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Partners making a heart with their hands

Meet my partner: what should you call your significant other?

If you’ve ever updated your ‘relationship status’ on Facebook (11 options at last count), you’ll know that labelling the state of your relationship can be a complicated beast.

In real life, it gets murkier still, because of course our love lives don’t always go in a direct line from ‘single’ to ‘in a relationship’ to ‘engaged’.

More likely, a romance moves in stages, perhaps from ‘seeing each other’ or ‘casually dating’ to – all going well – committing to an exclusive relationship and calling each other boyfriend or girlfriend.

But at some point you might decide that these labels don’t quite convey the strength of your relationship, and start thinking about introducing the more serious-sounding ‘partner’ into the mix.

So how do you know when you’ve hit this stage?

Well, like Facebook says, ‘it’s complicated’. (Though often it’s actually pretty straightforward).

What’s with all the labels?

‘There’s so many different labels that we can use to describe our relationship and I think those labels mean different things to people,’ says Associate Professor Gery Karantzas, of Deakin’s School of Psychology.

‘Within our culture we have an idea of what it means to be a boyfriend or girlfriend, and it usually also means that I’ve now started a romantic committed relationship with someone,’ he says.

For some, those labels might have a similar connotation to the word ‘partner’.

But for others, the term partner might convey something much more concrete, and signify you’ve got each other’s backs through all of life’s ups and downs.

Of course, the way we refer to our sweethearts is very much a personal thing, and by this point you’ve likely also tried plenty of nicknames for your girlfriend or boyfriend on for size. As is the case with labelling our relationships, it’s often simply about whichever words roll off the tongue most naturally.

So read on, babycakes.

When do you reach the ‘partner’ stage?

This is highly variable, depending on the personal preferences of a couple, Assoc. Prof. Karantzas says.

‘The reality is that the two people it really matters to are the two people in the relationship, as obvious as that sounds.’

For some, the label might come into play after a considerable time together – or signal that the relationship is going to last well into the future. It might also be about the age you are, or encouraging people outside your relationship to take it more seriously.

'There’s so many different labels that we can use to describe our relationship and I think those labels mean different things to people.'

Associate Professor Gery Karantzas,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

For others, it’s a bit different. Same-sex couples, for instance, have long used ‘partner’ as a gender-neutral term. And some heterosexual couples – particularly before same-sex marriage was legalised – have used it to show their alliance with the LGBTIQ+ community.

Some couples, of course, don’t have any interest in getting married, in which case ‘partner’ might be a substitute for ‘husband’ or ‘wife’.

So, how to know when it’s an appropriate time to start saying: ‘this is my partner’?

‘I think it’s when you’re both seeing the relationship in the same way, if you both see a similar future for the two of you,’ Assoc. Prof. Karantzas says.

‘I mean if we’re talking about just a few weeks, it might be a bit early, but then some people tend to know pretty early on that they want to start a long-term committed relationship with someone.’

But if the relationship is going great guns, and you’re making future plans together, there’s no reason you can’t bring it up.

The best way to approach it

If you feel comfortable with the discussion, it’s best to raise it with your other half directly and honestly to avoid any weirdness or confusion, Assoc. Prof. Karantzas says.

‘I think if you’re going to raise it, you need to be really clear on why you’re raising it,’ he says. Don’t forget your flame can’t read minds.

Assoc. Prof. Karantzas says often a relationship, and the labels that accompany it, just evolve naturally and there’s no issue.

But if it does cause problems? And what if your beloved isn’t that comfortable with calling you ‘my partner’?

‘When couples are getting themselves into a tizz around some of these sorts of things, often it can be a small sign that there’s a couple of things that maybe aren’t so right that the couple needs to talk about,’ Assoc. Prof. Karantzas says.

In the end, actions speak louder than words

While labels are important for some, what’s usually more important is the way you treat each other, he says.

‘To me, labels, they mean something but they are somewhat immaterial.’

In the long run, Assoc. Prof. Karantzas says it’s more important that you act in a loving way, and that you’re both clear and happy about the stage of the relationship you’re at.

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Assoc. Prof. Gery Karantzas
Assoc. Prof. Gery Karantzas

Associate Professor, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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