Remember the good ol' times when a family life was simple? The wife took care of household and children while the husband went to hunt down some animals for dinner. Everyone was the same.
That was the time when forms were simple and easily completed. You could not offend anyone by asking a husband for the name of the wife or a wife for the name of the husband. When women began to assume equal rights, times became more difficult. There were families where the husband would stay home taking care of the kids, and the wife would work. Presumably, household decisions are made by the person that brings in the money, so surveys and so-called "courtesy calls" (annoying people that call you at home to sell you something) would now not ask for the decision maker of the household. And they still do.
If you now make someone complete a tax form, you would not assume that the "decision maker" is male and would live with a female. You need to inquire the name and other details of the person completing the form and his or her wife or husband. The general term would be "spouse."
Make it even more confusing by not having a man and a woman live together, but people of the same sex. If you are a courtesy caller or a forms developer, you can't assume anything any more, and a man living with another man might not consider himself the spouse of the other. So what do you ask for if you were to develop a tax form or even if you would want to invite a bunch of people to a party? Bring friends, kids, husbands, wifes, male, and female partners? You need a new term that comprises all of them and is politically correct. So here is the new term: you are asking for someone's significant other.
You see, it's not easy. And I got confused too when I had to complete the form on specifying my personal details. But now at least you know what someone means when you are asked for your significant other.
It does get more difficult than that. What if you are not even in a "legal" relationship (whatever that means - I mean that you did not take your significant other to a civil wedding up until now). Josh Aterovis has compiled his problems on a web page (http://steliko.com/bleedinghearts/id240.htm):
January 15, 2001
I've been thinking about relationships lately, the romantic kind. I've been thinking about them because I'm currently in one and it's the first one I've ever been in where I really thought, hey, this is it! This is what I've been looking for! This is what all the songs are about! I really feel completed and hopeful about my future for the first time in over a year. Before you think this is going to be a mushy maudlin letter, this is all just leading up to my point for this week's rant.
What do we call our significant others? I haven't found a handle I feel comfortable with yet. Most of the names I've heard are unwieldy at best or just plain dumb.
I mean, let's face it, besides the fact that it's a politically correct hot button, which makes me dislike it start with, significant other just sounds stupid. It's awkward and doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. "Hi, I'd like to introduce you to my significant other?" Uh-uh. Doesn't fly.
The age old euphemism, of course, is "friend", as in "Hi, this is my friend..." I feel that almost dismisses the reality of the relationship, in that you are much more than just friends. While I think that needs to be and should be a large part of any relationship, (after all if you don't like spending time with someone as a friend how can you hope to build a lasting relationship?) it is also much more than that. Special friend is just plain tacky.
Lover is definitely not on the list as far as I'm concerned. Introducing someone as your lover is tantamount to saying, "Hi, we have dirty, dirty sex." And besides, it carries a definite overtone of illegitimacy.
Husband is just plain silly since we can't even get married legally in 48 states, and I wouldn't go near wife with a 10-foot pole. Plus, both of those terms relate to traditional marriage and, well, we're not traditional are we?
There's always boyfriend, and that's what I use the most frequently. It's always been more than adequate for all my past relationships. It doesn't, however, carry the weight of permanence. It's a very temporary sounding term; it just doesn't describe a long-term relationship. And it definitely isn't dignified. Can you see introducing that special person in your life as your boyfriend for the rest of your life?
Partner is the most widely accepted and most used terminology. I don't really have a problem with is really except I just can't shake the feeling of a law firm. It sounds so professional and unemotional. It lacks the warmth and depth of feeling that I associate with the man I love. Life-partner is a little better, but not much.
So what does that leave me with? Maybe it's time we came up with a new terminology. New words and phrases are invented all the time, especially with the ever-changing and ever-growing world of technology. Why can't we be on the cutting edge? In the meantime, I think I'll just call him Jon.