Towards a Positive Definition of “Romance”

One of the undeniable thematic strains running through my body of work has been my practice of systematically poking holes in “romance” and “romantic attraction” to render them utterly incapable of holding water. As fun as that is, though, it is much easier to knock things down than to create a positive conception of what they are, so today I will lay out my thinking on what “romance” might be and how the humble ace may relate themself too it.

The Stewart Test

Let’s start with some potential leads as to what “romance” might be from our local ecosystem. Over my several eternities in the asexual community, I have seen many people try to pin down what it is, especially as it might occur in a relationship involving aro and/or ace people, and this theorization tends to focus on the beginning of the relationship. I have seen people point to limerance, new relationship energy, the idealized version of themselves created while dating, butterflies in the stomach, walking on cloud nine, etc. I’ve even seen the assertion more than once that romance inevitably fades and that all long term-relationships are characterized by what that triangle model calls companionate love.

And I guess this is my privilege talking, but this is just false? Obviously false? I’ve talked before about the difficulty of being an ace in a family of storybook romances, but it does make it pretty intuitively obvious to me that romance is not limited to the beginning of a relationship, not when I have relatives who are just as in love today as they were when they first met, including the immediate example of my own parents, up to 60 years ago.

So as a first condition, we know any theory of what “romance” is must be something that can endure over long periods of time. (It even says so in that triangle model—not that I think that triangle model is any friend to ace/aro people.) I don’t want to throw out my colleagues’ point completely, though. It’s probably reasonable to extrapolate that people in romantic relationships are not “doing romance” 24/7/365. In the same way that people are still in a “sexual relationship” when they’re not actively having sex, a “romantic relationship” can probably have times of greater or lesser expressions of romance while still being a “romantic relationship.”

The second thing I have learned in my decade-plus exploration of narratives, both real and fictional, recounting “romantic” relationships is that what counts as “doing romance” is highly subjective to the people involved in the relationship. The actions themselves are not inherently “romantic;” the romantic element is a filter layered on top. Again, this should not be unfamiliar to ace people trying to pull this apart, since we see the same difficulty with drawing strict lines around “sexual” behavior.

So we know that romance is something that may or may not be actively present in romantic relationships at any given moment and that it is something highly personal and subjective, but we also kind of have an intuitive sense of when it’s present, don’t we? To quote U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it.

The way I’ve come to think about “romance” is as a cluster property, which, like the archetypal cluster property “health,” has a hazy, word-cloud quality to its definition; it could include all those things at the beginning of the relationship like NRE and holding in farts, it could include pop culture signifiers like red roses and candlelit dinners, but ultimately the presence of those things is not diagnostic and the absence of those things is not disqualifying.

And unfortunately, one of the most prominent things in the word cloud of “romance” is “sex.”

Chemical, Gravitational, Elastic

In times of trouble and confusion, I find myself returning to my dogeared copy of that text with a quote for any situation, that informed so much of the foundation of my philosophy; I am referring of course to The Quotable Star Trek. There’s one quote in particular that encapsulates the tension that has defined my Ace Experience since before I identified as ace:

You see, I feel sorrier for you than I do for him because you’ll never know the things that love can drive a man to: the ecstasies, the miseries, the broken rules, the desperate chances, the glorious failures, and the glorious victories. All of these things you’ll never know simply because the word ‘love’ isn’t written into your book.

— McCoy to Spock, “Requiem for Methuselah”

This episode is not a particular favorite, and I don’t think I’m alone in this interpretation, given that there is a gifset with almost 15,000 notes at time of writing juxtaposing this quote with scenes of Spock’s relationship with Kirk refuting every item on McCoy’s list. Of course, I also low-key hate this gifset because you and I both know The Premise upon which its popularity is founded :/

This quote is resonant with me as an ace person in the abstract, and yet I am alienated from it because I know that the intention of both the original quote and its fandom deployment is “romantic.” And why should that bother me unless it is broadcasting a subtext that makes it clear it is not “for” me?

Sennkestra, citing the work of Lisa Diamond, has given me a piece to this puzzle that helped it snap into place: namely, that one of the things that characterizes “romantic” relationships is the “potentiality for sex.” Diamond’s work is mostly about adolescents, who may or may not actually have sex, but who are framed as not having done so yet. This same sort of dynamic applies to older, established relationships, where those that are losing the “romance” need to rediscover it by way of the bedroom. (By the way, Diamond does mention “asexual romance”—as a definition of “passionate friendship!”)

The thing that has dogged me for nearly 20 years, the reason I have disassociated myself from romantic orientation or that I get so heated about, for instance, the nuances of queerplatonic, is that I know deep down that the types of relationships that matter to me, that I would be comfortable with, will never, ever be recognized by broader society as “romantic.”

As much motivation as we—I—have to try and draw a bright line between sex and romance, an objective evaluation of the situation reveals that goal to be folly. As people under the ace umbrella, no matter where we fall with respect to romantic orientation, trying to reconcile what we assert “romance” to be with the actual, mainstream communal property of “romance” is a Sisyphean task. There are those who wish to “reclaim” it, and I wish them all the best, but I for one do not wish to keep pushing the boulder. As Coyote says:

My relationship to romance is heavily influenced by being ace in that coming to an ace identity was essentially what served to unmoor the concept for me. My particular case may be a relatively strange one, but in broad strokes, I do think it’s fairly common for aces to have to re-negotiate our image of what “romance” even means for us, given that the language of “romance” has often functionally just been a respectable way of packaging sexuality.

This is why I say the aro community has yet to convince me that there’s a substantive difference between me and them. I know what society wants from me, and I know I am incapable of achieving it. I know what society wants from them, too, and it is, in fact, what society wants from us.

Amatonormativity and You

The framework best suited to understanding the tension inherent in the phrase “asexual romance” is amatonormativity, which is “the assumptions that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types” (pg. 88-89). Now, Minimizing Marriage (MM) was written in 2012, so it is not as rigorous in its definition of “amorous” as I would like (although in another instance later on the page the definition is given as “central, exclusive, sexual love relationships”), but in the end it doesn’t really matter; Brake makes clear that relationships must meet all three requirements or they will be devalued. That’s why the polycule, the qpp, and the fwb all are unacceptable to normative society. That’s why the intersection of disjuncted orientations in our community matters. That’s why anyone trying to tell you that non-aro aces are “privileged” by amatonormativity over aros is wrong: aro struggles are ace struggles; poly struggles are ace struggles; the struggles of the purposefully unpartnered, the nonsexual, the celibate are ace struggles.

In a more recent article from 2018, Brake gets a little deeper into why monogamy is so vital to “romantic love” in the modern, Western conceptualization: that one of the ways these relationships have been Romanticized is in the way that this person is Your Person, uniquely destined for you, capable of fitting with you as though you were jigsaw puzzle pieces. There’s no “settling” or “compromise” in this concept; it just works. You know, “It’s rotten work. / Not to me. Not if it’s you.” As she points out in MM, “presumably, many spouses do not want to be offered settled affection out of a sense of duty—which is what the purported obligation to love would entail once spontaneous love fades. Sartre’s point is persuasive: “Who would be satisfied with the words, ‘I love you because I have freely engaged myself to you and because I do not wish to go back on my word'”” (pg. 35-36).

Me! I would be satisfied! In fact, it would be better. I know I am no one’s jigsaw puzzle piece, always either too little or too much, and my heart’s been broken again and again not by people but by circumstances, by society. A person who said “I don’t care about the details of your or my emotional state; I have a choice and I choose you,” is, I think, the only type of partner who could actually stand with me against those circumstances, that society.


What is romance? It’s a lot of different things, a nebulous concept that we can’t so much define as triangulate. It’s idiosyncratic, contextual, and subjective. Its “potentiality for sex” finally makes clear the distinction between “sexual relationships” and “relationships it’s ‘okay’ to have sex within,” and ultimately the pillar of amatonormativity crushing us. And that’s why I’ve devoted so much time to tearing it down, why I’ve thrown it away as a concept for myself. No judgement if that’s not you! But, for my part, I’ll be over here living my nonamorous life and trying to build exactly the type of relationships that matter to me, even if our gifsets are an order of magnitude less popular.

17 Comments

  1. This is of favorite blog post of yours in a while for a few reasons but it definitely just… Resonates so much right now. Especially as I just started trying online dating again, seeking out a new partner. Especially as i just finished editing a canon asexual character in her canon romance in my newest fanvideo. This came at the perfect time for me and my thoughts.

    I continually feel stuck, at odds with the gray-aro identity i settled on for myself and like my partnered and dating relationships are indistinguishable from romantic ones that “merely” are nonsexual to the non-partnering aros who don’t date.

    Yet I continually feel less romantic than all the aces i see around in random Facebook groups or wherever who are confidently not aro, because so many of them are sex-favorable or sex-indifferent and either enjoy occasional-to-frequent sex or sexual things, or at least are willing to “compromise” (oh boy do I continue to have thoughts there), and even those who don’t have sex seem to be cuddling/kissing driven whereas I’m just completely not and identify as kissing-averse and really tend to feel like not cuddling a partner is preferable.

    But also then i leave the ace bubble daily as one tends to do and… My dating struggles to find a compatible partner and the way my breakups go feel very much just like what people assume about any allo dating situation, any romantic dynamic, until inevitably sex is assumed to be a part of it, and advice like “you must be getting so attached so fast because you didn’t wait long enough to have sex with them” or something comes up and I’m like… No. No that is not what happened. I’m ace, they’re ace, we had no sex. But this kind of thing happens over and over. And so much of the time sex must be a part of romance, and in film & television and visual mediums the types of kissing I’m averse to, and I feel so disconnected from that type of romance.

    But i relate to the emotional journeys of people who engage in romantic relationships both in real life/nonfiction/self-help type arenas and in fiction. I yearn for such a similar level of emotional intimacy and practical day to day partnership, i ship couples in my favorite fiction, and I don’t fully feel disconnected from so much of what the word clouds around romance end up being. Many of the words apply to me quite well.

    And so for years and years I go in circles of feeling… Like I don’t quite fit in any of the choices of boxes (aro vs alloromantic, mainly) but *also* like i kinda do fit in both at once. And the fact that I fit in both is so complex for me. I know so many aces that much more clearly don’t fit under one or the other identity. But then there are the rest of us. And the way people in our communities continue to wonder what “romantic” means or is.

    Sorry for rambling so much about my own personal… whatever this was.

    P.S. I had never heard of “The Premise” as a specific phrase before so thanks for that link! ;)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ooh! I love this topic! I’m a demisexual cis female currently in a polyamorous cluster of crazy (one of which is qp) and I’d love to throw thoughts on romance as a concept in different circumstances and dynamics at you if that’s cool.

    If not, still a super interesting read. :)

    Liked by 1 person

      1. So as someone who is polyamorous and a relationship anarcist, I won’t say I KNOW or UNDERSTAND romance as a concept, but I can give some ideas.

        My relationships tend to sit in spheres of closeness though not necessarily importance. So think like… strangers(coworkers and acquaintances(friendsish-foaf(friends(close friends(bffs(partners(me)

        I find at about partner is where I start with “romance”. In this case, I have three.
        -My husband is the most obvious romantic relationship in my life. We’ve been married for a decade and it’s fairly typical relationship. We date, we snuggle, we care for each other, our families are linked up, little gifts are common, he always drives and opens doors, etc. We share a bed, shower together, kiss, do the ‘ahem’, and for all intents and purposes, it’s what you expect. Nothing interesting here really, moving on.
        -My houseplant is my queerplatonic nesting partner of…. going on four? years. She lives with us, take care of her, she helps with bills, we go out on dates etc. Romance here looks like making sure she has a steady supply of aloe water and tea before she runs out, sharing my plushies and heating things, involving her in discussions on domestic affairs, reading all of her writing, cuddling, etc. In my family situation (and husband’s) and work situation, it is implied she is included in just about everything. It’s significantly less physical as she’s also ace, moreso to the edge of the spectrum than myself, so this tends to look like a very committed, very enmeshed gals just being pals.
        Prime examples are fanon Sherlock/Watson for example.
        -As for my LDR human who is very new, romance looks more like butterflies and cutsey. It’s him making a playlist of songs, or me sending a new poem every day before he wakes up, it’s him checking in that I’ve eaten three times every day (and knowing he will so I take pictures of it all and make sure they’re extra pretty), picking things for each other when we can’t decide, and sending just thinking of you messages. Nothing sexual here, it takes a lot of time for me to grow to that and he’s very understanding of those comfort zones. That connection here is still growing, we’ve only known each other for like six months and just started exploring the something more.

        My bestest friend for life is the only one who comes remotely close to that level of intimacy, but I also consider her my platonic soulmate, so she’s a pretty exceptional exception. But even then, the line is different in that her life bubble doesn’t /have/ to include mine to stay functional as it is, and a lot of those little things don’t exist in the same way because our lives aren’t quite as entwined.

        That level of intimacy is what I usually joke as “humany quantum entanglement”, haha

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m pretty similar to you, in that I have rings of closeness too, with a lot of gradations “ordinary” people don’t seem to get haha I like “human quantum entanglement,” too, I might have to use that in the future if you don’t mind (^^)

          Like

          1. Please do! It’s the best way I’ve been able to describe it and people who understand, get it.
            Some people’s lives become so entangled in mine that they affect mine intimately. I feel the effects of their stresses and successes and growth as people as I would my own. And not just because their life involves mine financially or domestically or socially or whatever. At that level, it’s indistinguishable from my own. And that’s not to say I don’t feel a connection to friends of various degrees, I’m a horribly empathetic person to a fault, but there is a spot where, frankly, my very existence feels more correct when framed through a lens with them in it.

            I think /that/ is where romance begins for me. Where “love” is in this particular sense. In that spot where sometimes there stops being me and suddenly there’s an ampersand where that comfortable aloneness (and I do mean comfortable, I am an INTROVERT, haha) was. And when I do the “romantic” things for them, it’s because it’s natural to do so. I’m doing it because that ampersand says this is what they need to thrive and be the brightest thing in your sky and not doing it feels like I’m neglecting a piece of me too and the obviously simple thing is to taste the damn coffee and make sure I cringe at the sweetness because I want to make sure it’s perfect for them when they wake up because Mondays are awful anyway and my lipstick prints on their thermos will remind them that home really isn’t that far away, or stay up just a few more minutes because I haven’t heard that they’ve gotten to work safe yet and going to bed before that is unnatural because I know it means a lot to them to know that I know they’re safe and they won’t have a productive headspace if they think I went to bed worrying about them instead of telling them to have the best day ever while they go off and change the world. When my heart is made happy and light and better by your existence, we are friends. When my heart and yours are completely indivisible even under a laser scalpel because they exist in the same space at the same time, that is something entirely different.

            As a demisexual, THAT is where my brain starts to sometimes go…. “eeehhhhh, okay, I get it, I get it.” And I do say sometimes. I’ve had people reach that level and I’m still not into them Like That. Because they are two very distinct separate drives that exist exclusive of each other. And I’ve had a lot of relationships end because at some point I was waiting for that feeling and I knew it just wasn’t going to happen, no matter how much I romantically loved them, and they saw that as not loving them enough or correctly. And now I have humans in my life that take my needs and desires and drives moment by moment because I’m incredibly fluid in nature and they understand and love me for it, not despite it.

            “He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.”

            (Sorry if my writing is a bit ramble-y. I’m waiting on that got to work safe text and up way later than I have any reason to otherwise.)

            Like

  3. Nothing to add, except I liked these quotes:
    Sartre’s point is persuasive: “Who would be satisfied with the words, ‘I love you because I have freely engaged myself to you and because I do not wish to go back on my word’”” (pg. 35-36).
    Me! I would be satisfied! In fact, it would better. I know I am no one’s jigsaw puzzle piece, always either too little or too much, and my heart’s been broken again and again not by people but by circumstances, by society. A person who said “I don’t care about the details of your or my emotional state; I have a choice and I choose you,” is, I think, the only type of partner who could actually stand with me against those circumstances, that society.

    That perfectly describes my current relationship and why I find it so meaningful

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for sharing this!
    My personal take on romance is definitely of the Diamond/Brake type, as in, if I take away the potential for sex, romance loses its point to me.
    Which does not keep me from writing ace romantic plots. (Shrug.) And more power to those who can keep these things apart.
    So hopefully, I might click with someone in the Sartre way. (Or not. Am not looking.) It’s also why I use aro only as a description, not an identity or community.

    Also, that: “That’s why anyone trying to tell you that non-aro aces are „privileged“ by amatonormativity over aros is wrong; aro struggles are ace struggles; poly struggles are ace struggles; the struggles of the purposefully unpartnered, the nonsexual, the celibate are ace struggles.”
    We’re all hitting the same wall of amatonormativity. This part of the essay is very quotable, I may do so in a project I’m currently working on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s really interesting, using aro as a description but not identity/community because of the flaws in “romance.” I’m going to think on that a little more…

      And I’m glad that part resonated with you! Please feel free to quote whatever you like, and (if I can) I’d love to read it!

      Like

  5. Just saw you followed me and decided to check out some of your work (this piece and a few others)—your work is fantastic, thank you for writing it! You’re getting at a lot of things I’ve felt over time that I haven’t necessarily been able to put my finger on. All a reminder that I should be more involved in ace and aro spaces.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, that’s lovely of you to say, thank you so much! I’m glad you found my work worthwhile, and I hope to see you around in ace and aro spaces in the future!!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s