TL;DR: Avoid the words “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” because they are inherently gendered and exclude many people’s reality. “Romantic Companion” is a good alternative that works across gender and relationship types.
Since I got hints of gender theory at university it’s bothered me that there are no great gender-neutral words to describe casual or semi-committed relationships. I wanted to quickly describe my “girlfriend” in relation to myself without referring to her gender or whether I was queer (I like to keep people on their toes).
A relationship matrix based on “partner”
I love the word “partner”, and the social connotations that it has built up, but feel like there are times when it’s an overstatement to call someone you are dating a “partner”. It diminishes the impact of partner, which I’d rather reserve for deeply committed long-term relationships more closely equivalent to “spouse”. I want a word like partner, but for describing what we usually call girlfriend/boyfriend.
I tried a few versions on different people, all of whom of course didn’t know the expression but could sometimes guess my intentions. It would have been cool if it had “friend” it in (*friend), but all of the options ended up confusing, like “special friend” or “romantic friend”.
In the end I found that “romantic” was the most general concept that distinguishes “girl/boyfriend” from “friend”. It encapsulates sexuality, but also the emotional component of attraction. Maybe most importantly, romantic partner makes clear and unambiguous sense to people.
The following hierarchy resulted, with “romantic companion” holding the boyfriend/girlfriend slot.
- Romantic Associate
- Romantic Companion
- Romantic Partner
Suitable for everyone!
An important goal was to avoid stereotyping or confining anyone with the language used, and I think these words are successful with various types of people and relationships.
Queer people: SAFE
Since the words are gender neutral there’s no real difference between straight, queer, bi or pan-sexual relationships. If you are involved with someone romantically then just pick a level of commitment that describes you.
Trans people: SAFE
Gender goes unmentioned in this system. Anyone can be your companion and the ways you do or don’t have sex isn’t part of the definition.
Polyamory/Relationship Anarchy: SAFE
Compared to boyfriend and girlfriend, romantic companion doesn’t come with nearly as much baggage, and the words certainly don’t specify exclusivity. You could have one romantic companion and several associates, or many people who are all associates/companions/partners.
The words are generic, and the important thing is agreeing with each person what your relationship means and being able to simply communicate that with others.
The main idea is that in a business context we say “partner” but are really referring to “business partner”, so the question I asked is: What kind of partner are we referring to when we use it to mean spouse?
To me “romantic partner” is a good equivalent to “business partner”, and encapsulates a lot of the important aspects of a “loving” (too vague) or “monogamous” (too specific) relationship. What makes them not just a friend is the emotional and usually sexual attraction felt between you, whether it’s casual or serious.
Again the key element is that people understand what you mean, so you have less explaining to do when describing your relationships. I think people will understand “romantic partner” and “romantic companion”, even if they’ve never heard them before, and get a similar sense as “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”, but without needing to know the genders involved.
Associate -> Companion -> Partner
Here’s how I would use them:
- Dating, hooking up: Romantic Associate
- Going steady, boy/girlfriend: Romantic Companion
- Committed, married: Romantic Partner
In pretty much all of them, you could replace Romantic with Sexual if it describes the relationship better.
Associate is the best “partner” analogue I can think of for new or uncommitted relationships. There is a relationship by definition, but its nature is in flux, and you haven’t necessarily spent a ton of time together.
Companion I like because it implies a close friendship and mutual support, which to me are the core of meaningful long-term relationships. You are companions because you spend your life together, go places together and help each other. You are romantic companions because the basis for all that is love and attraction.
Partner is someone who you not only share your life with, but who you share everything with. Wealth, poverty, health, sickness, when your partner has it you have it, and you want it that way. You may be married, or not, live together or not, have sex or not, but you are dedicated to each other on an indefinite timeline.