Other fish in the puddle: relationships, compromise, and being alone

Trigger/content warnings: Some discussion of abusive relationships, but no specifics

There is a non-zero chance that I will never again find anyone I want to date who is willing to date me.

I think it’s a bit telling that that was one of the first thoughts I had upon ending a 2 1/2+ year relationship last spring.  Of course, I suppose that for any given person ending a relationship, the above statement could be true, but I think many aces (both romantically-inclined and not) feel especially acutely the constraints of their potential relationship pool.  Sure, there may be other fishies in the sea, but, personally, my sea is more like a puddle and most of the fishies would rather hang out in a real body of water.

One of the sentiments I see expressed most often by aces who are new to their identity is, “I am probably going to be alone for the rest of my life.”  And often people will rush to point them toward all their options (Acebook!  Mixed relationships!  Nonsexual relationships!  One of the many single aces tumblrs!) and tell them, “No, you won’t be alone forever, unless you want to be!  You can find someone!  You can find someone and have a great relationship and be just as happy as a non-ace!”  But we all know that the odds aren’t exactly stellar.  Sure, the resources exist.  Sure, there are ace/ace couples and ace/allo couples and poly groups of all sorts that work out and are fantastically happy and make those of us inclined to do such things rest our chins on our fists and sigh happily.  But aces don’t have a huge dating pool.  Aces who aren’t willing (or able) to have sex have an even smaller dating pool.  Aces who want platonic partnerships have a kiddie pool.  (And that’s not even considering intersectionality, which adds a whole ‘nother layer of complication and can, in some cases, limit the potential relationship pool even more.)

There’s a lot of talk of compromise in the ace community, and I think to some extent that’s motivated by an awareness of just how small the potential relationship pool is.  When I’m talking about compromise, I’m not just talking about compromising sexually.  Yes, that’s the discussion in which I see the word “compromise” come up most often, but there are other ways in which many aces in relationships commonly compromise.  For example, almost every ace/ace couple I know is either currently long-distance or has had a section of long-distance.  (Heck, that holds true for a lot of the ace/allo couples I know as well.)  And I’m not talking about a two-week LDR–I know an ace/ace couple that has been long-distance for…seven years, I think.  I don’t think that would be considered “normal” dating behavior in the general population; I remember in college I had a classmate who broke up with her boyfriend because she was going abroad for 2 1/2 months, and she felt that that was too long for them to be apart.  When I was in an LDR for a year, I was treated like a martyr (“Oh, you poor thing, that must be so hard for you!”) and like some sort of paragon of virtue and self-control (“I just don’t know how you can manage that!”).  But what other choice did I have?  I didn’t want to break up with him, and it wasn’t like I could pack him in my suitcase and take him to Japan with me.  When your dating pool is small–and you’re not quite sure how small, but you know it’s small–you’re not worrying about meeting “The One” so much as you are about hanging onto Maybe The Only One You’ll Ever Have.

When I’m talking about compromise in aces’ relationships, sometimes that means moving across state lines for partners.  Sometimes that means moving across national borders for partners.  Sometimes that means navigating four-, eight-, twelve-hour time differences so you can talk to your partner(s).  Sometimes it means compromising sexually.  Sometimes it means compromising physically.  Sometimes it means compromising on music, because, good lord, you really hate their music selection, but you’re not going to let that tear you apart.  Sometimes it means color-coded charts and intense relationship negotiation and gesticulating wildly at each other until everyone involved knows where everyone else’s boundaries are.

The good news is that sometimes all that compromising works out!  Sometimes the LDR becomes a regular distance relationship.  Sometimes the LDR stays an LDR and everyone in it is still happy.  Sometimes compromising teaches you new things about yourself and about what you enjoy and want and desire in a relationship.  Sometimes having to articulate your desires so that you can figure out a compromise is even more helpful than the actual compromise itself.  And maybe if you didn’t have that super tiny relationship pool hanging over your head, you’d be less motivated to compromise, and you’d wind up ditching a relationship that could have wound up being really awesome just because you were going through a little bit of a rough patch.  So sometimes that pressure to compromise can be…I hesitate to say “a good thing,” but it can be a potentially constructive thing.

But sometimes knowing that your dating pool is small (but you never know exactly how small, and maybe it’s bigger than you think it is, but you never really know) means staying in a relationship that isn’t working.  Sometimes it means scrabbling wildly to patch up a relationship that most people would have bailed from three months ago.  Sometimes it means staying in a relationship that has turned abusive, because what if you leave and never find anyone ever again?  What if this person is the only person who will ever care about you?  What if this person is the only person who can ever care about you?  Because you know aces aren’t exactly the top of most people’s To-Date list, and here’s this person, and they want to date you, and, no, they’re not perfect, but what if they’re the only one for the rest of forever?  And, yes, this sort of thinking is quite common for people caught in abusive relationships (especially emotionally abusive ones), but when you’re ace, when you already know that your dating pool is a kind of tiny puddle that none of the fish really want to go near, it can be that much harder to leave a relationship, because you have hanging over your head the entire time that this might be the Only Relationship You Ever Have for the Rest of Your Natural Life.

And then there are those people who look at the odds, shrug, and say, “Well, if I don’t wind up with exactly the relationship(s) I want, I guess that’s okay; I’m going to surround myself with people who matter in different ways.”  Or there’s the slightly more pessimistic variant, the person who says, “It’s not even worth trying–I’m going to be alone no matter what I do, so I might as well conserve my energy.”  At this point in my life, I’m trying to be in the first group.  I look at my tiny puddle of a dating pool–and it is, to be quite honest, very tiny–and I remind myself of all the amazing people I have in my life.  I have fantastic roommates, the most loyal and supportive friends I could ask for, mind-blowingly intelligent academic colleagues, and a group of lovely aces who I am very much looking forward to seeing this Sunday.  There is still a non-zero chance that I will never again find someone I want to date who is willing to date me–but that’s okay.  Life will go on.  There’s research to be done, blog posts to write, and friends to laugh myself silly with.

I think the point of all this is that there is an extent to which being aware of the size of your relationship pool can motivate your behavior, and it’s good to notice that motivation.  If it’s constructive motivation–if it’s you saying, “Look, I want to make this work, and it’s going to need to take some finagling, but I am totally on board for that”–then that’s awesome.  But if it’s nonconstructive motivation, if it’s motivation that’s keeping you in a relationship that isn’t working, hasn’t been working, and is becoming more and more toxic by the second, then maybe it’s time to stop and take stock.  It’s good to sit down and ask yourself, “Am I hanging onto this relationship because I honestly believe that we can make it work, or am I hanging onto it because I am afraid that this is The Only One?”  And then maybe it’s worth considering that Being Alone Forever and Ever (whatever “alone” means) isn’t actually that bad.  Some people really like it.  (Some people even prefer it.)  And even if that relationship really is The Only One, is it worth staying if it’s not working?  Because if so, that’s kind of a crap Only One, and I don’t think that it’s necessarily worth hanging onto.

Most people will still be able to find other relationships in their lives fulfilling and beneficial and supportive, even if they’re not exactly The Relationship they always envisioned having.  Sometimes keeping an open mind about the relationships you might have rather than building up a complex idea of That One Relationship You Have Always Wanted and then pursuing it to the ends of the earth means you meet some great people, hit it off, and discover support networks that you never even considered.  Sometimes it’s better to look at your relationship puddle, shrug, and then sail paper boats on it, because that’s more fun than obsessing over how tiny your puddle is.

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She is a queer asexual. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome and runs Resources for Ace Survivors. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
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22 Responses to Other fish in the puddle: relationships, compromise, and being alone

  1. Siggy says:

    There’s a song by Tim Minchin called “If I didn’t have you“, and the punchline to the title is “I’d have somebody else.” It’s funny how “you’re the only one” is considered to be such a romantic concept, but it only seems romantic because it’s false for most people. If you have a small dating pool, and you’re faced with the fear that “you’re the only one” is literal truth, the results are not very romantic at all, and the risk of abuse is scary.

    IMHO, what’s really romantic… is the freedom to break up.

    • queenieofaces says:

      I KIND OF LOVE THAT SONG A LOT, not even kidding.

      I’ve always found “you’re the only one” kind of creepy, to be honest. Like you said, I think “I could break up with you, but I’m choosing not to” is a significantly nicer sentiment, even though I think most people would find it cringe-inducing. (Maybe I will make a “I could break up with you, but I’m choosing not to” card for Valentine’s Day next year…)

  2. Jo says:

    Heh, chiming in on liking that song, and also the general sentiment of your comments. I’ve always been a realist when it comes to stuff like this – people break up and find new people. Happens all the time. That said, in my own case, it’s more of a ‘well, I’m totally fine with my non-relationship-ness,’ and then someone came along and I was surprised, but super happy. But I think if this doesn’t work out for some reason, I wouldn’t go looking for anything else. If I stumble across it, fine, but I’d also have a perfectly awesome life without looking.

  3. Eric says:

    Really well written article. I have been in situations like you describe, because, aside from having deeper feelings for the person, I felt convinced that I wouldn’t find anyone again. It kinda turns out to be true, at least for the past 7 years and counting, but as you mentioned, you learn to cultivate other relationships, such as friendships and such.

  4. Sciatrix says:

    Mm, yeah. One of my partners is visiting this weekend, and it’s really impressing upon me just how much long-distance relationships really suck. Like, it’s really nice to be able to trade off cooking and cleaning duties in the kitchen and hug them and have someone to talk to on grocery runs and someone who will cut down on my tendency to talk myself out of things I want. It’s nice to be able to go “oh, don’t worry, I’m up so I’ll walk the dogs” and “thanks for doing the dishes!” and trade little favors and make life easier for each other in small ways. You can’t do that as well over any kind of distance.

    I love my partners dearly, but you know, until about six months ago we had no well-defined timeline to changing any of our long-distance relationships to short-distance ones. And I was… mostly okay with that, even though beginning the process to move all of us to the same country will take, literally, years. Even as it is, it’s going to be complicated and possibly entail a lot of difficulty, and I don’t see us managing to finish the process in less than five years. Which is a long fucking time to be long distance, especially two years and change in! But since I don’t do ace/allo relationships, it’s pretty much par for the course. If, god forbid, something went sour between me and my partners, I’m looking at either a dating pool of about six people, tops, or another long and complicated process of figuring out a long distance relationship. And that six-person dating pool is a luxury, because I invested the energy into building an ace community into the city I moved to this year–which will probably vanish when I move somewhere else after my PhD in this city. The stakes are really high both in terms of life disruption and cost here, and I think often a lot of allo people (especially the ones yelling about “not inflicting ourselves on normal people”, ahem) don’t recognize that.

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