What do you call the person you’re only sort-of dating?

One of the most exciting things about dating is how it’s a relatively new phenomenon: it wasn’t too long ago that single young people were getting heteronormatively married off to the offspring of neighbouring farms.

Social norms around sex and romance, and the ways that we experience them, continue to evolve and change with the advent of new facilitating factors, whether that be the influx of women into the workplace, more easily accessible sex education, the contraceptive pill, or more recently, apps like Tinder and Grindr.

But despite a constantly shifting landscape where sexuality and gender are more openly fluid than ever before, the way we talk about sex and love remains largely the same. We still categorize partners in terms that are either old-fashioned and gendered (the boyfriend becomes the fiancé becomes the husband), or casually dismissive (“fuck buddy” might as well be a “fuck you, buddy”). Is the language of love a bit, well, dated?

According to JR Thorpe at Bustle, the word “boyfriend” belies a failure of imagination when it comes to recognizing the variety and validity of relationships outside of marriage. She cites the increase in the number of unmarried cohabiting partners in the United States as evidence that “marriage isn’t the guarantor of a grown-up relationship any more (if it ever was).”

And the usual gendered terms don’t necessarily apply to couples where one or both parties are non-binary. A very sweet subplot in the most recent season of Netflix sitcom One Day At A Time revolved around a character’s quest to find the perfect romantic descriptor for their friend’s gender non-conforming sweetheart.

So how do people like to refer to their own relationships? I asked the folk of Twitter. One person said: “I like partner because it’s gender neutral and sounds like you could be partners in crime, lawyers, detectives, or ranchers. Mysterious!” Another explained that she uses “partner” because while she is in a long term committed relationship, she doesn’t aspire to marriage, and “boyfriend” leads people to inquire as to when she’s getting engaged.

In same-sex relationships, some people use “partner” as a purposely-vague term if they don’t feel safe enough to disclose their sexual orientation. Others intentionally say “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” so that their sexuality isn’t erased in the conversation.  A few gay men added that they like to use “boyfriend” over “partner” because it was a word they never got to use as teenagers, and it still gives them a frisson of excitement when they say it out loud.

Another commenter explained that in their native Norway, boyfriend and girlfriend are considered juvenile terms and not commonly used: the non-gendered “kjæreste,” which translates to “dearest”, is a rather nice option. I guess the closest contemporary analogues we have are “bae” or “boo”, both of which, coming out of my mouth, would make me sound a hundred years old.

Interestingly, many people seem to think “boyfriend” is a juvenile term for a relationship that might not be very serious, when I have still yet to graduate to that stage. To me, “boyfriend” signifies the moment when the free trial period ends and the real subscription begins. I’ve never dated anybody for longer than two months, and so I sometimes feel like I can’t use words like “boyfriend” or “relationship” when talking about my experiences, because those encounters, while meaningful, don’t really fit into the tidy way we’ve been conditioned to talk about love, where ending up with somebody is the end goal.

Image:  Mari Fedi

Image: Mari Fedi

Sometimes I’ll talk about my new beau, a word that buds with the excitement of a new romance, but which also feels old-fashioned and a little twee for my liking. Then, from time to time I will try out the word “lover”, which appeals to the dramatist in me. There’s something ever so baroque about the word, as if it should be said while descending a grand staircase with a cigarette in one hand and a brandy in the other. “Lover” is cosmopolitan and perhaps more fitting, especially when inhabiting that grey area where you’re first seeing someone (or multiple someones).

We also have no real language for once the brief entanglement ends. While these short-lived romantic experiences can be fulfilling and enriching in their own way, I still don’t feel right saying I’ve “broken up” with someone if I was seeing them for less time than it takes for a full season of Drag Race to air, as I believe it would diminish the pain and upheaval that comes with the end of longer, committed partnerships. Similarly, the word “ex” carries its own weight, an implication of shared history and intimate knowledge of each other. It might be more accurate to describe my former lovers as “almosts.” As in: “Oh, that’s Alex. He was my almost.”

I think it’s time we broaden our vocabulary. Language gives us incredible power; the ability to articulate our desires, to express exactly how we feel about ourselves and other people. And as we continue to progress into this exciting new paradigm where conversations about gender and sexuality become more nuanced and complex, it will be increasingly necessary for us to devise a new taxonomy of relationships.

Some of the gender non-conforming folk in my replies came up with suggestions that they use in their own lives. “Umfriend” is great for the socially awkward, e.g.: “this is my, um, friend.”  “Datemate” was another particularly cute gender-free coinage, as it refers specifically to the initial courtship period. One socialist-skewing follower suggested “comrade,” which I also kind of love, mainly because it reminds me of the central love story in Hanya Yanigihara’s A Little Life.

We have a fun opportunity here, to play with language and come up with new terms of endearment that best describe the unique romantic situations we find ourselves in. What works for one pairing might not work for another, but there are no wrong answers. (Unless you call your significant other “The Boy.” That’s garbage.)