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What Is a Life Partner?

Laura M. Sands
Updated May 16, 2024
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A life partner is a term commonly used to describe an intimate relationship between two people. Specifically, this term refers to a bond by which both individuals involved in the relationship commit to continue in the same relationship for a lifetime. A life partner may be a person of the opposite sex or of the same sex. Contemporary use of this term, however, is most commonly applied to same-sex relationships.

Cohabitation between life partners is common in many parts of the world. In countries such as the United States, Sweden, France, Denmark, Norway and Germany, legal recognition of some form is offered to partners who are committed to living together for life. Such recognition may be granted in the form of marriage, a domestic partnership or a civil union.

Life partners of the same sex often live together without a formal legal arrangement or may choose to form a civil union or a domestic partnership depending on the laws governing the jurisdiction where both partners reside. In some jurisdictions, same-sex partners may also be allowed to legally wed. Though partners in a heterosexual marriage are commonly referred to as husband and wife, spouses in a heterosexual marriage are in a life partner relationship.

In varying forms, legal status is sometimes offered to life partner relationships to protect individuals and families in the event that one partner falls ill or dies. Legal status applied to these relationships is also helpful in deciding legal disputes over property and assets in the event that one or both partners choose to end the relationship. In some situations where a partnership involves a same-sex couple not allowed to marry civilly, the rights that accompany a domestic partnership or civil union are intended to act in a similar manner to the legal rights that accompany heterosexual civil marriage.

Often used to describe a relationship between same-sex couples, a life partner does not necessarily have to be of the same sex. Heterosexual couples often commit to life partnerships, particularly when choosing to live together and have children together without registering for a civil marriage. While commonly used in describing romantic relationships, life partnerships may also be used to describe extremely close platonic friendships that are not characterized by romantic feelings or a sexual relationship.

What Is a Partner in a Relationship

When used in the context of a relationship, the word partner generally refers to a significant other. While it can occasionally be used for causal relationships and dating situations, it most often implies that the couple is in a more serious, committed relationship. Generally, someone isn't called a partner unless the pairing intends to remain together for the foreseeable future. In a practical sense, the word partner can be interchangeable with many other terms such as girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, or other common words for people in a relationship.

Why Use the Term Partner?

The term partner is not exclusive to unmarried couples, and many married couples have begun referring to their spouse as their partner in recent times. There are many reasons to use the word partner. One common reason is to keep things gender-neutral and inclusive to all types of relationships. A person can discuss their partner without having to offer any further explanations about the relationship, which may be more comfortable or safe for people in same-sex relationships; likewise, heterosexual couples may use this term in solidarity and to normalize the phrase for everyone's benefit.

Another reason that the term partner may be rising in popularity is the connotation it has towards the relationship being discussed. A partnership between people suggests a truly equal relationship in which both people support each other. Married couples of all genders and those who are seriously dating may prefer this term as it removes the historic connotations of the husband or boyfriend as solely the monetary provider and the wife or girlfriend as solely the homemaker.

Life Partner Vs Marriage

The term life partner is more specific than just the term partner on its own. While a partner can be a significant other in almost any type of relationship, the term"life partner" is usually used to refer to an unmarried couple in a serious, committed relationship. Though life partners don't always live together, this is often the case. There are many reasons why people may opt to live together without getting married, including financial factors and personal beliefs.

Legal Rights to Consider

There are several differences in legal rights for life partners and married couples. Married couples get special legal benefits including tax benefits, financial benefits, and the right to make choices relating to medical issues or similar emergencies regarding spouses. Life partners may not be afforded these same rights, which can make things complicated in certain situations.

Married partners are also legally committed to fulfilling certain obligations, though these can vary from state to state. Liability for certain expenses generally falls to both partners, and property and income are usually considered to belong to both partners. This often makes legal assistance necessary when separating assets if a divorce should occur. While life partners may be free from many of these obligations, it can put one partner or the other at a disadvantage should a breakup occur.

Types of Life Partners

There are some ways that life partners may be able to receive some of the same legal rights as married couples. Some states recognize life partners who live together as being in a common law marriage. In these cases, some legal benefits may be afforded. It is important to be aware of the rules from state to state. One downside to a common law marriage is that in the event of a divorce, it is up to the couple to divide up belongings and assets, and there is no legal guarantee for getting a fair share of money or items from the relationship.

Civil unions are another type of legally recognized partnership that was commonly used for couples who didn't have the right to marry before same-sex marriage was made legal in all states by the supreme court. Civil unions have specific rights that they afford which can be similar to those given to a married couple. This includes visitation rights in hospitals, the ability for partners to access information about each other that would be restricted from the general public, and financial benefits in some cases. Civil Unions are not federally recognized, and so the laws about them can vary from state to state.

Life partners may also be legally referred to as domestic partners. Some states have their own laws giving certain rights to members of a domestic partnership, but as with those types of partnerships discussed above, the rules can be tricky to follow, and it is important to be aware of the state being lived in and its associated rules.

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Laura M. Sands
By Laura M. Sands
Laura Sands, the founder of a publishing company, brings her passion for writing and her expertise in digital publishing to her work. With a background in social sciences and extensive online work experience, she crafts compelling copy and content across various platforms. Her ability to understand and connect with target audiences makes her a skilled contributor to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By Markerrag — On Mar 09, 2014

People of the opposite who are living together can also form a legal relationship in the United States -- it's called a common law marriage. In the states that recognize those, the requirements are typically that couple lives together for a certain amount of time and hold themselves out to be man and wife.

What is interesting is that common law marriages are only recognized in nine states, but they can impact all states. For example, let's say a couple has entered into a common law marriage in Texas. That couple moves to Arkansas, which does not recognize common law marriages. Due to the Full Faith and Credit clause of the United States Constitution, an Arkansas court will have to view that relationship as a valid marriage if one of the "spouses" files for divorce, if one dies and a will must be probated, etc.

Here's a question that seems to be dangling -- if a couple enters into a same sex marriage in a state that recognizes those, what happens if they move to a state where same sex marriage has not be legalized and half of the couple files for divorce?

Laura M. Sands
Laura M. Sands
Laura Sands, the founder of a publishing company, brings her passion for writing and her expertise in digital publishing...
Learn more
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