This post was written for the August 2021 Carnival of Aros, where the theme is “Well-being and Amatonormativity.”
People in aspec communities talk a lot about the day-to-day challenges amatonormativity imposes on their lives. For this month’s carnival, I want to talk a bit about how amatonormativity harmed me before I realized I’m aro and ace, especially in regards to my mental health. I’ll talk about how amatonormativity impacted my outlook on the future, my sense of self-worth, and my relationships growing up and during my early adulthood, as well as how things improved once I came to terms with my identity and was able to start the process of unlearning the lies amatonormativity made me internalize.
The Future I Never Really Wanted
I don’t think anyone ever told me growing up that I must have an exclusive romantic partner—it wasn’t put forth as a rule or requirement. Rather, there was always an implicit expectation that it was something I wanted. The idea that someone might not want this kind of partnership was never presented as a possibility, barring there being something deeply wrong with them. This expectation was so strong that I internalized it; I assumed that it must be something I want, because how could I not? It would be like saying you don’t want food or water or oxygen.
A consequence of assuming that a romantic partner was something I wanted is that I was never really able to imagine a future for myself growing up. Amatonormativity had taught me that I would someday have an exclusive romantic partner and all the structural commitments that come with riding the relationship escalator—a house in the suburbs, a nuclear family, and so on. So when I tried to imagine what my future might look like, I always envisioned it through the lens of this social script. But because I never actually wanted any of those things, this vision of my future was always hazy at best—as if I was imagining someone else’s life. So while I had career aspirations as a kid, aspirations about my future relationships and living situation always felt intangible. Society had given me a blueprint of what I should expect my future to look like, but it felt wrong in a way I wouldn’t be able to articulate until I realized I’m aromantic.
As I got older, this inability to see a future for myself manifested as a sort of existential dread; adulthood was creeping ever closer, but I just couldn’t picture myself actually getting there. Rather than a promise of future prosperity I could take comfort in, the social scripts prescribed by amatonormativity were nothing more than an inevitability that I would someday have to resign myself to. I was never excited by the prospect of someday meeting The One; getting married always felt like paying taxes—one of those cryptic things that adults do because they’re supposed to. Not being able to picture myself in the life society had laid out for me was incredibly distressing as a young adult, because nobody told me that there were alternative paths through life.
Learning that having an exclusive romantic partner and riding the relationship escalator isn’t the only path through life was an incredibly freeing experience. Whereas I had spent my entire life up until that point distressed by how hazy the future seemed, suddenly the possibilities had exploded and, for the first time in my life, I could imagine a future for myself. I didn’t have to consign myself to a nuclear family and a white picket fence—I could have the future I wanted, even if I didn’t know exactly what that looked like yet.
Loving Myself as a Heartless Robot
In addition to instilling a deep fear of the future, amatonormativity made it difficult to accept myself during the period in my life where I was most vulnerable. As with many queer kids, sometime during my teen years, the obvious differences between me and other kids when it came to romance and attraction had become impossible to ignore. I had never had a romantic partner or even felt the desire to be someone’s romantic partner, and I was reaching an age where that made me an outlier. As much as I tried to justify to myself my lack of attraction, I felt broken. What kind of heartless, emotionless robot doesn’t feel love?
Nobody had prepared me for the possibility that I might not share in this supposedly universal human experience, so I continued to try and convince myself that a romantic partner was something I wanted. And my mental health suffered for it. The cognitive dissonance between subconsciously knowing that an exclusive romantic partner wasn’t what I wanted and consciously telling myself that it was was slowly tearing me apart. If someone had just told me that it’s okay to not want a romantic partner—if I had just been allowed to feel like that’s not a freakish thing—my mental health would have been much improved.
Once I learned about aromanticism, everything clicked into place. Knowing that there are other people out there just like me—happy, successful people who also don’t experience romantic attraction—was incredibly reassuring. Letting go of the self-hatred that I have felt for most of my life has been a tough journey, but this was an important step on the path towards loving and accepting myself.
Breaking Down Emotional Barriers
Amatonormativity also hurt me by making it difficult for me to open myself up emotionally. Before coming to terms with my aromanticism, I tended to keep friends at an arms length because I was always paralyzed by the fear that they might become romantically attracted to me, or worse, that they might think I’m romantically attracted to them. The customs and conventions surrounding courtship rituals have always eluded me, and so a persistent fear of giving people the wrong idea prevented me from forming close emotional bonds. A consequence of this is that I had to go through some of the worst years of my life without a support system of close friends who I could turn to.
In addition to being closed off emotionally, until I came to terms with my aromanticism and asexuality, I was closed off to intimacy and affection. Because of amatonormativity, I had always associated intimacy and affection with romance and sex. Because I was programmed to believe that these things can’t be separated, or shared in a platonic context, I never imagined that intimacy and affection were something I could have. And as a consequence, I built emotional walls around myself to protect myself, not realizing how much damage I was actually doing.
When I explain to people what it means to be aromantic and asexual, they always seem concerned that I’m going to live a miserable, lonely life devoid of emotional connection. Living authentically and being out as aro/ace has actually helped me to build genuine emotional connections for the first time in my life. I was a lonely kid growing up, but now I have the intimate and affectionate platonic connections I never thought I could have. Contrary to what most allo people expect, I’m far less lonely now than I was before I came to terms with my identity.
While amatonormativity still impacts me today—as it does all aro people—I think the worst damage it inflicted on my life happened before I came to terms with my identity, when I didn’t yet understand how harmful a lot of the social programming I had grown up with really is. I think understanding amatonormativity gives it significantly less power over me; I can recognize now that just because an idea is conventional and widely accepted doesn’t mean it’s true.
Being neurodivergent, I struggled a lot with mental health issues growing up. While it wasn’t the only contributing factor to my mental health, amatonormativity exacerbated those issues in ways I wouldn’t understand until much later. I think it’s important to talk about the intersection of amatonormativity and mental health, because while amatonormativity is obviously detrimental to aspec people like me, I also believe it’s is harmful to everyone, in much the same way systems like toxic masculinity and the patriarchy don’t just harm gender minorities. Hopefully someday discussions about amatonormativity aren’t just relegated to aspec circles and can be discussed more broadly.