‘You seeing anyone at the moment?’
‘No, still single’
‘Ok, anyone you really like then?’
‘Nope, no one’
‘That’s so sad. C’mon there must be someone. EVERYONE has a crush of some sort’
Like for so many on the aromantic spectrum, conversations initiated by others about the current status of my love life have been had so often over the years, that they’ve all merged into one long and messy dialogue. It isn’t the same pattern from everyone, but it takes place more often than I care to count.
The relative/friend/colleague/grand interrogator in question will usually ask seemingly innocent questions, as if it is their business to pry, but become impressively more frustrated with each attempt at squeezing out a satisfactory answer, especially if I grow ever more assured in my replies. Eventually, it typically ends with a clichéd prophecy from them, often through gritted teeth, that I shouldn’t worry, that I will meet “the one” soon enough, I just need to be patient.
The issue here is, sadly baffling to so many folk, I’m not worrying and I don’t want to meet “the one”. There is isn’t a “one” of any kind for me. It’s a difficult thing to get across to people in this romance-obsessed world of ours. In my teens, classmates would pathetically gush over the latest in a long line of crushes, each designated as “their whole world”, and now in my late twenties (help!), so many judge, and are judged, by whether or not they have “put a ring on it.”
To clarify, romance itself existing doesn’t bother me, neither does discussion of it (so long as I don’t have to contribute). Heck, even seeing it in everyday life isn’t always totally vomit-inducing. Instead, trying to imagine my own involvement with a romantic partner generates much the same confusion normally reserved for complex algebra, deep philosophical questions and deciding the correct order in which to watch Star Wars!
I like to describe romance as a wild animal. Fine on your TV, especially if David Attenborough is narrating, but it’d be a whole different situation if you were forced to enter the cage of, say, a starved tiger, covered in BBQ sauce and wearing a large sign declaring “DINNER IS SERVED!” True, that example would probably create less apathy and more trouser-soiling screaming, but the premise is much the same. It’s not something you’d be particularly keen to experience.
When it comes to romantic attraction, to feel the pull of another person in this realm, is something so alien to me. Nevertheless, the idea that someone does not have these attractions towards another is so sacrilege to some, that it is perceived as an abnormality, an emotionally deformity, an incapacity of feeling love at all, or worse still, of being broken, with various suggestions given to “fix this problem”. For so long, none of this triggered a glorious epiphany of my identity, but instead made me feel I had a major fault, one I tried to repair, by ignorance and denial.
It’s understandable, after all, romance appears to be everywhere, like a highly-addictive drug, yet no matter how hard I tried to find a dealer, I could never experience the same highs. Whereas others could boast of relationships and crushes, and share the heartbreak of being dumped or experiencing unrequited love, I too felt as though I were experiencing a form of brokenness, except in this instance, it was having never felt any of this at all. A lot of this repression came out of society’s conditioning, where cultural expectations give the false impression that romance is an inherent emotion, the most important one there is. It is equally fed from another assumption, which so many in the LGBTQIA+ community will know all too well, that being straight/cis-gender is the “natural default”.
Growing up, I went to a boarding school, and with thirty-odd other boys in the boarding house, as well as two brothers to boot, these testosterone-heavy environments and nauseating displays of masculinity, which continue to leave me feeling uneasy, inevitably led to me mostly socialising with those who identify as female. My family upbringing was nominally Christian, including as part of my spiritual diet being taught life lessons of showing distain for the “natural default”. It followed me to university, where I attended an evangelical church, made up of some very lovely people, though who mostly preached and believed in some less lovely theology, that anyone not straight/cis-gender wicked and immoral, and to have fallen short as people altogether. Fortunately, I was able to befriend a handful of far more tolerant Christians, and albeit later than I would like to admit, I finally saw the light and repented of the real wicked prejudice I had been taught to believe.
But even if I hadn’t been exposed to this, my own understanding of the LGBT community (unaware other letters existed) was woefully limited by the poor teaching of relationships in British secondary schools. Terms such as aromantic generated a squiggly red line from spellcheck, and asexual was a type of reproduction for snails and single-celled organisms. Take all of this, insert it into the brain of a confused and, by this point, confidence-shattered young person, and hey presto(!), you’ve conditioned the assumption that they’re straight!
Though this false epiphany obviously did not mean that romantic attractions suddenly appeared, it did mean that I had learnt the art of self-deception to convince myself and others of this artificial identity, a skill, I must admit, should have landed me several Oscar-winning roles. If I felt a strong emotional connection, I sometimes assumed it to be a crush, not platonic feelings, a term I had yet to learn. I had effectively invented romantic feelings to convince myself and others that I was “normal”. Society told me what I needed, and so I tried to create it, but even with this, as it still continues to, society had more ideas of its own.
Despite my best efforts, faking straightness was more challenging and I experienced an awful lot of gaslighting. For instance, I was told that I was cruel and selfish in being incapable of asking out someone whom another thought was perfect for me or with whom they had me set up, despite me explaining that “they’re just not my type”. The odd occasions I did give into peer pressure, I found myself weeping on my bedroom floor afterwards, feeling emotional violated, guilty in leading another on, but also a failure for not being able to be something I thought was so intrinsically human and necessary.
There was even a “proper romantic relationship”, where such low self-esteem in who I was led to me acquiescing to this particular person’s continued advances, treating our time together like a formulaic checklist. This hurt all the more when I discovered their cheating on me and decision to break up in favour of their other partner. Even if I did not feel the attractions that should’ve been there, it did not make the rejection any less painful. No rejection of any kind is painless.
These were the “physical examples” of arophobia I experienced (a hatred or fear of those on the aromantic spectrum), even if I had not yet come out. But for me, the worst perversely came in the form of spoken attacks:
- The family member who told me “choosing to not want romance”(!) was a form of self-harm and self-hatred
- The handful of work colleagues who patronised me, calling me “weird” (amongst other worse and unprintable words) or would just silence/ostracise me because I did not feel the attractions that they did
- The countless people who insisted “you don’t know what you’re talking about, you just haven’t met the one”
- The reversed assumptions, when people deduced that not having a girlfriend, meant I must be gay, encouraging me to either accept a false label, or worse from more backwards individuals, “not turn out gay”, in a stunning act of simultaneous aro and homophobia
- The interview I watched with one of my writing heroes, saying to camera, how characters, particularly in their work, who did not show a romantic side, were incomplete and weak
When words of hate and erasure are said so often, especially after years of self and public denial, it damages personal value harder than anyone who has never felt an attack against their own identity could know. I will add that there were also those who accepted me, who loved me for who I was, even before I knew, dear friends to whom I was always be grateful.
Jump to last year, Sunday 9th February 2020 to be exact, and by chance, mindlessly scrolling through social media, I came across an article talking about this peculiar concept of aromanticism (as well as asexuality). I learnt that there were others like me, people who also did not experience romantic attraction, in varying degrees, but were perfectly normal, loving and COMPLETE people. There is often talk of people having a sexual awakening, but for me, this was my romantic (and sexual) unawakening. For the first time, I felt normal in not having felt real romantic urges, that I was capable of a different kind of love, that saying ‘I love you’ was not just for the hopeless romantics. Instead, it could be, as some aromantics like to say, I love you (just ‘no romo’).
Even in coming out to myself, there were many difficult days after this, in grasping what this all meant and also that sexual and romantic identities can, for some, be a separate entity. After all, deprogramming all that conditioning takes its time. Unfortunately, every identity in the LGBTQIA+ community receives its own share of hate and phobic attitudes.
As I have encountered over the past year, for the many allies that exist, there were some less accepting individuals, such as the gatekeepers who insist aromantics are “attention seekers”, do not face phobia (such an idea, by this point, should be so plainly false) and that we do not belong in the LGBT+ community. There is also hostility for those who do not equally identify as asexual (especially those with heterosexual identities) or who are grey-/demi-romantics. For some, it is seen as acceptable to ask probing questions about someone’s romantic/sexual history or claim aromantics do not exist, only thinking they are this because of some past trauma or abuse (as a survivor of physical and emotional abuse, this not only denies identity, but also the abuse I experienced)
There is also, more generally, the ignorance from society of aromanticism and other orientations which lie outside of LGB. The upcoming UK Census in March only lists Straight/Heterosexual, Gay or Lesbian, Bisexual and Other as orientation options, with no reference to romantic identities at all. For the most part, my friends and family have been so supportive in helping me understanding my own version of ‘I love you’. Even if they did not know of the term aromantic, they were prepared to listen and learn.
This Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week 2021, to all those questioning their own romantic identity, or have experienced similar to what I have (or something different still), you are not alone in this and you are most certainly not broken or abnormal. Love itself is not owned by one dynamic or emotion, and should certainly never be limited to one lens of existence. It is endless and essential, lonely in only one form, stronger in the embrace of many. It is necessary to the human condition, not because it completes and fixes a single person, but because it completes humanity and makes us whole, together.
And even if I likely haven’t met you, I say to you, as I would happily say to anyone important to me: I LOVE YOU (just no romo)