What Do We Call the Space Between Committed and Engaged?

There's no label for our relationship... yet

A few months ago, Sam came home from work especially preoccupied. He flung down his wallet and keys, and brushed past me into the kitchen with an armful of grocery bags. I listened to him rustling around, rearranging packages of cheese and berries and sausage, until finally he ventured, “This is weird, but…”

“What’s weird?”

“It’s weird to tell my coworkers I’m going home to make dinner for my… girlfriend. I wish there were a better word for what you are to me.”

And with that, we fell down a semantic rabbit hole and haven’t crawled out yet. For months we’ve been asking each other the same question, and bumping against the same problem: How do we refer to ourselves when talking to other people? Who are you to me?

It’s not a question of what we say between us when the doors are closed. We’ve got our terms of endearment nicely handled. But when he introduces me at a work function, or I talk to an acquaintance about him, it seems like our language sorely limits our options. Boyfriend. Girlfriend. Fiancé/e. Husband. Wife. Spouse.

On the face of it, our relationship shouldn’t be that hard to define. We’re more or less following the twenty-first century young-urban-professional template. We’re two cisgender, heterosexual twentysomethings, in an essentially monogamous relationship. We’ve been together for more than half our adult lives. We live together, and we’ve talked marriage, but we’re not engaged yet and have no immediate plans to be.

We have no legal or pending status that would change our label, and yet our relationship feels deeper and more committed than just boyfriend and girlfriend. As Sam says, “It doesn’t feel right for me to use the same word as somebody who’s been going out with someone for a month.” And yet we can’t seem to find the language to accurately convey the depth of our commitment in a socially acceptable way.

Not that we haven’t been trying. We’ve tried on and discarded at least a dozen terms that, while generally applicable, don’t fit us or our relationship at all. Neither of us believes in “soul mates.” We’re not into pet names, which rules out things like “sweetie” or “honey.” (A former boss once referred to Sam as my “squeeze,” and my brain promptly fell out of my skull.) We both shook our heads at “lover,” which felt like inviting people too far into our private lives. And we agreed that “roomies,” while technically correct, was misleading on every level.

For a while I referred to Sam as my partner, until a friend pointed out that this is an official legal designation—often used by same-sex couples—and that my use of it might be edging toward appropriation. And the related alternatives just don’t work for us. “Partners in crime” was out, since I sometimes use it to refer to my close friends. “Hetero life partners,” clever though it made us feel, ultimately met the same fate.

We’re far from alone. I know so many other people whose relationships exist just beyond the reach of our language for them. Like my aunt, who’s been in a relationship with a lovely man for many, many years. They share custody of a dog, but they don’t live together and have no intention of marrying. So how do I refer to him in conversation? Is he my aunt’s boyfriend? Companion? Co-dog-parent? Gentleman caller?

There are the same-sex couples I know who waited in “boyfriend-girlfriend” limbo until same-sex marriage became legal. Some of these folks can avail themselves of domestic partnerships, but what about those who can’t or won’t? At what point are they allowed to move on to other, more committed terms? And then there are the people I know in poly relationships—across the gender spectrum—whose interactions are so poorly served by our language.

In a way, it feels like a quiet erasure of all those relationship models that don’t directly follow the dating-engagement-marriage path. If we don’t have the words for those alternate journeys, we can’t talk about them, and it becomes easy to either dismiss them as shameful or to deny that they exist. Language is powerful, and the words we give legitimacy really do matter. We have so many near misses—the English language is stuffed to bursting with vocabulary, each word carrying its own nuance. And yet, when it comes time to stick our hands out at the cocktail party, we have so little to fall back on.

At some point, Sam’s and my dilemma will be resolved. If, and when, we get married, we’ll hop right back on the approved linguistic track. But in the meantime, what do I call him when the handshake comes? I want to say, here is the man who kisses my shoulder to wake me up in the morning, who brings me ginger ale when I’ve drunk too much, who gets as excited about etymology and good food as I do. Here is a man who shares my values, who fully supports my creative and career endeavors. Here is the man whom I love, and who loves me. I’m his date to every holiday party, and he’s my plus-one to every wedding. He’s my person. We’re together. The words just need to catch up.

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