Trying to Define ‘Romantic’

This is a guestpost by demiandproud.

Hi, I’m a demisexual Dutchwoman who’s identified as such since her mid-twenties. I toyed with adopting a romantic orientation label for a long time while figuring out how attraction works for me.

In the wake of February’s Carnival of Aces, romance and romantic orientation cropped up in a few conversations I had with friends. They asked me a question I could not answer: “What’s romantic mean, to you?” They understood I used it differently. And, yeah, it has developed a new meaning and use in the ace and aro communities. One, I discovered, I couldn’t put it into words very well.

I’ve seen some bloggers quip “you must know it when you feel it.” I think that’s exactly right. We – I should say I – have been intuiting what the word means while using it. Doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to define it. Enough such attempts taken together would make it possible to come to a more complete understanding of the new use of ‘romantic’. Especially as a foil to aromantic.

While I’ve been writing this, it seems this discussion’s already well underway. Nevertheless, I hope this provides some food for thought.

Romantic, root word with a prefix

I’ve seen romantic, as opposed to aromantic, used most often with a prefix (-romantic) as a replacement for sexual with a prefix (-sexual) by people on the asexual spectrum. They use it as a way to indicate what gender they tend to be attracted to, which ‘asexual’ does not indicate. That works if ‘doesn’t want (a) partner(s)’ or ‘I (mostly) don’t feel attraction’ is what asexual means to you. The double-barrel prefixes I saw around when I started blogging seem to have fallen out of favour. As example, I identified as hetero-demisexual back then.

However, using -romantic for the purpose of pointing out a gender preference is only a partial solution. In the first place because the same prefixes that apply to -sexual to indicate the process, degree or frequency of attraction, e.g. a-, quoi-, demi-, lith-, may also be applied to -romantic. In the second place because not everyone finds the root, -romantic, useful as an orientation label.

Looking at just the language, I’d love for there to be a root that could be the carrier for the prefixes homo-, bi-, hetero-, etc. One that didn’t require attraction to be classified as sexual, romantic or otherwise. An umbrella term for attraction or orientation, so we could have formal counterparts to the colloquial straight, gay, bi. One that could include -sexual and -romantic or not and not be limited to it.

If you know one, I’d love to hear it. I like shiny, new words.

Romantic, adopting the label

I had rather the opposite problem. While I was comfortable identifying as -romantic, I scratched my head at what to put in front of it. I really can’t fathom having a preference in the gender of my partner. While my break with heterosexuality was a clean cut, I only shed the hetero- part of that gradually.

I got more comfortable being interested in people of all genders, the longer I identified as demisexual. I have found more asexuals feel this way, but some people have a definite preference for a specific gender. Finally, I settled on the prefix pan- and it’s suited me well so far.

Romantic, a personal definition

I identify as having a romantic orientation primarily because of what attraction does to me when I feel it. If forced to define what attraction I feel towards a crush or in a relationship, I’d say a blend of emotional, intellectual, aesthetic and sensual attraction.

When I am attracted to someone, I focus in on them. I think about them a lot, I prioritise them for no rational reason, they have a disproportionately large influence over me. I feel more powerful emotions towards them, and everything associated with them, than most anything else in my life.

I associate it with Romanticism (1800-1850), the cultural era defined by deep emotions overcoming rationality in artistic expressions. Its defining characteristic for me is that I am irrational in that initial period of being in love. Infatuated. This stage of ‘romantic’ love that evens out into the more steady attachment some would describe as ‘committed’ love.

To me, romantic orientation is more of a scale to measure whether or not attraction may translate into overpowering emotion, and whether that influences my behaviour. In other words, it’s more about how attraction proceeds than the type(s) felt.

Romantic, queering it

Identifying as demisexual, and later panromantic, spilled over into how I treated love. Namely, I began to question the boundaries put up between types. Seeing love defined and used differently in Dutch and English, in French and German in school, in Hebrew and Greek in the bible, only added question marks. Here’s where the more modern-day idea of romance came in for me. The coding of behaviour, products, atmospheres, rituals and specific relationships as romantic.

I decided that I loved in many ways. I felt I was romantic. So, feeling I had permission to act romantically without acting sexually, I started using romantically coded gestures and rituals to show affection even towards friends and family. In the process the label ‘romantic’ has seemed to become more artificial. A deeply flawed, limited and vague word.

And yet… it’s such a commonly used word, that especially outside the asexual community I still use it. More and more, however, it’s come to describe to me how I love, the wish to love deeply, to find someone to return that. As a label for movies, music, relationships and even attraction… I’m not too sure any more.

So, now I’m curious: does this any of this resonate with how you’d define romantic, if you have a romantic or aromantic orientation?

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
This entry was posted in Articles, Guest post, Language, romantic orientation. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Trying to Define ‘Romantic’

  1. DasTenna says:

    “I’ve seen some bloggers quip “you must know it when you feel it.” I think that’s exactly right. We – I should say I – have been intuiting what the word means while using it. Doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to define it.”
    Absolutely agree.
    I guess that´s quite often the problem when asexuals try to figure out a way to describe sexual attraction and sexual desire despite not feeling it – and if they ask allosexual people to describe it, they only get an explanation like: “You must know it when you feel it.” … -____-
    Describing instead of just interpreting – showing instead of just telling – is an advice given to authors by authors quite often. Why? Because showing/describing an emotion creates an understanding of said emotion and creates a bond between readers and characters. Telling readers what a character feels, interpreting what is felt by the character prevents the reader from feeling it themselves and doesn´t reduce the distance. Beyond that, it can be patronizing and a sign that an author isn´t very confident of the audience´s comprehension. Or it could be a sign that an author didn´t give much or deeper thought about a feeling.

    “When I am attracted to someone, I focus in on them. I think about them a lot, I prioritise them for no rational reason, they have a disproportionately large influence over me. I feel more powerful emotions towards them, and everything associated with them, than most anything else in my life.”
    I would describe it quite similarly. Despite falling in love for the first time at age 33, the descriptions of romantic love already resonated with me when I was still a teenager. Identifying as asexual took some time, but I never felt any doubt that I was romantic.

    Showing romantic coded gestures towards friends feels natural to me, since they are signs of affection. To me, restricting romance only to partnerships (which means romantic gestures of affection and thus emotional closeness depend on being in a partnership) seems artificial and not quite healthy for either partnered and single people.

    • demiandproud says:

      Description for communication is definitely very valuable. I also feel some obligation, there, though. To avoid romo-/amato-normativity(?) the onus of delineation and definition shouldn’t just be on people who reject or question the (romantic) label but also those who do adopt them. I feel that’d lead to a more level ground for discussion.

      Thank you for sharing your view on the use of the label and how it’s crossed into your life. That was also good to hear.

  2. Vesper says:

    I got more comfortable being interested in people of all genders, the longer I identified as demisexual. I have found more asexuals feel this way, but some people have a definite preference for a specific gender

    similarly, i’ve also seen people taking notice of how a general lack of interest in any particular gender can be (and seemingly often is) interpreted as interest in people of all genders and how, upon discovering asexuality and the ace spectrum, that often ends up correlating to adopting a biromantic and / or panromantic identity in addition to identifying as ace. or at the very least, that was the case for me, having adopted biro and panro identities simultaneously alongside an ace identity (although there was a brief time where, like you, i used the ‘double-barrel’ prefixes of “demi-bisexual”).

    however, the longer i’ve identified as ace, the more i’ve interacted with and observed discussion of romantic attraction and the possibility of the lack thereof + added possibility of other types of attraction beyond simply ‘sexual’ and ‘romantic’– all the while noticing how ‘romantic’ began to eclipse discussion of all other types of attraction within ace Tumblr (where i most often spent my time) to the point of other types of attraction falling out of usage in favor of an overarching sexual vs romantic, allo- vs a- dichotomy, the more i began to distance myself from the word ‘romantic’ entirely.

    while the word probably held some semblance of meaning to me in the past, it means nothing to me now as it appears to me to be nothing more than an empty placeholder for a cocktail of emotions and symbolic gestures, the ingredients of which are assumed to be mutually understood by all, but which is only ever truly understood by the speaker and perhaps by those with whom the speaker has already shared knowledge of their personal recipe.

    the entire thing is a recipe for confusion & misunderstanding that i have become averse to, preferring to disassociate myself from any and all things romance not only in ace spaces, but within society in general… which is something that in and of itself is once again giving me cause to pause and reassess my feelings on the subject, as i’m currently in a relationship with someone who does find meaning in ‘romance’ while i personally do not.

    • demiandproud says:

      Heya Vesper, thank you for opening up about your disillusionment with the label ‘romantic’. I think it’s very healthy to be critical of it, at least. I can sympathise with how many different meanings it has, in different contexts.

      If I’ve learned anything reading on it over the past months and writing and rewriting this post, it’s that it’s very good to recognise ‘romantic’, either as attraction or orientation, is meaningless to a good chunk of people, and that its rise from descriptive to normative label is ripe with toxic potential. I can well understand folks staying away from it just for that reason.

      I can’t help but also recognise, though, that it is a word commonly used, and I am one who does and has. That the panromantic label was very empowering for me when I adopted it, to have a word, even a flawed one, for feelings I have. For me that’s cause to approach the word ‘romantic’, especially as label, with a ‘handle with care’ attitude.

      • Vesper says:

        …the panromantic label was very empowering for me when I adopted it, to have a word, even a flawed one, for feelings I have. For me that’s cause to approach the word ‘romantic’, especially as label, with a ‘handle with care’ attitude.

        *nods* for sure. i may disassociate with them now, but only after having fought to hold onto my biro and panro identities for similar reasons, eventually letting go of them only reluctantly. i can and do empathize.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    “I associate it with Romanticism (1800-1850), the cultural era defined by deep emotions overcoming rationality in artistic expressions. “

    I gotta say as an English major, this is always what I immediately think of whenever I see “Romantic” or “Romance,” with a capital R. And now that aro communities are apparently starting to adopt a capital-R Romance/Romantic as a term I’m… really finding that difficult to process. I don’t really understand why it warrants the distinction of a capital letter, and I won’t adopt that because Romantic, for me, means “from the Romantic period” and I don’t want to confuse any conversations I have about Romantic poetry any more than they already are.

    Anyway, as someone who has always been confused about these things, I appreciate you trying to explain what romantic attraction/orientation means to you.

    I guess what’s always been a big part of my confusion is… for me, it makes absolutely no sense to say that something romantic is an attraction, in and of itself? Like… my prior understanding of what “romantic” meant, before I joined the ace community, was always about… hm, let me see if I can phrase this in a way that makes sense… something related to feelings, but not the feelings themselves? Like romance is a set of behaviors, it’s a verb just as much as it is a noun. And the way that you engage in “romance,” how you “romance” someone, is by doing something within the set of cultural behaviors defined as “romantic” (fancy dinners, gifts of flowers and chocolate, setting the mood with candles, writing love poems/singing love songs, that sort of thing). There are scripts and norms involved (none of which ever made any sense to me).

    And there’s a certain aesthetic, a style to it? If that makes sense? “Romance” is kinda flowery and sweet, you know? And if it’s not sweet, if it’s not styled in that particular way… is it still romantic? I can’t think of an example right now, but I have seen people question that many times, saying that some person or another’s attempt at romance ultimately failed because it was “not very romantic.”

    And to me, romance was always something that could be insincere too! It’s something that people warned me about… a LOT. That men may make grand romantic gestures, but it’s only because they want sex.

    So, when people said “I have romantic feelings for [person]” I would interpret it as “I want to engage in romantic behaviors with [person]” but not necessarily assume that their feelings were always actually about that? Like, the actual feelings behind it were unknown, but they were just expressing desire to have a relationship with that person where those behaviors were involved.

    And now, even after having engaged in discussion about this for so many years, whatever feelings are behind that… It still doesn’t make sense to me! I think it’s something I personally can’t appreciate because I just don’t really get infatuated with people myself. But more than that… it just feels like it’s bundling the infatuation (or having-various-attractions) feelings (for a specific person) with the wanting-to-engage-in-romantic-behaviors (more generally) feeling, and in my own mind that doesn’t make sense, because I have never experienced those as being connected, related, or even occurring at the same time?

    I don’t know if I’m making sense anymore here, so I’ll stop rambling.

    Anyway, I guess what I’m curious to hear about from you is this: if I’m interpreting what you’re saying right, then for you having romantic feelings means:

    1. having a “blend of emotional, intellectual, aesthetic and sensual attraction” first, which then can
    2. become intense enough to be considered an infatuation, and then
    3. this seamlessly leads into desiring to engage in romantic-coded behaviors to express these feelings

    …is that right?

    • Sennkestra says:

      My only personal understanding of “romantic attraction” is that whatever people who experiencing it describe is clearly something I don’t have, so I can’t help with understanding that aspect.

      But regarding like, my linguistic observations of how other people talk about romance, esp. as regards to romance-as-emotion vs. romance-as-activity…I think it’s confusingly both, in that for some people, they feel certain emotional attraction to certain people that leads them to want to engage in romantic actions (thus romantic attraction?) whereas for other people it’s more that they like the activity of romance, and just need to find someone compatible in order to engage in it (which may or may not involve any feelings that would be labelled that way). Except that it gets super confusing because both things seem to get referred to as “romantic attraction” a lot of the time and treated as the same thing.

      Otoh I think the same is also largely true of sexual attraction, in that it seems like some people are motivated by like, feeling an attraction to someone that somehow involves really desiring sex with that specific person, whereas other people are more driven by interest in the activity of sex itself, but then just need to find someone compatible and interested by some more vague sort of appeal. But confusingly, in both ace and non-ace discussions, “sexual attraction” can be used to refer to both (that is, strong desire for a specific person(s), vs. seeing someone as vaguely compatible for a desired activity). Although I’ve still never felt much of either so what do I know.

      A lot of modern sexual identity framing (not just in ace communities) all tends to use this framing of feeling some sort of strong feeling of attraction that draws people to want specific activities with specific people – which I’ve never felt, for any one or any type of relationship, which is a large part of why I identify as aromantic even though in the abstract, a lot of the “structure” of what are called romantic relationships still appeal to me – I just get stuck on the part where I never feel the desire to attach them to a specific person. But I do sometimes wonder how that would change if specific-person-attraction wasn’t the defining narrative of romance.

      I also wonder if there’s even a similar dichotomy going on for queerplatonic, maybe? When I see posts about “queerplatonic attraction” or “platonic attraction” or being “aplatonic” etc. I find them very confusing, because I personally don’t experience the desire for friendship or queerplatonic type relationships as an “attraction” to a person – for me a lot of the appeal is in the structure of the end relationship, and finding friends etc. is less about feelings or attractions and more just about having some compatibility and then a mix of chance or effort to get to the point of having something that could be called a ‘relationship’. But where I get stuck is on knowing to what extent other people are just getting overzealous about applying “attraction” as a model, vs. to what extent I just fundamentally experience interpersonal relationships differently than those people.

      • Coyote says:

        I find them very confusing, because I personally don’t experience the desire for friendship or queerplatonic type relationships as an “attraction” to a person

        Same here. Both in the sense of not experiencing it that way and finding it confusing how people talk about it. While people can use whatever models work for them, I sometimes feel like ace spaces get… overly fixated on pinning down attraction and using attraction-basis as a lens toward all relationships. Really the only reason I thought “attraction” as a concept was necessary or useful at all was because attraction is irrational, involuntary, and inexplicable — whereas it’s pretty easy to explain why I want to be friends with someone!

      • demiandproud says:

        For some reason my mind keeps drawing a parallel between distinguishing feelings and identities based on them as you’re describing and discerning colours. In that the latter is also very subjective… What’s purple to one is blue to another.

    • demiandproud says:

      As to your question to me, 1 and 2 are why I identify as having a romantic orientation. I don’t know that I’d label feelings themselves as romantic. Between 2 and 3… there’s a lot of seams, I’d say. Maybe because of how conflicted I am, but for me there’s a big, big gap between being in love and acting on it.

      As to engaging in romantically coded behaviour… I’d say I would do so to some extent towards anyone I love. Within dating or a relationship I’d actually ask for explicit consent first… I think that’s for me the biggest take-away from being aware aromantic people exist, that romantic behaviour, like sexual acts, and really any physical contact, require consent.

      And hah, in Dutch there’s a greater aversion to capitalisation so we don’t even have that distinction.

      And yes to the modern-day conception of romance you described. It’s just so bloody wide and versatile. Especially if you toss in that what’s ‘romantic’ in one culture, or to one person, isn’t, to another.

      Take handholding in public. Romantic, in most western cultures. Yet done between family too, and female friends, where I’m from. In India? Completely platonic, between men, or between women. And scandalous, if done by a man and a woman. Not romantic. And that’s a relatively basic gesture!

  4. epochryphal says:

    thank you for this post! it and the comments have happened into my life at just the right time to really crystallize, it feels like, an updated understanding of myself over time.

    i super wish there was a better root word to tack prefixes that indicate “people generally interested in” onto, yes, and i think i used romantic for that purpose for a while before really coming to realize, wait a minute, i’m pretty dang romance-repulsed actually. even then i was like “well i’m not *aromantic*” because at the time everyone i saw using that, even with -spectrum attached, was describing their experience as… really different from mine, it felt like.

    similarly the distinction between infatuation and “want to do romantic things with” that elizabeth talks about above is like, Yeah. i get the infatuations but then i have run into, frick, i don’t want the romantic things.

    (also though the very “prefixes that indicate people generally interested in” are… super unwieldy for a non-binary person, regardless of who said people might be, which i also dunno cohesively. *sways back towards the usefulness of “nocimasexual” and defining out cis men, but remains apprehensive about it*)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.