my girfriend

A “Girlfriend” at 60 (What’s the Best Alt to Wife?)

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Do I sound immature when I mention my girlfriend or my girlfriend’s dogs? What is it about being a mature man and having a girlfriend? Does it hint at immaturity, an inability to commit, or something else? Has my “brand” as a single father created a trap? When we move forward does it always need to be into marriage? I know how well my first two went. I’m not sure when my status will or should change.

What’s In a Name?

The other day, in a team call with my international team of 30 and 40-year-olds, I was asked, “How can you possibly create so much content?” He was asking, in addition to this day job we share, how are you finding the time to work on your other stuff?

“I have a girlfriend and not a wife,” I said. We laughed.

The sentiment was more self-revealing than I had imagined. After 13 years as a single dad, I’m not all that clear on what the path is toward something more evolved. The words I’ve considered:

  • partner
  • fiancé
  • life partner
  • lover
  • friend
  • girlfriend
  • wife

Each one of these monikers carries some baggage. What is it about the language of love attachments that imbues a feeling? Let’s take them one at a time.

Partner – generic, non-denominational, feels temporary

Fiancé – aspirational, thrilling, terrifying, “wait, hold back, do not proceed”

Life Partner – a bit more committed, liberal, outside the bounds of marriage

Lover – “yes, we’re having great sex, thanks,” a bit on the hippie side, evolved

Friend – too casual, “my friend” sounds like you need to follow up with an explanation

Girlfriend – immature, free, unrestrained, optional, by choice not by law

Wife – the ultimate title and tie of our empires (financial and emotional) together

What Is the Goal?

In my current relationship, my goal is FOREVER. Aspirational, I know. Idealistic, yes, I know. Deluded, perhaps. Still, my goal in my current (and most serious relationships that came before) partnership is to continue growing and stretching together toward a better and better connection. I’m only a year and a half in, but I know this one is very different, very safe, and very committed.

And yet, the term “wife” feels wrong to me. My last two really let me down. The word wife will always be connected to the joke, “And here’s my future ex-wife.” Gross. The ritual and social constraints on “marriage,” on “husbands” and “wives” has been trashed by narratives not just from my own experience but from television, movies, and books. The narrative of a happy marriage is not easy to find. The narrative of the well-intentioned young couple with two kids living happily ever after is not easy to find, and perhaps, not very interesting to read or write about. And that might be part of the problem.

We don’t want good. We want great. I didn’t leave a failing marriage by choice, I was handed my papers. I am determined not to make the same mistakes. And yet, I have no idea what a healthy evolution of my partnership looks like or even what we call each other. We’ve adopted the term “LOVA” for our flirts and chats during the day. But I’m not certain what would compel us further, into some major adjustment to our lives and our future lives, our kids’ lives. Why do we need to add that pressure to our partnership?

What Do We Want?

Since I’m writing about love and relationships all the time, I do a good bit of projecting and imagining what a healthy and happy relationship looks like. It’s a bit premature to start mapping for marriage and making those legal and spiritually binding agreements. In my experience, the “sacred marriage” did not protect me from the horrible outcome of divorce. With kids, my second divorce nearly killed me with depression and despair. Only through writing did I find my center in the eye of a system and storm that was put into motion by my ex-wife and the state of Texas. The cards and the system were stacked against me. I nearly lost everything when I lost everything in the divorce. I nearly lost my life.

Today, I don’t have those same constraints. I don’t have any possession or rights to my girlfriend’s money, house, kids, health care. We are in a relationship of choice. Each day we choose to be in this relationship. Some of this flexible state allows me to continue asking for what I want. In my second marriage, with two kids, I was constrained by my wife’s anger and controlling behaviors, but I stayed to be with the kids. I compromised so much of myself to remain in a marriage with a woman who was verbally abusive and angry from first coffee to lights out. It was a horror show. But, my Ferris Bueller personality, kept trying to make the best of things. I was hopeful both the first and second times I got us into couples therapy.

So, I don’t want to go down too far into those skeletons, and perhaps, the word “wife” has lost some of the shine and allure. I don’t want a WIFE. I want a healthy partner who can grow alongside me, and roll with the changes that are coming in our lives and our kids’ lives, and I want to adore this one person for the rest of my life, with all of my heart and soul. I want to write songs, poetry, and stories about our BIG LOVE. I want to inspire others.

Yet, here I am, still in the early stages of defining us. What does the WE want? How does the WE move forward into something more committed and more loving? At the moment, I’m staying with curiosity. I’m curious about how a loving partnership can evolve over time into even more intimacy and more spiritual and emotional alignment.

Until then, the words I use with myself are, “There is no hurry. We have plenty of time.”

I’ll take it from here, from this moment, each day, recommitting and reconnecting with this lovely woman, who is reflecting back and magnifying my love. We’re still in the flames of the honeymoon, sure, and the future is filled with traps and snares, yes, but we’re doing it together, with open hearts and open communication. Let’s see what the WE creates over the next few years. And, of course, to infinity and beyond.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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*image: my girlfriend 2022

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