The “girlfriend” label?
I don’t like it. No… I’ll rephrase. I’ve come to hate it.
And earlier this week, the man in my life said it – twice. And I really hated it.
Sure, being a guy’s girlfriend was fine in my twenties, and I appreciated the status that it brought when I was in a relationship that lasted more than two months.
It was also fine in my thirties, when I was in love but certain I wasn’t going to marry the guy I was seeing. (Yes, some of us stick around when the experience is good, even if we don’t imagine marriage in our immediate future.)
But I struggle with being called “girlfriend” at this stage in my life. More precisely, I dislike it in my current relationship, because it feels like it doesn’t apply.
For a long time I thought it was the age thing that bothered me about boyfriend and girlfriend labels. But I’ve just had a light bulb moment. It’s something else entirely.
In my writing or with my friends, I always refer to the man in my life as that – the man in my life. Other options are my man friend, my significant other, or the man I live with.
That third phrase is the most telling, because living with someone is generally reserved for a serious state of affairs. I’ve had boyfriends a-plenty I never lived with. In fact the last time I lived with someone I was 22 years old (and dumb), and other than that, the only person with whom I cohabited was my ex-husband – when he was actually home, that is.
In other words, I don’t cohabit with “boyfriends.”
I only cohabit in a long-term, committed, familial-oriented relationship.
Why the Girlfriend / Boyfriend Labels Don’t Fit
The man I live with works in a traditional environment. People are either single or married. He gets the “when are you two getting married” question on a regular basis. Earlier this week I overheard him on a series of phone calls to colleagues, and he referred to me as his girlfriend.
I stopped in my tracks.
The words sounded false, silly, and ill-fitting. He may not be my husband and I may not be his wife, but there is more give-and-take than ever existed in my 12-year marriage.
I cook for him, I care for him, I listen to him, I discuss with him, I help with his elderly mother (whom I love), I set aside my immediate needs when he walks through the door (and take them up again after he sleeps).
He cooks for me, he cares for me, he listens to me, he discusses with me; he has helped in specific ways with my boys for which I am eternally grateful. Now, he doesn’t set aside as many immediate work needs, but there are other dreams and desires that he puts on the shelf in deference to me.
Marriage vs. Cohabitation
I have not given myself away by any means, as I did in my marriage. But I have made – and continue to make – sacrifices and compromises that are part of negotiating the daily details of a couple’s life.
Can he walk out the door and never come back?
Sure. Of course. But so can a husband.
Can he walk in at night and tell me that he’s moving on?
Naturally. And so can a husband.
Do I worry when he’s on the road and the weather is bad? Do I fuss at him over not paying attention to diet and exercise? Do I tend to him when he’s sick, regardless of my schedule?
The answer to those questions is – of course.
Do we discuss money? Yes. Politics? That, too. His kids? Right. My kids? You bet. Would I help any family member of his if needed?
Partner, Companion, Lover, Mate
And as we head into four years together, “girlfriend” is a label that diminishes our bond. It diminishes me.
Girlfriend is a label that discounts taking on his worries as my worries, sacrificing what I want for what he needs, which isn’t to say that he doesn’t do the same.
Girlfriend is a label that ought to be reserved for the 3-month niceties until someone you prefer comes along, or the 20-something firsts of relationship discovery, or the 6-month “Mr. Right Now” experience when you’re newly out of a dead marriage.
But not the realities of living together as a couple – right down to my sleeplessness and his snoring.
The trouble is – English has no alternative term to convey the level of our commitment, and whereas I will qualify with something like “the man I live with” – for me – hearing him say girlfriend, for simplicity’s sake – hurt.
Is cohabitation the same degree of commitment as marriage?
For us, at this stage, I would answer no.
In my mind, both the public recognition and the legalities do take commitment to another level. Maybe I will go there some day. Maybe I won’t. I admit that I have been so burned by my post-divorce experience that the thought of it is terrifying. But I resent being packaged up with an easy-breezy term that doesn’t look like us, and that bears no resemblance to the responsibilities and depth of caring we have both taken on.