Let’s talk about (a)romantics

6 Jan

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?

18 Responses to “Let’s talk about (a)romantics”

  1. slightlymetaphysical January 6, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

    YAY! It feels so nice to have someone else who’s possibly, questioningly somewhere on the sexual aromantic spectrum around.

    I love your definition. By that definition, I’m pretty sure I measure as aromantic. We’ll see how useful it is for various different people, over the course of time.

  2. semiel January 6, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    Yeah, by this definition I’m either aromantic or maybe the romantic equivalent of a gray-A. I think I’ve felt this feeling before, but mildly and not particularly often.

    It seems obvious to me that this is an important idea for sexuals. A lot of drama is caused by mismatches in romantic intensity, and what little attention sexuals pay to it tends to get expressed in moralistic terms. (“X isn’t really in love with you, he’s just playing along.” Or: “Y is too sentimental and irrational.”)

  3. Sciatrix January 6, 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    Oh, I like this definition, because it defines romance as a feeling rather than as a quality of the relationship itself. Which makes all the “I can’t explain how they’re different!” reactions from people who do experience romantic attraction make a lot more sense to me.

    As has been mentioned, though, it’s going to take a while to see how that definitions pans out in terms of usefulness.

  4. semiel January 6, 2011 at 5:09 pm #

    Of course. :)

    I don’t even really care if this definition (or one like it) ends up being an important part of the conversation. If everyone said, “Nah, that’s not what we mean by aromantic, it’s more like [X],” that would make me happy, because it would at least start the process of clarifying things.

  5. Siggy January 14, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

    FYI, the AVENwiki is in some places questionable or out of date. There’s currently a wiki improvement project underway, and the aromantic article in particular is tagged as needing a rewrite. It’s a rather confused article, and some things it says could be considered offensive. But it just goes to show how many different views there are of aromanticism.

    You asked if there are any aromantic asexuals who like touch. I’m pretty sure DJ is in this category.

    • semiel January 14, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

      Good to know that people are working on fixing it. I didn’t take the article too seriously, but it seemed like a useful start to the post, to show that there wasn’t a good “canonical” definition.

  6. annah January 14, 2011 at 7:24 pm #

    What a cool new blog! Just what I was looking for too – talk about nuanced relationships of all different kinds where romance isn’t the end-all definer of “quality.” Recently I was lamenting over how only romantic relationships seem to be taken seriously and things like friendships are generally approached as something that can be thrown away when the romance takes a turn for the serious. (I used to think that I was a Romantic Asexual, but have discovered that it is more likely that I am very much “Demi-Romantic.” If that exists.)

    Apologies if this comment seems kind of random (it’s my first comment on anything wordpress-related so I’m nervous) but I really wanted you to know that I like and approve of where this blog is going.

    • semiel January 14, 2011 at 8:07 pm #

      Welcome! I’m glad you like it here, and I hope you stick around!

      The devaluation of friendship is one of the big motivations for this blog. I’m really excited about working out the nuances of what relationships look like once we tear down the binary.

      You should also check out the blogs I mention in my most recent post, they’ve been talking about similar things lately.

  7. Ily January 14, 2011 at 11:55 pm #

    I like your definition also. I’m asexual and somewhere between romantic and aromantic, having experienced romantic attraction only a few isolated times. In my experience, the “natural high” feeling is accurate. But I feel like a big part of romance is the possibility of something more happening. So even if you’re not experiencing sexuality or emotional intimacy or good company in that exact moment, you feel an excitement that some of those things might follow later.

  8. Elizabeth January 16, 2011 at 2:57 am #

    I actually rather dislike this definition because it treats “romance” as if it is a feeling. As someone who would be classified as a romantic asexual (albeit one who thinks that this is the best love song, so not particularly romantic in at least one sense), that really doesn’t fit my experience and seems… kinda bizarre to me. For one thing, the floaty in-love feeling J describes already has a name–limerence–that is much more specific and less confusing than calling it “romance.” I view romance as more of a style or quality of something, that doesn’t necessarily have to do with romantic relationships. Given that it also applies to movements in literature and such, calling something “romantic” can refer to qualities characteristic of that movement (things described as “romantic” in the dating sense of the word usually entail a high degree of idealism, appreciation of beautiful things, and focus on strong emotions). So that makes it confusing, and it’s non-inclusive to boot; I remember a really old thread somewhere where someone who identified as aromantic said that she does experience the feeling of limerence, but the basis for her aromantic self-identification was that she does not want to have that particular style of relationship. Another thing that makes it problematic for me is that in (for lack of a better word) “romantic” relationships, limerence usually wears off within 3 years. The relationship may dissolve or continue around that point, but what develops after that is not the same feeling. Essentially, what I’m getting at is that while that feeling is real and likely one reason why people have such trouble identifying what it’s like to “be romantic,” romance (even specifically the dating kind) encompasses a much wider range of things than that.

    So… it seems to me that there are at least two camps of “aromantics” if we want to keep calling it that: those who are non-limerent, and those who don’t like a certain relationship style. Maybe we could come up with better definitions if we distinguished the two?

    • semiel January 16, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

      Excellent! I was hoping someone would have a problem with it; agreement is boring.

      I just discovered the word limerence in a very interesting way. I asked a romantic asexual how she defined “romance” and she said, “It’s hard to explain. It’s this very specific feeling… the only word I’ve found that can describe is is ‘limerence.'”

      I’m glad to know it has a technical term (I expected it would, if it was a real phenomenon). I think it’s a useful discovery that some people experience limerence and others don’t. If/when I post the 2.0 version of this definition, it’ll probably say “An aromantic is someone who doesn’t experience limerence”.

      So, the next question is whether that fits the current “romantic/aromantic” distinction. It certainly doesn’t fit every meaning of the word “romantic”. It has nothing to do with an emphasis on color and visible brushstrokes, even though those are defining features of the Romantic movement in painting. I don’t really see this as a problem. Words shift in meaning, and the Romantic movement of the 18th century has rather little to do with the idea of a “romantic relationship” in popular usage. I’m not sure what the motivation would be for trying to include every sense of the word “romantic” in a definition. Maybe you could expand on that?

      On the other hand, it’s certainly true that some people define it more in terms of relationship structures. I’ve read several definitions that essentially define “romantic” as “desiring monogamy” or “prizing jealousy” or “wanting someone socially identified as a romantic partner”.

      My problem with these definitions is that romantic/aromantic is presented as an issue of orientation, analogous to sexual/asexual. To me, this means that it ought to be something that isn’t chosen and that is reasonably stable over short periods of times.

      I don’t think any definition that relies on relationship structures is going to meet those criteria. My idea of what kind of relationships I want changes almost daily, as I learn more about the possibilities and hear other people’s experiences. Books like “The Ethical Slut” and experiences like a bad breakup can easily change your desires for relationships, which shouldn’t happen if it’s a matter of orientation. I guess the analogy would be that asexual is an orientation, but celibacy isn’t. Defining an aromantic as “someone who doesn’t want a romantic relationship” is problematic for the same reasons as defining an asexual as “someone who doesn’t want to have sex”.

      The point about limerence fading is interesting. I think that’s probably true for a lot of people. But I’m not sure why that’s an objection to the definition. Sexuals often stay in (meaningful, valuable) relationships that are no longer sexual. Why is it a problem to say that romantics often stay in (meaningful, valuable) relationships that are no longer romantic?

      If the consensus turns out to be that aromantic/romantic is something to do with relationship structures, I suspect my reaction will be to drop the terms entirely. At that point, the distinction is rather pointless, and I’d much rather just talk about polyamory and committed platonic relationships and other alternative relationship structures, without worrying about whether they count as “romantic”. I’ll probably start talking about limerent/alimerent people though, because that distinction seems important.

      • Elizabeth January 29, 2011 at 7:53 pm #

        Sorry for the very late reply… I got busy with school and kinda forgot this thread existed, until the new post at Asexual Curiosities reminded me.

        My point in mentioning the 18th century movement is that one definition of aromantic (or more usually non-romantic) established outside of the asexual community refers to a person who doesn’t subscribe to the idealistic “soulmate” kind of stuff and doesn’t engage in candlelit dates with roses and soft music, etc. (which all sound like the values of the Romantic poets, and so on). A person who is not romantic is therefore someone who has a more realistic worldview. That’s just one more thing that’s getting confused with this; it’s something that needs to be specified in most posts about romantic/aromantic orientations that we’re NOT referring to.

        The point about limerence fading is interesting. I think that’s probably true for a lot of people. But I’m not sure why that’s an objection to the definition. Sexuals often stay in (meaningful, valuable) relationships that are no longer sexual. Why is it a problem to say that romantics often stay in (meaningful, valuable) relationships that are no longer romantic?

        Now, here is where I think you misunderstood where I was going with this. I don’t think that just because a romantic relationship is not or no longer limerent, that it is therefore not romantic (anymore). Most people who have been in long term romantic partnerships would probably find that notion quite silly. I think something else entirely (or a combination of things) defines whether a relationship is “romantic.” When limerence fades, attachment is there to replace it, to make the relationship still hold together. Sometimes that is not there or it erodes over time, in which case the people involved either split or simply go through the motions for whatever reason. In that case, it becomes a hollow relationship, that is romantic in structure alone, but not truly, genuinely romantic. That’s what’s being referred to when people talk about “romance fading,” not just limerence itself fading, but that plus the lack of attachment that is supposed to follow.

        So… my objection to defining the difference between romantic/aromantic (with regard to relationships) as having to do with limerence is that what makes a relationship romantic is much more complicated than just that. Limerence describes only the initial phase of romance, and may or may not be part of the picture at all.

        I’ve used the term “panromantic” to describe myself in the past, but now I find that it really means very little, except to explain how I could have confused sexual attraction with romantic/other kinds of attraction (that did not involve limerence, because the first time I felt that was years after I adopted that label). I don’t really think that romantic/aromantic is analogous to sexual/asexual, and I doubt that it is an orientation at all. Maybe being limerent or non-limerent is innate, but the rest is more of a learned personal preference than an innate orientation. After watching the confusion about “but what does aromantic actually MEAN???” rage on for years, I’m inclined to think that it’s just a bad set of terms based on an assumption that doesn’t seem to be true, and that we should probably scrap them and come up with better ones.

    • Siggy January 16, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

      I’m just dropping in to mention that the problem also goes the other way. If there are limerent people who don’t do the “romantic” relationship style, then there are also non-limerent people who do form romantic relationships.

      I offer myself as an example. I don’t experience limerence (so far as I understand it). But I do seek and form relatively traditional romantic paired relationships. The reason for this is because I do experience some feelings which I do not think of as limerent, and I think long-term paired romantic relationships are the best way to find these feelings.

      Since that’s what I do, it would be really awkward for me to identify as aromantic. I just don’t bother with the romantic/aromantic binary, because I don’t like playing the semantics game too much.

      • semiel January 17, 2011 at 12:00 am #

        I mean, I’ve spent years in monogamous sexual relationships where Valentine’s Day way a special day. I’ve done the “romantic relationship” thing, and I really like it. I’m “single” right now, and I don’t like it (although I don’t think I like the monogamy thing any more).

        I think this is kind of my point. Modern compulsory monogamy conflates all sorts of things under the banner of “romantic”, but we as theorists and non-normative people needn’t make the same mistake.

  9. Jun December 9, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    Hey! I just wanted to thank you because I was really in trouble , trying to figure out if I was aromantic or not, because I love cuddling with people, I sometime like to imagine what it would be to be closer to someone, but…I’ve never felt what is described here. It was more , I understand now, something else. So now I can be sure of who I am. It helps me a lot. Thanks thanks thanks!


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