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.