Imagine saying, “just lovers,” like some people say, “just friends.” What if people said: “We’re not friends, we’re just lovers.”
— Ruth, from the book Boston Marriages
When people ask me if I’m dating anyone, going out with anyone, or — more commonly — if I have a boyfriend, it feels rather like they’ve asked me if I have wings or a tail. I’m sure this question would be relevant to some (X-Men!), but I’ve clearly wandered into the wrong party.
I don’t date, or go out with people, or have boyfriends or girlfriends, because I am a rebel. And because I’m aromantic — mostly because I’m aromantic. For me, being aromantic means that the term “romantic” isn’t useful for describing my relationships or emotions. I have a sneaking suspicion that it may not be all that useful for describing anyone’s relationships or emotions, but since I don’t know enough about what’s going on in other people’s minds, I won’t say that outright.
What is love? (… baby don’t hurt me…)
You see, I don’t sort love into categories. I love many things: I love my sisters, I love my computer, I love writing, I love food. I love my friends and myself. The emotion, love, is always the same; the only variation is in intensity. Even if I felt like dividing love up and putting a little fence around the part called “romance”, I wouldn’t know how. Where is that line?
Some people draw the line when they have sex, or when they commit to entwining their lives together, or when they become emotionally intimate. When I ask people how they define romance, I get a different answer every time. And yet, even though no one can agree on what it means, there are loads of assumptions that come with the term “romantic relationship”. If I were to acquire a boyfriend, here are a few examples of things that would be expected of me, without ever having to discuss it with said boyfriend:
- taking his side in arguments
- sexual exclusivity
- emotional exclusivity
- prioritizing his needs over others’
- public displays of affection
If I were to get a boyfriend and then turn right around and ask someone else to marry me, that would just be unacceptable, even though we had never once had a conversation about marriage. If I were to get a boyfriend and then go out to dinner with a stranger I met on Craigslist, that would also be unacceptable, since we had never specifically designated our relationship as open. There are a lot of conversations — important conversations — that can be avoided this way.
Dining out: pre-packaged relationships
I consider this model of relationships akin to eating in a restaurant. In a restaurant, you choose from a menu of available dishes that have been designed by someone else. Maybe they are wonderful dishes, but someone else decided which ingredients to include and how to put them together.
Most people order from the relationship restaurant. They may like the convenience, or they might happen to see exactly what they’re looking for on the menu, or they may not know that there is another option. Once they have chosen a dish, they can customize it, if they are motivated and good at communicating.
“I’d like the co-worker, with a side of best friend, and can we get some sex for an appetizer?”
“I’ll have the boyfriend, but could you leave out the exclusivity and the co-habitation, please?”
But, unfortunately, many people do not customize their order, and when it arrives they take a bite and realize it’s not that great after all. Maybe they didn’t realize their girlfriend would be hurt when they chose to spend time with their friends instead of her. Maybe they didn’t think about what might happen if they found themselves attracted to someone else as well. Maybe they didn’t know that they were expected to move in with their partner. Maybe they didn’t know they would be expected to have sex.
Personally, I avoid the whole issue by cooking my own food.
Dining in: do-it-yourself relationships
Cooking at home is more work, yes. It takes longer. You have to use your brain a little bit. Nonetheless, for me, it’s far more satisfying, because I know exactly what went into that dish. There are no surprises. (Note: Analogy aside, I love restaurants and I’ve only recently begun cultivating an enthusiasm for cooking. I make delicious fancy ramen.)
I make my own relationships by communicating exactly how I feel and what I want. Instead of starting with a bunch of assumptions and whittling away the unwanted ones when I run into a problem, I start from nothing and add only elements I like.
To help ward off unwanted assumptions (sneaky things, they are), I avoid labeling my relationships. Going without a label can be tricky. Introductions become awkward when you don’t know what you’re calling someone.
“Sam, this is Alex, my– … This is my Alex.”
David Jay, the founder of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), suggested that we do away with specific labels altogether, instead using a brief sentence to avoid that annoying and harmful friendship/romance binary.
I could say that R is my “friend” or my “close friend,” but neither would give an accurate a picture (neither would “partner”). Instead I can say that R and I “are close” and drop a few tidbits from the paragraph above. The essential details can get packed into a single sentence. (“R and I spend a lot of time philosophizing, we’re not too affectionate but there’s a strong bond there.”) This provides a quick, accurate way to describe relationships that are in that murky area between romance and friendship without needing to delve into binary-busting theory or use awkward terms like “lady friend.”
Hahaha. Lady friend.
Personally, I love labels so much that while it’s exciting to show the world that I can exist just fine without them, I still miss them when they’re gone. There isn’t one that fits quite right, so when all else fails, I use “friend” for everything.
Aristotle, no matter how I feel about the rest of his philosophy, has a great section of Nicomachean Ethics dedicated to friendship (Books VIII and IX). He describes friendship between parent and child, between nations, between erotic lovers, between peers. He defines friendship as mutually acknowledged goodwill. Quite broad. I like it. This is why I refer to everyone as my friend — not because of Facebook. It assumes that everyone has goodwill toward me, as I do toward them, but I don’t mind if I’m wrong about that now and then.
I also like “partner” for its breadth (and because it’s not gendered). There are many kinds of partners: business partners, law partners, life partners, dance partners, writing partners, police officer partners, domestic partners. Of course, others will still assume things, as they do with “friend”, so I don’t like to use even a broad label before the relationship is already well-established.
Something interesting I’ve been thinking about is the concept of queer relationships, similar to genderqueer and queer sexual/romantic orientation. “Queer” just means unusual, really, so it covers a lot of ground. Minverva posted in the August Carnival of Aces about a queerplatonic relationship, which I think is very cool.
Monopoly: this is how we do it
A polyamorous person (“poly”) is interested in having multiple romantic relationships at once, while a monoamorous person (“mono”) is interested in having one romantic relationship at a time. When a mono person has a relationship with a poly person, meaning that the mono is probably not the poly’s only relationship partner, this can be called a polymono relationship. I like to call it a monopoly relationship, instead. Because I’m clearly hilarious.
My partner/best friend/closest companion/zucchini happens to be poly, and happens to have a romantic relationship with a mono person. I personally don’t identify as poly or mono, considering my unusual stance on romance in the first place, but I am so proud to be part of this relationship. I like knowing that my partner has someone else who probably loves them as much as I do; that’s double the love for my partner, and how could that be bad? Plus, I get to have a friendship with my partner’s mono partner, and we get to orchestrate surprises and such. I’m a lucky person.
I’m not saying it’s been the easiest thing ever. We’ve travelled a bumpy road, full of hard conversations, hurt feelings, and a lot of bravery and patience on everyone’s part. We’ve all learned a lot about ourselves and gotten good at communicating and all of that. We’re all stronger because of it. Plus, I got some great ideas for a novel or two… The best ideas come from life, because life is much, much weirder than fiction.
When you cook your own food or make your own relationships, you might end up with a few cuts or burns, especially if you’re just starting out. That’s no reason to stop cooking. Just be careful and persevere. It’s worth it.