One of the unexpectedly nice things about being single again is no longer having to worry about what to call him. When we first starting dating, a decade ago, he had no idea how to introduce me to people for the first time. “Girlfriend” felt too juvenile to a man who was 50 years old and the father of two grown children. For a while he took to calling me his “friend,” and I let him know pretty quickly that if he expected “benefits,” he had better upgrade my title.
His son eventually solved the problem (for him, anyway) by dubbing me “Dad’s special lady friend,” and it kind of stuck. So for years he’d call me that with a smile, and I suspected it allayed any deeper sense of awkwardness that might arise from being in his 50s and being unmarried.
I, on the other hand, remained flummoxed. “Boyfriend” was OK, but it felt inadequate for someone who would help my father out of the Alzheimer’s ward and struggle like Ahab to get him into a wheelchair and out for a Saturday dinner in a restaurant. Archie was Betty’s boyfriend. Surely the man with whom I intended to grow old was more than that.
As I continued to grapple with this issue, I did what I always do when stymied by a deep philosophical issue: I posted a query on Facebook. Replies came in from all corners of the globe, some helpful, many amusing, all enlightening. While this may not have been the most scientific approach to collecting suitable names for one’s romantic partner to whom one is not married, everyone agreed that there is a void that deserves to be filled.
What We Call Our Spouse Equivalents
“Boyfriend” and “girlfriend” are the most widely used, but most people agree they feel a bit puerile. Many chimed in with “my other half,” “my better half,” “honey,” “sweetheart,” “beloved,” “lover” (or its quirky variant, “lovah”), “beau,” “sweetheart,” “significant other.” A few contemporaries noted that the jargon of our youth is more appropriate now than then: “old man,” “old lady.” And while some folks use “partner” or “romantic partner,” the majority felt that term connotes business colleague or same sex — not, as many were quick to add, that there’s anything wrong with it.
Two different unmarried-parent female friends said they call him their “baby daddy.” One commented, “When someone comes out and asks if we’re married, we say, ‘Nah, we’re just doing the Brangelina thing.’”
Some people refuse to get too worked up over it. One friend, a divorced guy, adds levity by calling his special lady friend “the” girlfriend. Another says he has two names: At first, he calls them HSE (Hope Springs Eternal), but eventually switches to his “insignificant other.” And more than one recently wed friend, when asked what they used to call each other, replied, “Why do you think we got married?”
This brings up a related issue, another linguistic sticky wicket: what to call the ex. The same group of thoughtful friends offered suggestions, but most of them were unsuitable for publication. My personal favorite: “was-band.” The tactful consensus: “my kids’ father (or mother).”
But none of these were right for me the day I was shopping with my ex in Home Depot. He was in lumber, I was picking doorknobs. After explaining a lot of details, the salesman asked me which one I wanted. Even though we were divorced, I still valued my ex’s opinion on all things matériel. But I stood there speechless, not knowing how to finish a sentence that began, “Thanks, but I need to go ask …”
Saying his name would have been too familiar. “Ex-husband” was TMI. “Father of my kid” totally inappropriate. I decided to simply say “him,” but with enough emphasis to imply something. And I smiled at the man in the orange apron and left it at that.
Suzanne Gerber is the editor of the Living & Learning channel.