I got to thinking a little while ago about how we usually talk about asexuals having two distinct orientations (asexual, x-romantic). According to this way of thinking, asexuals then fall into two categories: romantic, and aromantic (with further categorization of the former according to gender preference, but those are the basics). I’ve always found this categorization system rather confusing, because it’s not clear at all what we mean by “romantic.” Romance means different things in different contexts, and in trying to apply this word to a new context, we get confused about which definition we’re trying to apply.
Obviously, it’s clear we’re not talking about styles of prose or poetry, nor does this have anything to do with the Romans. We all know we’re in the general ballpark of love, but beyond that, there are several different ways to interpret it.
If I were to hear someone called “romantic,” the first thing that would come to mind is a personality trait: I would imagine that person as someone with a very idealistic, fanciful outlook on love relationships, which calls to mind princes on white horses. I would think sappiness, naivete, and rescue complex. Red roses, starry skies, candlelit dinners. A person who likes all these things (which are anathema to me). From the context, I can eliminate this interpretation, because I know from my experience with the asexual community that that’s not what we’re referring to, but a person who doesn’t have that background with asexuality would likely be confused. It has always bothered me that the words we use to describe someone like me has this connotation as well, because I am much more of a realist when it comes to love affairs.
But in the context of asexuality, it’s fairly clear that’s not what we mean. According to the AVEN Lexicon, a romantic person is one who experiences romantic attraction (to whatever gender is specified). Okay, then. What’s romantic attraction? According to the wiki:
Romantic attraction is a feeling that causes people to desire a romantic relationship with a specific other person. …
What exactly constitutes a romantic relationship or romantic attraction is difficult to define, and some asexuals reject the romantic/aromantic dichotomy altogether.
See, we even outright acknowledge that it’s not well defined. It seems to me that there are two different components to this so-called “romantic attraction:” structure, and feeling.
According to the definition, in order to know that what you are feeling is romantic attraction, you have to know you desire a certain type of relationship with another person. It’s important to define what is and what isn’t a romantic relationship, and in that case we have to look at how we think about and structure those relationships.
Off the top of my head, there are four things that I can think of that are somehow central to the concept of a romantic relationship, which most of us can generally agree that a romantic relationship is supposed to involve:
- Intimacy – closeness of some kind, usually more emotional than anything else (with physical closeness as a demonstration of that emotional closeness).
- Commitment – being committed to making time to spend together, not necessarily for the rest of one’s life, but usually with the end goal of finding someone (or multiple someones) to spend life with.
- Intensity of emotion – This, I think, is what a lot of people would point to as the difficult-to-pin-down distinction between romantic and platonic feelings. In practice, I see a clear difference between the two myself, but the words to express that difference continue to elude me. The closest I have ever gotten is in poetry; it is a feeling (set of feelings) that is understood through experience rather than language, and as such I’m not sure that it can be clearly expressed in dry, academic terms.
- Shared goals – If the other three are lacking, generally it is the goal of a romantic relationship to cultivate and maintain them (although it may be impossible to force strong emotions to develop). Maybe the people involved have a different aim than usual (for example, young couples who get together just to learn how to relate to another person as part of a couple), but if there are no shared goals, the relationship will eventually fall apart. This is true for all types of relationships, from the guy you talk to at the bus station to relieve boredom and never see again, to the one you marry.
These things are all necessary components of a functional romantic relationship, but they aren’t enough to define it. You can have all four of these things with someone and still consider them a friend, not a romantic partner (though that may not match others’ interpretations). Usually the difference is in the degree of each of these things; romantic partners are generally expected to experience them all in a high (even overwhelming) degree, whereas friends are not. But some people may attach more intensity to friendship, and others less intensity to romance. The line is blurry and individually defined (though it’s important to reach a consensus at least between the people involved). What it really comes down to is the structure of the relationship, how you think about it, and whether you both (all) agree that it’s romantic in nature. Other than that, there really is no one single defining quality, nor is there one single kind of relationship structure.
But what if you feel a desire to form an intense, close relationship with someone, including all four of those components, but don’t want to call it romantic? What if you essentially feel a strong emotional attraction to someone but don’t want to form any romantic relationships? Does that mean you are romantic or aromantic?
Should we put more emphasis on what we feel, or what kind of relationships we form? If we put more emphasis on the feeling, then how do we define what feeling counts as “romantic attraction” if it’s not necessary to actually want to form a romantic relationship? Like, for example, I’m fairly certain I do experience what people refer to as “romantic attraction” (though I only have a few experiences to go by). I felt it for M, but if he had asked me to get into a romantic relationship with him, I would have rejected him anyway because I wouldn’t want to get involved with someone who doesn’t understand what he’s getting into (at least until that problem had been cleared up). Essentially, there was an emotional desire that was overridden by practical concerns. I am flexible enough instead to channel those feelings into a friendship with him (though I would prefer that friendship to go beyond the boundaries of normal friendships). What I truly want out of a “romantic” relationship is an intimate friendship with someone I have feelings for, wherein expressing physical affection is okay. I want there to be a degree of sensuality to it, and sex is agreeable under the right circumstances, but not necessary. I already had almost everything I wanted from M, so I didn’t feel the need to push it into “romantic” territory. Provided I have some kind of stable relationship like that in my life, I’m not certain whether I will need to define any relationships as romantic. All things considered, I would still categorize myself as “romantic” since I think a stable romantic relationship could certainly enhance my life, and under ideal circumstances I would pursue it, but there is certainly a blurry line there.
I’m not sure if I am actually making sense here, so let me put it another way: from what I can gather, “aromantics” identify themselves as such in two different ways: one, because they don’t feel a need for intimate relationships with other people, or two, because they do perhaps feel that need but are uncomfortable with structuring their relationships that way.
I think there’s a misconception, too, that aromantics “by definition” don’t form close relationships or fall in love with other people, which is not necessarily the case. People unfamiliar with asexuality also tend to assume that of all of us, not just the aromantics. But speaking just of the asexual community, is it really a good idea for us to frame our understanding in this way, given how misleading it is? Instead of calling it a romantic orientation, some people call it an affectional orientation (usually with “emotional attraction” replacing “romantic attraction”), but I’m not sure if that gets around all the problems. I prefer it because at least it gets rid of the connotation of starry-eyed (pukefest) idealism, but even so, it’s still pretty unclear exactly what “emotional attraction” is supposed to mean. Isn’t attraction itself an emotion? Isn’t this emotional desire to form a “romantic” type relationship really just a combination of different types of attraction merging into an idea of a person as desirable?
I’m going to stop here because my concentration is fraying, and if I don’t stop I’ll just end up spouting nonsense. Maybe I will think more on it and come back to this topic later, when I can pursue this thread of thought with more clarity. In the meantime, well… those are a few of my problems with the romantic/aromantic dichotomy.