There is no good way to refer to an older person's live-in companion. And by older, I mean older than 30.
This came to my attention in reading the obituary for the man who, after 18 years of living with my mother in a serious, committed, loving relationship, died at age 95. That's no boyfriend. She's no girlfriend. But neither was she his wife. She was referred to in the obituary as his "domestic partner."
"Domestic Partner" is, in some state and local governments, a legal designation that clarifies benefits to unmarried couples. In general usage, though, "partner" might imply either that they were gay or in business together, neither of which was true. "Partner" may be the least romantic way to describe your significant other — except for "significant other."
"Boyfriend," meanwhile, sounds juvenile and flippant. "Companion" calls to mind a golden retriever, or a paid position. "Gentleman friend" is old-fashioned and unserious. Swain? Beau? Lover? Plus One? With divorce rates high, and people surviving spouses for decades, older Americans are commonly dating and cohabiting without any practical terminology.
"Of course we are in new territory on relationships — this is an ever-evolving reality, and the over-50, not-married couple needs their own moniker," says Felice Shapiro, founder of the website Betterafter50.com. "The one I really like is 'life partner.' It's hopeful."
Bob Levey, a Washington Post columnist who used to run a monthly contest to create new words, once asked for suggestions on this topic. The winner: "geramour." Runners up included "main geeze" and "slowthario."
"There is simply no good term," says Julie Rosen, 46, who lives in Philadelphia with Ira Fingles, their 7-year-old daughter and her 18-year-old son from a previous relationship. "'Significant other' is just too much of a mouthful . too p.c. serious," she says. Rosen generally uses the term "partner," but "it feels misleading or just incorrect given that (it) implies gay."
Fingles calls her his "faux wife." It started as a joke, but, as she says, "if there was another better word, 'faux wife' may have been a shorter-lived joke."
When will we get a workable term that is not a joke? Are all the terms uncomfortable because we are still uncomfortable with people living this way?
Wendy Kline, a history professor at the University of Cincinnati who looks at women's history and social movements, thinks so. The label issue "stems from the larger historical discomfort with crediting a woman with any sort of status outside of marriage," she says.
For both genders, a committed relationship outside of marriage begs "society's understanding of what's permanent and what's not," says Debbie Weiss, a clinical social worker in Louisville, Ky. Both members of the couple may be seen as unserious, even subversive.
Without a useful and comfortable expression, introductions are awkward, explanations to family members embarrassing. Partners need terms to communicate their own expectations, as well as convey the nature of their relationship to the world.
Marriage "is a convenient social shorthand," says Nick King, 42, unmarried to Jennifer Fishman, his live-in partner, with whom he has a daughter. "If you strip away all the religious and legal trappings of marriage, it continues to be a way to efficiently signal one's commitment and seriousness to others."
There is less tension surrounding the issue in Montreal, where Nick and Jennifer, both American, are university professors. They prefer the term "partner," but note that in Quebec, where such arrangements are common, "spouse" signifies the same thing. It is possible, in Montreal, anyway, to live together with your "spouse" and raise a family without a marriage contract or even comment.
In France, Valerie Trierweiler is not married to her partner, President Francois Hollande. She is widely reported to prefer the term "compagne" (companion), which is common usage in France. (In French, words have handy gender endings, so it's clear whether your "companion" is male or female.) The French are widely reported to be indifferent to their arrangement.
There is evidence that Americans are warming to the idea. Back in the late 1970s, the U.S. Census Bureau coined the phrase "Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters," or POSSLQ (pronounced pah-sil-cue), perhaps the most unwieldy of all the terms. Census Bureau staff reported in 1999 that in the two decades since 1977, POSSLQ households increased from 1.5 percent to 4.8 percent of U.S. households.
Statistics vary since then, but the continuing trend is unmistakable. The Pew Research Center reported in 2010 that marriage rates are at a record low, with barely half of adults hitched, and that cohabitation has grown more prevalent.
Facebook, a sure trend watcher, in 2011 offered users two new "relationship status" options for their profiles: "in a civil union" and "in a domestic partnership."