Jenny Kschadow found the perfect guy. He was easy to talk to, fun to be around, a great concert companion, and he really loved her. Problem was, she didn’t love him back.
In fact, she’d never loved anyone — romantically, at least. She couldn’t even wrap her head around what that felt like. After Googling “can’t fall in love,” she learned there was a term for people like her: aromantic.
“I immediately thought, that’s me, and was excited to have found a community to engage with,” says Jenny, a 28-year-old in Leipzig, Germany.
Claire*, a 20-year-old living in Seattle, says their a-ha moment was when their partner said, “I love you” for the first time. “I suddenly realized, Oh, we don’t mean the same thing when we use this word.”
Claire’s love was the kind you feel for a close friend — not the butterflies-in-your-stomach, starry-eyed stuff. “I realized that they were talking about romantic feelings, and I wasn’t.”
What’s the definition of aromantic?
Aromantic is a term that’s typically used to describe someone who experiences little to no romantic attraction, according to volunteer-run initiative Aromantic-Spectrum Union for Recognition, Education, and Advocacy (AUREA), where Claire is now a team member. So, when a movie features someone with a crush or a book describes a character’s infatuation? “That’s not something I experience,” Claire explains.
There’s *very* little data out there about aromanticism, but one Journal of LGBT Issues In Counseling study of 414 people in the States found that almost 1 percent were aromantic and 0.7 percent were asexual. Another not-yet-published study out of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver found that about 27 percent of asexual people were also aromantic.
To be clear, being aromantic is different than being asexual (a.k.a. not experiencing sexual attraction), though the two can — and often do – overlap, says Dr. Bella DePaulo, a social scientist in Santa Barbara and author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotypes, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.
Wait, what’s the difference between being aromantic and asexual?
Both terms deal with attraction. But the difference is that aromanticism is about the romantic kind, while people who identify as asexual don’t experience sexual attraction.
There definitely is an overlap between the two communities, but there are also many people who only identify as either asexual or aromantic. Another connection between the two terms, though, is how the aromantic community first came together. While there surely have been tons of people who haven’t felt romantic attraction throughout history, AUREA notes that the term “aromantic” doesn’t appear to have been used until the early 2000s, and the terminology seems to have formed within the asexual community.
“Folks in the online asexual community started talking about the fact that they see sexual attraction and romantic attraction as two different things,” says Dr. Kristina Gupta, an associate professor in the department of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University. “You could be both interested in a sexual relationship and a romantic relationship, you could be interested in only sexual relationships or only romantic relationships, or you could be interested in neither.”
Claire also first heard about the term aromanticism through the asexual community. “I was identifying as asexual before I started identifying as aromantic,” Claire explains. “They are two separate identities, and while some people identify as both, there are lots of aromantic people who do not identify as asexual and lots of asexual people who do not identify as aromantic.”
So what does an aromantic relationship look like?
Our society tends to hold the idea that the most important relationship a person can have is a sexual and romantic one with a singular person, Gupta says. “I think a lot of the conversation now about different kinds of sexualities and different relationship styles is about saying, that’s not the only type of relationship that is important and valuable for people, and that’s not the only way that people relate to other people.”
In Claire’s case, they have a found — or chosen — family they spend a lot of time with and go to for emotional support, as well as a queerplatonic partner, which they describe as a relationship outside of the romantic partner/friendship binary. “It’s sort of taking what you like from various types of relationships and making it work for you in a choose-your-own-adventure relationship format,” Claire says.
Claire and their queerplatonic partner have tea together, attend the same place of worship, see each other as frequently as they can, and talk to each other super often, Claire says. “But we are not participating in some other things that might be considered more romantic, like dates. We’re not living together. We might choose to raise a child together in the future, but that hasn’t been decided yet.” And while some queerplatonic relationships can involve sex, Claire’s doesn’t.
Just like how every relationship varies, Claire says the difference between their queerplatonic relationship and their platonic relationships is simply a feeling. “It’s very nebulous,” they say. “I would actually say that my relationship with my queerplatonic partner is very similar to the relationship I have with my found family: It’s very dedicated, I know they’re going to be there for me. But it’s different than my familial relationships, it’s different from just acquaintances I have at work or school.”
And being aromantic doesn’t mean you can’t experience other types of love or develop strong connections to others, DePaulo points out. It also doesn’t mean you can’t or don’t want to be in a relationship.
Jenny, who still experiences sexual attraction, has a partner who feels both sexual and romantic attraction. This setup works for her because she loves the commitment and companionship; she just doesn’t experience that same euphoric feeling that comes along with romantic love.
Does “aromantic” mean you’re not ready for commitment?
Nope nope. Claire says they’ve seen online claims that “aromanticism is just a term used by straight men who don’t want to settle down” — basically, equating aromanticism with commitment-phobia.
Claire points out that women and gender nonconfirming people also identify as aromantic, that the aromantic community is diverse, and that everybody who identifies as aromantic experiences aromanticism differently. “Certainly there are men who might identify as heterosexual and aromantic, and they’re part of our community and we want to support those people,” Claire says, “but I think the idea that [aromanticism] just an excuse for straight men to sleep around is totally inaccurate.”
Claire also says that, when they first came out as aromantic to some of their loved ones, a number of them were concerned that this meant Claire wouldn’t be able to feel happy or fulfilled in life.
“I think there’s a pervasive idea that people need romance for happiness,” Claire says. “As an aromantic person, I have my friends, I have my found family, I have hobbies I enjoy, and I do work that I find very fulfilling. I just don’t find fulfilment and joy from romance.”
Think you might be aromantic?
Though the identity operates on a spectrum and can be fluid over your lifetime, experts and aromantics say these are some common experiences:
1. You can’t relate to romance movies or books.
When a character on a TV show fell in love with two men at the same time, Jenny’s mind was blown. “I remember thinking how weird it was that there were people who fell for two people at the same time, and I had never even been in love once,” she says.
If that sounds like you, you may be aromantic. Such experiences can be confusing, though, and may prevent people from realizing they’re aromantic, says DePaulo. “Romantic feelings are so widely celebrated, and so often portrayed as inevitable in everyone’s life,” she continues, “that it’s hard for anyone to believe that they just aren’t going to experience those kinds of feelings.”
2. You’ve made up a crush.
Similarly, it’s common for aromantic people to pretend they’re into romance because that’s what they’re told is normal. “When other people share their fantasies about becoming romantically involved with particular celebrities, aromantic people may try to get into the spirit,” says DePaulo. “But it doesn’t feel natural because it’s not.”
3. You’ve never had “butterflies.”
Maybe you’ve gotten butterflies before a big test or important performance, but when it comes to other people — even someone you’re drawn to — nada. As Jenny puts it, “I’ve felt attracted to people, but to me, it never seemed the way other people experienced it. It’s always been clear to me that what I felt was never a crush, or being in love.”
In her current relationship, she says, she feels happy and content, but a different type of happiness than her partner. “Maybe I feel less excited or euphoric,” she explains.
4. Valentine’s Day is so not your jam.
Hate Valentine’s Day? Join the club. But while the holiday is widely disliked (for legit reasons), if you’re aromantic you’re not so much bitter about it as you are indifferent.
There does tend to be a romance script (flowers, dinner…), explains Dr. Phillip Hammack, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz who studies sexuality. “People who are aromantic don’t really have an intrinsic interest in any of that. It’s not something that appeals to them.”
5. You’re a dedicated friend.
Being aromantic doesn’t mean you’re not drawn to others, it just means you’re drawn to them in non-romantic ways, whether that’s their looks, intellect, vibe, or something else.
“Healthy aromantic people probably have close friends and other people who matter to them,” says DePaulo. “Empathy isn’t the same as feeling romantic. We can empathize with children, parents, and all sorts of people for whom we would never experience romantic feelings.”
What to do if you’re aromantic
It’s up to you to communicate to potential partners exactly what being aromantic means to you. Is a long-term relationship appealing, or does it sound like a drag? Are you an aromantic asexual, or an aromantic who’s into sex? Do you dislike PDA, but are cool with cuddling at home? Whatever your answers are, own ’em — and be open about them. The people who deserve you will totally understand.
If you’re interested in talking with a pro about your feelings, Gupta recommends making sure from the get-go that the therapist you’ve found will help you figure out what’s best for you in a nonjudgmental way, without trying to steer you in a certain direction. “For any therapist, you want to go and meet them and [say] right from the beginning, ‘I’m thinking about aromanticism or asexuality. What do you think about that?’” Gupta says. “If a therapist says, ‘Let’s figure out how to make you romantic or make you sexual,’ then that’s a big red flag to get out.”
One more thing: “It’s important to use the term because it gives aromantic people a language to legitimize their experience,” says Hammack. “In the past, it was considered pathology — something was wrong with you. Now, we know that is not at all the case.”
*Name has been changed for privacy.
This article was originally published on www.womenshealthmag.com