Narratives of Aromanticism (vs personal experience)

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.

About Jo

Jo is an ancient history honours student in Australia, with a particular interest in gender and sexuality in antiquity. In her free time she devours books, tea and Doctor Who, but is honestly not that into cake, and proudly calls herself a feminist and an activist. She identifies an an aromantic asexual a little bit more every day. Jo also blogs at A Life Unexamined on feminism and asexuality.
This entry was posted in activism, aromanticism, Articles, asexual identity, Carnival of Aces, personal experience. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Narratives of Aromanticism (vs personal experience)

  1. paminam says:

    Jo, I can see why your original piece came across to some as ‘setting the bar’. You explain at the end that this is YOUR experience, but throughout it appears you are generalising because you write in the 2nd person. I do think such personal contributions are valuable. (And rare!)

    • Jo says:

      Yeah, and like I said, I recognise that. But that doesn’t change the fact that I think we need to a) cut people some slack when it comes to writing about their experiences, and b) take a moment to think or reflect (or even ask) before jumping on someone. Although I didn’t talk about it too much in this post, I’ve seen this happen many times to other people as well, and I don’t think it’s particularly useful or conducive to interesting conversation. But I think we’re on the same page here, generally.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I just want to highlight this:

    “No-one’s personal experience can possibly erase or invalidate someone’s personal experience. It’s conceptually impossible.”

    I wish that point could truly sink in. I understand that people can feel alienated by reading others’ personal experiences when they can’t relate, but when it gets to the point of people saying things like “what is the point of even identifying as asexual anymore when other people don’t feel the same way as me?” (obviously I’m paraphrasing), then it’s a little bit ridiculous.

    I think there are so many people who don’t fit into either of the two main narratives that you describe, who also feel that they can’t really talk about their experiences because of that. I’ve always felt like there’s sort of… a rigidity to aromantic discourse, a way of discussing aromantic people as if they’re all the same. My partner (who IDs as aromantic bisexual, for any readers who don’t know) doesn’t even see the point of trying to look for community with other aros. It’s all so removed from her life, I think, and not flexible enough to accommodate her personal experiences. Mostly, her reaction to Aromantic Discourse is to get annoyed by it and leave.

    I also really appreciated your earlier post, too. I can’t say I’m really surprised that people reacted that way, though. Unfortunately, writing in second person, as I’ve learned from taking so many writing workshops, will pretty much always confuse some people or put them off. I’ve found that very, very explicit framing is the only way to really mitigate that—like putting it in the form of a letter with a direct address (like “Dear Past Self, …” in this case). I guess it just gets people out of the very ingrained mindset that it might be addressed to them. Even then, there will still be people with Very Strong Opinions about second-person writing—you can’t please everyone. I think it was perfect for what you wanted to express, and honestly if you’d written it in a different way? I think the piece would’ve suffered for it.

    • Jo says:

      Thanks, Elizabeth, the vote of confidence is much appreciated. I also really see that rigidity in aromantic discourse, and how it’s not always particularly interesting either. There are a few good bits and pieces out there, but I also find a lot of aro discourse a bit repetitive. Maybe that’s why I also don’t spend too much time actually browsing around aromantic-oriented content or sites. It’s a bit of a pity really, because I think there’s actually a lot of potential for interesting conversations.

  3. Turtle says:

    I will say I didn’t have a problem with the general content of your original post, and I obviously think people should post about their experiences. And those experiences will be different and nuanced and that’s the point! And rereading it, there is some really beautiful/wonderful/touching stuff there. That being said when I first read it (and rereading it now) I felt very very uncomfortable with some of the ways you phrased things. Especially (as you mentioned here) “falling in love”. Which is a phrase very heavily romanticized. I have never in fact heard of that used in a context that wasn’t romantic. Compared to just “loving someone” or “love” in general which can be platonic. I kept expecting you to explain your choice of words and you never did. Saying “I’m aromantic and fell in love with someone, and still consider myself aromantic” feels different then just saying “I am aromantic in a relationship with someone I love”. Like saying “I am asexual and people are so hot and I want to have all the sex with them.”* If someone feels that way I think that’s valid, but they might want to explain themselves a bit. I think if you had said “I used this phrase for X reason” I would have been totally okay with it. Traditionally romantic things don’t have to be inherently romantic, including language, but maybe some explanation is needed? What does it mean to be aromantic if you are falling in (implied romantic)love with people? I don’t mean that as a criticism just generally confused.

    And yeah the 2nd person made it sound less like a personal experience and more like a repetition of stuff people have told me should *and will* happen in my life. Stuff that was planted very deep and was very painful to disengage from. And I get that it’s a stylistic choice but stylistic choices have meaning and convey different things, that’s…ya know… the point.

    And I say this as someone who is totally on board with aro’s in relationships. I enjoy reading about aromantic people’s relationships(which I agree should be written about more!) and could see myself in a partnered relationship in the future. So I don’t think I am just clinging to my narrative. I’m sorry you got a lot of backlash to a very personal piece and I’m sure that was painful. But I think people’s hurt is legitimate, and shouldn’t just be dismissed as people misunderstanding your piece/not paying attention to context/conflict of narrative (all blame with the reader).

    * or “You will find someone sexy and want to have sex with them when you least expect it.”

    • Jo says:

      I touched on this briefly in a comment on the original post (or in the original post?), but one of the things that we have in the ace community is a huge lack of terminology that actually applies to us. So part of my reasoning behind using the terminology I did was simply because I had nothing else that I thought worked. I love a lot of people in my life, and sometimes it was really hard to describe how my love for my partner was different to that. Yeah, falling in love is heavily romantically-coded for most people. But it was really the best option I had at that point, I felt.

      As I mentioned in a comment above, I haven’t just had this happen to me though – I’ve actually seen it happen to a lot of people who were brave enough to share their experiences. That’s why I wrote this post – not as some sort of huge apologetic, but just as a reminder that when it comes to personal experience, we need to listen, ask if necessary, and be open to the fact that someone else’s experience isn’t our own. I don’t really think I’m dismissing people’s comments in saying that.

      Happy to talk further if you want. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Narratives of Aromanticism (vs personal experience) – A life unexamined

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