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Beyond Boyfriend/Girlfriend: The Search for Another Label of Love

I have been dating The Consultant for over a year now, and we have been discussing moving in together. Although over half of Americans cohabit before marriage for financial and convenience reasons,1 our consideration of “shacking up” without getting married is driven by our mutual negative past experiences with marriage. Because we never anticipate our living together to result in marriage, “husband and wife” labels will never accurately describe our relationship roles. As a result, we have been struggling with what to call each other. When we introduce each other to friends and colleagues, we use the “boyfriend/girlfriend” label, but these do not seem quite sufficient. In the past, “boyfriend” always ended up meaning someone who was transient, temporary, or not serious for me, and that is not how The Consultant and I are to each other at all.

Sociologists use labeling theory to explain how the labels we use for others convey different social expectations.2 These labels almost become like self-fulfilling prophecies, because people interact with you based on what they believe the labels mean, and over time, people take on aspects of the social role itself. For example, if you are out to dinner and assume that your date is introverted, you will likely ask fewer questions of your date, and this will lead to them appearing more introverted than they may actually be. The power of social labels may be one reason why The Consultant and I are allergic to the idea of remarriage. A study examining marriage role expectations found that overall marital expectations did not change much between 1978 and 1996.3 While many individuals have adopted more egalitarian marital roles recently, traditional role expectations held by others in one’s family, community and society may still be present, because relationships do not exist in social vacuums. These expectations, even if distal, can impact individuals significantly. For example, while I was married, I was frequently asked by creditors and other professionals whether my husband would need to provide approval on certain transactions, while my ex-husband could never recall being asked whether his wife would need to approve transactions, even though I was the primary bread winner. Therefore, the expectations and social roles associated with traditional “husband” and “wife” labels feel very restrictive, and we both fear that we may start inadvertently adopting these roles due to such strong social pressures.

In some states, heterosexual couples have started obtaining domestic-partnership unions rather than traditional marriage certificates for either economic benefits (e.g., health insurance) or as an alternative to traditional marriage.4 “Domestic Partner” is an appealing label, because frankly when you strip the “romance” out of what marriage has come to mean, at the end of the day it is just a legal designation for a union between two people that confers social, economic, and legal benefits. Neither The Consultant nor I want the legal status associated with our relationship label either, as it is so difficult to untangle legally if we to ever do break up (but I dread to even consider that possibility!). However, whenever I try to use the term “Partner” for The Consultant, this feels too formal and business-like for the romantic relationship that we have.

Of course, we could always introduce each other to our friends and co-workers with endearing (or demeaning) terms like Schmoopie, Main Squeeze, Sidekick, Paramour, Partner in Crime, Lover, and Better Half. But all of these feel too personal to be used as a social label/descriptor (“Schmoopie, I’d like to introduce you to my stock broker”). I also don’t really want my co-workers or acquaintances to get any wrong ideas. A label is ultimately necessary, as it explains in a descriptive way to others our relationship and connection to each other. We know that social identities are important sources of self-esteem and communicate to others the social categories we belong to (e.g., single and available versus attached and unavailable).5 For now, I guess we are stuck with the all-encompassing “boyfriend/girlfriend” label, despite it feeling too casual for what we have developed with each other so far.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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1Sassler, S. (2004). The process of entering cohabiting unions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 491-505.

2Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

3Botkin, D. R., Weeks, M. O., & Morris, J. E. (2000). Changing marriage role expectations: 1961-1996. Sex Roles, 42, 933-942.

4Willetts, M. C. (2003). An exploratory investigation of heterosexual licensed domestic partners. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 939-952.

5Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–47). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Dr.  Jennifer Harman - Adventures in Dating... | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr.Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.

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Reader Comments (1)

I was thinking about the same topic, but from the perspective of couples who have split up/divorced. I have always disliked the term "Ex". Former wife doesn't work either.

It's been 4 years since our divorced and now our relationship now moving in a very positive direction. I'm thinking about how I will refer to her... She is no longer my wife, nor my ex - and girlfriend doesn't work either. Perhaps I should refer to her as my soulmate :)

July 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJasonBP
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