The Romance Myth


I recently participated in a survey on asexuality that is currently being conducted by AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. It is open to all people, whether or not they identify on the asexual spectrum. It is a short survey, taking about ten minutes to complete, and I would recommend that anyone who is even remotely interested in asexuality go fill it out because the questions, aside from the general demographic ones, really reflect the things many, if not most, asexual people consider while developing an asexual identity.

Overall, I found the survey to be well-written and inclusive, but there were two sections that gave me pause. First was a section on romantic attraction, specifically the question “Which of the following romantic orientation labels do you most closely identify with?”  The options were aromantic, heteroromantic, homoromantic, biromantic, panromantic, WTFromantic, androromantic, gynoromantic, skolioromantic, I don’t identify with a romantic orientation, and other (with space to elaborate). Second was the follow-up section on relationships. This section contained the following note: “For the following questions, ‘significant relationships’ refers to relationships beyond just family or close friends – typical examples could include marriage, domestic partnerships, boyfriend/girlfriend, girlfriend/girlfriend, boyfriend/boyfriend, etc. though not all significant relationships will fit these models exactly. Significant relationships need not necessarily be sexual or even romantic.”

My hesitation over the first section was purely personal. I don’t really know how to answer that question. I haven’t been able to determine whether I am aromantic or not. I am a hopeless romantic, I love the idea of romantic love (though I’m not always happy that I do), but I can’t figure out if I really want it for myself or if the occasional niggling desire for romance is merely a product of almost constant exposure to the myth of romance.

What I see as the romance myth has two main parts. One, romance is the only reliable happy ending. There is a lot of media addressing lost love and broken hearts, but the only genre that can be consistently counted on to produce a recognizable happy ending is the romance genre. Of course there are a few exceptions, but your odds of picking a novel or movie that has a happy ending are much higher if you pick from romances than from any other genre. Two, romance and romantic relationships are more important than anything else, particularly any other type of relationship. The first part contributes to the second part: romantic relationships are the only reliable happy ending, therefore they must be more important than everything else. The term ‘significant other’ is a perfect demonstration of the higher value placed on romantic relationships.

The second part of this romance myth is what stopped me in my tracks about the second section I mentioned above. The asexual community generally does a good job separating sex and romance and recognizing that not everyone is interested in romance or sex. I think asexuality and aromanticism challenge the romance myth by their very existence. However, that wasn’t the case in this survey. Again, the note preceding the relationship section reads, “For the following questions, ‘significant relationships’ refers to relationships beyond just family or close friends – typical examples could include marriage, domestic partnerships, boyfriend/girlfriend, girlfriend/girlfriend, boyfriend/boyfriend, etc. though not all significant relationships will fit these models exactly. Significant relationships need not necessarily be sexual or even romantic.” What makes me mad is that the writers of the survey apparently couldn’t figure out how to escape the language of romantic relationships, nor the underlying implication that some relationships are more significant than others. The writers of the survey make a clear effort to include nonsexual, nonromantic relationships, as demonstrated by the last sentence of the note, which is admirable and necessary for the asexual community. And I like to think they recognize that those relationships are not the only significant relationships a person can have, but I don’t think I can forgive the phrasing of the description: “beyond just family and close friends” (emphasis added).

If you don’t understand why I am so upset think about the following: according to that definition of ‘significant relationships’, I have never had a ‘significant relationship’ and I may live the rest of my life without any ‘significant relationships.’ That is utter bullshit.

It is utter bullshit and an example of the tyrannical hold the myth of romance and the romantic relationship have over values about relationships, even within circles that acknowledge that not everyone wants a romantic relationship. To have a significant relationship, this note is saying, it doesn’t have to be sexual or even romantic and it doesn’t have to fit perfectly into the traditional heterosexual, romantic, long-term, paired relationship, but it does have to loosely follow that model. If you have managed to forge meaningful, loving relationships with your parents or siblings or grandparents or any other relatives, those don’t count. If you have lifelong friendships, they aren’t good enough. Family and friends cannot possibly be significant. Bullshit.

I have significant relationships with my family and friends.  I even have a significant relationship with you, who I may not have ever met, because you are taking the time to read something I wrote.

I’m not arguing that these romantic or nonromantic relationships aren’t significant. They are. But they aren’t more significant than other relationships. The significance of different types of relationships cannot be compared. They are different and important in different ways for different reasons, not more or less significant.

I understand that the terminology is difficult, that there are no agreed upon words to describe those relationships which are not those of friendship, family or acquaintance. I understand that ‘significant other’ is a commonly used term and that it is better in a lot of ways than wife/husband/spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend. But it still perpetuates the myth that some relationships are automatically more important than others.

What is worse is that the survey itself shows that the terms ‘significant other’ and ‘significant relationships’ aren’t even necessary. Some of the questions in the relationship section use the term ‘partner’ (ie “Have you ever had a partner who is asexual, grey­-A or demisexual?”). Partner is another common term that is often used in place of wife/husband/spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend/etc. It drops the word ‘significant’ out of the equation so it doesn’t have an inherent value implication. It is gender neutral and, as with partners in a law firm, the term can be used to refer to relationships that involve more than just a pair of people. It is flexible enough to encompass a range of commitment levels and a range of sexual and romantic involvements. It isn’t a perfect term, in part due to the overlap with the terms ‘lab partner,’ ‘business partner,’ ‘tennis partner,’ and others. However, it is the best term I can think of and I wish the writers of the survey had tried harder to use ‘partner’ and maybe even ‘partnered relationships’ throughout the section for a greater level of inclusion and as a small rejection of the romance myth.

I will leave you with the following: compare the original statement with this revision of the statement I made above and think about the language you use and how the romance myth impacts your life.

I have never had a ‘significant relationship’ and I may live the rest of my life without any ‘significant relationships.’


I have never had a ‘partnered relationship’ and I may live the rest of my life without any ‘partnered relationships.’

Featured image from Dean Spade.

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  1. Hi, I’m part of the committee that created the survey. We pay attention to and value all the feedback we’ve been getting. (But we respond as individuals, so this represents only my personal opinion.)

    I agree that there were wording issues with that section. There are a lot of people with non-normative relationships who don’t give their relationships any particular name. However, there are at least some names floating around, like queerplatonic partners and zucchinis, and it would have helped to name those as examples of what we were looking for.

    I also agree that “significant” and “just” are normative words, and that “partnered” could have been an improvement.

    Furthermore, I think the survey could have asked questions about what sort of relationships people consider important. This might have taken up extra space (it’s important that the survey is short), but I hope that it can be included in a future survey.

    And aside from anything in the survey, I consider this topic to be an important discussion. One of the things I have complained about myself is that a lot of asexual aromantic/wtfromantic discourse tries to build up their partnered relationships as really strong, close, and committed. While it is important to recognize these relationships, there is an equivocation between “strong, close, and committed” and “important and worthy of recognition”. I consider my weak, distant, and non-committed friendships to very important to me.

    • miller, thanks for reading and responding to my post. Just to let you know, I didn’t manage to formulate these thoughts into something coherent by the time I finished the survey so I didn’t write anything in the feedback section of the survey, but if I were to do it again, this post is the long form of the feedback I’d have about the survey.

      I hope there are more surveys conducted and more discussion about the valuation of different relationships.

  2. (Hi, luvtheheaven here. Logging in is proving complicated for me since I seem to have forgotten all my passwords or something so I just signed in with my twitter. Anyway…)

    I love so much that you created this post. You brought up a lot of good points. As I told Aqua in the comments here: I too had a few issues while taking the survey.

    What I didn’t mention there was the problem I had with the ‘significant relationships’ section. I didn’t realize I the problem I did have with it until reading your response to it now.

    I also didn’t realize they didn’t even mention queerplatonic partner as a term on the survey until miller mentioned it here in the comments, although I kind of read the question and got the impression that if I had a queerplatonic partner, that would count as “queerplatonic”, but what I do have in my life “just friends and family”, doesn’t count. I’d have to actively have someone in my life who was more than “just a friend” to me.

    I remember reading that question on the survey, and reading the “just friends or family” wording, and while you felt a reaction of anger toward the writers of the survey, I remember feeling a small pang of… sadness, I guess it was. It was a feeling of almost disappointment in myself and a loss of self-esteem or something similar. A reminder that I didn’t have any significant relationships that actually count. That despite the fact that I am extraordinarily close with my family, they’re “just” family and everyone in my family basically has the same feeling too, that family is never “the most significant” relationship in someone’s life, so I am not actually the most significant person in anyone else’s life. I’m very satisfied with the current relationships I have with my aunts, uncles, cousins, father, and brother. I love them all. I love the time we spend together. They are quite significant to me personally.

    It’s somewhat okay for a relationship with your child(ren) to be the defining relationship of your life, but for an adult it is unacceptable for the most important relationship in their life to be with their parent, so it’s not a two way street.

    Even if I am the most important person in my dad’s life (especially considering he’s been single for over two decades now and hasn’t even gone on a date at all in that time period), my dad is not supposed to be the most important person in my life – even though he is. We live together, we eat dinner together every day, even when I was away at college I talked to him on the phone for hours… I’ve always been very very close to him. But it hurts, sometimes… the “not supposed to” aspect. And it kind of hurt to read in the survey that these relationships are “just family”. He’s not my “partner”, and so those questions in the survey wouldn’t be applicable to us, but it would have been nice to be able to say somewhere on the survey that I do have people in my life I care about. It’d be cool once the results came out to be able to see how many other asexual people are like me and have an immediate family member as the “most important” relationship in their life.

    I do think that polyamory and it’s nonromantic/queerplatonic equivalents and relationship anarchy and all of that need to be considered too, though. I think “partner” as a term often implies only 2 people, and if 3 people are all in committed relationships with each other that could maybe work for the “significant other” questions and I’m not sure if “partner” is the best alternative term. There’s also the idea that different relationships fulfill different needs for people. People can be happy without having one super significant relationship in your life, and sometimes that’s because they are content being alone, but other times it’s because they do have friends to have fun with, a family member to comfort them when they’re upset, and friendly coworkers who respect them and make them feel other emotions of comradery or something. They don’t need to rank only one as “the” most important. They’re all important to this person. And that’s an important thing to recognize as a possibility too, I think. That’s kind of where I’m at in my life. My dad isn’t the only significant person in my life. I have many significant others. I have friends and family, both very very plural, and that makes me feel surrounded by love. I think having only one person to share my emotional ups and downs with would be lonely, in comparison.

    • Emily/luvtheheaven, thanks for your comment. I think I got angry about it because I felt that sad twinge of inadequacy too. I didn’t actually read the note at the top of the page until after I got to the question: “How many significant relationships (either romantic or not) do you currently have?” I started trying to count all of my significant relationships and it was really hard and I started wondering if I was actually answering what was being asked. That was when I finally read the note that I quoted (twice) and to answer the question they were asking, I found I had to enter 0. That hurt. But I did go from hurt to pissed off pretty quickly.

      And maybe you don’t need this said, but I’m going to say it anyway, because I need the reminder too. No one has the right to tell you your relationships don’t count. Our society (and many individuals within our society) is really good at telling people what they “should” be like, but society wants little cookie-cutter people and doesn’t know anything about who we are and how we live our lives and what makes us happy. It may be hard, but ignoring society is often really, really important for your mental health and continuing happiness. Only you know what you need in your life and what people, groups, activities, places etc. will provide you with the things you need.

      Specifically, your relationship with your father sounds really wonderful. Instead of telling you it isn’t good enough, society should be telling you that everyone should be so lucky as to have a relationship like that.

      Finally, I agree that partner is often used to refer to a couple, which makes it not a perfect word, but it isn’t always used for just two people, so I think the use of the word could be expanded to include multiple people, if people decided not using the problematic term “significant other” was a priority. I can’t think of any better terms in use right now. I’d be happy if something better came along, but I’m also not about to try to invent a term for a relationship I am unlikely to ever have. So that is why I have been sort of “advocating” for the use of the term ‘partner’.

    • Hi LuvtheHeaven,
      If it makes you feel better, the intention behind explicitly excluding friends and family is that we know very well that many people consider these to be significant relationships, and thus we need to clearly state that these are not the relationships we are asking about.

      The purpose of the survey is not to give people an outlet for self-expression, and in fact it is terrible for such a purpose, since everyone is just aggregated into a statistic, no more. The purpose of the survey is to answer specific questions and test hypotheses. We already know most ace spectrum people have families and friends, and have little reason to think that they will have any more than non-asexual respondents. However, maybe friends and family are more important to a certain set of asexuals (like aromantics or WTFromantics?) so that’s a hypothesis we can test in future surveys.

      The thought also occurred to me that people in relationships of 3 or more might not consider their relationships to be “partnered”. I’ve heard poly people refer to having multiple partners, but there could be some variation in preferred terminology that I’m not aware of. Anyway, it’s easy to clarify. I think “partnered relationships” was an excellent suggestion.

      • “the intention behind explicitly excluding friends and family is that we know very well that many people consider these to be significant relationships, and thus we need to clearly state that these are not the relationships we are asking about.”

        – I think that kind of crossed my mind. 😉 I understand that, I do.

        I think you’re right, a survey is a bad “outlet for self-expression” and reduces us all to just statistics and we can’t all “feel good” while answering it… and I think overall I did not personally have MAJOR problems with the survey, so I end up responding to these minor problems that made me hesitate. The ones that made me think/feel “okay, I don’t have that kind of a committed partner, *kind of sad*” or “wait do I consider myself celibate? I guess I need to decide” or “wait what is my frequency of romantic attraction toward each gender? I can’t decide what feelings of mine ARE romantic? Ah”. Those are all minor issues I had… because overall the survey included me well and I hope that my answers help provide insight and I look forward to the results of the survey. I understand why “just friends and family” would want to be excluded for the sake of the question, but at the same time I wish it didn’t have to be excluded from the survey entirely, and I wish people in society at large treated these relationships a little differently too. People have such varying degrees of closeness with their family members, with their friends, and people kind of know that in society at large but at the same time people tend to make assumptions that often don’t work for everyone. People often don’t acknowledge the array of differences certain people’s “friendships” or “family relationships” truly do have and how there is no one-size-fits-all explanation for what a “uncle/niece” or “mother/son” or “best friend” or “old friend” relationship actually means. People generalize way too often.

        I also sort of, personally, *wish for* the kind of exclusive, committed partnership with an exceptionally close friend or queerplatonic or non-sexual romantic partner discussed in that section, so that is part of what made me feel bad reading it – the fact that I *am* “single” and had to answer 0, the fact that I’m worried I’ll never be able to find a partner that I actually do want eventually, that I’ll always be at 0, because I can’t just “date” the traditional way to find said type of partner and… idk. I also wonder, as part of my WTFromantic orientation label, if I really want that type of partnered relationship, or if I just think I do because of amatonormativity messages being ingrained in me. I am quite happy as I am right now. I don’t need a new relationship to feel fulfilled – at least not at the current point in time. However, I also do want to foster or adopt a child/children one day, and ideally I’d have a partner to raise said child(ren) with me, so that I could actually accomplish this life goal/dream of mine that I’ve had for years before even knowing I was asexual. Even being *allowed* to foster or adopt a child as a single parent sounds very difficult, let alone actually doing it. So again I worry about my future. That’s just what crossed my mind reading this here as well as that question of the survey, but overall I felt I was included pretty well, that answering “0” there made sense and that I didn’t have those types of committed partnerships (yet). I was able to answer the question, so in that sense I was not left out.

        I appreciate the survey as a whole. I also appreciate the other serious problems people had with it, such as in the religion, citizenship, and consensual sexual activity sections.

  3. I am aromantic and didn’t remember this ambiguous wording. I think I plainly read “primary relationship” and, as I’ve had a platonic primary relationship, I answered with it it mind. I think the wording is ambiguous for platonic people, but it might mean erasure for aplatonic people.

    • Isaac, you can go back and read the wording of the survey again if you are interested. Just “take” the survey again, answering only the required questions (there are only two or three) and not submitting it when you are done. That’s what I did to directly quote the note from the relationships section. I’m not trying to be rude, but your comment prompted me to go back and check again to make sure I wasn’t misquoting. It does sound like you answered the questions responding to the intent behind them so perhaps your brain merely replaced a term that didn’t work for you with one that did.

      • Don’t worry. I think I was too brief in my comment, but I meant precisely what you propose: that it was written as you quote but I unconsciously read otherwise, fitting better my aromantic experience. This was possible for me because I am platonic and had had a primary relationship, but I think this is worse for aromantic aplatonic people.

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