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Significant other (or SO) is a gender-blind, politically correct term to refer to a person's partner in an intimate relationship without disclosing or presuming anything about their marital status or sexual orientation. It is also vague enough to avoid offence from using a term that an individual might consider inappropriate (e.g. lover when he or she considers him a boyfriend, or her a girlfriend when he or she considers her a life partner). Nonetheless, some are offended by the implication that persons with whom one is not having a "primary" sexual relationship are "insignificant" or would as a matter of course get lesser consideration and more emotional disrespect compared to the "significant" one.

In the United States the term is sometimes used in invitations, e.g., to weddings and office parties. In this context, a person and their significant other might not be cohabiting and might not be engaging in sexual relations. For example, a person's fiancé(e) would be considered a significant other, without any assumptions regarding living arrangements or sexual activity before their marriage. Conversely, it is assumed that some sort of steady connection exists between the invitee and their significant other, i.e., the event for which the invitation is extended won't be their first date.


Social science

Its usage in both psychology and sociology is very different from its colloquial use. In psychology, a significant other is any person who has great importance to an individual's life or well-being. In sociology, it describes any person or persons with a strong influence on an individual's self-evaluation, which are important to this individual, as well as reception of particular social norms. This usage is synonymous with the term "relevant other" and can also be found in plural form—"significant others".

In social psychology a significant other is the parent, uncle/aunt, grandparent, or teacher - the person that guides and takes care of a child during primary socialization. The significant other protects, rewards and punishes the child as a way of aiding the child's development. This usually takes about six or seven years, and after that the significant other is no longer needed, the child moves on to a general other which is not a real person, but an abstract notion of what society deems good or bad.

First use

The first known occurrence of the term was in 1953 by U.S. psychiatrist, Harry Stack Sullivan, a former editor of the journal Psychiatry, in his posthumously published work, The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry[1]. While the term currently enjoys use and familiarity, greatest use of the term peaked in the late 80s to mid 90s and has generally declined since then in favor of other terminology as deemed appropriate.

The phrase was first noted to have been coined by John Sullivan in 1989, during an episode of the British television comedy programme Only Fools and Horses in which the character Derek "Del Boy" Trotter refers to his partner Raquel as his significant other, receiving many laughs from the live audience. The phrase has now become a politically correct colloquialism, and features in many day-to-day situations.


The term Non-Married Presumed Obligate Significant Other (NMPOSO) is a term used since around 1990 by some conservative and/or feminist commentators to point out the concerns with relationships in which a jealous and/or parasitic male claims the presumed benefits of marriage without having to take any of the responsibilities. Others find this term useful in that the terms "boyfriend", "girlfriend" etc. seem to imply that the only relationship that members of the opposite sex should have with one another should be romantic, sexual, and subject to significant impingements on autonomy and personal freedom.



  • Sullivan, Harry. The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry. , USA: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.. ISBN 0-393-00138-5.  

See also

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