Help! I Need a Better Way to Refer to the People in My Love Life

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Image by Mathieu Plourde / CC BY

Dear Page,

I am pretty new to poly. I’ve only started exploring it in the last six months or so. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog, and found your advice very helpful when navigating some of the trickier points of managing multiple relationships. Thank you for that! Lately I’ve been encountering a new problem, and I’m hoping you might be able to offer some insight.

Since I started this, I’ve met a dizzying array of people, and formed a wide variety of relationships with them, several of which are physical/sexual. My problem is a linguistic one: when I don’t want to refer to one of these people by name (for the sake of either discretion or simplicity) what word should I use?

“Friend” feels too casual, since I have non-sexual friends as well, and “Partner” is too formal, since it implies some sort of romantic commitment. Friends with benefits, play partners, anchors, dates…all describe specific relationship types within the overarching category. The best one I’ve found so far is “conquest,” but of course that’s problematic for different reasons.

I love the word “metamour,” because it perfectly describes a specific type of relationship that doesn’t really exist outside of poly. Is there a word that means “a person with whom I have a sexual and/or romantic relationship”? And if there isn’t, how do you refer to them in casual conversation? This may be a little thing, but it feels much bigger, because to name a thing is in some ways to make it real.

Help! I need a better noun.Thank you so much!

First Possibility: Paramour

So the first thing that comes to mind is the word paramour. I’ve heard others use it to describe exactly what you’re talking about — a catchall category for a variety of relationships that they’re having in polyamorous scenarios. A sexual and/or romantic person of interest.

Bonus points awarded for the fact that it sounds very similar in style to “metamour.” Making them into phonetic bookends.

Now, basically every label has its drawbacks. And paramour’s drawbacks lie in its somewhat suspect and dubious origins. It’s a word that originates from the French and literally means “passionately” or “with desire.” Sounds good, right?

Well, in olden times, paramour specifically meant a lover, a person you weren’t married to but were having a romantic or sexual relationship with. And this took on an illicit glint. The word has a forbidden or secret connotation about it. Depending on who you are, that might bother you.

Now, we’re living in different times now. No matter what a person’s personal feelings are on the matter (or any moral outrage or personal disdain they may have for consensual non-monogamy), it’s now common knowledge that there’s a not insignificant number of people who are in open relationships with the awareness and blessing of everyone involved (most formal population surveys put the prevalence of current relationships that are open at 5%, which also means that the number of people who will be at sometime during their lifetime is higher than that).

And I have friends who use the term “paramour” knowing that entire history because they’re secure in their relationship style. and actually find it a little humorous and cheeky that the word has such an illicit past.

I can see a person using the word “conquest” in a similar way, almost poking fun of themselves in the process in a lighthearted way, like they’re some kind of warrior of love. I mean, Pat Benatar told us love is a battlefield, right?

Another Option: Plus/Pluses

I had my own term that I used a lot back in the day. I often used the term “plus” or “pluses.” It had originated as a variant of “friend plus,” a term I started using instead of friends with benefits because FWB tended to imply to others that I was sleeping with the person in question, and sometimes I wasn’t; sometimes it was either makeouts only or simply a deep romantic, emotional connection that wouldn’t have been considered appropriate by most people in a closed relationship.

Over time, I started using “plus” a lot, as a catch-all term for people who weren’t partners and weren’t exactly what most people would consider friends.

It worked especially well when I was RSVPing for parties. Because these were often people I brought as a plus one.

Because I’m a geek, I also enjoyed the allusion to New Game Plus, a feature in many games where a player “wins” a game, but after the Game Over screen, they’re able to start a new game, except this time carrying over many of the items and abilities they earned in their first playthrough into the second. I thought that was a nice metaphor for polyamory and New Relationship Energy layered on top of Old Relationship Energy. A lot of skeptics in my life thought my becoming polyamorous signaled Game Over for my love life and prospects (i.e., that I was doomed and so was my relationship), where I viewed it as a new start that built off what I had in my life already and left me the opportunity to explore different sides of myself (new quests, etc.).

A Note About Relationship Labels: Private, Third Person, Vs. Official

In general, it can get a little sticky regarding relationship labels. I feel like it can be especially daunting to come up with catchalls because there are a few different levels that a label can function on:

  • What you consider that person in your own thoughts. What they are to you privately.
  • What you call them or how you refer to them when they’re not around.
  • What you and they have agreed is your “official status” and how you convey that to the community at large.

I’ve definitely been in situations where all three of these have been in alignment. Where there was clear consistency between how I viewed our relationship, how I spoke about it to others, and what our official agreed-upon status was. When that can happen, it’s great. Makes things easier for sure.

And I’ve also been in situations where these levels weren’t all in alignment. Where one of us had a way that we thought and felt about the other that didn’t match up with either how we talked about them when they weren’t around, what we’d agreed on, or both.

Sometimes Mismatches Cause Problems, But Sometimes They Don’t

Sometimes these label mismatches can be fairly minor. I saw a person for a while that I cared deeply for but who wanted me to be very clear on the point that she wasn’t my girlfriend (even though we did everything I’ve done with other girlfriends and to me there was no discernible difference).

I had enough insight into the situation (and into her, since I’d known her for a while) to realize that she was trying to protect herself emotionally, having just been through a terrible breakup that half-killed her. I really think she felt that if she didn’t call it a relationship, then she would never let herself get into the emotional place where I could eventually hurt her. She wouldn’t acknowledge it, but I knew it was there. I could feel it.

Could this have bothered other people who found the mismatch unacceptable for other reasons? Sure. In the past, I might have felt toyed with. Disrespected. Diminished. And in the past I might have raged or pushed the issue, but this time, I didn’t, and I just let what we were stay unspoken, didn’t say a freaking thing, and trusted what I felt and ended up having a very nice relationship because of it.

Other times a mismatch can cause huge issues. For example, a friend of mine was living with a girlfriend of his, and without his consent or even discussing it with him, one day she went around telling everyone that they were engaged (when they weren’t). In this case, the tactic seemed to be in order to coerce him into proposing out of embarrassment. Things had been rocky for other reasons before this point, but this act of dishonesty sent my friend over the edge and backfired on her. It was the end.

It really depends on the situation and the people in it whether a mismatch between labels cause issues.

I’ve found that over time that lack of consistency between labels matters far less to me than it did before, unless it causes logistical problems that bring their own stress and frustration (like my totally-not-actually-engaged friend, who had a number of incredibly annoying conversations because of other people being misinformed).

Descriptive Versus Prescriptive Labeling

And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that some people opt not to use labels altogether, feeling that it’s disingenuous or unhelpful to put relationships into boxes, period.

Me? I’m from the descriptive school of labeling when it comes to relationships (and just in general). I think labels can be helpful for communication and understanding one another (especially if we’re able to take a second and clarify or convey our own operational definition to another person). Words are there to describe concepts.

What gets me a little concerned is when people tend to get prescriptive with their labels — i.e., they say that because something is identified using a certain word that it always has to behave within a small set of parameters. I typically find that an unhelpful and unrealistic approach to communication, trying to shoehorn reality to make it fit into the definition of a word, rather than letting labels describe the reality that exists.

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Have a question about a post? Maybe need some advice about a relationship or situation? Write me. I love getting messages from you.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this. I have long LOATHED the phrase “friends with benefits”, because it suggests that friends are only a benefit to your life if you’re having sex with them….

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