So, the smart way to start this blog would be to post a few basic, non-controversial introductions to relevant issues. Maybe, at most, a mildly original take on something I have special knowledge of. And I’ll probably do all those things eventually. But I’m not smart, so let’s start the blog by diving into a major topic of controversy in a community I have just discovered: the definition of (a)romantic. We had a brief but useful conversation on this subject over at Asexual Curiosities, which led to this post.
Unlike “asexual”, “aromantic” has no widely agreed-upon definition. AVENwiki starts by saying, “Aromantics are people who have little or no romantic attraction.” This is fine, as far as it goes, but it puts all the definitional work on the words “romantic attraction.” It goes on to attempt to define the difference more precisely, but it offers two very different definitions, neither of which are very satisfying. The first defines aromantics as people who don’t form deep emotional connections with other people. From what I’ve read, aromantics tend to disagree with this claim. Aromantics can have intimate connections with family members or friends, they just aren’t “romantic” connections.
And indeed, the second paragraph of the same article contradicts itself, saying that aromantics can form deep emotional connections, but they aren’t a “purposely initiated monogamous separation as found in romantic couples”. This definition seems little better, as it puts the essential difference in external, culturally defined relationship practices. This definition would include all polyamorous people in the definition of aromantic, which seems to miss the point.
If anyone wants to defend either of these definitions, I would be glad to hear it, but until then I’m going to assume that neither of them are satisfying.
Another type of definition that obviously fails is “friendship + sex”. In addition to the obvious problem that it excludes asexuals, Kaz’s comment here nicely points out that it fails even among relationships between sexuals.
A slightly better attempt at a definition is to point to traditional romantic activities, like flower-buying, candle-lit dinners, Valentine’s Day traditions, etc. This won’t work as a complete definition, however, since those things are obviously culturally determined. I don’t think we want to say non-Westerners are automatically aromantic, nor do we necessarily want to exclude counter-cultural people who reject the commercialism and cliche of romantic practices. I’ll come back to this later, however, because I think there might be a grain of truth here.
Another grain-of-truth definition relies on physical intimacy, like cuddling and hand-holding. I don’t think this works for sexuals, because an aromantic sexual could enjoy those things for the sexual thrill. I’m not even sure it works for asexuals though. My guess is that there are probably aromantic asexuals who nonetheless enjoy touch for other reasons, though I’d love to hear from people with more experience in such things than me. Even if we don’t like it as a complete definition, though, I think it’s pointing in a useful direction.
Part of the problem I have with this discussion is that I suspect I may be aromantic. When I analyze my own intimate relationships, I don’t find anything I would isolate as specially “romantic”. Everything is some combination of sexuality and emotional intimacy for me, without any need for an additional category. Unfortunately, if I’m indeed aromantic, then I’m going to have a lot of trouble describing what romance is!
Because of this, I enlisted the help of my good friend J. J and I were in a monogamous relationship for about nine months, and were primary polyamorous partners for about five months after that. She is definitely romantic, and I thought she might be able to help tell me what I might be missing.
I asked J a barrage of questions about how she felt in a variety of scenarios, and we worked together to cobble together a possible definition of romantic. Specifically, these were the two crucial questions:
First: “Is there a reason you enjoy cuddling so much, beyond the sexual implications and the promise of emotional intimacy?”
I asked this because I’ve always secretly been a bit perplexed by some people’s attitude toward cuddling. I enjoy cuddling with attractive women because it is sexually thrilling, and I also like the implied promise that conversations in that setting will involve acceptance and emotional intimacy. But I don’t understand why someone would enjoy silent cuddling with someone, once the sexual thrill has worn off (which it quickly does).
This was clearly a promising question, because J reacted with absolute incomprehension. “It’s cuddling! How can you not love it?” When I pressed her, she said, “When I cuddle with someone I love, it makes me all floaty. It’s a high!” (“Floaty” is a term often used in the BDSM world to refer to a rush of endorphins that comes from, for instance, being flogged. It’s supposed to be a very intense sensation, so saying that cuddling makes J floaty is a strong claim.)
Second: “Do you get the same feeling from, for instance, being surprised with flowers?”
J: “Partially. When I cuddle, it’s that floaty feeling combined with a sense of calm. When I get flowers, it’s still a floaty feeling, but combined with excitement.”
I think we’re onto something here. According to J, this natural high is much stronger with people she would consider herself romantically attracted to, doesn’t require touch but is amplified by it, doesn’t require symbolic gestures like flowers but is enhanced by them, and is not necessarily connected to sexuality, conversation, or “good company” (though it can and often should be combined with those things).
So here’s a preliminary definition, that I’d love to get some comments on:
“Aromantics are people who do not experience the feeling of romance. Romance is a natural high that occurs in the presence of certain people, without obvious connection to sexuality, ‘good company’, or emotional intimacy.”
I’m definitely not married to this definition yet. J might be very idiosyncratic, or this might be a common phenomenon that nonetheless isn’t what people mean by (a)romance. But it seems promising, and I’d love to hear if this matches people’s experience. What do you guys think?
(Brief addendum: J and I further speculated on whether this was just a specific manifestation of the obvious fact that she’s more emotional in general than I. Is there anyone who considers themselves emotional but aromantic, or unemotional but romantic?)
EDIT: I just ran across an interesting comment by someone calling themselves wizardsapprentice, over at Writing From Factor X. The whole comment (and parent post, for that matter) is interesting, but the most relevant bit is this:
I’ve often wondered about what makes a romantic relationship different from any other as well. But recently, for the first time, I have an answer for myself, although it’s not something that I can define and communicate, because it’s just that I experienced it for myself. What is the difference between love and in love? I still don’t know, but now I feel that I can tell that there is one and I can identify the shift within myself. I know the exact night it happened, but I don’t know exactly what changed. Before that she was a friend I thought was cool, after that thinking of her made mood skyrocket up, my stomach fluttery and my thoughts speed up. I had always thought people were making that stuff up, but it seriously had physical effects. Nothing is likely to come of it because she already is in love with someone else, but the experience has been enlightening.
If I’m not misreading wizardsapprentice, this could easily be the same feeling J was talking about. Possible support for our theory?