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On the Sustainability of (Non) Romance

A photograph featuring two women with their backs to the camera and their arms entwined, looking at a blurred scenery of a neighbourhood.

In a therapy session that took place only a bit before the pandemic started and the world, particularly my own, was thrown off its axis, I remember my therapist remarking, “You tend to bring a lot of women into the clinic, don’t you?” and while I cannot recall the conversation that led to her remark, I do not doubt that she may have hit the nail on its head.

In the last quarter of 2019, I do not think I had a single session where I did not invoke the memory of a close friend in order to explain what I might have been thinking. For me, my friends have always been the easiest route to both understanding myself better and to conveying my thoughts to another person effectively. This, coupled with the fact that almost everyone I am close to is and almost always has been a woman, or at the very least not a cis-gendered man, lends itself in favour of my therapist’s remark.

Alongside this, there is the reality that 2019 was perhaps one of the most difficult years that I have lived through. I chose that year to return to the university I had only just left, and found myself at odds: A large part of my old life was understandably gone, and in its place were lingering doubts of whether this had been a good enough decision. The latter were only exacerbated due to personal circumstances. Struggling through the haze of this difficulty, the only beacon that kept me from losing sight of everything completely those days was the fact that my friends were around to take care of me. Each instance of the year that I can recall without an anxious grimace is one that features the warmth that came only from having had the company of friends who were almost magically able to provide solace which I wasn’t able to ask for back then.

Additionally, I lived in the university hostel back then, and in light of the closeness that sharing living spaces cultivates, I would not have entered the clinic without at least a piece of my friends with me: sometimes something physical, like my roommate’s shawl which I wrapped around me for the larger part of November and December, and sometimes something intangible and easily missed, like the smell of smoke from a cigarette I had shared with someone after class.

My therapy sessions were, in hindsight, undeniable proof of how distant romantic relationships were from the centre of my bubble of close relations. But it wasn’t until after July 2021 that I was prepared to own up to this reality.

In my psyche, the only thing that exists with the same intensity as my friendships is my love for love itself. Which is not to say that I have sought or even welcomed romantic relationships – quite the opposite, most of the time, actually – but I do have a deep emotional hang-up over the idea of romance itself. And I carry this with me, ready to pull it out from the breast pocket of an emotional coat: almost every piece of media that I engage with is romantic, and that which isn’t so originally is made romantic in my renditions and recollections of it. For what it is worth, ‘love’ is the only common denominator of (my) relationships.

Alongside this is the fact that in the relationships in which I am most comfortable, I am physically affectionate enough to rival a duckling who might have imprinted on someone. Historically, this has meant that ever so often someone will witness my interactions with a close friend and either ask or simply assume that our relationship is romantic in nature. Being presented with this by a third party is hilarious; I am positive that each of my queer friends has at least one acquaintance who has at some point thought I was their partner, or at least courting them.

None of my relationships, however, are romantic. I am never ‘in love’ with my friends in the way that is conventionally expected, even if I am, well, ‘in love’ in a certain way. Each documentable exchange I have with a friend might read to an outsider like an old love letter, sprinkled as it is with endearments and with promises of sharing a home. The fact that on occasion I have written a poem only for a friend to write something in response, perhaps doesn’t help the case.

And while the confusion that it causes ever so often is amusing to witness, it is equally distressing at times.

Contemporary and predominant imaginations of intimacy focus primarily on a sex-centric (romance-centric?) model which assumes that sexual desire exists and holds the same value for every person and every relationship regardless of their subjective positions. Sexual intent and desire are often the cruces of how relational aspects such as intimacy are socially constructed. Sexuality and physical intimacy are often conflated. In her paper ‘Mismeasures of Asexual Desire’ (2014), Flore Jacinthe borrows the terms ‘sexusociety’ and ‘sexual normativity’ to define this proclivity to assume intimacy as sexual and/or romantic unless explicitly communicated. Existing in tandem with the hetero-patriarchal modelling of society, this means that intimacy is not only sexualised but also afforded value based on how closely it can resemble the ideal of the heterosexual relationship.

As such, my closest relationships find themselves oddly placed. The first assumption by anyone outside them, is that they are romantic in nature. I have a vivid memory of waiting outside a friend’s class, waiting for her until she exited it at its end to give me a hug, and lean against my shoulder, while her professor raised an eyebrow at this exchange. And those moments are funny. Except sometimes they are not: I have an equally vivid memory of getting into deep trouble with my parents when I was fifteen or sixteen, after they read through my conversations with an online friend who they assumed was my ‘boyfriend’ at the time. I remember being told to stop lying each time I tried to explain that this friend was neither a boy nor a romantic interest.

And as much as I hate it, the only other reaction my relationships find are a variation of this vehement denial. For a very long time, I had friends who would tell me to find myself a girlfriend because the intensity of my affections belonged in a romantic relationship. It came in the form of either being told that I should date someone or that they would date me if they were into women. It often left me feeling as if my relationship with them was somehow secondary to the relationship I might have had with some faceless and, honestly, unimaginable stranger.

The centring of romantic relationships often means that every time my friends find romantic partners, the intensity of our relationship wears thin. And while I can say with confidence that I am not jealous of the people my friends date, I also do not know how to approach my relationships with any less intensity, and the absence of its reciprocation leaves me feeling a little empty.

The solution to this emptiness sometimes seems to be quite simple. I could very well date a friend who was willing – someone once remarked that the dynamic of my relationship wouldn’t change at all even if I did. And while it is not often, I do have days where I wonder if romance would sustain my friendships, even though that is an impossibility for me.

Cover Image: Pixabay