Friday, 12 February 2021

On Being Aromantic

For some time now, I’ve been reading up on aromantics, and what it means to be one. And the more I read, the more I know that I am one too. It’s really the only fit explanation for the struggles with relationships that I’ve always had.

But let me emphasise here what some of the websites I’ve read also stress – that each person’s experience of being aromantic is going to be different. The common core of experience seems to be the feeling of one’s inner nature being somehow incompatible with romantic relationships.

So what does being aromantic mean for me? Firstly, let me tell what it doesn’t mean.

It doesn’t mean that I’ve never had relationships. When I was growing up, ‘everybody’ dated, got married, had kids and ‘settled down’. It was just what you did, unless you were maybe a nun or priest. Popular culture dosed me up with the romantic ideal of The Right One who would sweep off my feet, fulfil me, transform me. As a young undiagnosed autistic with a yearning to be ‘normal’, I swallowed this pretty uncritically, though I do remember saying once that I was never going to get married – because I didn’t fancy becoming a housewife – but I was laughed at by the adults. ‘You’ll change your mind when you get older!’

And in a way, I did. Or rather, I succumbed to societal expectations, and started dating. I also knew that I wanted to explore sex and have children, and a relationship seemed like the price you had to pay for that. (I’m also demi-sexual, so one-night stands don’t really do anything for me. Just to make things complicated.) And if I found my dating experiences awkward, I told myself that I just hadn’t met The Right One yet. I married and had a child, and yes, became for at least a short while a housewife. I loathed it. I finally admitted to myself that I didn’t like sex with men either. I left the marriage and came out, but all I did was switch my search from Mr Right to Ms Right.

The sex was better, but my relationships continued to be awkward failures. And after each one ended, I felt a lot of emotions, but most especially relief. The kind of relief you get when you stop doing something that’s not just inherently wrong for you, but way beyond your capabilities. I spent long periods celibate, trying to ‘sort myself out’, eventually coming to the conclusion that I just couldn’t ‘do’ relationships, and choosing to become permanently single. When I realised that I’m autistic, I thought at first that this was why I struggled with relationships, but then I realised that other autistics were able to do them way better than me. There was Something More.

It also doesn’t mean I’ve never had a ‘crush’/fallen in love. Although looking back, there was a kind of desperation in this. I was always falling for those way out of reach and/or totally unsuitable. (Maybe because they were ‘safe’?) Nor did these feelings - a heady mix of lust and turbulent emotions fueled by my yearning for the promised fulfilment/transformation - ever bring me an ounce of joy. Each time, I was convinced that this time would be ‘The One’, the one who would Change My Life, change me, make me like everyone else. It never happened. In most cases, the feelings didn’t even lead to a relationship. (The ones I did have, tended to happen without that.)

After a while, the crush would die a natural death, leaving me feeling flat and empty, but also relieved. I had myself back. Often, I would realise that the person I’d fallen so hard for was not what I’d thought they were, and become distinctly unenchanted. But I’d still do it again, and again… Eventually however it became so painful that I made a promise to myself to stop. Despite my experiences, letting go of that fantasy of transformation was difficult. I really yearned for ‘normal’. But I did succeed in letting it go, and I’m much happier now. I like my emotional balance intact.

Once I did stop falling for people and idealising them, I realised that there isn’t any magical The One anyway, especially for me, that everyone is simply human, and hence imperfect. Realising that meant that I couldn’t see any point in choosing just one person to put above all others. If they weren’t Perfect and Magical, why bother with the struggle? Ever since, I’ve invested my energies in creating significant non-romantic connections instead. It’s enriched my life whereas attempts at romantic relationships always worsened it.

So - if it’s not the above, what does being aromantic mean for me?

It means that I really don’t ‘get’ romance. I’ve always been bored by the romantic scenes in books and movies, and, in the rare instances they don’t happen, relieved. The whole hearts, flowers, moonlight thing - I mean, they’re pretty and all, but the idea that something special is supposed to happen because of them? …Um, what, exactly? Partners would scold me for being ‘unromantic’, and I tried, I really did, but I invariably just ended up feeling awkward and stupid, a failure on yet another count. I didn’t even like holding hands much. It just meant sweaty palms and being thrown off balance as I walked. Kissing, too, tended to trigger sensory overloads I didn’t understand, and which no-one else seemed to either.

I also couldn’t understand why so many, especially women, seemed prepared to sacrifice everything for a partner, even moving hundreds of miles and abandoning their former lives. I couldn’t imagine giving up my whole life for just one person. When an abusive partner did manipulate me into a degree of distancing from friends and family, I was miserable, and ended up loathing her for it.

Moreover, the older I got, the more I felt that relationships, of all kinds, are formed in the day-to-day caring things, not giving someone a bunch of flowers. It’s always mystified me that others feel this ‘Romance’ thing is so important, that their lives and relationships are lacking something vital without what feels to me like a bunch of nothing. If a romantic type can tell me what the point is, I’d be interested to know. But I still feel that it’s not something that works for me. My problems with relationships, however, go deeper still than this lack of romantic leanings.

I don’t get what others get from relationships. I used to hear people say, “oh, relationships are such hard work”, and I’d wonder, well, why do you do them then? Until the day I finally realised, they do it because they get a reward for all their hard work. They might put in, say, one part hard work, and get back maybe ten or twenty parts reward. And that’s where I differ. For me, relationships are more like ten or twenty parts hard work and one or no parts reward. In fact, I don’t even really know what the rewards are supposed to be.

I don’t need or want someone always at my side. The idea of ‘growing old’ with the same person always around makes me feel faintly nauseous or trapped. Nor do I want anyone in my face 24/7, or even just at night. I don’t like sharing a bed with anyone, let alone a house or a life. I can’t ‘meld’ my living spaces with others, rooms are either mine or someone else’s. I don’t even want a ‘listening ear’ - if I have a problem, that’s what my friends or family are for. I’m perfectly happy with living alone, being my own independent person, going my own way, not beholden to another. It’s simply how I’m built.

And being aromantic means, most of all, that I’m uncomfortable in relationships. This is something I find really hard to put into words. If I say that I was always unhappy, people tend to say ‘you just haven’t found the right person yet’, or ‘just because your past relationships were toxic, doesn’t mean you can’t have a good one’. And there’s no doubt I’ve had some bad ones. But I realised long ago that the problem isn’t bad relationships, but that relationships aren’t right FOR ME. I feel ill at ease, emotionally out of kilter, thrown off my centre, oppressed, even trapped, by them.

Trapped by the ideal of ‘partnership’, of expectations from society or partners as to how I’m supposed to be or behave, by the whole concept of going through my life in lockstep with another person. I would always feel wretchedly miserable, crowded, and suffocated. Inevitably, at some point, I would turn around and look at them and think “…who are you? What are you doing in my face, in my bed, in my house, in my life?” I’d then feel guilty, and suppress those feelings, but they would come back even stronger, and the relationship would sooner or later die.

Now, in no way am I saying that everyone should follow my path. If someone needs a partner to be happy, and they find the right person, I’m happy for them. Why would I want them to take a path that’s going to make them miserable? What good would that do? All I ask is that they accord me, and my fellow aromantics, the same freedom to choose what’s best for us as individuals. Nor am I denying the strength of the bonds they feel with their partners. I only want that non-romantic bonds be recognised as just as important.

Romantic types need to realise that the whole romantic thing just isn’t everyone’s bag. So much of our culture revolves around the unspoken assumption that everyone is either paired or seeking to be, that this is the only ‘healthy’ way to live, an assumption particularly visible right now with Valentine’s Day looming. But not everyone wants or needs a romantic partner, and it’s definitely possible to be happy without one. Some of us are simply made different. And to deny that, to not listen when we try and tell you how it is for us, feels like somewhere between gaslighting and just not getting the message. If you tell us that we ‘just need to find the right partner’, you’re projecting your own need for a romantic relationship onto us, in a manner akin to the heterosexuals who tell gays ‘you just haven’t met the right person of the opposite sex yet’.

You don’t need to understand us, just accept that we’re different. That we’re not heartless or cold, but that we get our needs for closeness and connection met in different ways. Is that really so hard to do?

A final word here for those who think I’m ‘just being trendy’, or who wonder ‘why the need for a label’. I’ve spent most of my life struggling with these feelings, and with relationships. Even when I recognised that romantic relationships were Not My Thing, I still thought I was flawed or wrong in some way for feeling this way. I kept it all to myself out of shame or fear of others not understanding. Finding that there’s a name for what I feel, for what I am, that there are others like me, has been a liberation. It’s also worth noting that I’m in my sixties – this is not just a young people’s thing. We’ve been around forever, but without any way to describe or label it, there wasn’t any way to form a positive identity around it and forge a path to self-acceptance, let alone get others to accept us. The ‘label’ is a path to freedom, not a fashion we’re following. Get used to us, because we’re not going away or changing any time soon.