Me and romance (trying to define it, and of course failing)

This seems like a good time to keep talking about me and romantic stuff, so I guess my last post is becoming the start of a short series. In some of the comments on Laura’s recent Asexual Agenda post, people discussed uncertainty as to how to actually define romance (and of course that’s something that’s been talked about a lot in online ace communities). I don’t know any better than anyone else, but way back before I knew I was ace or had heard of aromanticism (or greyromanticism, or wtfromanticism), the defining feature of a romantic relationship to me was commitment.

As I wrote in my last post, I wanted a romantic relationship, because I wanted commitment. To have a person who I knew would always be there for me; to know that I was their primary partner and that that wouldn’t change. And the only way that I saw to get that, looking at society and the people around me, was a romantic relationship.

So to me, romance pretty much meant a strong, deliberate, committed bond between two people. In my view, you and your romantic partner could not have sex, not even touch each other at all, not sleep in the same bed, not even live in the same house, but still be in a romantic relationship because you had committed to each other. And I think this is really the only defining difference I saw between romance and friendship. Friends often fade away and fall out of touch, because most of the time you haven’t made any sort of promise to each other or even a personal resolution to yourself to keep up the relationship. With a romantic relationship, though, there’s a level of commitment and deliberateness at all stages (at least, the ones I saw modeled in my conservative communities)—dating, engagement, marriage.

And that was always what I wanted, and why I ruled out an aro-spectrum identity for myself for so long (as I also talked about in the last post), because when I first heard of the concept of being aromantic, I thought that it described people who didn’t want that kind of bond. I didn’t know about the idea of queerplatonic relationships until very recently, and it was only through online ace communities that I came across that idea, because apart from family relationships, you just don’t see committed non-romantic relationships in the media or real life (or at least I haven’t).

Finally, though, I am realizing that you can have a long-term, deliberate, committed relationship without it being romantic. But then… what the hell even is romance??

At this point, my idea of it does include some level of physical affection, as well as a certain sweetness—like, doing nice things for the other person, and saying nice things to them, more than you normally would in a friendship. Maybe being a little more forgiving toward the person than you would toward anyone else; maybe being more accepting of their flaws than you would if they weren’t your romantic partner. Not getting tired of them; not wanting to be away from them.

But I bet all those things also apply to certain friendships or queerplatonic relationships, and that many romantic relationships lack some or even all of them. So maybe, “it’s romantic if you say it’s romantic” really is the only definition that works.

Me and romantic desire

I don’t know what my romantic orientation is (or if the concept is even useful to me). I had settled on wtf/quoiromantic, but have also wondered if aromantic is really more accurate, and after reading Queenie’s Greyromanticism 301 post, I feel like greyro could be a possibility. But! Right now I’m not really concerned with finding a label; it doesn’t currently matter to me which of those, if any, is the best fit. So this is not a “what am I??” post, but just a (slightly fragmented) overview of some of my history of romantic (or not) desires.

As I’ve seen a lot of other people say, when I first found out I was asexual and learned about the concept of separate romantic and sexual orientations, I assumed without question that I was heteroromantic, because I’d previously had crushes on guys and wanted to have a boyfriend. But now I’ve started wondering if I actually experienced romantic attraction to those guys/actually wanted a normative romantic relationship, or if I was just brainwashed by compulsory heterosexuality.

I was lonely a lot as a young teenager, and dreamed of having a best friend. I also dreamed of having a boyfriend—because I thought they were two separate things. Now I can see that I wanted the same thing from both relationships—someone who would care about me, be there for me, like me a lot. There was really no difference in what I wanted from a boyfriend and what I wanted from a best friend. But I imagined the best friend as a girl, and the boyfriend would’ve of course been a guy. I didn’t even consider the possibility that I could have a guy best friend who wasn’t my boyfriend (or that I could have a girlfriend!).

When I had crushes on guys or “liked” them, which did happen to me with a number of different guys, and when I thought abstractly about having a boyfriend, I never actually wanted all the typical trappings of a romantic relationship—as far as I remember I never thought about kissing or touching them in any way, didn’t think about romantic dinners or going on dates or receiving flowers from them. What I wanted was the commitment—to know that someone really liked me (not in a romantic way, but just as a person) and wanted me in their life in a long-term, definite way. All my life, society had told me that the only way to have this long-term committed partnership that I wanted was through a (heterosexual) romantic relationship. So no wonder I thought I was heteroromantic for so long.

I never assumed I was allosexual (or, as I would have thought of it at the time, the same as everyone else sexuality-wise), because it was obvious to me that other people wanted something—sex—that I didn’t. But I assumed I was heteroromantic because I did want society’s idea of a romantic relationship.

I think the stories I wrote when I was younger provide an interesting look at how I saw romance and what kind of relationship I wanted, since I could write whatever I wanted and give my characters the relationships that I viewed as ideal. I wrote sweet romances with a close bond between two people but no physical element, as well as stories of strong male-female friendships with no romantic component (like the Cinderella story I mentioned in this post). In the latter cases, that friendship was always both characters’ primary relationship; neither of them had a closer friend or a romantic interest or partner. And it was the same with the romantic relationships I wrote—the two romantic partners were also best friends.

One story I wrote ended up being pretty much my ultimate “this is how I feel about romantic relationships” story. A girl ends up in a new setting with two guys she’s never met before, and she develops a romantic relationship with one, based on physical attraction (aesthetic and sensual, I guess; maybe kind of sexual, but I didn’t think about that really or go into any detail about it), and a friendship with the other, based on common interests and deep conversations. At the end, she kind of has to choose between the two guys, and she chooses the friend. It’s kind of ambiguous whether she’s decided that she actually loves him romantically, or just that she values this relationship over the other, considering the friendship more real and meaningful than the fairly shallow, superficial romance.

That ambiguity, and the fact that the friendship wins out, is pretty much a perfect illustration of how I feel about romance. I don’t know if I feel romantic attraction—I just know I want a deep friendship with someone, something more solid and definite and committed than friendships are normally viewed as. Romance without friendship doesn’t really make sense to me; I know it’s a thing (see the comments on this article [the article itself is very sex-normative, unfortunately], where some people say they don’t consider their partner a friend at all), but I could never have a relationship like that.

I used to think that I just conceived of romance differently from most people, but now I’m starting to wonder if maybe other people are feeling something that I don’t. Maybe what I always saw as romance is more of a queerplatonic relationship. But, maybe there is an element of romance to what I want. Who knows? I don’t, and for now, I’m okay with that.

“No love interest = not straight”

The Asexual Agenda’s latest question of the week is about contrived romance in movies, and it got me thinking again about something related that I’ve pondered on and off before. As many people have already pointed out, the majority of mainstream movies have a romantic storyline or subplot, which means that it’s downright strange to see a film’s main character reach the end without having had a romance or love interest. And it’s always great to see films like that, as they challenge amatonormativity and lend credence to asexuals and aromantics. But a lot of people explain these characters’ lack of love lives by saying that they’re queer, which can actually lead right back into supporting amatonormativity.

The two movies that I’m specifically thinking of are both recent Disney/Pixar films. Merida in Brave shows no desire for romance. The internet says, “Merida is gay!”* Elsa in Frozen has no love interest. The internet says, “Elsa is gay!”** In ace/aro communities, people may headcanon Merida or Elsa as ace and/or aro. And I’m all for aces and aromantics, and queer people of all stripes, finding and appreciating characters who look like us, especially when there are so few in mainstream films. But my problem with assuming that any character who isn’t proven straight must be queer is that that idea says, “If you don’t have a romantic relationship at the moment and aren’t actively pursuing one or making it clear that you want one, you can’t be straight”—that everyone who is straight is going to be seeking romance all the time. It says that romance is the most important part of every straight person’s life story, that they can’t have periods of their life that don’t involve it but are still interesting.

Why can’t Elsa be straight, but too busy dealing with the anxiety and guilt she feels about her power to be thinking about finding a man? Why can’t Merida be straight but interested in a different trajectory for her life than a traditional marriage? I’m definitely not advocating for more heterosexual characters than there already are, or saying that we must read every character as straight unless it’s explicitly stated otherwise (for ace/aro people, it hasn’t yet been stated that any mainstream movie/TV character is like us, so our headcanons are all we’ve got!). I just want society to recognize that romance isn’t, and doesn’t have to be, the ultimate goal for anyone, of any sexual or romantic orientation—and the belief that the only explanation for a character not having a heterosexual romance or love interest during the course of a movie is that they’re not heterosexual isn’t helping.

*Merida is also a bit of a tomboy, which apparently also equals lesbian. That’s not a good assumption to make either.

**Although at least with Elsa they had other reasons too.

Male-female relationships in fiction

I enjoy reading young adult books (I’ll write more about one of the reasons why in a future post), and I was listening to one recently, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, in which—spoilers—a friendship develops between a guy and the main character, a girl. It was the typical “they start out hating each other and then find out they actually enjoy being with and talking to each other and become friends” thing, which was nice if unoriginal. And then it became even more typical because the relationship turned romantic. And I was disappointed, because why couldn’t we just have a good male-female friendship story? Why couldn’t we leave it at “they actually found that they liked each other platonically and became good friends”?

That got me thinking about male-female relationships (between people who are roughly the same age and unrelated) in fiction in general, and it seems like for the most part they always do end up romantic, even if they don’t start that way (in mainstream movies even more so than in books). It’s frustrating, but it actually does kind of make sense. If a story were to end with the main male character and the main female character in a purely platonic relationship, that would be unsatisfying, because the relationship wouldn’t feel solid or lasting. There would always be the possibility that one of them would enter a romantic relationship, and if (or when) that happened, that relationship would replace or at least diminish the friendship (especially if both characters were heterosexual). And who wants to read a story where the focus is on a relationship that’s so fragile and easily dissolved? In fiction—and quite possibly in real life too, generally—to last, and thus to provide a satisfying ending to a story, a male-female relationship has to be romantic.

I found this to be true when I tried to write a story focusing on a non-romantic male-female relationship. Years ago I wrote a retelling of Cinderella in which I, typically, got around the love-at-first-sight issue by having Cinderella and the prince know each other before the fateful ball. The way my story was unusual is that their relationship never became romantic, not even after Cinderella realized that her best friend was actually the prince in disguise and he took her to the palace to live with his family. (Although when my mom read the beginning, she commented, “Ah, a romance,” and I said, “Nope! No romance here!” and she countered, “Of course it’s a romance! It’s Cinderella, and the girl is giggling at something the guy said.” I don’t know if that speaks to the flawed nature of my mom’s assumptions about male-female relationships, or the flawed nature of my portrayal of one…). I don’t remember what inspired me to keep the relationship platonic—maybe it was just a desperate attempt to bring some originality to a story that’s been told and retold so many times already. But I’m guessing that at least part of my motivation was a desire for a different kind of story—a less heteronormative, more ace-friendly one, even though I had never heard the terms “asexual” or “heteronormative” at the time—from the ones I had been told all my life.

The problem was that my ending, with Cinderella and the prince living together as best friends rather than a couple, no romance involved, was unsatisfying even to me, the author. Because yay, when the story ends they’re together and happy, but the prince at least will be getting married at some point in the future, and then what happens to Cinderella? Is the prince’s wife going to be okay with his female best friend living in the castle with them? Is the prince still going to care about Cinderella and want her around as much as he does now? Probably not. So even though the end of the story was seemingly happy, it felt wrong, because if I looked beyond the written ending things really weren’t going to be that great for Cinderella. Her happiness likely wouldn’t last; she’d probably eventually lose her friend (and her nice new life), and after he’d been the most important person to her during the story, and their relationship had been the main focus of it, that made the ending just feel sad. Maybe it was realistic, but I’d been going for a platonic happily-ever-after.

Maybe such a thing doesn’t exist, though. While I didn’t want to do the stereotypical romance thing, my platonic relationship-focused story kind of failed and would have been much more satisfying, if also more cliché, as a romance. But it’s sad that stories of platonic male-female relationships just can’t be as satisfying as romances, because it locks people into telling just one kind of story—and the fact that romantic male-female relationship stories are the only ones that get told may be part of what makes people think that men and women can only relate in a romantic way.

Right now I’m rereading The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale, which is about a friendship that forms between the two titular characters, who are both married to other people. It’s great to read a story about a non-romantic male-female relationship—but a lot of the story is about the two main characters trying to decide if they do actually have romantic feelings for each other, and people making assumptions about their relationship (that it is sexual and/or romantic in nature), and their spouses having issues with it. So when stories of platonic male-female relationships actually are told, the idea of romance is still very much a part of them—and if it’s that hard for a fictional woman and man to have a platonic relationship, think how hard it must be in real life.

Making assumptions about different-gender interactions

I read a blog post in which a woman described meeting a man on a plane and getting a glimpse into his fascinating life. She also spoke well of his looks, not in an “I was attracted to him” way, but in a way you might talk about admiring anything beautiful. This was a very small part of the post, which was mainly concerned with her anxiety about talking to a stranger and her gratefulness that she overcame that anxiety and was able to briefly connect with him. But what was the first comment on the post? “Sounds like you found him attractive ;)”. The author had replied to that comment saying that was her husband’s response as well, but not at all what she had felt or meant. And it made me sad that this was both the commenter’s and the husband’s focus, and that they took the author’s words in an entirely different way than she intended them.

People tend to do this to each other a lot, at least in spaces where heteronormativity reigns unquestioned—if someone shows any sort of interest in a person who is perceived to be of the opposite gender, it’s assumed to be romantic interest and treated accordingly, because of course everyone is both straight and interested in romantic relationships, and that’s the only reason they would ever interact with anyone of a different gender than their own. This often means that the person showing the interest gets teased; my teenage sister mentions a male friend, and my whole family starts asking, “Ooh, do you like him?” and making jokes about the two of them as a couple. Reacting to kids especially this way sends the message that the only relationships there can be between people of different genders are romantic ones, which is severely limiting. It’s quite possible to be friends with, be intrigued by, have a good conversation with, or desire to get to know better someone of a different gender without any romantic attraction being present. But heteronormative circles don’t acknowledge this, and some perhaps don’t even believe it.

The typical nature of the responses—“Oooh, you like her”; “You must think he’s attractive”—makes people (again, probably kids in particular) feel like they need to defend these instances of non-romantic interest in those of a different gender, or else causes them to feel that they can’t talk about them to others at all—because other people won’t understand and will turn the occurrences into something they’re not. The FedEx guy who used to pick up my office’s packages every day was really nice, and my brief conversations with him were always pleasant. But I avoided talking about him to certain people, stopping myself from mentioning a fun place he’d recommended I go or a story he’d told, because I didn’t want to get asked, “Ooh, what’s his name? Is he hot?”. I didn’t want anyone insisting I felt something that I didn’t, and I didn’t want the point of my story—“This is a cool guy, and I enjoy talking to him”—to be completely missed.

Even worse, these typical reactions can cause the person expressing interest to be embarrassed, which could lead them to avoid non-romantic encounters with or interest in people of different genders in the future. Several times I have tried to minimize my interactions with a certain man after being teased about him, because the only way I saw to escape getting teased again was to not talk to the man I was being teased about. But how awful is that? At worst, the person I’m suddenly ignoring will be bothered by my apparent rudeness, and even if he doesn’t actually notice or care, I’m still missing out on interaction and possibly a relationship with a fun or interesting or good person, just because he happens to not share my gender.

I think making assumptions of romantic interest is especially harmful when it’s done to kids, because they don’t know to be heteronormative or amatornormative or assume that they can’t be friends with people of different genders until they’re taught to do so (which is done by popular culture as well as interpersonal interactions). Once they learn that they should only be having certain feelings and relating to other people in certain ways, anything that doesn’t fit into this mold becomes something to be ashamed of—something to then defend, or repress, or excise altogether.