What Does "Spouse" Mean and What Are Some Alternatives?

If "spouse" just doesn't sit right, there are plenty of other options.
Couple on wedding day smiling and laughing together
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Jenn Sinrich
Jenn sinrich headshot
Jenn Sinrich
The Knot Contributor
  • Jenn writes articles for The Knot Worldwide, with a speciality in planning advice and travel.
  • Jenn also writes for a myriad of other large-scale publications, including SELF, Women's Health, and more
  • Prior to becoming a freelance writer, Jenn worked as an on-staff editor at WhatToExpect.com, American Baby, Fit Pregnancy and FreshDirect.
Updated Feb 09, 2024

As you near your wedding date, you'll probably come across a myriad of names and terms for your soon-to-be partner in marriage. One that's quite common is "spouse." Although, when you say it in everyday conversation, such as "this is my soon-to-be spouse" it sounds kind of…strange.

The word spouse and spouse meaning is a very traditional term that has been used historically to describe the individual that you're married to. It's still used today quite commonly, especially when used in the form of legal documents.

In this article:

What Does Spouse Mean?

In the most simplest of terms, "spouse" means the person that you are legally wed to. "This term encompasses the bond between two individuals who have made a commitment to each other through marriage or a similar formalized arrangement," explains Colette Sachs, L.M.S.W., Associate Therapist at Manhattan Wellness. "The term has ancient roots, stemming from Latin origins and it entered the English language via Old French in the 13th century." It has since maintained a strong presence throughout history, especially in legal, social and relational contexts, representing the formalized partnership between married individuals, she notes.

"In this day and age, relationships and the idea of something being 'typical' is old news and the way individuals are partnering up is looking different and being defined differently," says Jennifer Teplin, L.C.S.W, Manhattan Wellness's founder and clinical director at Manhattan Wellness. "I believe the term spouse was the original way of identifying the individual you were legally married to without denoting gender—so giving clarity on the level of commitment but remaining vague about the exact relationship."

Why Do We Say Spouse?

It's the 21st century—why do we still say spouse when it's been around for hundreds upon hundreds of years? Well, the short answer is likely a combination of habit as well as the degree in which it's embedded in our legal and social constructs. "There are more legal rights associated with a spouse than with a partner, still," says Paulette Sherman, PsyD, psychologist, director of the site My Dating & Relationship School and author of Dating from the Inside Out. "Interestingly, spouses can be married with or without living together, and with or without joining finances or having kids—some say the modern definition of a spouse includes a significant other, with or without marriage."

Another important factor to note in regards to why we still use the word "spouse" today is that it transcends gender roles and sexual orientations. In other words, it accommodates diverse relationship dynamics, notes Sachs. "Despite evolving social norms and alternative partnership structures, 'spouse' remains a widely accepted and understood term, emphasizing the commitment and unity inherent in marriage," she adds.

Alternatives for Spouse, Wife and Husband

If you're not down with the word "spouse" and would prefer another way to refer to the person whom you're married to, here are a few other options, according to relationship experts.


Perhaps the most commonly used term for a person who you're committed to romantically, partner seems to get the greatest stamp of approval among couples from all over—as it's inclusive of all types of partnerships, including marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships. "It's a versatile term that doesn't carry the same legal or gender-specific connotations as 'spouse' and is suitable for couples in both formal and informal relationships," says Sachs. "When using 'partner,' it's important to clarify the nature of the relationship if necessary, especially in contexts where ambiguity could lead to misunderstandings."

Significant Other

This term is also used a great deal and is used in a very similar fashion to partner— it refers to a person with whom one is romantically involved and shares a committed relationship, regardless of marital status, notes Sachs. "'Significant other' is a neutral term that doesn't assume marital status or gender roles and is commonly used in both formal and informal settings," she says. "'SO' is a casual and inclusive term suitable for any committed relationship, however, in more formal or professional settings, it may be appropriate to use a term that clearly defines the relationship without ambiguity."


"This term denotes someone with whom you share a close bond and spend significant time together, often implying emotional intimacy," says Sachs. "It's a softer, more intimate term that emphasizes emotional connection rather than legal status or formal commitment." While "companion" can be a warm and affectionate term, Sachs also points out that it may lack the legal and social recognition of a more formal term like "spouse." For this reason, she recommends reserving it for use in contexts where the emphasis is on emotional closeness and shared experiences.

Soul Mate or Mate

A mate is a term that can be used to denote the person who is your match and sexual partner, explains Dr. Dr. Sherman. "A soul mate is often used to denote a person who joins you on a spiritual path of relationship, in order to grow together," she says. "Both terms can imply a very important life union but neither are legal or require external forces to dissolve that union."

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