Several months ago I was leading group therapy, and toward the end of group all the clients decided to gang up on me with a barrage of personal questions, which is always a sticky situation for a therapist.

“Are you married, Julia?” one called out.

“Yeah, I don’t see no ring on your finger!” one echoed.

“Tell us! Tell us!” the rest chimed in.

I can’t really blame them. If I had to sit through over sixty groups about my “triggers,” I’d tune out at some point and start wondering about my therapist’s personal/sex life too.

“I’m not married,” I decided to divulge. “But I do have a partner who I’ve been with for many years.”

“Oh that’s cool,” one said. “I don’t care what anyone says—love is love.”

“Why don’t you get married?” one asked. “Isn’t same sex marriage legal in Iowa?”

“Oh,” I said, feeling my face turn red as I realized what had happened. “My partner is a guy.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised by the confusion. I had a female social work professor in college who used to refer to her “partner,” and I too had assumed she was a lesbian until one day when she used the phrase, “My partner, who just happens to be a man…” She later told us that she refused to use the word “husband” until gay people were allowed to legally wed. After that, I found her use of the word to be annoying and overly politically correct.

But the word is used so often in my line of work that at some point I stopped associating it with homosexuality, adopted it, and have come to love using it.

Here’s why.

I still connote the words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” with sixteen year olds and phone fights and makeout sessions in cars.

But ”partner” implies something different. In second grade when the teacher has you choose a partner to complete a worksheet identifying different cloud types (cumulus, stratus, altostratus, etc), that partnership is a commitment to work together on a difficult task.

And that’s what a healthy adult relationship should be. It’s not about the initial infatuation or the romantic gestures. It’s about having someone with whom to face the stresses and challenges of life, and being able to trust that that person will always be on your side.

It means that even if your boss gives you a terrible performance review and then fires you, your partner’s opinion of you won’t change.

It means that even if all your friends turn against you, you still have someone to hang out with.

It means that if you have to move far away, you have someone who will willingly upend their own life to go be with you.

It means that when you get sick, you have someone who will stay in with you even if you’re oozing out snot like a water hose while watching a 12-hour marathon of Say Yes to the Dress.

It means that it doesn’t matter whose bank account is used to pay for dinner or emergency AmericInn hotel stays or the cat vaccination bill.

It means you have someone to accompany you to otherwise uncomfortable weddings or work events or family reunions (and with whom to laugh about them later).

It means that no matter what changes in your outside life—careers, friends, cities, health, death of loved ones—you get to come home to the same person at the end of every day and feel like life is still manageable, because you have someone on your team who understands where you’ve been and can still make you laugh with obscure references to weird people you knew five years ago.

That’s what having a life partner means to me: an agreement to face life together.

And if that means I occasionally get mistaken for a lesbian, so be it.

Partners