Why don’t we talk about non-normative relationships failing?

Trigger/content warnings: references to rape (including corrective rape), discussion of abusive relationships, victim blaming

When I saw the call for submissions for the Rotten Zucchinis zine going around, my first thought was, No one is going to submit to that.  It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the idea for the zine, per se–personally, I think it’s definitely something that should be talked about–but the idea was so at odds with the discourse I’ve seen in asexual communities that I knew that it wasn’t going to get any submissions.  And, lo and behold, it didn’t.*

Here’s the problem: people (not just aces) generally don’t like talking about relationships failing.  Saying, “Yeah, we tried our best and it still didn’t work” is painful at the best of times, and if you’ve just exited a dysfunctional or abusive relationship, talking about it in a public forum is probably the last thing you want to do.  Yeah, you probably have that one friend who overshares about all their relationships, but for every one of those friends, you probably have 20 other friends who are very quiet about things going wrong.  You also probably have friends who are willing to talk about relationship troubles one-on-one, but don’t want to post anything on the internet, ’cause it’s much easier to control the flow of information if you’re talking to a person you trust than if you’re spilling your guts before a crowd of who knows how many people.

Beyond that generalized dislike of talking about failed relationships, though, I think there are factors specific to ace communities that dissuade people from talking about failed ace/ace or otherwise non-normative relationships.

For one thing, in ace and aro communities there’s a lot of talk about relationship ideals rather than relationships that actually exist.  Sciatrix put it particularly well:

I’m sort of… less than comfortable with theorizing about how one would like one’s relationships to work in the absence of actually having them. I’ve noticed that when people do that, they often seem to build up this very detailed fantasy of a perfect partner who will do and be all these different things, and then that fantasy hits messy, human reality and doesn’t work out.

Beyond that issue, fantasizing about relationships often turns into “if only I had an ace partner, everything would be perfect!”  As someone who has been in relationships with several aces, I can tell you that, in fact, just having an ace partner isn’t enough.  Yes, having an ace partner can remove sex from the equation of potential relationship stressors (for those of us who prefer nonsexual relationships), but there are still about a million other relationship stressors out there.  Do you have compatible personalities?  Do you have similar communication styles?  Do you have shared interests?  Will this relationship work out geographically?  Are you actually attracted to each other?  (Strangely enough, just knowing someone is ace isn’t enough for me to be interested in dating them!)  Do you have compatible worldviews?  Do you want the same things from this relationship?  Do you have compatible life goals?  (If Party A wants to get married and have eight kids and live in blissful domesticity and Party B doesn’t want to date, let alone marry, and hates the idea of having children and is pursuing a career that requires them to move every two years, there are going to be serious problems.)  The list goes on and on.

When people present ace/ace relationships as a panacea for relationship difficulties, all those potential stressors are erased.  When every ace/ace couple is squealed over and pointed to as the ideal,** it can be really hard to talk about the fact that, hey, no relationship is completely bump-free.  When your relationship configuration is elevated as the Holy Grail for lonely, scared, and anxious aces, it can be extremely uncomfortable to talk about the fact that, actually, work (sometimes a lot of work) goes into maintaining that relationship.  But, hey, you should be grateful you have that relationship at all, right?  After all, there are so many aces out there who don’t have relationships and want them, who can’t find anyone to date, who are looking to you for hope and guidance, because maybe, someday, if they play their cards right, they can be like you.

All this idealization can, in the best case scenario, make it very, very difficult to talk about ace/ace or other non-normative relationships,*** because the moment you start talking about real people, everything gets messy and complicated and horribly human.  People don’t want to hear about how you and your partner had to have a two-hour conversation about boundaries because one of you totally goofed.  People don’t want to hear about the time that you and your partner misunderstood each other and someone got hurt and there was a lot of crying and you’re still trying to rebuild bridges.  People don’t want to hear about how you tried to make that relationship work but you just weren’t compatible and everything wound up falling apart.  People want to hear happy stories about how you were lonely but then you found your ace partner/QPP/platonic partner/best friend, and suddenly everything was unicorns and rainbows!

In the worst case scenario, this idealization of ace/ace or other non-normative relationships can spawn pronouncements such as “The only way to be safe from rape is to date another ace!” or “Of course your relationship turned abusive; what were you expecting from a mixed relationship?”  This attitude paints all mixed relationships as inherently abusive (they’re not) and dismisses the notion that ace/ace or otherwise non-normative relationships can ever be abusive (they can).  It puts pressure on aces who have been in toxic, abusive, or otherwise dysfunctional relationships to stay quiet; their relationship couldn’t have really been abusive, because ace/ace relationships/QPRs/otherwise non-normative relationships aren’t abusive!  I mean, really, you must have been doing something wrong, or maybe you weren’t trying hard enough?  Or maybe you’re just oversensitive.  That must be it.

There are a number of accepted narratives for mixed relationships failing: “I didn’t want sex and he did, so we broke up,” “once I realized I was asexual I broke up with her because I knew she’d be happier with a non-ace,” “we just couldn’t make it work sexually,” even “my allosexual partner tried to correctively rape me.”****  You may notice a theme in those accepted narratives (spoiler alert: it’s sex).  Ace communities can get so focused on sex as The Issue, that singular issue that is causing all the problems in relationships, that they can fall into this mindset whereby if you remove The Sex all your relationship difficulties magically disappear!  So if I say, “I tried to date a straight guy once and it all went horribly wrong,” people nod and make sympathetic noises, but if I say, “I dated an ace and it all went horribly wrong,” people stare uncomprehendingly.

This is all a very long way of saying that I’m not surprised the Rotten Zucchinis zine never got off the ground, because ace communities currently don’t have room for that kind of discourse.  There isn’t space to talk about non-normative relationships failing, because there’s a relentless pressure (often from people who aren’t even in relationships!) to present non-normative relationships as the way to fight against compulsory sexuality, a haven from the evils of the sexual world, and basically composed of rainbows and magic.  I’m sorry if this bursts your bubble, but they’re not.  Non-normative relationships don’t work for everyone, and even if they do happen to work for you, they are relationships between human beings and thus have the same messiness and potential for hurt as any other relationships between human beings.  When you idealize these types of relationships, it pressures people in them to live up to an impossible ideal, and when they (inevitably) fail to live up to that impossible ideal, it pressures them into staying quiet because nobody wants to be the party-pooper who says, “Actually, I’m in that type of relationship right now and it’s not all rainbows and sparkles.”  It cuts people off from the few communities that might actually be able to support them through a non-normative relationship failing–try talking to straight friends about your nonsexual relationship falling apart sometime, and you’ll very quickly realize how many ways people can say, “Well, I know you’re torn up over this, but it’s not that bad for you, ’cause you weren’t having sex or anything.”  It further isolates people who have been abused by platonic partners, queerplatonic partners, romantic ace partners, and so on, by dismissing their existence as an impossibility, because, you know, ace relationships are the only way to be safe from abuse!

I don’t want to tell people not to believe that ace/ace and otherwise non-normative relationships can be awesome, because they totally can.  I just want there also to be room to talk about them as relationships between actual human beings, with all the messiness that implies.  Even the most functional and happy relationships have their rough patches, and it’s really important to leave room to talk about that.  It’s important to have space in ace communities to talk about relationships failing, relationships falling apart, and relationships turning abusive for reasons other than sex.  It’s also important to have space to talk about going through a rough patch, misunderstanding each other, and then talking it out.  I want there to be space for imperfection, because no relationship is ever going to be perfect.  If we only ever talk about idealized relationships, relationships that don’t actually exist in the real world, we create a standard that we simply can’t live up to.

*It’s worth noting, though, that the zine has been renamed (f-ACE-ing Silence–The Zine), expanded its scope (asexuality-related stuff there isn’t really room to talk about in asexual/ace communities), and is still looking for submissions.  Funnily enough, I wrote most of this post before I knew about the expanded scope, and somehow the theme of this post has wound up fitting very neatly into the expanded prompt.  Anyway, if you would be interested in submitting to that zine, you should definitely do so.

**I’ve gotten this reaction offline, and, let me tell you, it’s pretty supremely uncomfortable.

***But seriously, try to think of examples of aces writing about their relationships.  I collected some posts on nonsexual relationships here, but it’s actually very hard to find people writing about relationships they’re actually in.  Most people either write fairly non-personal descriptions of their relationship structure (romantic, queerplatonic, poly, kinky, etc.) or write something sufficiently vague that it won’t come back to bite them if their relationship falls apart.  Others mention relationships they have (partner, boyfriend, zucchini, etc.), but never delve into specifics.  It’s also much easier to find posts on how people got into relationships than it is to find posts on people being in relationships.  I could find exponentially many more posts on what relationships people want to have than what relationships people actually have.

****Well, vaguely accepted.  I tend to run in circles where that is an acceptable narrative, but then again this is me we’re talking about.  I’ve seen other people scoff at the idea that aces are correctively raped, even when faced with actual ace survivors.

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.
This entry was posted in asexual politics, Community, Relationships. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Why don’t we talk about non-normative relationships failing?

  1. acetheist says:

    “It’s also much easier to find posts on how people got into relationships than it is to find posts on people being in relationships. I could find exponentially many more posts on what relationships people want to have than what relationships people actually have.”

    *strokes beard* If there’s a need for more of those… perhaps I could help with that.

  2. I wish I could share stories for this, but the fact is most of my relationships (normative or otherwise) have ended on generally good terms (as far as relationships go). It’s usually just a matter of parties having separate life goals and splitting up to pursue those, which is basically how I want every relationship to end. I don’t know if my non-normative side is influencing this- where I see “breaking up” to go pursue our individual life goals as a good thing, and so I can’t really say that is a relationship “failure”.

    I don’t know if this is off topic but maybe it’s worth asking what is a “failed” relationship- in my mind, it tends not to be relationships that end (everything ends eventually, after all), but relationships that go on longer than they should- where at least one person is being harmed or hindered by the relationship. I suppose one of the reasons I feel weird about the ideal relationship stuff is because I’m pretty sure when I think of an ideal relationship I also think of an ideal ending- usually everyone deciding to go their separate ways, having learned and grown from the relationship, and going on to basically do their thing in life (whatever that is).

    • queenieofaces says:

      Honestly, I think there’s space for talking about relationships that ended on good terms. A lot of the idealized relationships I see fit into the “forever or nothing” mold, and I’m not sure that’s a healthy way to think about things. (Granted, I don’t enter into ANY relationships expecting them to end–the whole idea of a “summer fling” or even a short-term friendship just doesn’t make any sense in my brain–but that probably has a lot to do with the fact that I’m slow to warm to people and also genuinely pretty awful at bailing from relationships that aren’t working out.) I also tend toward thinking that break-ups are…not a good thing, per se, but a fairly neutral thing, since, if you feel the need to break-up, the relationship probably isn’t working.

      I think that’s a fairly good way to define a failed relationship, although I might also add relationships that don’t wind up following the intended trajectory. If you’re planning on dating for three months and, after three months, part on good terms, that’s very different than if you’re planning on spending the rest of your lives together and then part ways after two years. To be honest, though, I’m pretty sure all of my past relationships fall into the “failed relationship” category (some of them quite spectacularly so), no matter how you dice it, so I am perhaps not the best person to be defining this sort of thing.

      • Sciatrix says:

        There is also space for “we intended this to be long term, but it’s not working, so can we reframe it and move on after we both take some space to heal up?” Or I mean, there should be. I had an ace/ace relationship that ended on very good terms, with minimal hurt feelings, even though the initial expectation was that it last for an indefinite period of time and no one went into it expecting it to end badly.

        I don’t think that the expectation of an inevitable end is the thing that causes break-ups to be relatively painless. I think it’s a combination of other things, including levels of mutual respect for each other, how well everyone saw the breakup coming, whether there’s a long history of bitter feelings between both people, etc.

        Obviously breakups that happen for reasons of incompatible life goals are relatively likely to have these other factors at play! But I’m not entirely sure that’s the only way to manage one–“it turns out we’re not right for each other” and “I think we have incompatible communication styles” or things of that nature can also result in relatively painless breaks.

      • luvtheheaven says:

        I have a lot of thoughts. I’m gonna put them in a new little blog post right now, actually, so I don’t take up the whole comment section. 😛

  3. Omnes et Nihil says:

    Of course talking about this stuff is at odds with the dominant asexual discourse (for many of the reasons you outlined). That’s *why* I wanted to make a zine about it. In my world, people do make zines about stuff that’s hard to talk about and stuff that most people don’t want to hear about– that’s often what zines are for.

    For the record, I will actually be putting out both zines. I did end up with some stuff for Rotten Zucchinis afterall– not enough for a full zine, but enough for a start (with anonymous submissions). I’m going to put out it out as an “intro issue” to start the conversation, and with an open call for submissions. The second issue will take as long as it takes (I’m expecting it will take several *years*)… These conversations needs to happen, and I’m going to make sure there’s at least 1 place where they can– a place offline where people won’t have people jumping on their words.

    In the meantime, if people start talking about these things in other spaces, that would be wonderful– I would love nothing more than for this zine to be no longer necessary. I don’t see that happening any time soon unfortunately, but I hope I’m wrong.

    • queenieofaces says:

      I think perhaps you’ve misunderstood me–I don’t think that people SHOULDN’T make zines about topics that don’t fit into the dominant discourse. I definitely think this is a worthwhile project. But, like you said, it’s really hard to get these sorts of conversations going, and a lot of the time it requires that you put yourself out there in a really uncomfortable way. I’ve been trying to get a conversation on sexual violence and asexuality going for more than a year, and the majority of the things written on the topic…are still by me. Thankfully, some other folks have started writing on the topic as well, so I’m no longer feeling quite as uncomfortably vulnerable, but in order to get that conversation going I had to write enough that people have started pointing to me as “the asexuality and sexual violence person.” My point was not that you shouldn’t be making this zine, but rather that getting difficult conversations started often takes time (years, sometimes, as you said) and often A LOT of uncomfortable soul-baring on the part of the conversation-starter.

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  5. Siggy says:

    Even though I’m being used as the example of someone who doesn’t want non-normative relationships, I did have a non-normative relationship once, and it did fail, and it is hard for me to talk about. But the main reasons it’s hard to talk about I think apply to all breakups.

    We broke up because I was monogamous and entered a different relationship. But I was also using this as an excuse, because the non-normative relationship thing really wasn’t working for me, and because we were unable to communicate frankly about our relationship. I don’t like giving out the details because I feel like external observers would judge me negatively, or my former partner negatively. We were both a little duplicitous. But it’s also hard to talk about because I just don’t understand what happened really. Was he upset, was he happy, did he not care? I wouldn’t be able to believe him if he told me. I couldn’t even definitively say whether it was a “failure” or not.

    Actually, the story I submitted to The Asexual Story Project was partly a breakup story, although that one was a normative relationship. That one’s easiest to talk about because I actually know what happened, and it was very straightforwardly not my fault. The part that makes me most uncomfortable is that the story makes people hate him, when we’re actually really good friends now.

    As for the other two breakups I had in my life… gosh, let’s not talk about those at all, nononononono. They were normative relationships, so you’re not missing anything.

    • Sciatrix says:

      Yeah, the reason no one talks about breakups is almost certainly the same reason people don’t talk about their relationships: because it’s awkward and uncomfortable and feels like risking judgement either on you or your ex, or both at once. Except that people are sometimes willing to talk about relationships when things are going positively, and breakups are generally going badly pretty much by definition.

      Besides, I alluded to a close friendship that was going poorly on a blog once, and my ex-friend found it and noticed that I’d said I was giving up on the friendship. Then I got to have an exhausting, protracted discussion on feelings and expectations and everyone’s interpersonal faults over the next several days. It was… a learning experience, and not one I’d care to repeat.

    • queenieofaces says:

      I can understand the “hard to talk about because I just don’t understand what happened really” sentiment. I tend to conceptualize a lot of things in terms of narratives, and the fact that we don’t talk about non-normative relationships ending means that we just don’t have narratives for them. I have a very definite narrative for my first relationship failing (it fits quite neatly into many of the commonly accepted “ace girlfriend, allo boyfriend” narratives), but looking at ace/ace relationships that didn’t work out…it’s a lot harder. ’cause I sit there and I go, “…what even happened here?” (In one case, the EVENTS THAT HAPPENED don’t make any sense, and that makes it even harder to talk about, because having people interrupt you every few lines with, “But why would he do that? That doesn’t make any SENSE” makes telling difficult stories even more difficult.)

      • luvtheheaven says:

        When my allosexual (heterosexual) brother broke up with his allosexual (heterosexual) girlfriend, she was confused as to why/what had happened, and so was I, and so were most people in my brother’s life, and he tried to explain why he was breaking up with her, and it almost made sense, but it was still confusing and that too is part of the problem.

        He found it hard to explain. He just wasn’t sure what he was feeling for her was love. at least not anymore. He wondered if he just loved having sex and if since she was his first sexual partner he was confusing infatuation or sexual attraction for love. He felt like he didn’t love her as much as she loved him. She wanted to spend every second with him, talk to him on Skype every day for a whole hour, etc. He wanted more freedom, more of a chance to be with his friends, to be alone, to have fun without her. He felt like little things she were doing were a little unfair, she was too criticizing in a way that reminded him of how he’d witnessed our mother abusively treating her boyfriend, and over time he was developing resentment toward his girlfriend for these little things. But that wasn’t “the” reason why. If it was just that he would’ve talked to her about the problem. It was all of it combined. He just wasn’t feeling happy anymore in the relationship. “But you seemed so happy yesterday!” we’d tell my brother, trying to be understanding but still feeling shocked and confused ourselves, unintentionally upsetting him as he tries, again, to justify what happened.

        And that’s my point. Even the most normative, sexual, girlfriend/boyfriend relationship that seemed very successful from the outside, that lasted over 3 years, etc can “Fail” and that failure can be difficult to talk about. That other people might (likely) just “not understand”. That even you from within the breakup/relationship don’t fully understand it. That even the person who did the breaking up might not be sure it was for the best. It’s all very messy and painful and something you’d rather forget about, a lot of the time. (My brother and his girlfriend ended up getting back together a year later and now they’re happier than ever, btw. But they spent a whole year apart. They weren’t even friends. During that time I never thought they’d get back together, and I still don’t get why his girlfriend took him back, after he’d hurt her so badly with the sudden and unexpected breakup. But I’m not privy to all the details of his/their life. I don’t get to understand what happened, not fully. Maybe they don’t fully understand, either.)

  6. I have always found the Wonderful Ace-Ace Relationship narrative cringy. Both because there are massive issues in relationships that aren’t sexual incompatibility, but also that I’m convinced sexual incompatibility is not the massive thing that the ace community has built it up to be. For example, I’m currently in a sorta relationship with someone (not in the romantic/friendship binary. but shading more to friendship) who is in a relationship with someone else (shading more to romantic) and all of us identify as allosexual and all of us are currently in non-sexual relationships by choice. So when I see aces saying that they can only possibly date aces and treating it like a numbers game where if you end up in a room with another asexual of dating age, you win (http://asexualunderground.blogspot.co.uk/2008/09/asexual-problem-part-1-numbers.html ), I just want to bang my head against something because that is crushingly over-simplistic on all sides, and I think it sets people up for these bad ace-ace relationships. And then if you are playing the numbers game in your head, it leads to ‘But I can’t leave this! It was so improbable it has to be right!’

  7. Sara K. says:

    Queenie, just how do you manage to write one brilliantly thought-provoking essay after another?

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