Much of the language we use to talk about relationships is steeped in amatanormativity. Even the term “relationship” is often assumed to be short for “romantic relationship,” when many aspec people prefer to use the term “relationship” in its more broad sense. In particular, the language we use to talk about partnerships tends to assume that all partnerships are monogamous and romantic, which can cause problems for people whose partnerships fall outside these lines. The way that this language is romance-coded can make it difficult for people in non-traditional partnerships to talk about their relationships without delving into length explanations. I’ll provide some examples of ways this often plays out, particularly among polyamorous and aromantic people.
The question “Are you single?” can be difficult to answer for people in polyamorous relationships. This question is deceptive because it’s actually two questions disguised as one. This question could mean either “Are you currently unpartnered?” or “Are you romantically available?” which is tricky for people in polyamorous relationships because those two questions might have different answers; one can be partnered and also available. Aromantic people who aren’t interested in romantic relationships also often struggle with this question, because revealing that they’re unpartnered implies that they’re romantically available, which may not be the case.
The question “Are you dating?” and even the term “dating” can be problematic for people in queerplatonic relationships. This terminology is typically reserved for romantic relationships, and it implies the existence of a strict platonic-romantic dichotomy. Many QPRs (and even many friendships) outwardly present as romantic relationships, especially when the people in them participate in traditionally romantic activities or fulfill the social roles of a partner (such as a “plus-one” at gatherings). This is where questions like “Are you dating?” can become problematic. Many people in a QPR would answer “yes” to this question because they want to signify that their relationship with their queerplatonic partner is a form of partnership distinct from a friendship, and many would answer “no” because they don’t want their partnership to be seen as romantic. Either way, a simple answer to this question often requires misrepresenting the nature of the relationship.
All of these problems stem from the amatanormative misconception that all intimate partnerships are monogamous and romantic. The language we use to talk about relationships reinforces these narratives, and makes discussing non-traditional partnerships difficult without resorting to the more esoteric language adopted by aromantic, polyamorous, and other communities.
The inherent problems with romance-coded language leave people in non-traditional partnerships in the awkward position of having to choose between giving a lengthy educational lecture or misrepresenting their relationships every time the topic comes up. For people in QPRs, it’s often much easier to tell a stranger that they’re dating or they’re “just friends” rather than explain what a QPR is and what that entails. Polyamorous and aromantic people are often pressured to pass as monogamous and alloromantic because the kinds of lengthy explanations required to do otherwise can quickly become exhausting. What makes romance-coded language so insidious is that it pressures the people who are victims of amatanormativity to acquiesce to amatanormative narratives. Most poly and aro people would love for their partnerships to be more broadly recognized, but that’s a difficult milestone to reach when the commonly understood language for talking about relationships is so amatanormative.
Obviously, the solution to this problem is better education about non-traditional relationships. This can include dismantling commonly held assumptions about partnerships and normalizing the currently esoteric language used by aro, poly, and other communities. However, the nature of the problem means that this responsibility typically falls on people who really have no obligation to educate others. Unfortunately, there can sometimes be pressure from the community to educate at every opportunity, and acquiescing to amatanormative language can be seen as a betrayal of that community.
Ultimately, we should support people who choose the take the opportunity to educate, and we should support people who accept the convenience of amatanormative language. And maybe we can hope that better public understanding comes with time.