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Conceptualising Love on the Aromantic Spectrum

An image of a vintage-style round mirror with brown frame and a pink-white dahlia with stem lying on the mirror

A conversation with a friend regarding a research project deviated significantly (as such talks tend to do) from a detached academic dialogue to a very personal engagement with our topic on the social script of love. In making their argument, they commented, “But us queer folks are already subversive in a heteronormative society. Then, how can there be rigid norms in our relationships since we are already straying from the conceptualisation of normality in our socio-cultural context?”

I found myself staying with this thought for a long time, well after our discussion ended. While, logically, I could see how it would make sense, I still couldn’t say without hesitation that I had not felt bound by normative definitions of romantic relationships in my experience. I would often feel like my interactions with partners were performances to materialise a legitimate presentation, not motivated by love. Distancing from heterosexuality does create space for more active and mutual constructions of the meaning of desire and intimacy between partners in its ‘subversiveness’. Even so, these definitions are often vulnerable to being constructed in relation to the heteronormative, patriarchal prototype (in trying to emulate it or defiantly oppose its standards). The issue with this prototype is that it is not concerned with being conducive for love to thrive; its sole objective is to sustain oppressive power politics of identities. By seeping into the most intimate ideas of desire and care, the play of these power dynamics compel us to internalise the notion that our socially sanctioned role is innate, instinctive, and something that we are constitutionally wired to crave. Love, then, is envisioned through the romanticising of power (exercising it or submitting to it) and in that process, forgoes the reflection of the self.

In our exploration of self-identity, we also arrive at how we identify and relate to the other. However, the human tendency to obsessively seek clarity, coherence, and terminology can also lead to settling for pseudo-understandings and adopting labels that carry stereotypes we may attempt to embody to feel a sense of belonging. In trying to be mindful of this, I refrain from concretely identifying myself as an aromantic person and merely place myself on the aromantic spectrum (aro-spec). Or perhaps, this is an act of cowardice, for I believe I still desire intimacy and, dare I say, love in multiple forms (just not the conventionally romantic form). This admission is me failing to embody The Great Aromantic Stereotype, and I feel more secure in avoiding the label than being chastised for not ‘living up to it’.

I consider even locating myself on the spectrum a colossal accomplishment: if sexual orientation is pervasive, romantic orientation is uncharted. Unearthing new facets of the self cultivates a strong sense of possibility. This, while sounding like a highly optimistic word, is indicative of change – an extremely daunting concept to our coddled minds. A dear friend who had expressed romantic interest in me once asked me what it was about relationships that kept me from taking the ‘leap of faith.’ Until then, I had always felt inadequate in my experience of desiring intimacy and had only just begun attempting to define it for what it was: what I now recognise as a different understanding of love, not a lack of it. At the time, I had said to them, “Why would I want to take a leap away from the space I’ve cultivated for myself and am so satisfied with?” I had truly believed my comfort with my selfhood was reason enough not to seek relationships in the traditional sense. It gratified the typical conception of aromanticism, which facilitated and reinforced my identification, and it was partially true. Yet, it was also partly an escapist comment coming from the fear of facing the sense of possibility. I have since reflected more inwardly and had the joy of interacting with people who have kindled my desire for intimacy and, perhaps more importantly, my desire to care. I now feel comfortable entertaining the thought that my ease with my selfhood does not necessarily have to be threatened by the possibility of love in coupledom. Indeed, comfort with one’s self can actually evolve into healthier forms of love towards the other(s). My unease lay with the idea of viewing relationships (and even love) as spontaneous leaps of faith – as a sacrifice, as falling.

In her deeply insightful book All About Love: New Visions (1999), bell hooks echoes M. Scott Peck, “Love is an act of will – namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” Here, our socio-political and cultural framework interjects with its prescribed goals and trajectories of relationships (monogamy, marriage, childbirth, parental care, and so forth), leaving no space for the choice of transgressing these prescriptions without the looming threat of ostracisation. This leads me to the concern: is love just a monogamous, hetero-patriarchal privilege? Does love only serve as another capacity for the dominants’ political assertion of power through their norms? The struggle then is to move beyond how we have been conditioned to love towards shaping our own rendition of it. In doing so, love becomes an act of will, something that is given the time and care of deliberation and practised intentionally.

One might think I’m making love sound too clinical and passionless. But I would like to believe that it is a much more romantic prospect for love to entail choosing one as your beloved in every moment, and not just stumbling into it by accident. I don’t assume any expertise in romantic relationships; popular perceptions of aromanticism would have robbed me of that authority when I placed myself on the spectrum. Unfortunately, aro-spec individuals laying claim to intimacy brings with it a perceived shallowness of identity. Society dichotomises the components of intimate relationships to the romantic and sexual – without the romantic, desire is only seen as a product of the sexual (unquestionably the shame-inducing desire that calls for censure of the ‘bad feminine’ person disrupting the expectations placed on their kind). I only attempt to dethrone romantic love from this hierarchy and give the sensual, the platonic, the ambiguous, and the unnamed love (among others) a chance to flourish in the boundless space for consideration in our self-reflections and our conversations, with partners and other people alike.

In advocating for an alternate imagination of love and intimacy, I do not wish to criticise those who find genuine contentment in their experience of it through the fulfilment of prescribed roles and normative expectations. Instead, it is a call for exploration of what the ideas of care, intimacy, love, and relationships mean to us in and of themselves, not in terms of how close (or not) they are to the established traditions of the heteronormative, patriarchal setting. When we extract the oppressive power relations embedded in our perception of relationships and family structures from it, love is allowed to take its most raw and unbridled shape of pleasure.

Cover Image: Pixabay