The insignificant other

Significant? Photo by Mandy Jansen, Flickr

We will do, we will hope, we will live,
We will rest in the hearts of remembering men
Who saw us as we passed.
-- from “You,” by Carl Sandburg

In historic preservation, places being considered for the National Register must identify their period of significance, or the span of time in which whatever makes the place noteworthy occurred. It could be an event, a person, a distinctive characteristic, even “the potential to yield important information.”

As the National Park Service puts it, “Events and associations with historic properties are finite; most properties have a clearly definable period of significance.”

People, however, are not buildings. We are far from finite (barring, of course, the mortal coil), and bring with us myriad ways, modes, traits, and choices that vary our levels of significance to different people at different points in our lives.

Why, then, do we as a society perpetuate the phrase “significant other?” Here’s my thinking:

  • If we were to apply a preservation context to this phrase, we are saying that this person (the SO) has a clearly defined period of significance. Yet we’re currently in the midst of our time with them. We have no knowledge of how long or to what degree they will remain significant. Instead, we make a big call in real time – always a risky, potentially inaccurate move.
  • To call someone a significant other is to assume that we have already identified what makes them noteworthy for us. In the best case scenario, they are significant because we love them and have entered into a fulfilling, meaningful relationship. In the worst case scenario, they are significant because they have a pulse and we bring them to parties. The former is uplifting; the latter, dispiriting.
  • The very phrase negates itself. Significant implies that this person is worthy of attention, that they carry influence in our life, that they have made an impression. But then we tack on other, a xenophobic word choice that smacks of separatism and opposite-ness, alluding to a foreign object that has somehow wiggled its way into our bloodstreams and staked out parasitic ground, a stranger that gains a body only when it is part of a pair. So when we say “significant other,” we’re really saying “noteworthy nothing.” Or, to put it more succinctly, “insignificant.”

Huddle up. Photo by Keith Williams, Flickr

I don’t want to be considered insignificant to people I care about, nor do I want to burden an insignificant interloper with a phrase that simultaneously inflates and removes his importance. If someone’s name is going to be attached to mine in conversation or on the fronts of envelopes, then I want him to be an equal, fully formed person -- not a check through a box, not a stroke for my ego, and certainly not a lazy, imprecise shorthand for “not single.”

So what am I asking for here? I want us all to acknowledge that any person, romantic or otherwise, who we let across our welcome mats will enjoy a period of significance in our lives, and that if we’ve let them in that far to begin with, then they can never truly be other to us again.

What’s more, we are far from other to ourselves. Our personal periods of significance last as long as we believe them to be so -- hopefully from the day we come out to the day we croak. And when we have each deemed ourselves significant -- as independent, cultivated, substantial people with “important information” always bubbling up -- we will stand marked as so.

Please, let’s retire "significant other." It speaks nothing to the power true relationships hold, and even less about the value we place in ourselves.

Prayer #276: The Welcome Mat at the Castle Gates

I’ve laid the welcome mat outside the gates.
(My gators ate the first one, but I will
Not be deterred.) It rests there, flat and striped,
Beyond the sulfur moat that belches fumes,
Beneath the poison arrows that land true,
Beside the wobbly ladders doomed to fall,
Far from the cauldrons bloated with hot tar.
For I, with wisdom gleaned from faith alone,
Know that the person who can reach the mat
And ring the doorbell, interrupting lunch,
Deserves to join me in the peaceful courtyard,
Take the other armchair at the hearth,
And help me find rooms even I’ve not seen.