Learning about Aromanticism
by David McCrea
When I was a young child in elementary school, there wasn’t much confusion about what my future would be like. All the sources of information I had access to, my parents, teachers, stories, and movies, all seemed to give the same information about what growing up involved: falling in love, eventually getting married, and living happily ever after with the person you married. There were some things I wasn’t sure about, like whether or not I would decide to have children and how many, and what kind of job I would get, but I figured my life would at least involve falling in love and getting married, because if all the sources of information indicated the same things would happen, they must know something, right?
It was for this reason that, when I was in middle school, I assumed that girls I thought were pretty and was interested in getting to know better must be people I was romantically attracted to. After all, what else could they be? It’s not like there were multiple types of attraction that I’d ever heard of. I didn’t even know what romantic attraction was, other than that it involved being attracted to someone and then falling in love with them, but it seemed only logical that it must be what I felt. Looking back on it I sort of feel like I was somewhat deliberately making my feelings seem like more than they were so I would be feeling what I was “supposed to” feel at that age. I wasn’t “in love” with anyone but I assumed that would come if I started dating someone, so I asked several girls for relationships in the hope that it would develop into the type of love I was “supposed to” start feeling in my teen years. None of them were interested, maybe because I didn’t have the best social skills, maybe because they could tell I didn’t really feel anything romantic towards them, maybe they just weren’t interested in that kind of relationship with me, or maybe it was some of all of those things. But I got very frustrated with it to the point that I was starting to want to give up trying. When the person who had been my best friend for two years started dating, that made me feel the worst and then I distanced myself from him and also just gave up looking for a romantic relationship because I didn’t think I could succeed at that stage of life. I started getting closer to another friend who wasn’t looking for romantic relationships at that time, and had an agreement with one of her other friends not to date until 10th grade. I honestly found life easier once I had given up on finding romantic love for the time being. At times I felt sort of lonely and hopeless at first, but the person who had previously been my best friend broke up with the girl he was with soon and then we became best friends again with a similar agreement to the one I just mentioned that my other friend had, since he hadn’t enjoyed being in that relationship that much.
For the next several months, things stayed pretty much the same. I thought I would want a romantic relationship again at some point, and I was sort of hoping it would be with my female friend who wasn’t planning to date until 10th grade, mainly because she was the female I felt closest to at that time. But she didn’t end up keeping that plan. She fell in love with a boy near the end of 8th grade and I could tell she was a lot more interested in him than me at that point. I sort of thought falling in love was something you chose to do and like she was voluntarily going back on what she and her friend had agreed to, and I sort of felt mad at her for that, even though the other friend involved in that agreement didn’t care. I tried to have a similar friendship with someone else, hoping that would provide me the same kind of support, but since this newer friendship hadn’t had the time to develop naturally, it didn’t go as well. I tried to talk to people about the feelings I had involving the whole situation, and multiple friends of the person who had gotten into a romantic relationship sooner than planned, including the other one involved in the agreement not to date until 10th grade, were mean to me and acted like I did something wrong by feeling the way I did about the whole situation. At this point I started developing negative feelings towards people who dated in general because of all the drama it seemed to cause for no reason that I could understand. The school I was at was middle and high school, but early in 9th grade I switched to a special temporary program for students who weren’t doing well at their regular schools since I was having trouble functioning around people who were involved in that whole situation. When I was there, I started thinking more critically about what I really wanted. I tried to determine whether I wanted a romantic relationship in the future, or if that wasn’t for me, and in the end I decided the latter was the case.
Dating definitely did not seem like my thing, as it had caused me lots of pain over pretty much nothing and I still didn’t understand romantic feelings, nor did anything seem like undeniably a crush once I figured this out. I had assumed that kissing would come to me with the start of a relationship, but now that I was actually thinking for myself rather than just believing everything I had been told about what I would want in the future, I realized that kissing or making out didn’t interest me and actually seemed kind of gross. Further, there are types of settings that are seen as romantic, often involving dim lighting, and I realized that romantic settings like that were no more appealing to me than other settings and I actually felt uncomfortable with the idea of a date in a setting like that. Dances didn’t really appeal to me either, especially formal ones, as I just didn’t see the point of them and was uncomfortable with them because of their association with this idea of romance that I was realizing more and more didn’t fit into my ideal life.
I knew that I didn’t ever want a romantic relationship, but I didn’t know of a label that would reflect that fact about me or a community of people who had that in common with me. All I knew was that I was different from the people around me. I didn’t want to be friends with people who were into romantic relationships either, as I felt like everyone who wanted that would make it a much higher priority than me if they got it and I wouldn’t be able to relate to them anymore and would feel hurt. Rather than go back to the school where all the drama had happened to my friendships, I transferred to a longer-term program for students with mental or emotional health challenges. When I first described how I wasn’t going to date, the first counselor I had there said she wanted to challenge that idea. Multiple teachers and aides there, as well as students, tried to tell me I might fall in love someday and shouldn’t believe that I wouldn’t. One told me that maybe not wanting anything romantic would be my initial connection with a woman and then I would develop a romantic relationship with her. Another tried to convince me, sort of as a joke but I still found it annoying, that a friendship I had with a female student was going to develop into a marriage. Another time, a student asked me what if some really pretty girl asked me out, to which I replied that I could say no, to which an aide responded, “Your mouth may say no, but your heart says yes.” Another time, when the song “I Wouldn’t Be a Man,” which is a man singing that he wouldn’t be a man if he didn’t have romantic feelings for a woman, was playing on my school bus radio, another student on the bus told me I wasn’t a real man. Despite all this, I didn’t want to pretend to be anything I wasn’t just to get people to stop trying to convince me I wasn’t who I was. The problem is, I didn’t have a name for the way I was and I didn’t know what my place in this world was.
My second year at that school, I had a different counselor who was more supportive of my not wanting to date. I started to actually like the school better with her as my counselor, though I still felt like I was all alone in a universe full of almost exclusively people who felt and wanted something that just wasn’t for me. There was one person I considered a friend, in a different part of my school building, who had a severe disability that made her unable to understand the world in the same way as most people, but I felt like I couldn’t relate to the other students in my program because they all seemed to care about this thing that didn’t make sense to me and just seemed like something that made people care less about me. Eventually I found another person who said she wasn’t interested in dating, and she seemed like a really good friend at first but before too long she started to seem much less interested in me, then I found out it was because she was dating someone. Believing that meant no one really didn’t want to date, I actually became suicidal following that and spent time in the hospital for it. Around that time, I was starting to learn that there was such a thing as being aromantic and had read a little about alternative types of relationships, but I still wasn’t sure it was exactly the same as me and I thought there were only a few people who actually identified that way.
Following going to the hospital, I started researching aromanticism and types of close relationships that weren’t romantic. I learned about queerplatonic or quasiplatonic relationships, something many aromantics including me are interested in. There is variation in what these are as well, but I mainly seem them as friendships that are a little more intimate, and in my case I would like someone I can be affectionate with but not in a romantic way. I discovered that there were communities online of people who identified as aromantic, and joined some of them. It was hard to find people who might be aromantic close to me, but I at least had some people to talk to online. Now I at least felt like I belonged somewhere, and it was a relief knowing I wasn’t the only person who felt the way I did. I learned that there is variation among aromantics on what we are and aren’t comfortable with and what exactly we want or don’t want, but we all have one thing in common which is that we don’t feel romantic attraction, an aspect of how I am that I thought I was alone in. I realized that I could find friends who were like me even if it was hard, and that realization has helped me do better in life.
Even when I had realized my own identity, there were still people who didn’t believe I was really aromantic. My mom was one of those people, and so was a psychiatrist who I’ve been working with since the point when my life was the hardest because of friendship issues at the school where I went during middle school. Both of them seemed to think the fact that I make friends with girls more than other guys must have romantic implications. In reality, that’s not that different from saying someone who is more likely to choose a dog than a cat as a pet must want a romantic relationship with a dog, or that someone who is more likely to choose a cat than a dog must want a romantic relationship with a cat. It’s a type of logical fallacy (I learned about those in my academic writing class) called a non-sequitur, as it draws a conclusion based on evidence that doesn’t prove or even necessarily imply that conclusion. My mom also implied that the fact that I had previously seemed to know what I wanted must mean that was actually what I had wanted, and by extension what I still wanted, and she tried to tell me multiple times that what I really wanted was a girlfriend. Apparently she really believed that she knew me better than I knew myself. She even talked to me like me having romantic feelings and wanting a romantic relationship was a fact and I just wasn’t admitting that fact to anyone including myself. I’ve had to defend my identity many times against people who thought that having 30–50 more years of experience of life than me meant they could know I wasn’t something they had no experience whatsoever with being. The good news is that these individuals have learned to accept me the way I am more than they used to, but the bad news is that they were just two examples of something that is experienced by aromantics all over the world due to others’ lack of understanding of us.
There is a word for the way society treats central, exclusive romantic relationships as being more important for everyone than any other relationships are. That word, coined by Elizabeth Brake, a philosophy professor at Arizona State University, is “amatonormativity.” It was amatonormativity that made it seem obvious to me that a romantic relationship was what I wanted in middle school. It was amatonormativity that made it hard to have friends in romantic relationships due to their romantic relationships always seeming like the most important relationships they had. And it was amatonormativity that made my mom and psychiatrist think what I really wanted was a romantic relationship. I’ve stopped having the type of negative feelings I once had towards romantic relationships and people who have them, as I’ve realized that there’s a community for me in the universe and that amatonormativity is to blame more than romantic relationships themselves are for all the things that make my life harder due to my identity as aromantic. I still don’t call very many people friends as I don’t want to be too close to those who are in serious romantic relationships that are a big part of their lives, mainly because it would make me feel less like I belong than trying to get to know other aromantics and because having romance too close to me makes me uncomfortable. However, I no longer have negative feelings toward people solely because of their relationship status, as I once did before I knew everything I know now, and I get along pretty well with most of the people I know.
I’m currently enrolled at my local community college, and just finished my first year there. I’m majoring in human services because I want to help people with disabilities have better lives. My program involves taking sociology classes, among other things, and my first sociology class was designed to be relatable to all its students’ lives. The class involved writing personal narratives, and I wrote one about how I came to discover that I was aromantic. Each student shared a narrative with the class, and that was the one I chose to share. My professor said I was brave for going against mainstream society to figure myself out, and in that class, more than ever before, I felt like I definitely did belong in society. That professor was one of the most supportive people I had ever known, in sharp contrast to the people who thought they were enough of an authority on my life to label me how they saw fit. She’s one of the best allies I know to pretty much every group. Following taking that class, I joined a dialogue circle, which was a new thing at the college, which allowed me to share about my experiences as well as learn from others in the group. I found more allies there, and I felt like my first sociology class and my dialogue group were both great opportunities to share about being aromantic, so I can hopefully do my part in working towards it being a more known thing that will maybe allow aromantic people in the place where I was before I learned the word aromantic, or people who think there is something wrong with them for not liking romantic relationships, to find their true identity.
I’ve learned more recently about some classes and assignments at various schools that perpetuate amatonormativity. At Boston College, philosophy professor Kerry Cronin offers an extra credit assignment, which she used to require students to do in a different class, that involves going on a date. Though it is now only one of many extra credit assignments that students can only do a few of, her teachings still perpetuate amatonormativity. In Utah high schools, there was once an assignment in a required Adult Roles and Financial Literacy class that required students to go on a date with a member of the opposite sex. While this assignment has been removed from their curriculum database, there are still assignments that require students to list characteristics they want specifically in a romantic partner or spouse and that require students to imagine their future as a married person, which implies that they are all going to get married. In two universities in South Korea, there is a class where students are required to date each other to pass. A class like this is especially bad for someone who realizes they don’t like dating soon after starting the class but is already enrolled by then. I’m taking a speech class in the fall, and I’m hoping I can get awareness of this issue spread by both writing and speaking about it. People who don’t want romantic relationships or marriage have been overlooked by society for too long, and I want to help change that.
So if you don’t have romantic feelings, you might be aromantic, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You belong in society no matter what your needs and desires are. If you feel the term aromantic fits you then it does. There are also other terms on the spectrum, such as grey-aromantic if you occasionally feel romantic attraction but not often, demiromantic if you feel romantic attraction only to people you already feel close to, quoiromantic if you just don’t want to label your feelings, recipromantic if you only feel romantic attraction when someone expresses romantic feelings toward you, and lithromantic if you can feel romantic attraction but only if it’s not reciprocated. Romantic orientation and sexual orientation are also separate things, so you’re still valid even if they don’t match for you. But whatever term you feel fits you does, because no one else has the authority to label you for you. Only you have that authority for yourself. And no matter how you feel about gender identity, sexuality, and romance, there are like-minded people in the world, and no matter what you are, or even if you haven’t figured out what you are, there will always be a community that will accept you the way you are without trying to change you, and that will support you even when people outside it don’t. A community where you belong.
About the Author:
David McCrea is a 19-year-old college student, born in Chicago but raised since the third grade in Ithaca, NY. He is majoring in human services at Tompkins Cortland Community College and wants to work with people with disabilities on an individual level and also be involved in the fight for social justice and visibility for marginalized groups. Other interests of David include games and public transit. David identified himself as aromantic at age 17, after about two years of knowing he didn’t want a romantic relationship but thinking he was alone in that, and now wants to help other people who don’t have romantic feelings realize they aren’t alone.