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What Does Significant Other Mean?


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In many social or business situations, the term 'significant other' refers to someone that offers support to another person as a friend, family member, partner or spouse. The term does not refer to gender or specific romantic entanglements, and does not specify the nature of the relationship. For instance, many hospitals now use 'significant other' in their paperwork to refer to a person who can offer support during testing, treatment or illness. Many companies will use the term 'significant other' on their invitations or announcements to share that the people attending the event are welcome to bring someone.

Have you had a significant other? Share your definition, thoughts and experiences: Significant Other Stories.

In the dating world, a significant other refers to a partner, girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse or someone with whom we share an intimate, romantic relationship with. Because the term doesn't imply gender, sexuality or relationship status, many couples adopted the phraseology in the 80s and 90s to avoid offense or confusion.

As an example, say you were chatting with a friend online about an upcoming wedding and you wanted to know if you could bring someone with you. Many people would ask, "Can I bring a significant other?" and then the conversation would continue. By saying significant other, the person asking isn't saying girlfriend when they really mean um... friend, or lover when they really want to say friends with benefits. No one gets the wrong idea when you say significant other, and nobody's feelings get hurt.

The term significant other originated in 1953 with a US-based psychiatrist by the name of Harry Stack Sullivan, where he published it in a book called, "The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry".

For people who practice polyamory, significant other takes on a few additional meanings, such as:

  • Other Significant Other (OSO): A person's other partner, spouse or relationship;
  • Secondary Significant Other (SSO): In a partnership where there are primary and secondary relationships, this is an important relationship that is tertiary in nature;

Societal references to significant others:

  • The 1994 movie When a Man Loves a Woman, starring Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia, had a working title of, "Significant Other".
  • 2004 [TV Show], Significant Others
Also Known As: better half, boyfriend, girlfriend, domestic partnership, lover, mate, partner, spouse, spouse equivalent
Alternate Spellings: SO [abbreviation]

"My significant other right now is myself, which is what happens when you suffer from multiple personality disorder and self-obsession." ~ Joaquin Phoenix

"No man wants to feel that he's there because of his woman's biological clock or because he's filling a job opening for husband or significant other." ~ George Weinberg

Readers Respond: Share Your Thoughts and Experiences About Significant Others

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