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What Is a Significant Other?

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  • Written By: Kelly Ferguson
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 28 August 2016
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A significant other is, in the most literal form of the phrase, a person who is significant to an individual. This can include close friends and family members who have a large impact on the individual's life. Most commonly, however, the phrase "significant other" is used to refer specifically to a boyfriend or girlfriend, a husband or wife, life partner, or other person in a romantic or otherwise intimate relationship with the individual.

Due to the fact that the term "significant other" does not differentiate between gender and relationship status, such as married versus simply dating, it is frequently used in reference to an individual's romantic partner when the speaker is not familiar with the partner. For instance, if someone asks a casual co-worker to an event, he or she might say, "feel free to bring along your significant other if you would like." This leaves room for the person to understand that his or her romantic interest is invited to the event but it does not make an assumption about whether he or she is married, dating, or seeing someone of the same sex. Sticking to the term "significant other" is socially "safe" because it prevents the individual from being offended at the speaker's choice of words or having to correct the speaker and explain his or her relationship.

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Following the same example, even if the person inviting co-workers to an event is familiar with each co-worker's spouse, he or she can choose to send around an email without having to individually tailor the invitations to each person's situation. It is much easier to write "feel free to bring your significant other" in a mass email than it would be to change each invitation to say "wife," "girlfriend," and so on depending on the message's recipient. This phrasing also leaves room for those who might not be dating anyone to bring along a close friend instead without feeling socially awkward.

Less commonly, "significant other" can also mean any person who is very important to the individual. For example, this usage might be found when filling out a form that asks for the telephone number of a significant other so they may be contacted in case of an emergency. In this situation, it is just as appropriate to put the name and phone number of a parent or close friend as it would be to leave a spouse's name and contact information.

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umbra21
Post 3

@Iluviaporos - I prefer it when an invitation just says "plus one". People might assume that it's for a partner, but you could potentially bring anyone.

Weddings in particular just seem to be fraught with social danger these days. If you don't bring the person who they consider to be "the significant other" then you could end up on the wrong end of the bride or groom, since they take the guest list seriously.

It's best to let them know who you are bringing in general, I suppose, but I do have to say that calling it a "plus one" might be more formal but it's also more open to interpretation.

lluviaporos
Post 2

@clintflint - I don't know about that. You might be able to get away with a single mother calling her child a "significant other" although I suppose that's partly in jest.

I guess people default it to a romantic relationship because, in Western society, that's the one singular relationship most people have. You can have multiple children, multiple siblings, multiple parents (particularly these days when divorce and re-marriage is so common) but you're only expected to have a single serious romantic partner at a time.

With that being said, I have definitely said "significant other" to people intending them to take it as their best friend, rather than a romantic partner.

clintflint
Post 1

I've never really thought about how strange this phrase is. I guess it must have originally been "significant other person" or "significant other half" because it just doesn't really make literal sense as it is.

I do like that it is both gender neutral and doesn't necessarily have to mean a husband or wife, or even a romantic partner in general. Although I have to say that I think people would assume a romantic partner as the default when specifying this on, say, an invitation.

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