Vocabulary gymnastics: What do I call my boyfriend’s girlfriend?

Guest post by Natalie
Three is a Charm from Etsy seller FourTwentyNine
Three is a Charm from Etsy seller FourTwentyNine

My boyfriend has a girlfriend. She’s intelligent, funny, insightful, stylish, has an adventurous taste in hair, and is an all-around cool person.

But enough about me!

Joking aside, I’m polyamorous. So is my boyfriend. And so is his girlfriend. We’re all free to explore sexual and/or romantic relationships as we choose, as long as we keep the necessary people in the loop about it. And while polyamory seems to be a frequent topic of discussion right now — what with a series on Showtime entering its second season, and new articles about it popping up every week or so in left-leaning publications — society as a whole lacks the vocabulary and the social scripts to navigate poly relationships. The poly community has been around long enough to invent some new ones, but it’s still a work in progress, and every single poly person is a pioneer in this endeavor to establish new social norms.

This is all a long way of saying I still have no idea how to describe my relationship with my boyfriend’s girlfriend.

What do we call it?

In poly lingo, we’re metamours — a portmanteau of “meta,” which means “pertaining to a level above or beyond,” and “amour,” which means “lovers.” So we’re related by our relationship to the same lover. The word “metamour” appeals to me; it pushes my geek buttons (“LOL how meta”), my Romance language buttons, and my too-damn-clever-for-my-own-good buttons.

But “metamour” has limitations, too, and ones I’m still struggling to overcome. “Metamour” merely names our relationship — it acknowledges that the relationship exists. It doesn’t do anything to describe the quality of our relationship.

When I say, “He’s my boyfriend,” a host of cultural associations spring to the listener’s mind: we’re in love; we go on dates; we are sexual together; we devote a significant amount of time to each other. When I say, “She’s my sister,” or “They’re my friends,” there’s a similar amount of cultural associations. They’re not just useful for the listener to understand where I’m coming from — they’re also useful to me as I make sense of the myriad relationships with my life.

And then we come to “metamour”…

Not enough weight

This word is so new that it hasn’t accumulated any cultural baggage yet — even in the poly community. (Or so it seems to me; other poly folk might disagree, and if so I’d love to hear from you!) I’ve had metamours whom I’ve never met, or met only once or twice. I’ve had metamours whom I didn’t think were a good influence on my boyfriend. I’ve had metamours with whom I’m best friends, and metamours with whom I’m casual acquaintances. Although it hasn’t happened yet, it’s entirely possible that I’ll have metamours whom I actively dislike.

How in the world can one word encompass such a broad range of potential relationships? More importantly, how can one word accurately convey my beautiful, complex, unconventional relationship with my beautiful, complex, unconventional metamour?

Queering things up

Because of course things need to be even more complicated, I’m queer. I love ladies, gentlemen, and everything between, besides, and beyond. While I’m not certain about how my metamour self-identifies, she most certainly is not entirely straight. To put it delicately, I know this from firsthand experience. Multiple firsthand experiences, if you know what I mean.

So now we have a sexual relationship thrown into the mix. However, I doubt that my metamour and I would have sex or date if our mutual boyfriend wasn’t present as a social lubrication (pun 100% intended). Thinking more practically, we probably would have never met if it weren’t for our boyfriend. My radical feminist self rankles at the idea that our sexual relationship requires the presence of a man, but that’s how the chemistry plays out, and I’m not sure any amount of consciousness-raising would fix it.

Part of me thinks that I should welcome these multifarious complexities in my relationship with my metamour. I chose a polyamorous lifestyle partially because I think society will benefit from a breaking down of the rigid barriers between romantic and platonic friendships. By this line of thinking, the difficulty in succinctly describing my relationship with my metamour is inherent and also a benefit; it forces me to give my relationships the detail and care in description that they deserve.

(Astute readers may be protesting at this point, “But Natalie, weren’t you extolling the utility of culturally-loaded relationship labels just a few paragraphs ago?” You would be correct, astute readers. I haven’t yet found the sweet spot between “labels are used to facilitate communication” and “labels are used to enforce oppressive cultural norms.” That’s why I’m finding this endeavor so difficult.)

Staking our claim

For now, we’ve settled on calling ourselves “metamours with benefits.” The term neatly hijacks the cultural baggage of “friends with benefits” (we’re good friends, enjoy each other’s company, and have sex once in a while, but don’t “date” in the conventional sense) and adds the nuance that we’re dating the same guy. Maybe this turn of phrase will catch on in the poly community; maybe a new, better word or phrase will sprout up — that remains to be seen.

There are still limitations to our current method; while it is a great way to briefly describe ourselves to people active in the poly community, most monogamous people still don’t know what “metamour” means — heck, a lot of people who are poly in practice but aren’t politically active are still unfamiliar with the term. So I’d still have to have that conversation with them, and that’s a conversation for which I don’t always have the energy.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much; being pioneers in a new cultural space is time-consuming and exhausting at times, but it’s also an exciting opportunity to help shape the future of society. By doing all the hard work now, we’re laying the groundwork for future generations of people — poly and monogamous — to more easily and effectively navigate and talk about relationships of all stripes. That thought makes all the headache-inducing vocabulary gymnastics worth the while.

Comments on Vocabulary gymnastics: What do I call my boyfriend’s girlfriend?

  1. While I haven’t encountered this failure of terminology through a polyamorous relationship, I’ve frequently felt like relationships are often more Ven diagrams with that unlabeled spot in the middle because each one is a little different. I have coworkers who are also friends. There are friends’ husbands with whom I get along, to the level that we might chat or send a message without the friend facilitating, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them friends. I think sometimes the right term depends on the situation you’re describing.

    I hope you do find a sweet spot for you with a term or terms that feel comfortable to you. But if not, well, many people hit that point too. 🙂

  2. I’m poly and politically active (although more anarchist than queer but there’s overlap) and even I had to think for a second before I remember what “metamour” meant. Honestly in this situation I’d probably go with “friend”, that’s what I go with for someone I’m sleeping with casually but am not “In A Relationship” with.

    • (Hi! Author here.)

      “Friend” is generally what I call her in non-poly contexts too – for example, if I’m talking to my family or to coworkers. It’s the closest analog, for sure… but I always feel a little dishonest using it, you know?

      • I am looking in at this from the outside for sure, I am in a straight monogamous relationship so I could be way off base about this, but it seems to me that friend should cover it in most cases. Why does anyone have to know the full details or label of your relationship with a casual lover? I had casual lovers and friends with benefits before I got married but I never felt the need to explain the sexual nature of our relationship with other people. I would introduce them as a friend and leave it at that.
        My husband is quite an Aspie and he has introduced me to people he knows as “Katherine”, not ” my wife, Katherine” when I asked him about this one time he said ” because that is who you are, your relationship to me doesn’t change who you are.”
        Unless your sexual relationship is going to have some bearing on the people you are introducing, why does it matter?
        Also I never introduce friends by the degree of our friendship, I would introduce a relatively new friend the same way I would introduce the friends that have known me for many years and have an intimate understanding of my life. I think too many labels tend to box us in.

        • Because there’s also an emotional difference between my relationship with my metamour and my friends. She’s more like a family member than a friend; we have a very intimate part of our lives in common (our shared partner), and that creates a bond between us that is unique.

        • But would you introduce your sister-in-law as your friend, even if you were also friends? Some people might, but for some the fact that “this is a person I expect to share Thanksgiving with” is an important part of your relationship that you feel should be included – even just in an introduction. Calling my metamore (or my girlfriend-in-law as I sometimes call her) my “friend” does not encompass why I expect to be able to bring her as a plus 1 if my husband and boyfriend are busy, or why I would be willing to let her to watch my kid for a week while I leave the country, or explain why celebrating Christmas with her is just as important as celebrating it with my folks, et cetera. Do people have friends that they are that close too? Yes, but even in those cases we tend to create new terms like “BFF” or “heterolifemate” (or some people just refer to them as brother or sister even with out sharing the same parents) because we feel the distinction should be acknowledged.

          Girlfriend-in-law works for us because we’re married. If my husbands sister would be my sister-in-law, then my husband’s girlfriend would be my girlfriend-in-law. It also conveniently works another way. If my brother’s wife would be my sister-in-law, then it seems to me that my boyfriend’s wife should be my girlfriend-in-law. So that’s the term I use when I feel like metamore or friend doesn’t quite cut it.

  3. Yay for metamours with benefits! Definitely a term I’ve been using for some of mine. Also, to non-poly folk I often just say “I feel like I’m close friends with my boyfriend’s girlfriend”. They don’t necessarily need to know about the sexual part, unless we’re specifically talking about our sex lives. I think that expanding the definition of “metamour” or even “friend” to _include_ the cases where there are “benefits” can actually help with the idea of changing societal norms.. ie, that it’s not weird to have sexual aspects to our friendships.

    It’s definitely something that happens more easily with metamours, I think, because it’s so natural to love or be attracted to someone your partner (who you presumably love) has already fallen for.

    • I find the use of double possessives abhorrent. 😉

      More seriously, I feel like that term implies a distance between us that isn’t actually there. It’s like… when I use that term, she’s waaaaaay over there, on the other side of “boyfriend,” and while our relationship is certainly triangulated by our mutual relationship with him, he’s not a barrier between us, like I feel is implied in “my boyfriend’s girlfriend.”

      • I think you’re looking for a word that doesn’t exist, and also possibly can’t exist. There are too many sub-sets of this dynamic you’re looking to encompass. The word you end up with might neatly encapsulate this relationship dynamic, and then clumsily sum up the next. I wanted to give an example but I’m concerned I’ll hijack your problem with something totally unrelated, so I won’t.

        I think perhaps it’s a bit like weddings – no one cares as much as you do about your own! Most people won’t give a rat’s ass about the intricacies of your relationship (and I mean that kindly!) so worrying about how to convey the subtle nuances of your relationships to outsiders is probably mostly redundant.

        • I don’t think the fact that the word doesn’t exist was lost on anyone, which is why the question was posed.

          Not the OP but: I would agree with you, if those very personal questions about the particulars are so common for those of us who are very Out as poly. People who never asked about my sex life with my betrothed asked whether his girlfriend and I also have relations, and in what positions!

          Moreover, there is a certain understanding about expectations with various relationships. There is a difference between “I want to bring my classmate to Easter dinner,” and “I want to bring my best friend to Easter dinner.” Yes he was my best friend AND classmate so both are accurate, but one is MORE accurately depicting the closeness and quality of the friendship. This is a person my Gran can ask to set the table, not just a guest but my chosen family.

          So just as I wouldn’t call my current partner my roommate, I don’t want to call my (otherwise untitled) lover just my “friend.” At least in circles where it isn’t problematic and potentially unsafe to do so, I want to be able to claim them as part of my tribe/pack/whatever. That’s why *I* am looking for other terminology to describe these sort of “in between terms” relationships that more and more people are starting to have.

          Now, that being said, my definition of “boyfriend” and someone else’s may not agree or fully encapsulate the intensity of the relationship that some people have with theirs. My mom doesn’t get that as far as I am concerned, the only difference between what I have and a “husband” is a piece of paper or a party where I scream to the rooftops and send out some flyers saying “hey, I’m calling this dude husband now.” We’re partners and lifemates, which is why I changed to calling him a partner instead of a boyfriend. I didn’t feel like boyfriend really fit anymore, even though plenty of people live in my exact level of commitment without having any problems calling their guy a “boyfriend.” So I don’t think that a term needs to necessarily be defined within a too-narrow set of parameters to still be useful.

  4. So, not that this applies to my situation because I’m not poly, but I do find sometimes terminology is lacking and a ‘gap’ is created. My significant other and I are very much in love. He is much more to me than my ‘boyfriend’, which sometimes sounds almost juvevile of a term once you’re out of college, in my book. But we aren’t ready to get engaged yet, even though we’re headed that way. I love calling him my ‘beau’, but that is a bit of a dated term to use for introductions to other people. What do other people all their Significant Others that isn’t the standard ‘boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, spouse, etc..’ And I mean, not just to each other, but that you use for introductions or references when speaking with other people? Would love some insight here, too!

    • I use Partner. But for a quirk of fate, my partner might not be male. I really like having a gender-neutral term, and it came about because I was looking for something to call him that indicated he is more than a Boyfriend, less than a Fiance/Husband and even then, I wanted to not have to use the word Spouse once we’re married (legally or not). However, there’s also the added cultural baggage of “Partner” meaning sex partners not related to romantic status or current activity, so it can still be misunderstood–oddly though, no one ever has and I’m sure that has more to do with context.

    • Before my husband and I got engaged I referred to him as my other half, because like you, I thought boyfriend felt a little juvenile for a 30 year old to be using for a serious relationship. Some people thought I was referring to a woman, cause I had short hair and used a gender neutral term, but oh well.

    • I usually would use partner in that context. I mainly call my guy, my boyfriend, but we’ve been together 5 years and live together. So I call him my partner sometimes too. “this is my partner, Sam”. It sounds pretty normal. Some people think partner implies a same-sex partner, but in my social circles that’s not the case

  5. I do like metamour (& paramour in the event the boyfriend is discussing the other girlfriend)! I worry that some folks will use it to pigeonhole newer partners into being “secondary” and thus less important, but I think culturally-speaking it’s likely that there are enough people already using metamour to mean “the other partner who isn’t in the room right now/the other partner who isn’t myself” that the word will end up being defined that way. I hope.

    The thing that got me most about this is actually that whole parenthetical paragraph. I struggle a lot with finding the balance between using labels to facilitate communication, and labels being used as identifiers that both lock people into roles they may no longer fit and perpetuate cultural oppression. I could call my partner my Chickenhead and while it might feel right to me, it’s not a very useful or accurate label because no one else knows what it means to me, and someone else might have a different definition of Chickenhead. So in that sense, the label might not lock anyone into any roles or perpetuate oppression, but neither does it yet facilitate communication in the sense of making the communication more efficient–though I suppose it does facilitate it in the sense of encouraging further communication.

    • I have a longstanding love of English and writing, and the whole labels-vs-boxes thing is something I constantly struggle with. Because the whole point of language is to take an idea out of your head and put it in someone else’s head – and if the language you’re using doesn’t successfully convey your idea to another person, then it’s a failure. But at the same time, language is so wrapped up and shot through with poisonous cultural traditions and associations. What do we do if the only words someone else understands are words that have a terrible history? So tough.

  6. I don’t think there’s a simple answer, because relationships are complicated, and relationship-words can cover a wide range of situations. I could theoretically use the exact same word (friend) to describe someone I only know online and exchange blog comments with and the girl I’ve been friends with for over twenty years, who might as well be my sister. There are words you can add on to indicate the degree of closeness or relationship duration (my blogfriend, my best friend from high school, my almost-sister) but there’s not a simple one-word solution to describe your relationship with anybody that will convey the same message to everyone. (Think about the baggage that goes along with “mother,” for instance.) Maybe you can use “and” as appropriate – “She’s my metamour and my friend.” “Friends with benefits” does convey a certain amount if you don’t want to get into poly lingo, (perhaps “our friend with benefits,” if your boyfriend is involved in the pronoun antecedent, or “they’re dating and we’re friends.”) and it’s also perfectly okay to let people make assumptions about your relationship so long as your metamour doesn’t feel like she’s being minimized or brushed off. (I also like “umfriend,” but I don’t know how many people would recognize the term in the wild.)

  7. I don’t think coining a term can ever really sum up people’s relationships. You’re right about cultural associations, but when I say “my father” it means a whole different thing to me than when my husband says “my father” because we have completely different relationships. It’d be great to be able to NOT use terms! I mean, anyone that’s close enough to you to warrant having to sum up all those things (metamour, sexual partner, dating, friend), you can explain it anyway right? I mean if you said to me “metamour with benefits”, I’d still be saying “wtf is that?”

  8. whoa! this is a tough one… and much as I adore the utility of English (for ANYTHING!) I genuinely don’t think we have a word/set of words for such relations (yet!) I think the problem with using, “sister —anything” is that it gives off an impression of bio-family, which has implications of “too close” relations . We really need a whole new terminology. Do we have one? does any culture have one? Natalie, this is something I would like to not be an arse about when I encounter it (I have poly families in my work circles, but only profesionally so I don’t think I am OK to just ask.) any ideas?

    • Right now the modern poly community is so new that I think you’d get 12 different answers if you asked 12 different poly families, hahaha! As far as I know, “metamour” is the closest thing to a universally accepted term, but as I noted in my original post, even that isn’t ubiquitous yet.

  9. The Pervocracy was in a similar situation when her boyfriend (called “Rowdy”) was in a relationship with both the writer of the Pervocracy and “Sprite,” his other girlfriend.

    I’m not sure what terms they used, but you might check them out! pervocracy.blogspot.com

  10. Does anyone speak a Northern European or Russian language? Traditionally those languages have MANY more labels for relationships between people, and may be able to include scope. But not speaking any myself, I am not sure of any exact word for such relationships. But I would favor stealing linguistically from a non-English language that may already have a term for this (or something similar).

    • In Spanish, there are distinct labels for in-laws. Example: sister-in-law=cuñada (not hermana something).
      This is kind of off topic, but I wanted to share multilingual labels.

      Unless author wants to call her Cuñada! Haha

      • Are there differences in other languages to differentiate between sisters-in-law? I mean, my brother’s wife and my partner’s sister are the same term, but completely different relationships. I can’t talk about my sister-in-law and have anyone know who I mean. Moreover, if my partner had a sister and we don’t get legally married, technically she is not my sister in law. Solution has been to use “in love” instead of “in law” but I like to use the term “sister in love” for my best friend of 17 years. Plus, what if I don’t LOVE my sister in “law” that much and don’t want to claim her as a sibling as such?

        • A friend of mine uses ‘Sister out-law’ to describe her brother’s long term partner, as the brother and his girlfriend are not legally married to each other, but she is clearly an important part of the family. I suspect this could translate to poly situations rather well (and I’ve been looking out for an opportunity to use it in my own network!).

  11. In my polycule, we tend to use “OSO” (for Other Significant Other) to describe a metamour with whom one is not personally romantically/sexually connected. It’s understood that this person is important to the relationship, but that there isn’t a triad dynamic. (Of course, that’s how we use it, and others may well interpret differently.) It seems like you’re wanting to communicate “This person is in my life mostly because she dates my boyfriend, but I like her, too; we get along and occasionally make out, so she’s more important than JUST ‘my boyfriend’s girlfriend'” without saying “We’re dating each other, and each of us also dates [boyfriend]”. Thing is, you probably won’t find yourself in many situations where you need to share all that information up front (and if you do, you can say all that). Most of the people you introduce her to, poly or not, will be satisfied with “my/our friend ________”. Specifics of the relationship(s) can be established later if necessary, as they would be for any partner who’s meeting friends/family.

    • That’s so interesting! I’ve always understood OSO to mean someone that you ARE romantically/sexually connected to, and it’s just used to signify a shift in linguistic subject/object – that is, it’s a relative term to indicate that you’re talking about a different partner than the one previously mentioned. For example, I might say, “My SO and I went to the store while my OSO stayed at home to take care of the sick dog.” The SO and OSO might, in terms of relationship intensity, be equal in my eyes; it just so happens that one was mentioned first and the other was mentioned second.

      • Hmm — I think you’re right, but I explained clumsily. My wife would say, for example, “PlanningAhead and her OSO went bowling last night,” but my date would be *my* OSO, not my wife’s. It’s just that I’ve never needed a new term to describe who the OSO was to me: depending on circumstance, I’d call that person my date, my sweetie, my new flame, etc. etc.

        So I wasn’t saying that OSO replaced metamour, from the point of view of one end of the V. Just that it was another term used. I feel like I need to diagram with salt and pepper shakers (which is how the use of “polycule” to describe a group came about, anyway)!

  12. While not quite the same as romantic relationships, all of my adoptive siblings are in relationship with their biological families. I haven’t yet come up with a good term for “my sister’s mother” or my sister’s other mother? Or what about my sister’s sister? She’s my sister, but her sister isn’t my sister. Starts to get complicated. People give me side eye when I talk about my brother’s parents, or my sister’s mom, and woud love a word to describe it better!

    • I frequently mention “my sister’s father/aunt/uncle/cousin” because she and I share a mother but not a father. I have no idea why this goes over people’s heads. When I say “my sister’s father” I’ve had many people respond “isn’t that your father?” Really? Some people can be very unaware of atypical family or romantic relationship structures.

  13. I was reading this article and my husband looked over my shoulder and said:

    “They should call each other ‘co-equal love sponges’.”

    Not sure that is a term that will catch on (too wordy?) but I think it might make a great band name. 😉

  14. In form of terms for various relationships, there are countless cultures that have sexual and non sexual relationships that are poly in their societies. There are exstensive anthropological studies on these cultures, all very interesting and enlightening in that facts that Western society “norms” are not the end-all-be-all of what life is.

  15. That is an interesting debate. I do believe that metamour has all the makings of a word that will stick. But just like there are pretty wide gaps in both languages I speak (French and English) that leave the word “friend” to cover a wide array of relationship types, this one might have to do the same.

    Should someone I’ve known for more than half my life who is closer to me than anyone (with the exception of my husband) still be called a friend because we don’t share blood or bed? Well, I don’t have any other word for it, but I still think our relationship is wildly different from the one I have with other friends. Somehow “best friend” just doesn’t cover it either.

    I’m all for borrowing words from other languages when they manage to fill terminology gaps in our own. While I know they exist, I’d be curious to see suggestions.

  16. I’m monogamous, but point about how metamour doesn’t convey your relationship with this particular metamour got me thinking that the same problems apply with “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” in a monogamous relationship, too. My husband and I were together for eight years before we got engaged, and we only lived together for the last month of that. I’ve always associated “partner” with couples who live together, so I didn’t think of him as that, he was my boyfriend. (Cue Young Frankenstein voice.) But he was my boyfriend as soon as we started dating, so that didn’t really tell anybody about the strength or assumed permanence of our relationship. So it’s not just metamour or other new terms that have this problem.

  17. Ven diagram for sure! Great story 🙂 Poly here also, and I sure fight w/ terminology too. I do like “metamour”also. What do i call my boyfriends’ wives’ secondary?! haha

  18. I’m married and I also keep a lover. I call one my husband and one my boyfriend. I introduce them by name, not title, and most people are happy enough just to remember that. If they ask, I say either husband or boyfriend depending on which gentleman I’m with. I don’t offer to explain it or excuse it.

    Whatever you feel comfortable with is what you should use. You might try just to introduce her by name and see if that’s all they want to know. You might be surprised at how many people are fine with just learning her name.

    Best of luck!

  19. I run into this problem a lot. I’ve been living with my partner and her other partner for 8 years, and the only terminology we’ve come up with that we’re really happy with is “family,” which is great and sweet and all but is pretty awkward in most conversational contexts. Often I go with “my partner’s other partner” or just “my partner’s partner,” but I don’t really like it – I’d prefer to be able to convey that ze and I are chosen family whose relationship is not based on being in a romantic dyad but nonetheless involves long-term committed mutual caring and support.

    I’ve found it easier sometimes to find words to describe partners of people who I’m dating but not organizing a life with. I think the main reason for this is that when most of my interactions with someone are really happening in the context of my relationship with their partner, something like “girlfriend’s husband” feels like a pretty apt description.

    One chunk of my polycule does use the word “metamour” a lot, and I find that it feels like a natural word for me in that space. One thing I notice is that I’m only inclined to call someone my metamour when I have some kind of positive connection with them – not necessarily a particularly deep connection, but that we’re friends and I generally appreciate having them in my life. I don’t think I’d call someone a metamour if we’d never met, or if I didn’t like them. I guess at least to my brain, “metamour” does capture something specific about a relationship that two people have that is, at least to a degree, separate from each of their relationships with a common partner.

    I like the phrase “metamours with benefits” a lot! Thanks for the great article.

  20. I call my husbands girlfriend my girlfriend-in-law. Because we are in our late 20s and she her early 30s, so girlfriend actually feels kinda weird. Metamour sounds like a weird band or disease. Mistress/lover sounds torrid(plus the BDSM connotations don’t work for my Dominant husband). But I needed something with some humor since we are friends, so the title was born.

  21. Benemour and OPL are ones I have heard over the last 15 or so years. OPL – other partners lover , benemour being lover by benefit…

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