Narratives of Aromanticism (vs personal experience)

Reposted from The Asexual Agenda – I swear I’ll do more actual blogging here soon.

A while ago, I wrote a post on my personal blog about my experience of being an aromantic asexual in a relationship. As various people in the ace community have noted at various times (for instance here, here and here) there seems to be a quite noticeable absence of conversation around the experiences of aces who are in relationships, at least in comparison to more popular topics in ace communities. We theorise a lot about relationships, or talk about what relationships we’d like to have in the future, but there is not much out there in terms of aces talking about their own, personal experiences of being in a relationship. So I decided to write something myself, to try and contribute some of my own experiences to the small pool of personal stories that do exist.

Interestingly, the reactions I got to that post very very mixed. I got a bunch of comments from people who could relate positively to what I’d related, who really appreciated hearing someone talk about their experience of being in a relationship as an aro ace. But there were also negative comments and reactions, from people who felt that my experience didn’t match up to theirs, that I was trying to write about the aromantic experience, rather than my aromantic experience, and that I was therefore ‘invalidating’ their own experience. I think this had something to do with the format I chose, and some of the terminology I used (e.g. falling in love). But I think there was also a slightly different problem, in that some readers didn’t seem to recognise that there are a whole range of different experiences even within the small subset of asexual people who are also aromantic.

The response to that post (and some subsequent conversations with Queenie), really got me thinking about some of the narratives around aromantic identity and experience. From my own experience of the online ace and ace-spectrum community, there seem to be two overarching narratives that dominate the majority of aromantic discourse. In some areas, those narratives are quite different, which occasionally leads to some sort of ‘competition’ between the two. However, they also share a lot of similarities which place them firmly under the aromantic umbrella.

The first broad narrative generally refers to aces who don’t really experience what is generally termed as romantic attraction, or don’t really know what to do with ‘romance’ as a concept, but still express some form of desire for a partnered relationship. What form that relationship takes varies, but it most often refers to some kind of (queer)platonic relationship with a single, exclusive partner. Aces who describe themselves in this way will often assert that aromantic aces can still fall in love, form deep, emotional connections, and build relationships that are still separate from what society generally understands as friendship. This sort of aromantic narrative was one I remember coming across a lot while going through initial submissions for the Asexual Story Project.

The second main narrative of aromanticism encompasses aces who also don’t experience or fully understand ‘romance’ and romantic attraction, but don’t share any desire for a partnered relationship that is exclusive, or valued above other types of relationships. In this narrative, people will often talk about placing higher value on friendships than society expects, or about maintaining multiple close relationships that can’t be defined as partnered relationships. Often aces in this narrative will challenge social and cultural assumptions about relationships, and the valuing of romantic relationships over all else. Occasionally (and unfortunately), this narrative will take a somewhat elitist stance, for instance arguing that non-romantic relationships are purer or more ethical than romantic relationships, or criticism/mockery of aces who are in relationships. If you move in ace circles online, you’ve likely come across something like this at some point in time.

In any single instance, both narratives (except the elitist interpretations) are perfectly valid experiences of aromanticism. However, they only represent a tiny proportion of the diversity of experiences among aromantic asexual people as a whole, because not everyone’s personal narrative is going to fall into one of two categories.

My own experience, for example, has been that although I don’t have an active desire for a partnered relationship, I still fell in love (somewhat unexpectedly, but such is life) and was in a partnered relationship for several years. My relationship shared some features of a traditional partnered relationship, but was quite different in others. Sometimes I adopted language that was conventional to partnered relationships, like ‘falling in love.’ Other bits of conventional language, like ‘boyfriend/girlfriend,’ I resisted. I’d like to think I still continued to challenge the general valuing of partnered relationships over other relationships, although being in a partnered relationship also gave me a new and perhaps more nuanced perspective. There are bits of both narratives in my own personal experience of aromanticism. And I’m going to hazard a guess that I’m not the only aromantic ace who doesn’t conform to one narrative or the other. Just like there is no single asexual narrative, there is no single aromantic narrative either.

Unfortunately, as my experience in posting about being aro ace and in a relationship highlighted to me, there is still quite a bit of hostility in the online aromantic ace community (I’m speaking mainly of the tumblr and blogging communities here). One reason for this, perhaps, is that some people who strongly identify with one narrative over the other have trouble recognising (or don’t want to recognise) that there is a huge range of diversity among people who identify with aromanticism.

Another possible reason, leading on from this, is that people involved in the online ace community and activism are not always the best at stopping to think about things before reacting to something that doesn’t sit right with them. I’m pretty sure we’ve all fallen into this trap, myself included: gut-reacting to something without giving any consideration to context, intent, even the rest of the post.

When I posted about my own experiences of being in a relationship while aromantic, I could see both of these things happening. I had a few commenters who accused me of perpetuating the whole ‘you will fall in love and it will be magical’ line that is often used to invalidate ace and aromantic identities. Another commenter felt I was invalidating their experience because my experience was different to theirs. And in a way, I can see where they were coming from – I chose to write that post in second person, as myself writing to my past self, partly because it was a way of distancing myself from all of the kinda raw feelings I was trying to work through at the time. I thought it was pretty obvious that I was writing about my personal experience, but perhaps that was not as obvious as it could have been. That’s something I’ve learned and will pay a bit more attention to in the future.

However, I also think that some of those commenters were really missing the point, because one person’s experience of aromanticism is not necessarily another person’s experience. And this is something I think we need to be extra aware of in the ace community, and in any community. Even though aromantic aces are themselves a subset of all aces, there is still a considerable amount of diversity of experience within that subgroup. Aromantic aces (like all other aces) can have a huge range of personal experiences and preferences, all of which are valid.

No-one’s personal experience can possibly erase or invalidate someone’s personal experience. It’s conceptually impossible. So if we want people to continue sharing their experiences with the broader community – especially on topics that are really personal and often difficult to write about – we need to stop hounding them when their experiences don’t perfectly match up to our own. Even if they use words or phrases we might not connect with, even if they fit (or don’t fit) into whatever narratives are out there.

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