Love That Defies Labels


A couple of years ago, we attended a funeral for a neighbor; a woman with whom, coincidentally, my partner used to work. Several of his co-workers were also in attendance, and although I’d heard about them I hadn’t yet met any in person.

After the service, we were standing in the front vestibule when one of the company managers walked toward us, his hand extended in greeting. “And who’s this?” he asked my partner, expecting our imminent introduction.

Awkward pause. My partner looked like a stunned deer in headlights. “Uh… this is my gal.”

His gal? It sounded as if we were a vaudeville team. Or maybe wagon train sweethearts. “Have you met this little gal? She’s one heck of a rodeo trick rider!”

Yeah, okay, he kicked himself all the way home afterwards, although it wasn’t really his fault. We’d never formally introduced one another by anything but our names and it hadn’t dawned on us to rehearse such an encounter. Of course, we fumbled having to come up with a label for our relationship on the spot. Luckily, it’s a moment we laugh about now.

Being in an unmarried romantic/domestic partnership is still cause for pause and it’s all because of labels. The term “significant other” is a jumbled mouthful and there’s no way I’m introducing the man in my life as my “lover” (ew!). There’s always the fallback to “boyfriend,” although it harkens back to “going around” in junior high or that scene in Sex and the City when Carrie and Big go apartment shopping.

Realtor 1 (to Big): Your wife has quite a sense of humor.

Realtor 2 (in a cool, hushed tone): They’re not married.

Carrie: He’s my boyfriend.

Big: Aren’t I a little old to be introduced as your boyfriend?

Carrie: Point taken. From now, on you’ll be my man-friend.

Big: That sounds like a dog.

Carrie: Well if the shoe fits…

Aside from awkward small talk at funerals, occasions that really drive home a lack of socially-acceptable labels for couples like us is Valentine’s Day and anniversaries. Every department store has an island of greeting cards organized by defining relationship. Each year, I hunt for the perfect Hallmark sentiment to express my love and adoration for the one person who means the world and yet, can’t be compartmentalized into either “boyfriend” or “husband.” Ultimately, I settle on one of those generically sweet “To the Man That I Love” cards. Sigh. Well, we are Facebook official. Close enough.

Since I can remember, I have named everything that is important to me, from stuffed animals to cars I have owned. Even our goldfish have names for crying out loud. Labels mean a lot and I guess that’s why I am stuck on trying to find what we call “us.”

We’re no longer dating and we’re not exactly courting. That may be why I bristle at being called his girlfriend after nearly five years because it sounds like we’re in a casual arrangement and not a committed relationship. It implies that I’m merely a “friend” who’s a “girl,” and also that I’m 14. At our age, that’s illegal.

Over time, we have slipped into using “partner” – acceptable in most social circles and palatable on family occasions, even though we could be mistaken for either briefcase-in-hand business associates or TV cops. It’ll have to do for now. But if anyone out there has any other suggestions for a label we can slap on this thing, let me know. I’ll be out in the corral working on my one-legged saddle stand.