Writing From Factor X

September 27, 2010

What Is This Thing You Call… Love?

I identify as an aromantic asexual. But only because it’s the closest possible term that makes even a bit of sense.

See, I don’t quite understand romantic attraction, exactly. I find the concept rather confusing. I assume I would notice if I was experiencing romantic attraction or a desire to be in a romantic relationship with a specific person, but how would I know? As is my wont when attempting to understand a concept, I tried to comprise an operational definition of “romantic relationship.” (Yes, that is actually my process. Science, it worms its way into your brains.)

What differentiates a romantic relationship from a friendship, even a very close friendship? The “is it sexual?” criterion is the most obvious and appears to be the most societally sanctioned, but the existence of asexual romantic relationships indicates that something else is probably going on here. And even ignoring that, the existences of concepts like “friends with benefits” tends to show that you can have the sex without the romance, so that fails as a litmus test. The other obvious possible criterion is the presence of “romantic trappings,” like presenting one’s lovers with flowers and candy or celebrating Valentine’s Day. However, the multitude of romantic couples I have encountered who profess disdain for most of the trappings associated with romance tells me that the trappings aren’t what distinguishes romantic relationships from others.

Most of the people I saw post on AVEN about what made romantic relationships special were talking about things like being willing to die for the person you cared about and wanting the person to be happy and generally, Caring A Lot about someone. But every time I read statements in that classification, I was confused further. Because mostly, I could have written the same things about people I considered good friends. And hey, myself I might have written off as a weird anomaly, since I care a lot about my people, and generally have a knack for that sort of thing. But there were other AVENites posting about how they cared lots about people but didn’t want to date them, and anyway I have enough very close nonasexual friends for me to think that level of caring is probably not the best litmus test either. After all, if all it took to make a romantic relationship was to care about someone lots, even use the “love” word, then I’m dating about a dozen people and none of us have even noticed.

Then I thought maybe romantic relationships were defined through starting with infatuation. After all, the experience of crushing on someone is also almost entirely foreign to me. I’ve had only one experience of (dimly-remembered) all-consuming infatuation in my life. I was about five years old and it ended when the boy in question turned out to be terrified of my pet terrier, thus filling me with disdain for him and embarrassment about the whole affair. And I think I’m getting closer there, but this aspect of an operational definition of romance has its problems, too. For one thing, the existence of what people call “squishes”–infatuations with people while only wanting to be friends with them–indicates that infatuation can kick-start non-romantic relationships, too. And even aside from that, the mainstream cultural conception of “hero-worship” (or between straight men, a “mancrush”) seem to back up the idea that infatuation isn’t the whole story.

What about exclusivity? Again, looking at mainstream conceptualizations of romantic love, I see a lot of mentions of exclusivity. A lot of people talk about sexual exclusivity (“you can’t have sex with anyone else when you’re dating someone”). There also seems to be a feeling that I have observed which indicates that people in a romantic relationships ought to be each other’s primary source of affection and emotional intimacy. Some people even seem to think that one’s significant other ought to be one’s only source of strong emotional intimacy. I know my mother seems to view my very close relationships with friends as somewhat confusing; she doesn’t have friends that she sees on a regular basis outside of work acquaintances or my family. There definitely seems to be an undercurrent of “these feelings and activities are reserved for my significant other only” under running the whole concept.

The existence of polyamorous people would seem to imply that pure exclusivity doesn’t characterize a romantic relationship, though. I have done some limited research into polyamorous writing, and while some of the relationship models I have encountered seem to have the exclusivity thing (like permanent three-person closed relationships), some, like open relationships, do not. But I do get the impression that even in polyamorous romantic relationships some degree of exclusivity is involved, and at the very least the fact that you do need to notify your parter(s) when you start seeing someone else indicates that there’s a degree of exclusivity involved in romantic relationships which just doesn’t seem to be present in friendships.

The conclusion I eventually came to was that a romantic relationship is characterized by a period of infatuation on the part of at least one person and that it involves at least some degree of exclusivity or agreement to allow the other person to control one’s actions. But hey, I don’t identify as romantic. I’d love it if someone who does identify that way weighs in to explain how they conceptualize a romantic relationships differently from a non-romantic one.


  1. Hi, me again 🙂 This post really made me think, and I came to the conclusion that asexuals might have a hard time defining romantic relationships because our very existence messes with the definition. Asexuals and polyamorous people totally upset the whole notion of romantic relationships. Some of us might be in those relationships, but still. We show that the concept is not some monolithic idea that applies to everyone. It’s truly what you make it, and to some people it has no meaning.

    Another reason why you in particular might have trouble defining romantic relationships could be your very strong friendships. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that most people don’t have such strong friendships. I think a lot of us expect a romantic relationship to be that kind of connection. So I would imagine that if you already had those connections, romantic relationships would easily lose their meaning. I know they would for me.

    Comment by Ily — September 29, 2010 @ 3:38 am | Reply

    • I am sorry it’s taken so long for me to get back to you!

      You’re right, asexuality and polyamorous people really play merry hell with the mainstream definitions of romantic relationships! Part of what interests me about asexual and poly relationships is that they take the concept of romantic relationships in general and sort of mutate them to suit what the person really wants out of the relationship. I actually think romantic relationships involve a heavy amount of cultural construction to begin with, but that doesn’t make the cultural construct any less interesting or worth thinking about. And it’s certainly interesting when it changes over time.

      I do think that if there was more conversation between aces and poly people the definition of romance might change even more in lots of really interesting ways. As it is, off the top of my head I only know one polyamorous romantic asexual.

      I think the friendships really do confuse the issue for me. One of the thoughts I’ve had was whether I might be polyamorous and conceptualizing my friendships as relationships, except that didn’t fit right, either. (And raises some weird issues about whether it’s possible to be in a relationship if one partner doesn’t know, for that matter.) But that’s one of the things I wanted to point out–the current concept of romantic relationships is so nebulous and hard to define, and yet it’s placed as one of the highest forms of social intimacy in Western culture. Certainly higher than friendship, and yet you have people like me who deal much better with the former type of relationship than the latter.

      In some ways, I like David Jay’s concept of few-person-based, introspection-based, and community-based intimacy acquisition styles for asexuals a lot better than the romantic/aromantic dichotomy which seems to have evolved on AVEN. I feel like my own interaction styles are probably better understood as a preference for small communities I can feel close to, rather than a desire or lack of desire for a specifically romantic relationship.

      Comment by Sciatrix — October 1, 2010 @ 12:03 am | Reply

      • It’s your blog, so take your time 🙂 I don’t know of any people in “real life” who identify as poly, unless they’re being really quiet about it. The only time I’ve encountered them is on this panel I’ve been on with people of different sexualities/relationship styles. Not only am I barely romantic (having a crush on more than one person at once is unknown to me!), but I have bad time management skills, so being poly is like the furthest thing from my imagination. I know that Slightly Metaphysical has talked about being poly and aromantic on his blog. Personally, I seem to have some drive towards partner-type relationships. I want someone I can call my “best friend” and be confident that they feel the same way about me. I can get a lot out of community emotionally as well. I agree that it is much more intuitive to me than the romantic/aromantic divide, which I have never been able to understand in relation to myself. But I think community is even more poorly understood than friendship. When I lost a community towards the end of college, it took me such a long time to realize why that had upset me so much. Looking back, I think I viewed the community itself as a significant relationship, whereas I’m not sure the other people in the community felt the same way.

        Comment by Ily — September 30, 2010 @ 9:04 pm | Reply

        • Okay, I know this is a really old post, but I’ve been spending all my spare time this week devouring asexual blogs I previously didn’t know existed.

          “When I lost a community towards the end of college, it took me such a long time to realize why that had upset me so much. Looking back, I think I viewed the community itself as a significant relationship, whereas I’m not sure the other people in the community felt the same way.”


          This happened to me as well. Although I’d never thought of it in quite that way, that is totally it. I loved my college group of friends, not just the people in it. When people in my group fought with each other, when rifts appeared or people seemed to drop out of the group, it upset me deeply. When senior year I complained about people no longer coming to our traditional weekly get-together, they gave me funny looks and told me it wasn’t a big deal. To me it was abandonment of a relationship I loved.

          Community is very important to me. I like being part of a group. My loyalty is easily given and only very rarely revoked. I’ve lived in my hometown all of my life, and recently I’ve been thinking about what might make me move away. My conclusion was that only a combination of the usual factors that make people move could budge me. Not a just great job, not just love, but maybe both together could offset the loss of my relationship to my community here. It’s not just people, but also place. Here I know the streets, the hills, the trees, the restaurants, and the history, the yearly march of events and celebrations, the problems (hi 29% poverty!) and the achievements. Not every thing in the whole town, but the shape and flow of life here is familiar and comforting and I know where I belong. This is my homeplace. (sciatrix, I’m actually talking about where you are-I was at the meet-up, if my username didn’t ring any bells.)

          On the other hand, community isn’t my only source of possible relationships. I also tend to have one or two very close friends at any given time. I had one best friend for 15 years, since we were 8. But they have always been non-romantic friendships. I felt that pretty clearly even when I wasn’t sure what the romantic version was or felt like. I don’t really consider myself aromantic or romantic; my romantic orientation way too fluid to bother with a label. More acurately it’s cycle that goes: I like being on my own –> maybe it would be nice to have a partner –> this person is interesting, I’ll give it a shot –> this is not working at all –> thank god I’m on my own. Rinse, repeat. This seems likely to be true for sexuals as well, but in my case the cycle usually takes years, with most of my time happily spent not in a romantic relationship.

          I’m drawn to poly relationships but I’ve never actually been in one so I’m not sure. I’m also not often romantically attracted to anyone, so finding multiple people I crush on who are also willing to share, be involved with an asexual and me in particular, seems so unlikely as to be not worth thinking about.

          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.

          So, I have wide community/place, small group, best friend, and romantic relationships. I have, somewhat to my own surprise, turned out to be a very social person who likes and even needs all kinds of connections with other people, although I’m not sure I’d go all the way to identifying as an extrovert. I should probably go read David Jay’s theories that were mentioned, but it’s too late tonight. I guess for me there seem to be two main types of relationships-large more abstract ones such as place/community and then small personal ones such as chosen family. I need both, but there is much room for variety in how my intimate relationships can go. Romantic isn’t really yes or no to me, it is one, not all that important, possibility.

          Comment by wizardsapprentice — December 10, 2010 @ 1:37 am | Reply

  2. I don’t know anyone in “real life” who identifies as poly either–I think I remember Slightly Metaphysical talking about it, though. And E.L. Kay on AVEN and I had a couple of interesting conversations about the whole thing in chat some time ago. My meatspace friends tend very much to heterosexual monogamy.

    Oh, I like that idea about viewing a community as a significant relationship! My personal tendency is to seek out three to four people and have a core group of very close friends that I can trust, but I do crave long-term community. I moved around just enough as a child to not really have had that very long-term connection to a place–my parents like to move about once every four to six years, depending on career opportunities. I’ve always absolutely hated moving for a lot of reasons, but having to make a new community and form a bunch of new relationships with people is waaay up on the list.

    Comment by Sciatrix — October 1, 2010 @ 5:44 pm | Reply

  3. […] an interesting comment by someone calling them 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 […]

    Pingback by Let’s talk about (a)romantics « Intimacy Cartography — January 6, 2011 @ 5:05 am | Reply

  4. […] you’ve read any of my previous work, a lot of it is about trying to come up with operational definitions for things like sexual attraction, romantic […]

    Pingback by How Important is Terminology? | The Asexual Agenda — December 22, 2012 @ 6:01 am | Reply

  5. […] link to my own old writing, as I don’t think it’s particularly good. But when Sciatrix began writing about difficulty characterizing attraction, it resonated with my confusion. These days, […]

    Pingback by Updating the Map: Romantic Attraction and Friendship vs. Romance | Prismatic Entanglements — October 31, 2015 @ 3:44 pm | Reply

  6. […] link to my own old writing, as I don’t think it’s particularly good. But when Sciatrix began writing about difficulty characterizing attraction, it resonated with my confusion. These days, […]

    Pingback by Updating the Map: Romantic Attraction and Friendship vs. Romance | The Asexual Agenda — October 31, 2015 @ 3:48 pm | Reply

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