Managing Expectations in an Allonormative World

For me, one of the hardest parts about being aromantic is managing the expectations of alloromantic people in relationships

This post was written for the June 2023 Carnival of Aros, where the theme is “Being aromantic in an allonormative world.”

We typically define aromanticism in terms of “romantic attraction,” and we think of allonormativity as the assumption that romantic (and sexual) attraction is a universally shared experience. As I talk about in “Confessions of a Former ‘SAM Aro’” and “Plotting My Queer Identity on the Convergence-Divergence Spectrum,” this isn’t quite how I think about my experience of being aro. Since I don’t find concepts like “romance” and “attraction” intuitive, I prefer to define my aromanticism in terms of the way I navigate relationships, and I think of allonormativity as the collection of assumptions our society holds about how we can relate to one another. These assumptions underpin many of the problems I face being aromantic in an allonormative world.

One such problem that allonormativity imposes on me is how it complicates negotiating relationships, particularly with alloromantic people. I consider myself a relationship anarchist1, so for me, relationships require negotiation; everyone needs to be on the same page about the boundaries and expectations of the relationship. How emotionally intimate will this relationship be? How physically intimate will it be? Will it involve certain kinds of commitments, and if so, which kinds? How will we refer to one another, and what do those terms mean to us? And so on. Tools like the relationship smorgasbord can help with this:

A graphic explaining the “relationship smorgasbord” concept

Image Transcript

Relationship Anarchy Smorgasbord:

To form your relationships you and another can pick any number of "items" from any number of platters. Take a huge helping or just a small scoop. The dish the two (or more) of you hold is your relationship. Remember you must agree together on what is in it! No sneaking items in without the other knowing or there will likely be conflict or disappointment later. Also it's your dish so if you guys decide to change what you want from the smorgasbord later, that's cool.

  • Romantic

    Chemical reaction, Feelings of love

  • Friendship

    Companionship, Playfulness, Shared activity/interest

  • Domestic

    Sharing a dwelling/home

  • Sexual

    Involving genitals, anus, or orgasms?

  • Physical Touch

    Dance, Sex, Body contact, Cuddles, Hugs, Pets, Hand holding, Massage

  • Life partner

    Sharing goals (long term or life), embracing change in each other

  • Caregiver

    Giving care to, receiving care from

  • Co-Caregivers

    Children, Animals, Plants, Family (sick, elderly)

  • Emotional Intimacy

    Sharing & Being vulnerable

  • Emotional Support

    Listening, Being asked for advice, Confidant

  • Social Partners

    Seen together: Events, Friends, Family, Work, Social Media

  • Financial

    Sharing: money, accounts, payment responsibilities, property

  • Kink

    Sadomasochism, Masochism, Sadism

  • Power Dynamics

    Boss/employee, Teacher/student, D/s, M/s, Age play, Pet play

  • Collaborative partners

    Teaching, Projects, Art, Organization

  • Business Partners

    A combination of Collaborative, Financial & Social

I’ve found that often, alloromantic people come into these kinds of negotiations with certain preconceptions of how relationships “should” work. They tend to categorize their relationships as either “romantic” or “platonic,” and they have a set of expectations for what relationships in each bucket involve. Through this framework, the negotiation is happening implicitly; the boundaries and expectations of the relationship are inferred from the labels. Relationship anarchy flips that on its head; the negotiation happens explicitly and upfront, and the labels come later. RA leans heavily on explicit communication, but for people who are used to relationships working a certain way, it’s very easy to fall back on implicit communication instead.

In an allonormative world, when you ask someone to be your romantic partner, there is a whole heap of implicit negotiation happening. You’re telling them you want your relationship to be monogamous, and assuming you’re both on the same page about what constitutes a violation of that exclusivity. You’re telling them you want to be emotionally and sexually intimate with them. You’re telling them you want to refer to one another using terms like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” or “partner.” You’re telling them that you eventually plan to cohabitate with them. The list goes on.

The problem with negotiating a romantic relationship implicitly like this is that any aspects of the relationship that aren’t negotiated explicitly—anything that is left unsaid—is assumed to default to this standard prototype of romantic relationships that allo people carry around in their heads. And this is a problem for me, because I don’t have this intuitive sense of how relationships are “supposed” to work. Something is left unnegotiated because both people consider it “obvious,” and they only discover weeks or months or years down the line that they were not on the same page at all.

Alloromantic people have certain expectations of what an intimate relationship should look like, and a big part of what makes being aromantic in an allonormative world so difficult for me is that I need to make sure the people I bring into my life aren’t coming into the relationship with the wrong assumptions, or someone will get hurt.

Lately, I’ve been tackling this problem by avoiding “dating” and just negotiating the relationship in my life as friendships instead. I’ve found it’s often easier to say, “I want a friendship, but with xyz” than “I want a romantic relationships, but without xyz.” The distinction is unimportant to me, but it is important to many alloromantic people, and I’ve found that using the label “friends, but…” helps keep expectations in check.

There’s also something delightfully subversive about calling the intimate and affectionate relationships in my life friendships. I love my friends, and I love being affectionate with my friends, and I think that should be normalized. I don’t think these things need be reserved for “romantic” relationships.

I enjoy many of the things “romance” is considered to entail—terms of endearment and physical affection and going on dates—but I’ve never related to the concept of “romantic attraction.” I still don’t have a complete picture of how allo people experience the thing they call romance, but I can tell that it’s very different from how I experience it, and I don’t want that mismatch to result in hurt feelings and disappointment. So for now, I’m done trying to make “romantic” relationships work. And I think I’ll be content without them, because I have my friends ❤

  1. If you’re not familiar with relationship anarchy, I highly recommend this essay as an introduction. ↩︎