked at your hands for a wedding band.
So there’s no consensus on what to call someone, eh?
It will vary by couple. Some people, like Petrow and his husband, will want to be called husbands, not partners. Other people might be legally married, but for the reasons Clements mentioned, will want to go by “partner.”
In a 2012 piece for The New York Times, Petrow explained that if you aren’t sure, ask:
When in doubt, don’t be shy about asking directly: “How would you like me to introduce the two of you?” It’s not a nosy question — it’s a respectful one. What you really want to avoid doing is “downgrading” a couple’s status. For instance, I recently overheard a gay friend in a long-term relationship refer to his better half as his “spouse” only to hear one of the straight folks ask him minutes later what kind of work his “friend” did. With all that it took for them to make their relationship legal in New York, my pal was not about to settle for “friend” to describe the man he’s been partnered with for nearly three decades. “We really prefer to be referred to as spouses,” he noted for the record.
Defer to the people in the couple, and use what terms they use to describe each other.
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