What's In A Name?

What's in a Name?

Finding the right word is (almost) as important as finding the right person.

Juliet: What's in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Those were Shakespeare's thoughts, but I'm not so sure. I have friends who have been together for seventeen years, a lesbian couple who live in California, and just got married. When they refer to one another they say, "my wife." But they said that even before the state deemed their love legal.

I have another pair of friends, also a lesbian couple, who got married in Hawaii years ago and were together for many years prior to that. They call each other, "my partner," and always have. The piece of paper didn't change that for them. They tried girlfriend for a while but it always felt too casual for them, which brings me to my point:

"Girlfriend" sounds kind of casual to me, too. But it seems like it's all I got.

I call my significant other, "my girlfriend." One of them anyway. The other one I call, "my husband." This language allows me to get away with a certain amount of ambiguity, to "pass" if you will. Once I say husband, it's assumed that, when I say "girlfriend," I'm using the Southern version of "friend who's a girl," no romance implied. But that's not what I mean. Nor do I mean anything dismissive or fleeting when I use that term. And so, I wonder, do I need a new word? If I do, what would it be? If not, what happens to a relationship that's not properly named?

For me, partner has always connoted a business relationship, and wife or spouse has connoted a legal relationship. Girlfriend sounds like pre-fiancé, and fiancé, well, then the question is, "when's the ring coming?" And that's not a question that either my girlfriend or I are asking, not at this point anyway. So, what's a girl to do? It goes back to the question of which relationships are real or acceptable or important. It almost feels like if there's no language for it then it isn't "real."

I've heard folks in open or polyamorous relationships use terms like significant other (S.O. for short), partner, primary, secondary, and of course, girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, wife, spouse, and lover. But there are all sorts of thoughts and ideas that follow those words, both real and implied, connotative and denotative. I just want to be able to say what I mean, mean what I say, and not have to explain myself ad naseum. I'm a dreamer, I know.

I wonder sometimes if my girlfriend feels slighted when I introduce her as my girlfriend and people assume we're just friends. But I also wonder what my husband would think if I adopted language that seemed to compromise our relationship. Words are messy business. And, yes, I admit, I'm prone to over-thinking. But if the world demands labels (and I think we can agree it does) I feel compelled to comply, at least sometimes. Yet, I don't always know how.

I got a form the other day that asked me for the names of two emergency contacts. The blanks were followed by boxes labeled spouse, relative, colleague, and friend. First I listed my husband. Then I listed my girlfriend, and I thought, "What box do I check?" I know, I could've just checked friend and moved on, but how would you feel if the person with whom you are in a romantic, committed relationship referred to you as a "friend"? My guess is that you'd be none too thrilled.

In theory, my girlfriend wouldn't care. But in reality, I think it would sting. In fact, I know it would sting. "What is she implying?" she would think. "Is she embarrassed? Not as invested as I? Hiding from me or herself or the person she's filling out that form for?"

None of the above, I'd have to say.

Just add it the frustration pile, I suppose. Who are you if you don't have a name? And, further, who are you if your name doesn't truly fit? Like jeans that either hang too far or cling too tight, you just don't feel like yourself. The language of relationships is important.

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