On Purple Elephants, Aromanticism, and Why My Last Post Was NBD

by Sarah on September 9, 2015

For the past few years, I’ve been questioning the idea of romance and whether or not it’s a thing that actually exists. This may sound weird to some, but it has never been entirely clear to me that it isn’t just a cultural fabrication.

I know what friendship is, I know what partnership is, I know what sex is, I understand emotional intimacy, I understand sensual attraction, and I experience plenty of non-sexual physical affection, and still I have absolutely no clue what this mythical other thing that makes for romantic relationships is. And as a result, I’ve spent a lot of time asking lots of different people if they’re able to put words to it.

When asked, folks sometimes reference some of the “trappings of romance”, such as candlelit dinners, flowers, certain kinds of travel, etc. This idea of romance, I feel fairly confident, is largely socially constructed, patriarchal, gendered, and problematic in a lot of ways, and also a topic for a post of its own.

Sometimes folks cite it as some particular combination of the things I mentioned above: a special blend of friendship, partnership compatibility, and sexual attraction that add up to something greater than the sum of its parts.

More often though, folks say something like, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I feel it.”

As a result, I often though of this as some kind of weird, culturally conditioned mass delusion which has resulted in quite a bit of strife for me, a lot of hard conversations and hurt feelings, and the general sense that I’m on the outside of something that everyone else is in on.

Aro Time

The has persisted on various levels for most of my adult life until this week, when suddenly, through a confluence of random occurrences, I stumbled across some information on aromantics for the first time.

An aromantic is a person who experiences little or no romantic attraction to others. Where romantic people have an emotional need to be with another person in a romantic relationship, aromantics are often satisfied with friendships and other non-romantic relationships. –AVENwiki

And unsurprisingly, a lot of aspects of aromanticism or the aromantic/romantic spectrum have suddenly made a lot of things make sense in my brain that didn’t previously add up.

As I was telling a friend about this the other night, I suggested that it might be like if all of my friends have been telling me they have purple elephants at home, but for some reason, I lack the necessary faculties to see the purple elephants. I can go to their houses and watch them feed their elephants, watch the food disappear from the plate, see where my friend’s hand runs along the side of the elephant, but I actually just am missing whatever ocular device I would need to be able to make out the elephant’s form.

Previously, I had assumed that they were all pretty much delusional. Purple elephants? You must be kidding me. But now, I’m wondering if the problem is, in fact, me.

This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just a new lens through which I can look at the subject and which enables me to draw some different conclusions than I had previously.

The difference between “I don’t understand this thing so everyone must be making it up/buying into the cultural narrative too deeply” vs. “I am built differently and just don’t have the capacity to feel this thing that actually exists” seems to be a huge one in terms of how it makes me feel and how it enables me to respond to folks who do have purple elephants, even if the changes don’t seem major on the surface.

First and most importantly, one of the things we learn in social justice culture is that it’s important to believe people’s experiences as they report them. The particular experiences we’re interested in are those of folks in marginalized groups, whose experiences are often gaslighted by the larger culture, but nonetheless, there is an strong argument for adopting a position of believing people when they are telling you about their own experiences as a good jumping off point for any kind of dialogue. Lumping the idea of romantic attraction in with patriarchal ideals about romance meant telling everyone that their experiences were clearly wrong and bad and often behaving dismissively towards those feelings I couldn’t comprehend.

Secondly, even if the idea of romantic attraction is fully the result of the patriarchal society we live in, it’s still real for a lot of people. Social constructs are also real and have far reaching effects on people’s lives. In understanding the lived experiences of my friends and believing them when they say they have purple elephants at home, it’s easier for me to engage in a deeper conversation about what this means and what effects those elephants are having on the other parts of their lives.

Finally, this helps me feel like I’m not broken, which is also a critical part of being able to engage in meaningful conversation. I’ve always known that convincing everyone to write the whole romance thing off was going to take more social change than is feasible within my lifetime. But if I can start from a place of acknowledging that there is this thing which some people experience and some people don’t, we can then have a better conversation about which parts of it are informed by a bunch of societal bullshit and maybe how we all, culturally, can do a better job with it.

Amatonormativity: My New Favorite Word

In other words, understanding aromantic vs. romantic lets me have a more nuanced conversation around amatonormativity, which is my absolute favorite new word from my research.

According to the Aromantic Aardvark, amatonormativity is “the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types.”

This has always been a major problem, from my perspective, so little has changed there, but now I have more capacity to talk about why it is a problem for me personally and for other folks who identify as on the aromantic spectrum and why the romantic narrative as a central narrative of our culture is highly problematic and results in the erasure of a wide swath of human experience.

I suppose that would be true anyway, as I’ve certainly already been talking about it even without the word, but somehow the idea that it’s a Thing feels empowering.

Why My Last Post was NBD

Which leads me to the part about why I’ve been struggling since my last post to understand peoples’ reactions to it.

Two days ago, my little brother called to tell me he was really happy for me, and a number of my other friends did the same through various channels. The friends who did were noticeably straight people in monogamous relationships, and as a result, I felt somewhat squicked by this despite recognizing their best intents.

When my brother encouraged me strongly to sit down and tell my parents about my queerness, I couldn’t really understand why. What did it matter? “I’m not going to start bringing people home for the holidays or anything like that,” I kept saying. “All I’d be asking them to do is think about my sexuality in ways that they don’t care to think about,” I thought.

And that’s when it hit me that there was some underlying assumption that feeling sexually or sensually attracted to people of a variety of genders meant that I was also going to be romantically attracted to those people as well and that sharing information about my romantic life with my family seemed like it was important to my brother.

But in truth, there is nothing to share because I don’t have a romantic life, I don’t think I want a romantic life, and I’m questioning whether I even have this elusive romantic capacity that everyone seems to assume I possess.

My family hears all about my friends of all genders because my friends are important to me and I love and care about them a lot. Sex isn’t an issue for discussion in my family, and in my case, there is no third thing. I’m single, I have a lot of friends, and I don’t really “date” in any traditional sense of the word.

So basically, my post felt like no big deal because it’s not. This isn’t some kind of “coming out” thing where I’m now going to feel okay introducing my horde of secret romantic partners to my family because they don’t exist and won’t exist. The folks who were congratulating me were potentially operating out of this “coming out” narrative where people first tell their families/friends/communities about their sexuality and then feel more able to be open about their partners, bring them to Thanksgiving dinner or work events, etc. etc. And in my case, this just isn’t a thing.

There are other parts of the “coming out” narrative that I’d like to question in a future post, so I recognize this as an oversimplified view, but it’s the part that’s most relevant here and was feeling most weirdly confusing to me in responding to peoples’ reactions.

So That Romance Thing?

So getting back to the subject at hand, I’m not sure there is ever going to be a clear definition of romance. I’m interested in trying to define it as a feeling, in figuring out the ways in which it’s socially constructed, and in understanding its implications for things like female sexuality, but I’m not sure that having a conclusive definition matters really or is the most important end goal here.

I’ll keep you posted as I figure it out.

Thankfully, I have some fantastically articulate friends right now, who when asked about what it feels like to experience romantic attraction, were able to put some kinds of words to this thing.

When asked what romantic attraction feels like, they referenced a different kind of tenderness than they feel towards friends, the desire to touch the person more, a different flavor of emotional attentiveness, wanting to do nice things for the other person, a desire for partnership, a perception of future compatibility, an orientation towards the Romantic Relationship itself, feeling more alive around the other person in a deeper way than with friends, and feeling a lack in one’s life without it – a purple elephant-shaped hole, if you will.

This is not the be all and end all definition of what makes something romantic, but this is some of what I see when people try to show me their purple elephants.

And while I get some of those things on various levels and feel many of them towards my friends, and I don’t experience any real distinction between friend-love and… anything else.

And so I’m drawing the conclusion that I’m at least somewhere on the aromantic spectrum, and that I don’t experience romantic attraction in the way other people do. I can’t see the purple elephants, but I am willing to bet the conversations I can have about them if I believe they’re there are going to be much more interesting than the ones I was having where I just kept shouting, “You’re making it all up!” (Okay, I don’t shout, but that’s basically what happens inside my head.)

I’m sure I’ll have a ton more to say about this in the coming weeks, but at the moment, it feels truly freeing to have a word to use to describe my experiences and to know that there are people out there who share them.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Karen J September 11, 2015 at 3:51 pm

Hey Hi, Sarah! So good to hear from you!
I gotta say, all these ‘new words’ are kinda making my head hurt – but in a ‘this will be good in a few minutes (or days or weeks)’ sort of way.

Bright Blessings, my friend!


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