Some months ago, a new term and identity emerged out of the aromantic/asexual communities on Tumblr: cupioromantic, denoting a person who is aromantic (does not experience romantic attraction) but desires a romantic relationship. Several asexuals (aromantic and alloromantic) in the Tumblr community seemed to disapprove of the term/concept or disagreed with the idea of it being necessary as a sub-identity under the aromantic umbrella. “Cupioromantic” is supposed to be the romantic orientation version of “cupiosexual,” which describes asexuals who want sexual relationships—although most asexuals who like sex don’t bother using any other label except for “asexual.” Most asexuals, including ones who don’t like or have or want sex, believe that you can be asexual and still want sex to be a regular part of your life and relationships. I’m not interested in touching that subject in this post, although I will say that the idea of an asexual wanting sex is a lot more reasonable and justifiable than cupioromanticism.
As an aromantic-spectrum asexual and a radical relationship anarchist, I take major issue with “cupioromanticism” as a concept. I think it’s a mostly useless identity, although if you want to use it, no one can stop you. But the idea behind the identity is what’s so problematic, and that’s what I want to dig into in this post, because it’s connected to other issues in aromantic politics.
So, first let’s set a foundation. In order to understand why cupioromanticism is problematic, you need to know about amatonormativity, which is a word coined by professor and philosopher Elizabeth Brake in her book Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law. She defines amatonormativity as: “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.” Amatonormativity perpetuates romance supremacy, or the belief that romantic relationships and love are superior to all relationships and love and should not only be desired above all relationships but prioritized above everything else by default. Amatonormativity is a paradigm installed and institutionalized into our culture, primarily perpetuated by the mainstream media, that teaches us to idolize, desire, and depend on romantic relationships and view ourselves as either loved or unloved through our status as someone else’s romantic other.
Understand that aromanticism is a very recent concept and identity, and the dialogue going on within and because of the aromantic population is extremely new. Aromantic identity originally cohered in the asexual community, but it has since become clear that aromanticism is not exclusive to asexuality and describes people of all sexual orientations. The vast majority of mankind doesn’t know aromanticism exists. This is not popular knowledge. Aromanticism is not represented in the media, in text books, in sexuality classes, in the mainstream LGBTQ movement, or anywhere else. Aromanticism is pretty much only alive online and in asexual education efforts, at this point. Most people, who are predominantly romantic, are completely ignorant of aromanticism and everything connected to it, and they have not yet been challenged or presented with the opportunity to deconstruct or even critically think about amatonormativity, romance supremacy, or common ideas of romance in general.
Aromanticism—aromantic love, feelings, relationships, emotion, identity, sexuality, and experience—is invisible in our culture. In every culture. It is imperative that you understand that, whether you’re aromantic or romantic and especially if you’ve ever even remotely identified with “cupioromanticism.” Invisibility is disempowerment. While aromantics don’t experience specific, directed, and intentional oppression and violence at the hands of the romantic majority or their cultural hegemonies, the total invisibility of aromantics is representative of their disempowerment, and that invisibility does nothing to protect them from amatonormativity. In fact, the invisibility of aromanticism is essential to the survival of amatonormativity.
As far as I’m concerned, the idea of cupioromanticism, of aromantics wanting romantic relationships, comes from a misguided place of internalized amatonormativity and romance supremacy. It comes from unquestioned adoption of mainstream relationship norms. It comes from anti-aromanticism. And it is perfectly logical that some aromantic-spectrum people carry enough of that baggage, that they’re telling themselves and the world that they want “romantic” relationships even though they don’t feel romantic attraction. If you don’t do the work of breaking all this social conditioning down in your own mind, you will be controlled by it. Aromantics who think they want or need romantic relationships aren’t much different than asexuals who believe they have to be okay with sex, that they should be willing and able to have sex in romantic relationships. Both sets of people are expressing their social programming, their internalized amatonormativity and compulsory sexuality.
Cupioromanticism, the idea that someone could be aromantic but want romantic relationships, is extremely problematic because it rests on the belief that there are unalterable criteria that separates “romantic” relationships from “nonromantic” relationships,” “romantic” love from “nonromantic” love, that certain emotions and behaviors can only be experienced in romantic relationship. Cupioromanticism invalidates queerplatonic friendships, passionate friendship, and primary nonromantic partnerships, even if unintentionally.
Cupioromanticism doesn’t make any sense because the only thing that defines romantic relationships as romantic is romantic attraction. That’s it. The feeling of romantic attraction. Not love, not prioritization, not emotional intimacy, not touch, not commitment, not cohabitation or coparenting or anything else. The only thing that makes a relationship romantic is romantic attraction, and romantic attraction is a completely subjective feeling that varies by person. The only way that you could be aromantic and want romantic relationships is if you specifically want to “date” someone who is romantically attracted to you, if you want your primary partner in life to be someone who is romantically attracted to you. You can find everything else except for romantic attraction outside of romantic relationships, if you look and if you want it, so a desire for closeness or love or primary partnership cannot be reasons you specifically want romantic relationships as opposed to queerplatonic relationships or any other kind of nonromantic friendship.
If you are aromantic but want to have a partner who’s romantically in love with you, I would think long and hard about why. Again, that desire—while technically the only good reason for identifying as “cupioromantic”—is pretty much rooted in romance supremacy. If you’re aromantic but the only kind of partner good enough for you is someone who’s romantically attracted to you, you must believe on some level that romantic love is better than nonromantic love. And that’s fucked up. You should work on scrapping that belief.
I can see how some aromantics who very much want a primary partner, a life partner/long-term partner, some kind of relationship that is very close and intimate and loving and meets their needs for touch, quality time, and priority would believe that the only way to get that kind of connection and commitment from someone is to enter into romantic relationship. In other words, I can see how a desire for romantic relationship may come from fear of having no significant relationship or partnership at all. We live in a world where most people are romantic, and in accordance with amatonormativity, most if not all romantic people do believe that romantic relationships are not only superior to friendship but the only kind of relationship that matters and the only kind that can be a primary/committed partnership. It’s always going to be easier to find someone who wants you for romantic partnership than it is to find someone who wants you for nonromantic/queerplatonic partnership or committed, passionate friendship.
But this fear shouldn’t and doesn’t need to be the basis of an identity. Convincing yourself that you need to get involved in a kind of relationship you don’t naturally feel interested in, just because you think there’s nothing else available, is a bad idea and not a reason to create some new label. Yes, some aromantic people get into romantic relationships with people they care about, who have romantic feelings for them, because they do want a partner and don’t mind if their partner is technically into them romantically. But unintentionally ending up in romantic relationship—especially if you’re sexual and want a steady sexual partner anyway—is not the same thing as actively wanting romantic relationship, as an aromantic person, because you think it can offer you something you can’t get anywhere else.
There is NOTHING that you can get from romantic relationships, that you can’t get from nonromantic friendship, except for your partner’s romantic attraction to you. I’m going to say it until you accept it. No behavior is inherently romantic. Love is not inherently, exclusively romantic. A primary partnership is not definitively romantic. You can have sex with a nonromantic partner, you can be committed to a nonromantic partner, you can kiss and cuddle and hug a nonromantic partner, you can live with a nonromantic partner, you can raise kids with nonromantic partners, you can mutually put each other first in a nonromantic relationship. Everything and anything you could possibly do or feel can be experienced in friendship and nonromantic partnership, except for romantic attraction.
Now, obviously, for many romantic people, certain things are romantic to them and therefore will only happen in their romantic relationships. But an individual’s perception of specific behaviors, relationship orchestration, and feelings as “romantic” never, ever functions as universal truth. Our personal feelings determine what is “romantic” and not romantic, nothing else. We cannot even define what romantic attraction is or feels like, in a way that applies to all human beings. Different romantic people experience romantic attraction differently, and what is “romantic” for some romantic people is nonromantic for some aromantic people. The pursuit of a singular and official definition for romantic attraction is futile. It doesn’t exist. It’s an emotion, and like all emotions, it’s totally subjective and internal and ultimately indescribable. Be skeptical of anyone who tries to tell you that their personal definition of romantic attraction is universally applicable. Romantic attraction is an abstract, instinctual sensation—not one you can define with a checklist of certain desires, interests, or physical symptoms.
Where so many romantic people tend to fuck up is in their assumption that romantic attraction is universal and experienced in just one way, that certain behaviors can only be motivated by romantic attraction—for all people—and therefore are defined as romantic in and of themselves. Instead of investigating a person’s feelings, apart from their behavior, we assume what their feelings are by looking at their behavior.
“A kiss is romantic, so if you kiss someone, you’re romantically attracted to them.”
“Primary partnerships are romantic, so if you want to be someone’s primary partner, you must have romantic feelings for them.”
This erroneous logic is based on a false premise: that both romantic behaviors and romantic feelings are uniform throughout the human species and that romantic behaviors are romantic independent of individual intent and attraction. In addition to the invisibility of aromanticism, romantic society doesn’t acknowledge these nonromantic phenomena because it teaches that certain behaviors and ways of relating have global romantic meaning regardless of anyone’s actual feelings. In reality, no behavior has meaning outside of personal intent, perception, and feeling—and the meaning of any given behavior changes according to individual and circumstance.
When aromantics desire, participate in, or feel things that are coded as romantic by mainstream society, romantic people falsely interpret the aromantic person’s feelings and intentions as romantic in nature. Romantic people are superimposing their own feelings, their own experiences of relating to others, onto aromantics and suggesting that aromantics are confused or in denial about who they are and what they want.
“You can’t be aromantic if you want a partner, if you feel strong emotion toward someone, if you love to cuddle and kiss people, if you love anyone who isn’t family, if you want to live with someone in a committed way, etc, etc—because all of that stuff is romantic.”
This is erasure of nonromantic love, nonromantic partnership, nonromantic touch and intimacy, and it is closely connected to romantic-sexual supremacy. It is very much in the interest of amatonormativity and romance supremacy to create the illusion that many desirable experiences can only be accessed through romance, because if they can be accessed through nonromantic relationship, all of a sudden romantic relationships are not so worth coveting or glorifying as extraordinary. By making positive emotional and relational resources scarce and limited to romantic relationships, society ensures that nonromantic friendship is continually subordinated to romance and devalued, which serves the patriarchal heteronormative capitalistic political machine in various ways. Deromanticizing and desexualizing love, touch, intimacy, commitment, and partnership would not only empower and liberate aromantics, but destroy amatonormativity and dismantle the romantic-sexual relationship hierarchy on a broad cultural scale.
When romantic people attempt to deny aromantic experiences that contradict the premise of loving connection only existing in romance, they’re performing a kind of orientation centrism: the refusal to acknowledge socio-emotional experiences outside of one’s own orientation(s), believing in the superiority and exclusive normalcy of one’s own experiences and practices, and believing that everyone else should be and live and feel like you. Forcefully romanticizing other people’s nonromantic relationships, love, intimacies, and identities is relational and emotional imperialism, an extension of the cultural, linguistic, ontological, and historical imperialism that goes on in the international political arena and the academic world. There is an ongoing tradition of distorting relationships, sexuality, and ways of loving in other time periods and parts of the world, for the purpose of making them fit into mainstream, contemporary, white, Anglo-Saxon, romantic-sexual realities—and most everyone is guilty of it to one degree or another, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Instead of accepting that there are realities different, even incompatible, with our own and trying our best to see them for what they are instead of what we want them to be, we often filter them through our personal biases for the purpose of serving and reinforcing our own desires, our own experiences, our own identities. All romantic-sexual people—straight, gay, bisexual, queer—have done this to friendship, to nonromantic and nonsexual relationships of the past and the present, in their own countries and in other countries. Instead of looking at other people’s feelings, relationships, and behaviors in the context of their time and place, romantic-sexual people assume romantic and sexual attraction and involvement are behind any non-familial love, intimacy, partnership, touch, and strong emotional connection because they themselves believe that romantic-sexual relationships are superior to nonromantic and/or nonsexual friendship.
Romantic people erasing, denying, and romanticizing aromantic relationships, love, and desire for connection is similar to English speaking societies ignoring and erasing words and concepts in other languages that cannot be directly translated into English, which is linguistic imperialism. It is similar to spreading English into other societies without bridging or encouraging a bridge between language differences, and dismissing the legitimacy of other languages’ unique features. The attitude is, “If it doesn’t exist in English, it doesn’t exist or it isn’t relevant,” because English has become the default “normal” language, the language that ought to be universal. Likewise, there is an attitude in romantic-dominated society that anything out of sync with the romance paradigm and its supporting constructs doesn’t exist, is illegitimate, abnormal, or confused. Any feeling, relationship, or person that doesn’t fit into romantic society’s amatonormative reality is buried in invisibility and inaccurately repackaged as romantic. Romantic society has no interest in learning how to speak aromanticism. It only insists on spreading the language, the culture, of romance, and just like with English-speaking white nations and their otherized counterparts, many aromantics actually find themselves willing to submit to their own erasure, seduced into a desire for assimilation into the powerful and visible normative majority. If romantic relationships are superior to nonromantic relationships and if romance is the only source of love and if romance is the defining characteristic of a person’s humanity, then pretending to be romantic and entering into romantic relationships after convincing yourself that’s what you want become logical acts of self-denial.
Speaking of language, it must be understood that power and freedom do not exist without the ability to effectively communicate and express one’s truth, which is why the labels and other words aromantic people use to describe their feelings, desires, and relationships are necessary and important. Funnily enough, English—which has become the one and only global language—includes a handful of sexualized and romanticized words that linguistically create and support the actual system of relationships normative in English-speaking nations, a system that is intensely amatonormative and saturated with compulsory sexuality and romance supremacy. Our own language erases and shuts down aromantic and asexual experiences, lives, relationships, and emotions. As we speak it on a daily basis, we are reinforcing the very romantic-sexual paradigm that denies our existence as aromantic people. The words we invent to describe and navigate our feelings and relationships and even the identity term “aromantic” are not just silly internet neologisms that have no real meaning. They are tools aromantics need to assert our own reality and the realness of our selves. They are a form of resistance to amatonormativity, romance supremacy, the idea that all people are romantic and only romantic relationships are legitimate sources of love, intimacy, and partnership.
I have to emphasize that romanticizing emotion is just as harmful and ridiculous as romanticizing behaviors and language, and this act on the part of romantic society explains why so many romantic people make assumptions about aromantic people’s emotional lives. It’s pretty common for aromantic people to see and hear romantics objecting to the existence of aromanticism with comments like: “You mean you don’t have feelings?” or “These people must be sociopaths.” As if romantic attraction is the sum total of human emotion. (Frankly, we should be more disturbed about what that says of romantic people than offended as aromantics.) As if romantic love is the only kind of love that exists. As if romantic attraction is the only thing that enables a person to be warm, kind, friendly, passionate, deeply emotional, and empathetic.
Aromantics are not emotionally stunted. We don’t have a shorter emotional range than romantic people do. We just don’t experience romantic attraction. That’s it. That’s the only categorical difference between aromantics and romantics. Romantic attraction has nothing to do with love, emotional attachment, empathy, fear, anger, desire, sadness, sensitivity, or even sexuality. There are aromantics in every sexual orientation and just as much variety in the aromantic population, in terms of social and emotional style and tendencies, as there is in the romantic population. An aromantic’s preferences and desires when it comes to having a partner, being a parent, engaging in emotional connection, talking about feelings, engaging in physical affection and intimacy, and everything else under the umbrella of personal relationships vary from person to person.
As for the debate about what makes “romantic” relationships vs. nonromantic relationships and where an aromantic person’s desires for closeness and partnership fall, I have to hammer home this fact that nothing is naturally romantic except romantic attraction, and that aromantics can participate in any behavior they like with a friend or partner, regardless of the absence of romantic attraction. The aromantic section of the asexual community created the word and concept of queerplatonic relationships precisely because many aromantic people want relationships that go beyond common friendship but are not romantic. Queerplatonic friendship can include anything typically found in romantic relationships, and their defining characteristic is that no romantic attraction is present between the two friends in the relationship. Queerplatonic relationships can be anything you want. Some of them are primary partnerships, and some aren’t. Some are physically affectionate, and some aren’t. Some are exclusive, and some aren’t. Some are even sexual, though most are not.
The idea of queerplatonic relationships, of aromantic love and partnership, is so radical and significant—more than any of us who have become used to the concept realize—for many reasons but particularly because it illuminates the truth that there is indeed love, intimacy, connection, and partnership outside of romance. Romance is not the source of these things and never has been. That’s what is so important to understand, for cupioromantic-identifying aros and people who support that identity. If you can access everything you desire from a friend or partner in queerplatonic relationship or other forms of friendship, except for romantic attraction, why would you want romantic relationships as a self-identified aromantic person? If you acknowledge that queerplatonic and passionate friendships exist and are possible, if you acknowledge that nonromantic primary partnerships can happen, why would you want a romantic relationship as a self-identified aromantic person? If you, as an aromantic person, were presented with the options of a conventional romantic relationship and a queerplatonic partnership, both of them offering everything you want in a significant relationship, the only difference being the presence or absence of romantic attraction from your partner, why would you choose the romantic relationship?