Content warnings: mention of suicide in a fictional work, discussion of trauma messing with conceptions of the future and relationships, brief mention of abusive relationships (with no specifics), some crappy statements about the insufficiency of aces in relationships
On a completely unrelated note, today is my fifth anniversary of writing for TAA!
Let me start by saying that this is a topic that I’m still puzzling out how to talk about, but let me start here: It’s hard to overstate the impact reading Cardcaptor Sakura had on me as a teenager. It wasn’t the first piece of media I’d consumed that depicted women in love with other women (I’d been in a production of The Children’s Hour, a play in which the lesbian character, predictably, commits suicide), but I think it may have been the first story I’d read that had (non-adult) girls crushing on other girls. For those not familiar with Cardcaptor Sakura, it’s a manga (later made into an anime, retitled Cardcaptors in the US) about a magical girl named Sakura. Sakura’s best friend, Tomoyo, is in love with Sakura, but she knows that Sakura doesn’t return her feelings, so she spends much of the series supporting Sakura from the sidelines and cheering her on as she pursues other relationships.
Part of the reason this manga had such a huge impact on me was because I was reading it just as I was realizing that I had a crush on one of my very close friends. I was absolutely certain that said friend didn’t return my feelings, so I decided to be a Tomoyo and cheer her on from the sidelines. As long as she was happy, I would be happy.
These types of unrequited crushes are obviously very, very common in wlw media (and in real life). I have a playlist of wlw music, for example, and while there are a couple of songs about ladies mutually crushing on other ladies, it’s much more common to have songs like “Sleepover” by Hayley Kiyoko or Mary Lambert’s cover of “Jessie’s Girl” or “Jenny” by Studio Killers (although that one, at least, ends well* in the MV). Kataomoi (片思い; more or less “unrequited feelings”) is a pretty common trope in Japanese f/f content as well, especially if it’s set during high school or middle school. (Azumanga Daioh, which was also formative in my teens, has Kaorin crushing on Sakaki for the entire manga.) I didn’t read a book with a girl who had a girlfriend, let alone one who still had a living girlfriend at the end of the story, until I was in my twenties. (I started finding books with endgame m/m couples in my early teens, for comparison, although I also read a lot of books with m/m couples who broke up or died before the end.) While it’s easier to find happy f/f couples in media now, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the idea that if you’re a woman who is attracted to other women, many of your crushes are likely to be unrequited still permeates wlw spaces and media content.
This idea has heavily shaped the way that I approach relationships. A few months ago I was talking to a friend who said that she found the idea of being friends with someone she had a crush on without ever saying anything really painful. Never saying anything is my baseline. I’m pretty much exclusively attracted to people I’m close friends with, so my desire to Not Make It Weird way overweighs my desire to say anything. I’d much rather have a close friend I have inappropriately big feelings for (and never act on) than make someone else uncomfortable and potentially jeopardize our friendship. So, unless I’m pretty certain that they feel the same way or the situation is becoming untenable as is, I don’t make it weird. I’ve had people tell me that’s sad when I’ve mentioned it, but I don’t think it’s sad. I’m not a martyr or “suffering in the friendzone” (ew)–it just is what it is.
Now here’s where I feel like I don’t quite have the words to talk about this yet: I think there’s a similar phenomenon in ace communities. I’ve talked before about the puddle problem: “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.” Beyond that, I feel that there’s often an assumption of incompatibility or unrequited feelings that aces carry into relationships. There’s the endless issue of sexual incompatibility, of compromise, and all the different tools we’ve made to get around that. (This isn’t even touching some of the nastier comments about asexual people “inflicting themselves” on “normally sexual persons.”**) There’s, as Laura describes it, “a kind of wariness of situations where I might be expected to have sexual feelings or motivations, because then people might want something from me that I can’t give.” Even in friendships there’s the fear that you’ll never be #1 or that your friends will prioritize their other relationships over you. There’s often an assumption that you’re going to have to deal with being insufficient (because you don’t experience attraction you should) or with your friends and/or partners prioritizing relationships differently than you (because they’re not getting enough/the right things from your relationship).
Even in ace/ace relationships, I assume that we’ll have incompatible desires–that someone, to some degree, will be unrequited. There tends to be an assumption that aces are inherently compatible with other aces, but, as someone who has been in relationships with multiple aces, I can say that is not true.*** Here’s a fairly innocuous example: I am not a very cuddly person. I used to be much cuddlier, but I’ve gotten more touch-averse with age and substantial trauma. I sometimes have days where I don’t want anyone to touch me, regardless of how casual or glancing it might be. Needless to say, this can be a major stumbling block if I’m in a relationship with someone who expresses affection physically or who wants consistent physical affection from me.
I tend to assume that any relationship (romantic or not) I have is going to have some level of uneven feelings. Either I am attracted to them and they are not to me (the Tomoyo problem), or they are to me and I am not to them (the insufficiency problem), or we’re both attracted to each other but in different ways (the physical affection incompatibility problem). Heck, I designed a model of relationships to help navigate relationships where feelings are imbalanced. And this is, again, not something I find particularly sad or pity-worthy. I want different things than other people, not through any fault of mine or theirs, but just because that is how it is. This is my baseline.
When it becomes a problem is when decide to settle for what I can get–when I look at my tiny puddle and think, “Well, I’m never going to get anything better than this.” That can be bad when it’s compelled me to stay in abusive relationships, but even in healthy relationships that assumption isn’t fair to me, and it’s also not fair to the people who matter to me. I often assume that I care more about other people than they care about me, so I’m sometimes surprised and unsure how to react when people demonstrate that they do actually care for me. I am much better equipped to deal with having inappropriately big feelings for someone than I am to deal with underestimating someone else’s feelings for me. I also have the fun PTSD symptom of a sense of foreshortened future. Specifically, in my case, I rationally know that the future is coming, since that’s generally how time works, and I can plan for it, but I have no gut feeling that the future is real.**** (If this sounds like a really weird experience, I promise you that it 100% is.) I tend to assume that I have no permanency in other people’s lives. Other people will move on and find other relationships, and I’ll be there to cheer them on from the sidelines (or just…not be there, I guess; it’s not that I’m expecting something to happen to me so much as that I struggle to imagine my future self). I’m often caught off guard whenever anyone demonstrates that they’re expecting me to be in their life in a tangible way in the future.
I have no solutions here and no real conclusion, since, as I said, I’m still trying to find the words to talk about this. I guess the point that I’m trying to get at is the extent to which I carry the assumption of imbalanced feelings (being unrequited? unrequitedness?) into all of my relationships. I don’t know how common this experience is, and I don’t think it’s a uniquely ace experience (as I said at the beginning of this post, it’s a trope in a lot of f/f content). In my case at least, I think it is shaped by my sitting at the intersection of aceness and queerness and trauma. I don’t think I can fully say it’s a good thing or a bad thing–on one hand, I’m pretty prepared to do the relationship negotiation dance at any moment (I have CHARTS and KEYWORDS), but on the other hand, I often have to actively counter my own baseline assumptions, which can be skewed in weird and negative ways.
*Well, I mean, if you consider “turning into a tiger and carrying your love to safety” to be “ending well.”
**Dan Savage, who made the comments in the link, has softened signficantly in his stance on asexuality, but I think it’s important to remember that these sorts of comments were coming out right around the time I started coming out to people, and so I had to directly address them when people brought them up (which, to be clear, they did; Dan Savage was weirdly widely read in my college friend group). While I rationally know I’m not inflicting myself on anyone, when you hear something enough times, it does sort of dig its claws into you. Or maybe that’s just me.
***Here is where I recommend one of my favorite acefics, “’Til Break of Day.” I’m not involved in The Hobbit fandom at all, but it’s genuinely one of the best depictions of an incompatible ace/ace relationship that I’ve read. Check it out if you’re so inclined.
****At some point maybe I’ll bite the bullet and write a proper post on queer futurity instead of just yelling about it incoherently to my friends. Maybe.