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20-40-60 Etiquette: A couple's label dilemma

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QUESTION: We are an unmarried couple. Ron is 72; Cindy is 70. We have been together for 13 years, living together for five, and each of us were married to other people before and have grown children. We plan on spending the rest of our life together and don’t plan on getting married. I believe many couples are in the same boat.

Our question is — What do we call each other? It’s no problem with friends and family, but it is with people we don’t know. “Girlfriend/boyfriend” just doesn’t sound right at our age. For example, when a worker is coming over and I’m on the phone and I say, “My … ? will be there." We’re still searching for that magic word.

CALLIE’S ANSWER: I can understand the typical terms not sounding right or true to your relationship. A few terms that came to mind for me are: “my companion,” “my better half,” “my other half,” or “my love.” Play around with it and see what sounds best.

LILLIE-BETH’S ANSWER: “Significant other” seems to be a good one to use with people you don’t know well, and it doesn’t require a lot of explanation. Most people will accept that and move on, and it doesn’t convey the emotional weight that some other words have. Partner can mean business or romantic one so without context, it could be confusing, and you are right, boyfriend/girlfriend doesn’t seem to quite match what you are to each other at this age in this relationship. This is a great question that I am sure others face as well. Our language doesn’t always keep up with all the ways we can be in relationship to each other and our culture, so we have to figure out new ways of saying things.

HELEN’S ANSWER: “Girlfriend,” “boyfriend,” “honey,” “sweetheart,” “special person,” “companion” are all words that don’t exactly seem right in these types of introductions, so probably just introduce your person by name and people can draw their own conclusions. When you know them better, you can explain the living arrangements.

GUEST’S ANSWER: Chuck Ainsworth, community leader: Yes, Cindy, I do agree that co-habitation of unmarried couples is a growing trend in our society with all age groups, not your's alone. Why do you need a brand for each other? As you stated, friends and family are aware you are a couple. If you meet someone that you did not know previously, simply say, “How do you do? I am Cindy and this is Ron,” nothing else is necessary. If the acquaintance becomes a friend, I am sure your relationship with Ron will become clear.

With the term “a worker” I am assuming you are referring to a repairman. I have not had any repairmen care who opens the door; the mission is to gain access to the home and cure the ailing ice maker or other home problem. I usually say, “Yes, 9 is fine; see you then” or “Someone will be here.” I don’t recall exchanging names.

Bottom line is, do what you are comfortable with, and it will be appropriate.

Congratulations to you for five years of togetherness in a committed relationship. Amour besoins aucun explication. (Translation: Love needs no explanation.)

Since 2009, Callie, Lillie-Beth and Helen have written this generational etiquette column. They also include guest responses from a wide range of ages each week. So many years later, Callie is 20-plus; Lillie-Beth is 40-plus and Helen is 60-plus. To ask an etiquette question, email