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What Do You Call a Significant Other When You're Not Sleeping Together?
I coined the phrase “um-friend” for people that you might be sleeping with but don't really know how to introduce to your family; as in, "This is my...um...friend."
by Claire Litton
When it comes to the vast range of human relationships, our vocabulary is seriously lacking. There's a Swedish word that means "the connection you have to someone when you've both had sex with the same third party" but no English word for the same thing. My ex-husband and I coined the phrase “um-friend” for people that you might be sleeping with but don't really know how to introduce to your family; as in, "This is my...um...friend." Most people I know have struggled over what to call their significant other, which in itself sounds too clinical: the faux-politically-correct "partner"? "Girlfriend" smacks of middle school. "Lover" has a heavy-breathing quality to it that makes the focus more on the act of love and less on the person. An ex-boyfriend once suggested "crewmate", as in, we're all crewing this ship together, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
A couple of years ago, I met someone I don't have a word for. Sky is a small, enthusiastic activist who writes hilarious emails and quickly became one of the most important people in my life. We've picnicked in the park, supported each other through breakups, family problems, and confusing sexual urges. Once when she was sick, I took public transit over to her house, let myself in with her spare key, gave her a kiss on the forehead where she lay sniffling on the couch, washed her dishes, made her tea, and left. We wrote an academic book chapter together, and have always been available to each other on Skype, phone, email, text, and various social media. I met her family; she’s met me at work with snacks. We were totally uninterested in each other sexually, but had no problem with sleeping all snuggled up in a bed.
We eventually realized there was no word to describe the kind of relationship we had. A lot of the support we were giving each other -- the notes of congratulations, the backup at parties -- was the kind you traditionally get only from your love partner. Most of your friends, best or otherwise, don't text you nonstop every day or regularly take you to visit their grandparents. They don't pack you a lunch to take to work. Those are the kind of things partners do, the emotional caretaking wives do. So, we started calling each other "wife". Wives are the ones who ask you how your day was, make you tea, and darn your socks. Neither of us are big fans of traditional roles, so "wife" wasn't quite right either...but it was the best we had.
This led to some funny moments. We were walking through a nightclubby part of town after Greek dancing one evening, when a bachelorette party spilled out of a nearby bar and overheard me call Sky "my wife". Drunken enthusiasm ensued as they all patted us on the back and told us we made a great couple.
But we weren't a couple the way most people meant it. Trying to describe how we interacted became increasingly more complex, although the relationship itself has always been pretty easy. A month or so ago, I participated in a research study through McGill University, where they were testing the effects of stress on facial recognition. I sat down at the computer and the first question asked me to think of a loved one: I picked Sky. The following questions asked me to imagine situations wherein this loved one moved to another country or stopped contacting me, presumably to engender stress at the idea of being abandoned. I stared at the computer in confusion, because I literally could not imagine a situation wherein Sky and I would lose contact.
Emotions don't happen in words, so we're all basically translating whenever we try to talk about them -- as my mother frequently laments, it's a miracle we can manage to communicate to anyone at all, ever. Think of all the stilted conversations you've ever had with a lover, a parent, a friend where you tried to explain exactly what "I feel sad" meant, and you might recognize what I'm talking about.
Words are also fraught with context. What do you MEAN when you say "I love you?" Do you mean "I would like to engage in a mutually supportive monogamous sexual relationship with you and possibly raise children together"? Or do you mean "You are a wonderful person and I enjoy having you in my life", without any implications about the future? Nobody ever asks after someone says it, and most of society tells us we should only be saying it to our boyfriends or girlfriends, our potential life partners, our lovers. What if you have a one night stand with someone you really value as a human being but don't want to sleep with again, and feel great affection for them in the short term? Can you say you love them?
If the meaning of words to describe people is so contextual and fluid anyway, language becomes a bit absurd. Why not just make up our own words to describe things, even if nobody else ever uses them? It would be just as effective as using the ones we've got, which can't convey entirely what we mean anyway. If our relationships are so diverse, maybe the language we use to talk about them should be equally diverse, not restricted as if there are only so many "love"s to give out or as if there weren’t an infinite number of names to call them.
At the beginning of the year, I also met Marcus. Marcus is golden-haired and has one of the best smiles I've ever seen. He is feminist and hilariously quick-witted; he makes friends with aplomb and is up for basically any adventure. We frequently stand around at parties with arms wrapped around each other and we’ve never run out of things to talk about. He's cute and fun and I adore him; if he wasn't as gay as they come, I'd have jumped on him like a Boston Creme doughnut.
Our relationship isn't very complicated: I love him, he loves me. We get along great, talk for literally hours every night on instant messenger. There is nothing he could ask me that I wouldn't do. From the outside, we look like we're dating: we're always touching or holding hands and I’m the big spoon when he sleeps over. I'd rather eat cupcakes with Marcus than go on any uninspired lackluster OkCupid date. Just like Sky, we've got all the emotional depth and physical affection without any kind of sexual component.
There's no good word for Marcus either. He's not my boyfriend. He's more than a friend but not a lover. He's...Marcus.
Language is primarily an issue because we don't have good ways to explain our loved ones to other people. I don't have any internal waffling about what Marcus or Sky mean to me: I know exactly how our relationships work and the places they fill in my heart. But when I want to identify them to the rest of the world with the importance that they deserve, I don't have a good way to do that. I want to do that, want to make sure everyone realizes how awesome they are and how enthusiastically committed I am to each relationship. But I don't know how to say it.