The other day, I was talking to some people I don’t know well about their daughter and her boyfriend, who lived near me. “Do you have a … partner in life?” one of them asked.
The following conversation made it clear that this wording was an intentional effort at inclusivity. “I found it incredibly rewarding to have a husband and children,” she said, “and I can see you enjoying that. Someone to have children with, I mean. Not necessarily a husband.”
I appreciated the choice of words: “partner in life” makes no assumptions about either my orientation or my marital status. I use “partner” frequently as an all-purpose term.
Yet “partner in life” still makes some assumptions: monogamy, for one, and a certain intensity of the relationship. Can I answer yes to this question if I have three significant relationships? Can I answer yes to this question if I’m dating casually?
“Partner” and its variants are among my favorite inclusive relationship terms, even if they’re not perfect. (“Do you have anyone important in your life?” can also be a good way into the topic of relationships. I like it precisely because it de-emphasizes the centrality of romantic relationships — although some people get annoyed when it’s interpreted more broadly, beyond the purely romantic.)
Recently, I’ve heard terms of endearment filling this role: “Do you have a sweetie?” “My honey and I…” These is a great solution — not gendered, no implications about marital status, no implications about intensity of relationship or even monogamy. But these words feel informal in official documents and the like, where “partner” is likely to reign supreme. (And of course they are more specifically romantic in nature.)
There’s yet another set of terms that makes nearly everyone uncomfortable, and those are the terms that emphasize the sexual nature of the relationship. “Lover” gives almost everyone the squicks, and it’s hard to imagine “friends with benefits” or “fuckbuddy” or even “umm…friend” getting a lot of use outside very casual settings. There’s a lot to be said about our societal discomfort with sexuality, but it’s beyond the scope of this particular post!
Inclusivity is ideal for many situations — particularly when you don’t know who your audience is. Think about official forms, for instance. Or in conversation with someone you don’t know well, or in hypothetical situations about nobody.
But there are many reasons why particular people might prefer specific terms for their own relationships. Lots of folks use gendered terms for their partners to deliberately signal their orientation and marital status, for one thing. And some people strongly prefer terms that emphasize the legal nature of their relationship (spouse, husband, wife) because they have been denied that legal approval in the past or fear being denied it in the future.
Remember when Beyoncé styled herself “Mrs. Carter” and the internet exploded? (Lots of people argued that she was giving up her feminist cred, while others argued it was a subversive move to highlight her wife-hood at the peak of her career.) The history of Black marriage and sexuality, and the way it has been policed in the US, can’t be ignored if we want to think about the choice to use this title.
Tamara Winfrey Harris, writing in Salon, put it best:
“Beyoncé’s race, once again, complicates the discussion. She is criticized for toying with the traditional “Mrs.” moniker at a time of relentless public hand-wringing about black women being half as likely to marry as white women. … Black women are, it seems, damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Our collective singleness, independence, and unsanctioned mothering are an affront to mainstream womanhood. But a high-profile married black woman who uses her husband’s name (if only for purposes of showbiz) or admits the influence her male partner has had on her life is an affront to feminism.”
That’s why guidance about inclusivity can only go so far — because even “the same” term or “the same” act means something different, depending on context.
In any specific case, it’s always best to use the specific terms people prefer. But we need to be inclusive otherwise — when we’re speaking generically, when it’s irrelevant to the point at hand, and when we just plain don’t know.
 Of course, one can make assumptions by using inclusive language as well, if it’s used inconsistently. (It’s always possible that this person typically uses gendered language but made the decision to use this phrasing based on my appearance, in which case it’s less inclusive than it seems.)