Five Things Romantic People Could Learn from Aromantics
A year ago, I came out as Aromantic, and this year for pride month, I decided to write for romantic people (what we call “alloromantic”) since they represent 99% of the population.
Not having an ability to fall in love can be a weakness in some ways (don’t ask us for relationship advice, we don’t know anything), and a superpower in certain other ways: We can see sides of humanity that romantic people are blind to.
That is what this essay is about. Sharing the wisdom of us aromantics.
Lesson 1: Friendships are way more important than romances.
The truth about romance is this: it never lasts. Friendship can last a lifetime. Half of all marriages end in divorce, and it is obvious to me which half: Couples that started as friends or couples that successfully turn their romance into friendship before the romance fades will last for decades. Couples whose relationship is purely romantic and sexual, and not friendly, will fail in short order.
Aromantics like myself do not have any need for romantic relationships. Some aromantics do anyways for societal reasons or convenience. But we still need friendships.
One of my favorite moral philosophers Aristotle taught that friendships are the most important relationships we have. Too bad most people don’t feel that way, they prefer romantic relationships.
Aristotle wrote a lot about friendship in Nichomachean Ethics:
- Friendship is virtue directed at others. There are three types of friendship: Utility, Pleasure, and Virtuous. Only the last is true friendship, since utility and pleasure cannot sustain a friendship forever.
- “For without friends, one would choose not to live, though he had all other goods.”
- “Perfect friendship is friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for they wish well alike to each other and goodness, and they are good in themselves.” Similarly, love and marriage also must be based on character rather than utility or pleasure.
- The basis for friendship is self-love. The two most essential characteristics of friendship are fairness and sympathetic interest, the very same features that good men have with themselves.
The most common tragedy of the aromantic is for us to get friends, and then those friends abandon us to “couple up”. Friendships are the most important relationship to us and we hang on as much as possible.
It is tragic that friendships are not the most important relationship to everybody. A big negative of romantic relationships is that most people insist that it be exclusive. Only one romantic partner to a person at a time.
You can have as many friendships as you want at any time. Friends don’t mind if their friends have other friends, because it often leads to more friendships for yourself as you become friends with friends of friends. This is a way better arrangement and should be the default norm to strive for.
Lesson 2: The Split Attraction Model – The people you want to romance are not the same as the people you want to boink.
The Split Attraction Model, often abbreviated as SAM, is the theory that sexual attraction and romantic attraction are two different things.
It has generated a fair amount of controversy because of what it implies and some people are challenging SAM saying it is made up or not real.
The evidence at the zero level is overwhelming. Asexuals are people with little to no sexual attraction. Aromantics are people with little to no romantic attraction. If these were the same thing, then aromantics and asexuals would be the same thing. And yet according to a survey of asexuals, Only about 44% of asexuals are also aromantic or gray-romantic. In similar surveys of those that identify as aromantic, 66% also identify as asexual. and I suspect it is lower as the survey likely underrepresented sexual aromantics.
That means the correlation between aromanticism and asexuality is at best 50%, meaning they have to be different (though possibly related) phenomena.
People that identify as aromantic and/or asexual are called “Aspec” as a group. Aspecs has adapted the split attraction model as a way to accurately distinguish different varieties of asexuality and aromanticism which helps us to understand the diverse nature of being Aspec.
With all of this evidence, where is the problem?
The problem is outside of the Aspec community. Allos (non Aspecs are called “Allos”) are uncomfortable separating romantic attraction and sexual attraction. Mostly it is the talk of “sexual attraction” that seems inappropriate.
Generally speaking society wants to believe that sexual appetite is a result of our desire to be loved and in a romantic relationship. The Split Attraction Model says that belief is mostly false.
Two people in love with each other is easy to imagine as a beautiful thing, two people having sex is pornographic and dirty. Even in open minded LGBTQ communities the idea is often frowned upon because of this. They want to project an “all about romance” image in people’s head for acceptance, because the “all about sex” image can lead to intolerance.
And yet simple introspection says it is true. Everyone has different tastes in people they want to date and people they want to sleep with. The goal is finding that intersection of people that meet both categories, and there is nothing wrong with that.
But denying that both types of attraction exist within us (unless you are Aspec) leads to self deception. Understanding ourselves requires that we look at both.
Lesson 3: Amatonormativity – Society is way too obsessed with couples and coupling.
Popular media portrayal of aromantics and asexuals tends to be geared towards portraying us as either sociopaths or psychopaths. Consider the following examples:
- Dexter from Showtime’s Dexter – Orientation Aromantic Asexual – psychological evaluation: murderous psychopath
- Sherlock from BBC’s Sherlock – Orientation Aromantic Asexual – psychological evaluation: “high functioning sociopath”
- Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother – Orientation Aromantic Heterosexual – psychological evaluation: Narcissistic sociopath with a sex addiction
- Mick Rory from DC’s Legends of Tomorrow – Orientation Demiromantic Heterosexual – psychological evaluation: criminal sociopath
This is just the most famous examples. There seems to be a tendency in popular fiction to portray “bad guys” as “unloved and unloving” as if that is the reason for their badness.
Positive portrayal of aspecs is rare, and the best portrayals of aromantics (like the last two examples above) are of clowns. Their lack of interest in romance is seen as humorous, comically avoiding people that fall for them.
But it is just not aromantics and asexuals. Popular media looks down at any character that is “single”. We want happy couples in movies and TV. If a character is single, they need to find a partner. Fandoms are driven by “shipping” people to become couples, and we hate it when they pick the wrong partner.
This desire for “couples” is rampant in the real world too. Married couples have social advantages that are not available to single people. They also have legal advantages in housing, finances and taxes.
Going to a restaurant alone is an exercise in weird stares and people talking about you behind your back. Many of us avoid restaurants unless we have a friend to go with.
There is a word for this negative reaction to being single. It’s called amatonormativity. It is the social pressure for single people to couple up and for couples to marry. It is rampant in society and very noticeable by single people. Especially those like myself that like being single.
Lesson 4: Romantic stories only work as comedies. Serious love stories usually fail.
There is an odd irony with an aromantic like myself spending a lot of time writing “romantic” visual novels. The truth is, I’m not the only one. So common is it that aromantics writing romantic stories is kind of a trope. The above mentioned demiromantic Mick Rory from DC’s Legends of Tomorrow spent most of season 4 of the show as a secret romance novelist. It actually felt true to life.
The real irony is that we are good at it. Aromantics can’t understand what romantic people go through, but we can sense instinctively when romantic storytelling is getting too sappy or unrealistic. So when we write it, we instinctively know how to avoid those mistakes.
The reverse is not always true. Many well regarded romantic books, plays, movies and TV shows come off as boring and off-putting to the aromantic mind. I watched the Emmy award winning Fleabag series about a woman struggling with love, and found it unwatchable. I also wrote a review of “her” a few years ago that I had problems with, but I now realize it was my aromanticism affecting my judgement.
This happens a lot to me with famously popular romantic stories. I enjoyed the Twilight series because I found it unintentionally funny, a parody of bad romance and bad lovers. I see Romeo and Juliet as a farce involving two really stupid teenagers. Serious romantic dramas are boring to me. Romantic comedies on the other hand, are fun and enjoyable.
One of the few famous romantic authors I do enjoy is Jane Austen. There is some speculation that Jane Austen might have been aromantic herself, as she indicated no interest in ever marrying and shunned her few courters. Her romantic novels are filled with biting social commentary as much as they are with romance.
The same patterns appear in the ubiquitous “romantic sub plot” that appears in every form of storytelling these days thanks to the above mentioned amatonormativity in society. I like comical romantic sub plots. Serious stories often have comical romantic sub plots to lighten up the story, and these I am fine with.
Other serious stories will add a serious romantic sub plot to ramp up the drama an extra level. This has the opposite effect for me. I can no longer watch old X-Files episodes, because in 80 to 90% of the episodes, Scully’s life is in danger, and it’s Mulder to the rescue (To be fair it is occasionally the other way around). Also don’t get me started on the completely unearned and unnecessary kiss at the end of Rise of the Skywalker, that movie pissed me off in so many ways… (sigh).
Here is a fellow Aspec You Tube commentator on this very topic.
I am an aromantic that writes romance. While there are scenes I have written that feel serious, the vast majority is comical, even campy and unrealistic. That’s because I see romance in a campy unrealistic way. It is fun, because it is supposed to be fun.
But what about romantic tragedies? Are these all bad? No, good moving tragedies make for compelling stories. I find that the romance really isn’t that relevant. Something tragic happens to one person, and another person who loves that person is struggling with the consequences. The tragedy is the most important and compelling part of the story. These stories usually begin with a fun and happy romantic section that explains why they love each other before the tragic turn in act two.
In real life it seems, romance is anything but happy and fun. For most people it seems romance is hard and challenging, and ultimately temporary.
Lesson 5: Romantic “Love” is NOT all you need.
The biggest lesson for romantics is that Aromantics exist. This means that romantic love is not the universal be-all and end-all of human experience.
Also, unlike our common portrayal in the media, we are not sociopaths. We have feelings and morals, and are perfectly capable of love — just not “romantic” love. There is nothing wrong with us, we have no need to be “fixed” and the “right person” doesn’t exist for us, so stop insisting they do.
We are aware that romance is a part of most people’s lives, but the truth is, humanity has had a tenuous relationship with “romantic” love for millennia. It is an instinct that has not always served humanity well.
Here is an edited, well sourced essay found on Reddit about the history of human romance. The full thing can be found here.
Romantic love evolved in humans as an adaptation because we have pretty big heads to accommodate our larger brains. This meant babies had to be born early or else they wouldn’t be able to pass through the birth canal. When most animals are born, they can walk pretty soon after, but human babies take much longer. Romantic love formed a bond between two people having lots of sex with each other to increase the chances that a newborn would have more resources devoted to it while the baby is helpless.
Romantic love usually lasts two to three years, long enough for a baby to start walking along with the tribe. The biological experience of romantic love can be defined as having unrealistically positive feelings about a specific person coupled with a strong desire to be close to them in a possessive way, dominating their time and attention including their sexual availability – but not necessarily demanding sexual exclusivity in those early prehistory days (that was added later). […]
This is what romantic love was for most of prehistory – people would “fall in love” (or not) then fall out of love two years later and go their separate ways, never giving it a second thought.
Fast forward to the agricultural revolution. Now complex societies are forming and because societies now have a great need for farming labor and warriors to defend their harvests from neighboring tribes trying to steal it, male muscle increases in value. […]
This meant men gained an increased incentive and power to control which women have sex with which men to ensure paternity. It was now important for men to know who their offspring were so they could pass down the land and property they acquired in their lifetime to their own children. Arranged marriages become the norm, women become property, and romantic love was viewed as mostly irrelevant to who you have sex with or have children with.
People stayed married and had sex and children because the church and state ordered it – romantic attraction and desire did not matter. People still fall in love during this period but doing so can be a dangerous threat to the social order, so romantic love is considered either a nuisance or tragic or a painful obsession more than anything else. […]
Fast forward to the industrial revolution. Machine production and military technology decreases the value of male muscle and increases the value of intelligent human labor, so women make substantial advances and become liberated from having their sexual and marriage choices dictated by men.
With people now free to decide who to have sex with and marry, romance makes a big comeback. Feelings of romantic attraction become a basis for choosing marriage relationships. The problem is those romantic feelings only last a few short years at most, and often even shorter, but children resulting from sex last a lifetime and society now has greater needs for children’s investment and development beyond the time they learn how to walk.
As a result, we invented the idea of lifetime romantic love, something that feels good for a few years and after that a couple is expected to continue the relationship as a committed friendship that often includes sex and co-parenting. We still call the whole thing “romantic love” even though that’s now really a misnomer. […]
After that two year romantic phase couples are often expected to force themselves to perform romantic behaviors for their partner which they once did voluntarily but no longer wish to do, and they usually only manage to force themselves with mixed success. People in this latter phase often mourn the loss of that partner who was so in love with them before and are upset at no longer feeling elated the way they did in the throes of real romantic love, and they start to blame their dissatisfaction on their partner for failing to share as much emotional or physical intimacy or do the other romantic things they used to do.
At the same time the continued presence of the partner who they no longer see through rose-colored glasses is a daily reminder of the lost joy they once had during early love, furthering the disappointment and turning the partner into someone they dislike. … These feelings are compounded by the daily irritations of having to tend to someone else’s emotional needs and fight over housework, finances, or parenting duties, all of which frequently leave people angry, unsatisfied, and resentful of their long-term romantic partners and relationships.
Fast forward to today, people are able to raise children in a variety of ways outside of two parent households so we’ve further divorced romance from its biological and societal necessities, just like birth control further divorced sex from its reproductive purpose. Having your own apartment is more affordable today, eliminating more of the economic practicalities of romantic relationships.
The notion of lifelong committed romantic love is still held up as the ideal, but in reality, it doesn’t work for most of us and fewer and fewer of us believe in it. Cohabiting without marriage has increased but not enough to make up for the marriage decline, resulting in a growing single population. […]
Outside of marriage and long-term romantic coupling people will change romantic partners frequently, enjoy temporary romantic flings, or increasing forgo romantic relationships altogether, replacing them with different combinations of platonic co-parents, solo parenting, queer platonic partners, various kinds of friendships, and casual sex partners.
Most couples and most of society continue to believe that people in long-term romantic relationships are happier and healthier than single people even though the scientific studies consistently say otherwise.
Romance is on the decline. Romantic love is always temporary, always has been. If you can successfully turn those temporary romantic feelings into a lifelong friendship, then you have succeeded in doing something a lot have failed at.
Most of my friends and family have learned the hard way, almost all of them divorcing their first spouse before finding life long friendship on the second go around.
As I write this, there is a deadly Covid-19 pandemic going on. A lot of people are losing loved ones, and that is very tragic. Losing someone you love is probably the hardest thing to get through, but you can get through it.
Romantic love has given people a lot of joy, but the loss of romantic love is not the end of the world. In these tough times we discover other things that can bring us a lot of joy. Art, hobbies, reaching a goal you worked hard on, and spending time with the family.
There are enough joyful things in the world that some of us don’t need romantic love at all to be happy. People that are stuck in loveless relationships that are staying together on the “hope” that things will go back to the way they were, should learn that lesson too.