Every night before she falls asleep, my friend Alyson holds her husband’s hand in bed and says, “Good night, Mr. Jones.” Her husband’s name is Josh Weinberg.
“We’ve been calling each other Mr. Jones since we first started dating in 1994,” explains Alyson, 50, a communications consultant and speechwriter living in the Washington, D.C., area. “At the time, the Counting Crows were big, and ‘Mr. Jones’ was constantly playing on the radio. We’ve always both been hugely into pop culture, and I remember us thinking it was funny and bizarre that Adam Duritz was singing very specific things about this weird, fictitious person: He strikes up conversations with flamenco dancers; his father plays guitar; he wishes he was just a little more funky.”
One of them started referring to the other as Mr. Jones, and it stuck. Twenty-six years later, they refer to each other this way, multiple times a day. (Their teenage daughters have been known to occasionally use it in lieu of Mom or Dad as well.)
They might not realize it, but the Weinbergs are practicing a well-recognized relationship-building strategy: creating a nickname for your boo.
Carol J. Bruess, professor emeritus of family communication at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and author of What Happy Couples Do: Belly Button Fuzz & Bare-Chested Hugs — The Loving Little Rituals of Romance, has been studying the power of “Baby” and “Honeybun” for nearly three decades.
In 1993, her master’s thesis (titled “ ‘Sweet Pea’ and ‘Pussy Cat’: An Examination of Idiom Use and Marital Satisfaction Over the Life Cycle”) broke new ground when she and her coauthor suggested that couples who use nicknames and other sorts of private language are happier and more satisfied in their marriage than those who stick with the monikers on one another’s birth certificate.
“Giving your partner a nickname is shorthand for ‘I adore you. I know you. I appreciate you.’ It bonds you together and is a way of saying, ‘We have our own private world,’ ” Bruess says.
A romantic partnership, she says, is a sort of mini-culture, and the use of tailored terms of endearment (yes, “Shmoopie” counts) is an easy way to fortify it and promote resilience.
The same goes for code words you and your partner create together, like this couple that mouths the words “festive mango” when they’re stuck in a miserable conversation at a party and need to be rescued.
(Origin story: When they began dating, the wife’s Wi-Fi randomly suggested it as a password.)
As for my husband and me, when either of us finds ourselves on the couch, knee-deep in a bag of popcorn or dried fruit and can’t seem to stop the hand-to-mouth action, all we need to do is shout “Intervention!” — and the other person is legally obligated to immediately spring to attention and rip the bag away.
And my friend E. and her husband, who somehow manage to have sex every damn Monday morning, call their weekly love rumble “punch punch,” a reference to the time a few years ago when he texted her two punch emojis preceded by “Do we have time for …,” only to have it intercepted by their son. Reading it aloud to E., the 8-year-old asked, “Mom, Dad wants to know if you have time for punch punch” — thus rendering the double-fist emoji forever synonymous with Monday morning quickies.
This sort of made-up, insider language is called idiosyncratic communication, a fancy word that draws us to our partner, whether we can pronounce it or not. “We get so stressed out between work and family that we, as adults, often forget to play,” Bruess says. “Nicknames are a way to inject playfulness and humor into everyday life. They make you smile inside, and that gives you a little endorphin kick every time you use it.”
A few tips to keep in mind:
Both partners need to be on board
Clearly, your husband can’t just start calling you Jiggle Butt — even if it’s from a place of admiration and worship — if it irks you. For years, I’ve tried to convince my husband to adopt “Is Maria home?” as a euphemism for “Do I have food in my teeth/junk in my nose?” because that’s what my friend Cristina and her sister do and I’m obsessed with it. But he is totally not into it. Which means I’m Gretchen and I need to stop trying to make fetch happen. (That said, he has several sweet and silly nicknames for me, including one that stuck so well that several of my girlfriends now call me by it.)
Nicknames can come in especially handy when fighting
Lorne Campbell, a social psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario, has researched the use of humor during conflicts and found that when couples inject a little goofiness into a dispute, it can relieve tension, help with problem-solving and, ultimately, strengthen the relationship. You may not feel inclined to call each other Khaleesi and Drogo in the midst of a fight about finances, but imagine the levity doing so might bring. (Campbell’s findings also jive with a phenomenon many people are familiar with — a typically nickname-using partner who addresses you by your actual first name only when you’re verbally sparring.)
Don’t call him Daddy
When the website Superdrug Online Doctor somewhat inexplicably asked 1000-plus adults between the ages of 20 and 71 about their perception of romantic pet names, 87 percent of them copped to using them. The most loathed, though, included Papi and Daddy, probably due to the obvious ick factor. No worries — there are plenty of pet names out there. A quick survey of my friends revealed gems such as Pita and Puffy; Minkey and Sassy; Boo and Bug; and Dr. Kickass and Funny Guy, among others. You can go the portmanteau route (see: Brangelina; Kimye). And feel free to use my friend’s Maria code word. … I’m still trying to make that one