My partner and I use a lot of pet names, and I mean a lot. Any time I call him by his actual first name, we both jump a little because it sounds so foreign. Our more regular and preferred manner of addressing each other includes a wide variety of grotesquely mushy monikers: baby, my love, my sweet man, creatureling, small hum, tree wolf, my delightful leaf pile, my sweet and clever potato spud, and many, many more. (Usage example: “Where are you, fox?” is a typical text I receive from him when we’re meeting up somewhere and looking for each other.) I share this information with much shame and no joy. Just humble acceptance that our lives have panned out this way. A series of small but deliberate choices have led us here, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.
But before you go on your merry way judging us, let me just say: Data is on our side on this one. According to a recent survey of over 1,000 people, couples who use pet names might actually tend to be happier with their relationships than those who don’t.
Conducted by U.K. health service Superdrug Online Doctor, the survey gauged the popularity and effects of using terms of endearment. A whopping 87 percent of Americans do use them in their relationships, and couples who used them were 16 percent more likely to be pleased with the relationship. (For one particularly stark example, about 90 percent of Americans who used the terms “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” and “honey” when addressing their partner were happy with their relationship, compared to just 56 percent of those who used no nicknames at all.)
For those of you cringing reading over some of these nicknames, you’re not alone. If you’re curious, the most hated nicknames of all included “papi” (73 percent of people despised it), “daddy” (72 percent), “sweet cheeks” (66 percent), and “muffin” (61 percent).
But love them or hate them, past research does back up the connection between these cutesy epithets and closeness: A 1993 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships also found that more satisfied married spouses used more private idioms, and a pair of relationship researchers parsed through data on almost 100,000 people for their book The Normal Brand found 76 percent of the people who said they were “very happy” with their relationships used pet names.
“I think it’s a really human, natural behavior to take language and shape it for our own purposes,” said Carol J. Bruess, Ph.D., a researcher who studies family and relationship communication and who co-led the 1993 study, in a recent conversation with Scientific American. “I think that’s how nicknames evolve. We name things, we give things symbols, and over time we tend to naturally manipulate those symbols toward a certain outcome.”
Nicknames, in other words, are part of an inner world created between two people, one that’s completely private to them. It’s something akin to a secret love language if you will. That’s why when outsiders hear these words, they usually feel uncomfortable or grossed out—they’re just not in on the joke. They don’t get what these words mean or signify to the couple using them. (Frankly I don’t even know if I could explain to a stranger why I sometimes call my partner “tree wolf“—no matter how hard I might try, it just would never sound as funny and endearing to someone else as it does to us. It would never make any true sense to anyone who doesn’t know both of us as well as only we know each other.)
And perhaps most importantly, when we give each other nicknames, it’s a sign of not just affection and intimacy—it’s also a sign of playfulness and joy.
“If we can’t laugh at ourselves and with each other in the relationship, we’re less likely to sustain that relationship in a positive way over time,” Dr. Bruess said.
So judge us all you want. In the long run, the tree wolf and I will be the ones laughing.