I've spent a long time sitting on the concept of romantic love and all the social hierarchies that exist to defend and uphold the tyrannical grip this concept holds on individual beings. Thus you can imagine my relief when Sherronda J. Brown's article "Romance Is Not Universal, Nor Is It Necessary" mentioned a term that reconciled and validated my musings. The term 'amatonormativity,' which Brown says is coined by author Elizabeth Brake, "refers to the 'widespread assumption that everyone is better off in an exclusive, romantic, long-term coupled relationship, and that everyone is seeking such a relationship.'"
My heart blew a fuse as my brain processed the sentence, realizing that, as a professor once told me, if there's a term, it's a "thing." Apparently, the theory that romantic love is idealized, over-emphasized, and forced on individuals is, in fact, an academic concept. The theory suggests that both misogynistic and heteronormative ideals perpetuate romantic love, allowing its existence and function in society. The function is simple- to shame.
Contrary to what we've been made to believe, not everyone is seeking this long-term relationship that Brown speaks about. Not everyone is made for a relationship, not everyone craves one. Some people prefer short-term flings, casual dating, and even one-night stands. Some people refuse the idea of relationships in their youth and then find them more agreeable later on in life, all the while others romanticize the idea in their youth only to grow discontent and disenchanted with it as years pass. Attraction, affection, and preference are fluid; that's a statement that does not fit into the box that romantic love draws.
Romantic love is the tyrant, the boundary that keeps us in line with social convention. If social convention demands that all individuals are lonely and "not enough" without their romantic pair, we grow up knowing what is expected of us; dating, marriage, children, and love. What social convention forgets to mention is that the concept of love is broad, too broad to mean the things we've learned to connote with the word. It's an empty signifier, to borrow the term from Barthian myth.
We know it to mean a certain ineffable feeling that we will all at some point feel towards someone, yet since the feeling is ineffable, we don't bother to analyze it. What happens if someone never experiences that feeling? What happens if someone experiences that feeling towards someone who is toxic to them? What happens if someone is content without the feeling, and prefers love in relation to family or friends instead?
Brown touches upon the language that prevents us from seeing those relationships in the same emphasis and importance as romantic ones. Most obviously, we call our romantic partners "significant others," implying our priorities. Why are romantic partners the most "significant others," especially when not all other romantic involvements are build to last, especially when not all romantic involvements are good for our well-being? Why is it shameful to prioritize a friendship or a familial relationship over a romance? Why does that imply that you have not yet "met the one," or that you are lonely or less than or somehow undesirable?
The belief that you are always- of course, most obviously, unquestionable -seeking a romantic relationship to replace your other place-holder relationships keeps us believing that romantic relationships are always to be of the first priority and necessity; that no other relationship can amount to the feeling of a romantic love. This is true, in a sense, yet works vice versa as well. No friendship will give you the same love a romance will. Yet, on the other hand, no romance will be able to recreate the feeling a strong friendship can give you. Perhaps, the point is that these relationships are not interchangeable and that there is no clear priority arc, despite what the dictatorship of romantic love demands we believe. Perhaps, even more outrageously, these relationships can all exist within the same, fully-fleshed, complex individual at the same time.
But that's half the problem. The end-game of the line of thought governed by the concept of romantic love says that we are not, in fact, capable of being this individual on our own. The myth of the soulmate, the myth of "one true love," the linguistic intention behind "significant other"- these tools serve to remind us that we are incomplete on our own. We are forever stuck in the mindset that everyone has either found their true love, is looking, or is miserable without it. There is no agency, no "I'm happy being single" that sounds truthful enough to the indoctrinated ear.
In the loop of romantic love, we are always waiting, waiting for the go-ahead, the permission to be happy, to be complete, to be fulfilled. We are waiting on someone to define our priorities and emotions; waiting on someone to validate the space we occupy by existing; waiting for someone to say "yes, you've hit all the milestones, you've felt the right things, you've lived the right way."
Who are we waiting for, and why?