Updating the Map: Romantic Attraction and Friendship vs. Romance

This post is for the October 2015 Carnival of Aces. The theme is aromanticism and the aromantic spectrum. Cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.

Until relatively recently, I never considered whether I might be on the aromantic spectrum. It was patently obvious to me that I’ve experienced whatever feeling it is that people refer to as “romantic attraction.” It didn’t really matter that I’ve only had that happen (with complete certainty) once—if it happened once, then surely it could happen again. The potential was all that mattered. Except as the years went on, and I tried very unsuccessfully to find someone (else—I’ve been polyamorously partnered for the past seven years) to date, it’s started to seem less and less like that potential feeling is accessible. So after much consideration, I’ve started identifying as greyromantic.

I’ve also come to feel that whatever “romantic attraction” is, it’s not that important. I’ve long been confused and annoyed by the term, and publicly questioned it as far back as September 2008, a month before my relationship with C began. I’d rather not link to my own old writing, as I don’t think it’s particularly good. But when Sciatrix began writing about difficulty characterizing attraction, it resonated with my confusion. These days, I’ve finally settled on a satisfactorily vague but specific-enough model to at least stop worrying about the definition of “romantic attraction.”

A Dual-Definition Model

I think that “romantic attraction,” to the extent that it could ever be somewhat coherent, necessarily must have more than one definition. The reason it’s so confusing? That’s because it doesn’t refer to a single emotion. It refers to a set of emotions, and desires that aren’t even necessarily all easily categorizable as emotions (although it’s still about feelings, not decisions). There isn’t one single feeling that would cause someone to desire a romantic relationship with a specific other person. There are lots of different feelings that could cause that, which may be distinct in ways that are indescribable (see the part about Kelly!feelings vs. Dave!feelings here).

So here is my attempt to describe the two broad categories of feelings that “romantic attraction” typically refers to:

  1. Having romantic feelings for someone—as in limerence, crushes
  2. Having a desire to form a romantic relationship with someone

These two things don’t have to be, and often aren’t, connected. It’s valid to identify as aromantic if you lack one but not the other. If you do, you’re in good company.

It’s just that, you need to keep in mind that people identify as aromantic, greyromantic, quoiromantic/wtfromantic, or romantic for different reasons, so when others describe the reasons they identify as [whatever], it may not match with your reasons and in fact may feel contradictory. That’s okay. What works for one person isn’t what works for another, and even if two people both have comparable feelings/experiences, they may be weighting those feelings differently. We’re all just trying to muddle through to find the label that fits best.

And each of us just has to decide for ourselves what we classify as “romantic” and what we classify as non-romantic. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, and certainly not one that’s applicable to all people. If one person feels that in their internal landscape of emotions, there are very clear distinctions between friendship and romance, that’s not wrong. But where their internal landscape includes a giant cliff separating the two, others might have a marsh, or a series of little hills.

Seeking Borders

So, we don’t have to pin down a specific feeling that we call “romantic attraction” that everyone defines the same way. In fact, we can’t, and vagueness in the definition may even be desirable. If (when) we turn to each other to figure out whether we fit a certain definition—do we really want easy answers? Or do we want labels to be valued based not on their perceived “accuracy,” but based on their utility, their usefulness?

I’m very firmly in the “map is not the territory” camp. Maps are indispensable—my sense of direction is so bad that I have to either rely on GPS to navigate unfamiliar areas, or wander for hours (sometimes quite literally). But if, like me, you live in an area that GPS makers tend to consider forgettable, you know just how unreliable maps can be. Maps are important, but they’re limited.

So is the whole discussion about “romantic attraction.” Here, too, I often feel like I live in a forgettable nothing-land, unmarked and unnamed. The other day, reading Laura’s most recent piece and re-reading the related posts, I was struck by how differently others conceive of the difference between friendship and romance. That’s fine on its own, but when it’s the only map available, and it doesn’t match? It can lead to some serious problems.

If there is a border between friendship and romance, then in my internal landscape, it goes right through a misty forest where no one has ever bothered to place signs, so good luck finding it. So far, I have one companion who traipses through that forest with me every day, and after seven years, we have yet to find the border. Presumably, we’ve been walking on it all along.

Most of the time, it’s far more useful to use specific landmarks to locate ourselves in relation to one another and discuss our destination, rather than trying to fit ourselves to a map that describes a totally different place. That’s why I prefer not to even talk about whatever “romantic attraction” means—it’s a concept on a completely different scale than where we’re operating. So it doesn’t apply.

The Mismatched Map

Several years ago, I described the first “date” that C and I ever went on. When I wrote that post, it was actually just after C and I had broken up. Because what we did in the first year of our relationship… didn’t work. And a large part of that was that both of us were questionably-romantic, and we were trying to follow normative romantic relationship scripts.

We were only broken up for 2-3 weeks, but during that time we radically restructured our relationship. Because of some very uncomfortable difficulties with my living situation at the time (it just didn’t feel safe to live in a dorm right next to an RA who was fond of spreading humiliating stories about blind girls and autistic boys), we had ended up moving in together far too early. We had structured our apartment based on our couple status, assuming that we could share a lot of space, just because that seems to be what you’re supposed to do when you’re a romantic couple. When we broke up, C moved out, and back in with her mother. After that, I lived alone, and we would visit each other and go out together.

I should say, I’m a lot more comfortable with typically-romantic things than C is. Except for movies. No matter how much I try, I’m just not a movie-watching kind of person. But C loves them, and watches several per week. It’s one of her favorite things to do, and oddly enough, that was a much bigger disappointment for her about me than me being asexual. So watching a movie, for her, was a way she wanted to spend quality time with me, but for me it just didn’t feel that way. It felt distant and like she wasn’t taking me into consideration—like it was more about spending time with the screen than with me. And part of what was confusing about it was that it just didn’t feel romantic at all.

The thing is, C had set the tone of our relationship very early on as being heavily romantic. It’s what she thought she was supposed to do, but it was unsustainable because she’s aromantic, so as it started to fade, I was very confused and she seemed to feel resentful. I think there were a lot of assumptions we both made about how the other was feeling. Specifically, she had assumed I was really infatuated with her and wanted to be with her all the time, when really I would have enjoyed a lot more alone time. What I had actually wanted was less time together, with more of that time being dedicated to things we both enjoyed.

I guess C was trying so hard to mold herself to be “the perfect girlfriend,” and her model for that was a codependent one. And at the time, although I didn’t admit this until a couple years later, I was still dealing with a very recent trauma. I had no idea how to act and frequently guilted myself for even being in a romantic relationship at all. (Because I thought surely no one would want to be in a relationship with me if they knew about what happened.) Her approach felt very clingy to me, and I had no idea how to express that without seriously hurting her feelings and breaking the relationship. It was a huge relief to find out that she didn’t want things to be that way either!

Becoming Cartographers

If we had known that she’s aromantic at the time, we could have structured our relationship differently from the beginning. We could have had more of a romantic friendship (back then, queerplatonic wasn’t a term that had been coined yet). In fact, we were aware of the possibility of romantic friendship from the beginning, and for the first couple weeks we really hadn’t decided that we would become A Serious Romantic Relationship. Just that we had gone on some dates, entirely by accident.

But my friends sure had ideas about what kind of relationship we had. (And they really didn’t like it, but that’s a story for another day.) Neither of us had intended to start anything even vaguely romantic, but the activities we did and the intense kind of immediate connection that we had was coded as romantic in our culture, and our friends made sure to remind us of that at every opportunity.

When I read Laura’s post and re-read this post by Omnes et Nihil, I was really struck by the description of friendship, as contrasted to romantic attractions. For both Laura and Omnes, it made sense to think of romantic relationships as having, in Laura’s words, “a level of emotional intimacy with a person that doesn’t match with the work that has been put into the relationship that exists.” Like “jumping ahead” or “skipping forward” in the process of building intimacy. Omnes contrasted it with friendship this way:

In contrast, friendship is typically stable and makes sense– where you have intimacy because you’ve done the emotional work. [2]

[2] In a friendship– even a very intimate and significant one– the wanting to connect is with someone you know well and have a reason to trust… It’s rational and certain and in the context of a stable relationship. You have intimacy because you’ve done the work to build it… together. It’s not mysterious and it does make sense.

You know how your friend will react and who they are. And when you empathise with a friend, it’s coming from a place of understanding them, and not from a place of imagining who they are.

Friends– and in my experience also queerplatonic partners– can and usually do meet each other on proverbial level-ground, without the need for subtext. It’s real and it makes sense, so it probably doesn’t feel “magical”.

This simply doesn’t describe most of my friendships—they’re just not that stable or certain, and my mental illness impacts friendships in a way that makes emotional intimacy pretty sporadic. And it especially doesn’t describe my relationship with C!

And I think in large part, it was because our connection felt magical that we figured that whatever else our relationship was, it had to be romantic.

But this super-charged instant emotional connection… felt companionate, not romantic. From my perspective, anyway. I didn’t really feel infatuated, just incredibly connected, in a way that has only happened a few times in my life. (The other major time it happened, is with a friend that I very rarely get the chance to actually talk to, because we live in different countries and certain other factors in our lives make it hard to keep in regular contact.) I certainly wouldn’t say that I felt “romantically attracted” to C.

I’ve asked C about how she felt about me when we first met, and she says she mostly doesn’t remember now. She has described her feelings for me as some kind of infatuation in the past—whether that’s a squish or a sexual crush, or maybe both combined, I don’t know. But I think she just assumed that what she felt must have also been romantic, when it really didn’t have to be defined that way. What she remembers is feeling really happy to have a girlfriend who wasn’t long-distance. And how confused her family was about it, because although they knew she’s bisexual, they really didn’t expect her to end up with a girl.

These days, C and I are comfortable defining ourselves as each other’s family. We’re not married and not planning to be in the near future, although we’ve been engaged and then not-engaged and then engaged again several times. But others kinda view us as spouses anyway. It’s usually easier for us to just present ourselves that way to the rest of the world, even though our bond is decidedly more companionate than romantic. The thing is, since romance typically fades into companionate love anyway, that’s not unusual among couples who have been married a long time, so our relationship now is not so significantly different from a spousal relationship to make that much of a difference.

But in the beginning? It really would have made a big difference if we could have conceptualized our relationship differently. I hope that by posting this, I can make that an option for people who might find themselves in the same situation as we did seven years ago. I hope that the map we’ve come up with and continue to update together provides an alternative scenario for someone else.

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10 thoughts on “Updating the Map: Romantic Attraction and Friendship vs. Romance

  1. Pingback: Updating the Map: Romantic Attraction and Friendship vs. Romance | The Asexual Agenda

  2. I would like to hug this post.

    Also, re: the way others conceptualize the difference between friendship and romance, if you don’t mind me going on a little tangent — I’m always thrown off by when people describe qp partnership as “more than friends” (or some variation of not-a-romance-but-not-a-friendship) because 1) I thought part of the whole point of acknowledging the qpp concept was to undermine that shortsighted phrase, and 2) my qpp IS a friendship! It’s just that it’s a friendship that we’ve both acknowledged doesn’t adhere to the “rules” others have set for us for how friendships are supposed to be, in terms of the singular value we place on it.

    But also I would like to hug this whole post.

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  3. I relate a lot to the conception of your bond with C as a familial companionate one. I describe my relationship to my spouses the same way: I call them my chosen family, and we called each other that long before we had our wedding (which we had in order to commemorate becoming a chosen family).

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  4. I will also join Coyote in hugging this post.

    A lot of this resonates with me (although my relationship with Kat definitely didn’t have the sudden spark that yours with C seems to have had–it was a lot more like a slow slide into something and then me being like, “Well, my friends are convinced we’re dating, so might as well?????”), especially the…incoherence in trying to come up with a single definition of romantic attraction. Basically:

    “And each of us just has to decide for ourselves what we classify as “romantic” and what we classify as non-romantic. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, and certainly not one that’s applicable to all people. If one person feels that in their internal landscape of emotions, there are very clear distinctions between friendship and romance, that’s not wrong. But where their internal landscape includes a giant cliff separating the two, others might have a marsh, or a series of little hills.”

    I want to print this out and paste it to things.

    I’ve also been hesitant to talk about my relationships publicly not just because talking about relationships is hard and messy but also because my “romantic” relationship…checks pretty much every box on the QPR check list. And then I have my roommates, who are…friends but also found family, and how do you talk about that weird wibbly space? Especially since, in some ways, that’s my more long-term relationship than my romantic one? So, basically, I need aromantic discourse in order to talk about the actual relationships in my life, but aromantic discourse fails me because it tries to tell me what I am or am not feeling or how I do or do not prioritize my relationships based solely on what romantic orientation label I choose to use. Which is frustrating, and why I tend to gravitate toward wtfromantics and greyromantics rather than aromantics.

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    • So, basically, I need aromantic discourse in order to talk about the actual relationships in my life, but aromantic discourse fails me because it tries to tell me what I am or am not feeling or how I do or do not prioritize my relationships based solely on what romantic orientation label I choose to use.

      This right here! My priorities are not any more or less based on the labels I assign to my relationships, and it really bugs me that romantic relationships v. non-romantic relationships are so frequently divided along priority lines. Surely there are other things going on that make relationships differ from one another!

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  5. Pingback: October 2015 Carnival of Aces Round-Up (Aromanticsm & The Aromantic Spectrum) | From Fandom to Family: Sharing my many thoughts

  6. “If there is a border between friendship and romance, then in my internal landscape, it goes right through a misty forest where no one has ever bothered to place signs, so good luck finding it. So far, I have one companion who traipses through that forest with me every day, and after seven years, we have yet to find the border. Presumably, we’ve been walking on it all along.”

    *Gestures vigorously at this beautiful paragraph*

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Greyromanticism and understanding friendship | The Technicolor Ace

  8. I like your definitions of romantic attraction, and even though they’re a bit vague, it’s certain enough that I don’t feel those things and posts like this always make me feel a little more confident in identifying as aromantic :)

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  9. Oh, thank you for sharing this! It’s the sort of thing that I love to see; it’s I think really important to see more of aces talking about functional relationships they have as opposed to ones they’d like to have, if you see my meaning, and for obvious reasons (including: awkward) that doesn’t tend to happen too much. But this really resonates with me.

    For me, putting that kind of pressure–of assuming my relationship was romantic and had to conform to such and such norms–that would have led, I think, to the same kind of stress that you had with C that led to you guys breaking up. Because I tend to get anxious about things and fixate on them, y’see, and not let them drop, me worrying whether I was doing things “romantically enough” would have a) stressed me out and led to a bunch of anxiety spirals and/or b) made me worry about it hard enough to annoy the crap out of either of my partners. (I am bad at letting things go, but there’s only so many times anyone can listen to me fret repeatedly about the same exact problem. Including, frequently, myself.)

    One reason that H and I (who explicitly negotiated a relationship slightly earlier than T did with the rest of us, although T was involved in that negotiation–it’s complicated) did so well is that not giving things labels let me have the emotional and mental space to avoid that pressure. The whole queerplatonic/zucchini/wtfromantic discourse was important inasmuch as it gave us space to not care about whether or not we were “living up to” any particular label.

    Now, of course, it’s giving T and me (T having moved in this past June) the space to figure out how much together time and how much shared attention we actually, independently, want. Unfortunately, that’s being minimized right now by incompatible work schedules, but hopefully we can figure out a way to tinker with things so they work better soon…

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