How Society Delegitimizes Aromantic Family

I've been thinking a lot lately about what "family" means as an aromantic person, especially when family is so fundamentally tied to the concept of romantic relationships.

This post was written for the April 2023 Carnival of Aros, where the theme is “Family.”

In the US, our traditional model of family is the nuclear family: a husband and a wife and some number of children. Any other configuration—single parents, same-gender couples, childfree couples, multigenerational households (despite being the norm throughout much of the world)—we call “non-traditional.” But even among these “non-traditional” family archetypes, there are still certain commonalities. Even “non-traditional” families must align closely enough with prevailing social norms for us to consider them “families” at all.

Conventional narratives about family prescribe a rigid progression of life milestones people are expected to follow as they transition from being solely a member of their family of origin to having a family of their own: having a sexual and romantic partner, cohabitating, getting married, having children, and so on. Once you deviate far enough from this script, society stops seeing the people you surround yourself with as a “family”; they’re downgraded to “friends” or “roommates” instead.

There are allowances for “non-traditional” paths to family—being queer, being divorced, being childfree—but these are always framed as deviations from the prototypical nuclear family ideal. Exceptions to to the rule. The fact that we consider these circumstances “non-traditional” in the first place demonstrates the primacy of the nuclear family in our social fabric.

This strict progression that we’re expected to follow in order for our families to be considered legitimate in the eyes of society is closely aligned with the “relationship escalator” concept from polyamory discourse: the observation that in conventional romantic relationships, the relationship is expected to progress monotonically through a series of stages that represent increasing levels of commitment. Couples are expected to “ride the escalator” all the way to the top: marriage.

In this way, we can see how the concept of the nuclear family is closely aligned with conventional attitudes toward romantic relationships: society prescribes rigid rules detailing what makes a family or a relationship legitimate. The idea that marriage is a prerequisite to family, or that partners must cohabitate, or that partners must be sexually and romantically intimate are examples of how amatonormative social rules dictate the terms of our families.

This assumption that family is built around a romantic relationship leaves aromantic people, who often defy conventional relationship norms in their interpersonal relationships, without a clear path to having a socially recognized family of their own.

I think a lot about what my home life might look like in the future—that phase of life where you’re expected to “settle down.” For me, part of coming out as aro was realizing that I get to choose what this stage of my life looks like, without bowing to the “traditional” notions of family I was socialized with. That realization was freeing. But there’s also a certain comfort in the nuclear family archetype, in having a roadmap laid out for you to plan your life by. And conversely, there’s uncertainty and terror in having no well-trodden path to follow as you navigate major life decisions.

Society is so prescriptive about what defines a family that unlearning those narratives has been a journey for me. For a long time, “family” was an unappealing prospect because society had constrained my understanding of what a family can be, teaching me that monogamous romantic relationships are central to the concept. This made “family” feel like something society would one day impose on me rather that something I would actively seek out for myself.

Society fails aromantic people by teaching us that families must look a certain way and by delegitimizing the family structures we choose for ourselves. Even the assumption that “family” is a universally shared goal undermines aromantic people who don’t want or need certain kinds of interpersonal connection. Family is integral to society, but conventional notions of family marginalize people who don’t fit its assumptions.