In North America (especially Canada and the United States), the word partner is more and more commonly used to describe someone who would otherwise traditionally have been called a boyfriend or a girlfriend. Why is this, and what is the history behind it?
In trying to answer this question, I came up with a number of theories, but I haven’t been able to verify them, so I’m interested to see whether an expert can shed light on what’s happening here.
Just to be clear, I understand the historical etymology of partner. My question comes from the recent use of the word by people who would not have used it just a few decades ago.
These are my theories:
Political Correctness — With the rise of gay culture and the acceptance of same-sex relations in the Western world, partner provides a gender-neutral word to describe someone’s significant other. By using partner, a person would not have to reveal the sex of their significant other, and so this use, especially among the internet and counter-cultures, in the name of political correctness, then spread to opposite-sex couples.
Relationship Complexities — Boyfriend and girlfriend are somehow perceived as narrowly defining a relationship, implying certain undesirable characteristics about that couple’s relationship. With the growth of the internet, casual dating, and delayed marriage, relationships have become more complicated than ever. Partner is used to neutrally describe the relationship without implying too much or too little about how the couple feel about each other. This may have come from the historic use of partner to describe a significant other in a domestic partnership.
Opposition to Patriarchy — (similar to political correctness) Terms like marriage and boyfriend or girlfriend are perceived by the hippie or hipster cultures to have come from a time of patriarchy. Partner is a way to escape from this historic oppression over relationships.