In attempting to initiate some playfulness and intimacy with my long-time friend and more recent girlfriend, I played my hand at the pet-name game. Some may scoff at this whimsical expression of affection and write it off as juvenile, which it may be, but it can also liven up a long-distance relationship that is devoid of the nonverbal communication which was a substantial component of our livelihood. I am persistently looking for new ways to make her smile from hundreds of miles away and if acting silly once in a while does it, well I respect her and myself enough to try anything.
I began to recognize a conflict in the practice of using pet-names, however, almost immediately as I began to include little compliments in my texts or greeting her with nicknames like: “Good morning gorgeous” or calling her “my love”. It quickly occurred to me that the entire exercise is riddled with possessiveness and the praise of physical characteristics. Although I desperately fantasize about caressing those perfectly sculpted almond-butter thighs, what I love about her has nothing to do with how biologically astounding she is. She inspires me with her selflessness, her value of commitments, and her unwavering friendship. She manages to see the good in even the most seemingly shitty situations and has an adorable sense of humor. Despite the fact that when I say “beautiful” the translation pertains not merely to that of aesthetics, I have since sought out to find pet-names that more fully encompass her attributes that I so admire.
But it wasn’t all that easy to make this realization. Previously, I had only ever dated men and that’s how they always treated me– complimenting my physical qualities. Appreciation of my looks can be sometimes flattering, but it often tended to leave me feeling my prized qualities were underappreciated. I then considered the notion that she may not want to be identified with such gender-binary adjectives at all. It may be a stretch, but some of these terms of affection (baby, little girl, etc.) echo remarks my father and other authoritative men have directed towards me which I feel are ways for them to elevate themselves as a patriarch. If I get degrading vibes from these names, then the last thing I want to do is further their demeaning reach on another woman.
Further complicating the situation, I recognized that I shouldn’t be reinforcing this idea of possession while trying to be sweet on her, and even now it is unsettling introducing her as my girlfriend. As far as I’m concerned she is an autonomous being and although I’m not dating anyone else, I have no right to consider myself as monopolizing her affections; in fact I consider it a privilege to receive her attention at all. And so my quest continues for a more effective verbal method of celebrating her as a significant person in my life without using labels that exert possessiveness and gender-binary assumptions about what it is to be in an intimate relationship.