Wider society loves talking about relationships. It loves its tormented advice columns, its features on how to catch the person of your dreams and keep them too, its endless commentary on just how crucial partnered relationships are to your wellbeing and fulfilment as a person. (You’re just not complete without one, right?) And once we’re in a relationship, it’s all about where you’re going with it. How your relationships develops in its early stages, how it progresses from one level to the next, how you go from dating to commitment to marriage, from kissing to touching to sex.
There’s this rhetoric about how a relationship works that revolves around the idea of progress: getting to the next ‘stage’ or ‘level’ of intimacy, be it practical (like moving in with someone), physical (like having sex for the first time) or emotional (often assumed to just tie in with the physical stuff). It’s the unspoken rule: you must be constantly moving forward along an arbitrary scale of relationship-ness, because if you’re not, something is wrong with your relationship. God forbid if you find yourself somehow moving backwards along the scale – you’re basically doomed. Progression = success, standstill is ok for a while, but anything else is deemed to be a sign of a failing relationship.
So maybe that works for some people. Yeah, if you’re desperately looking for someone to marry and have kids with, then someone saying ‘hey, let’s slow down or take a step back’ might not be exactly what you’re looking for. But in the majority of cases, I don’t think that’s how relationships work at all. The idea that relationships have to be constantly moving ‘forwards’ – whatever that is meant to mean – is pervasive, but constricting and unrealistic. Especially when you throw asexuality into the equation.
We don’t tend to talk much about actually being in relationships in the ace community. There’s a small subsection (on AVEN, mainly) who talk about how to deal with non-ace partners and their desires, but in my experience those discussions all tend to have the same or very similar endings. And many of us will talk in great detail about what we’d potentially want in a relationship, without being in one. But when it comes to actually being in a relationship, especially with another ace person, we’re a pretty quiet bunch. (And I do get why, as well: because it’s damn hard to talk about being in a relationship in public. That’s just the truth.)
We’re also a very diverse community, which probably has a much better-than-average idea of where our boundaries – physical and emotional – lie, and how those boundaries might change. And the possibility for change is what I really want to talk about here, because sometimes that change involves taking a step backwards on the conventional relationship scale. And that is not a sign that a relationship is doomed or in danger of failing. The opposite is true: being able to step backwards can actually be helpful and strengthening to a relationship.
I’m able to talk a bit from personal experience here, because this is something that I’ve experienced in the last few months in my own relationship with my partner, especially in terms of physical closeness. People tend to think that if both people in a relationship are ace, everything must be easy and straightforward. The thing is, though, that although we’re both ace, we still have quite different ideas about what things we’re comfortable with and what just doesn’t feel right, and different levels of experience with those things as well.
Some things are very basic and straightforward – for instance that we are not interested in having sex, at all, ever, or that we both love hugging and snuggling. Talking from my own point of view, there are things that I’ve been happy to try out, because I had no prior experience with them and no strong feelings either way yet. Some of those things have ended up becoming very normal and appreciated parts of being with my partner. Other things haven’t been so convincing, and never lost that feeling of strangeness or wrongness – even if I wanted them to feel normal and good as well because my partner did. In the end, those things came down to me having to accept that it just wasn’t going to happen, which I think made things better for both me and my partner in the end. (Especially in terms of me actually saying ‘sorry, no’ rather than ‘yeah… maybe… someday…’ and leaving him hanging. Being able to clearly define the boundaries has made things much easier for him in that regard too.) Other things we’ve tried and I think both been quite happy to just let go.
To anyone on the outside, assuming that we’re just another non-ace couple, our relationship might look a bit like it’s sliding all over the place on the normative relationship scale. We’ve been at points ‘further along’ the scale than we are now. We recently consciously made the decision to scale back some aspects of our relationship. In the eyes of wider society, that might seem like the beginning of the end.
Only it’s not. The changes we’ve made to the way our relationship works are very personal and conscious decisions, and they’ve actually helped us to feel closer and happier. On my part, I feel like I’m much more confident and much less stressed about our relationship, and that makes me feel much closer to my partner and more secure as well.
I think a good relationship is one that can change and adapt as the people within it change as well. But that change doesn’t have to be unilinear and forward-moving to be good. Especially in ace relationships, it has to depend on where each person is at any given point in time. If that means taking a step backwards, then so be it. It doesn’t mean that a relationship is failing or that the people in it are drifting apart. It doesn’t have to be a negative change. It can be an incredibly helpful and positive change.
In the end, the idea of relationship progress and moving forward is completely arbitrary and irrelevant. It can take courage to recognise that and say ‘screw you, arbitrary relationship-successfulness scale.’ But I think that it’s important for people in relationships, especially us in the ace community, to have the freedom to change in our relationships and change our relationships with us. To be able to take that step… wherever it leads.