“What I’m feeling is valid and normal” - What it’s like to be young and aromantic
‘Aromantic’ is a term that is still new for many of us. But for those people who identify as aromantic, or on the aromantic spectrum, this word can be incredibly powerful.
I spoke to two young people who identify as aromantic about their experiences of discovering their sexual and romantic orientation. Navigating your feelings about the people around you can be especially difficult as a teenager. Wynn is 17 and studying for college. Grofu is 16 and at secondary school. They told me about how they found the aromantic community, and how different definitions of attraction have helped them understand who they are.
What does being aromantic mean to you?
“Being aromantic for me means not experiencing any romantic attraction,” said Wynn. But both agreed that there is a spectrum of aromanticism. Aromantics are not a homogenous group, all feeling (or not feeling) the same thing. As with any human emotion, feelings about romantic relationships are complex and unique to every one of us.
Grofu identifies as “greyromantic: somebody who rarely feels romantic attraction at all,” and demiromantic. “Being demiromantic means you must form a strong emotional bond before a romantic attraction can develop,” xe said. “People say ‘oh, everyone feels like that’, but we often see these tropes of ‘love at first sight’ in films and tv, where people can have an immediate romantic attachment. That would never be the case for me.”
So being aromantic, or ‘aro’, can mean different things to different people across this spectrum. The important factor is that ‘aromantic’ recognises the distinction between sexual and romantic orientation.
“I found the initial step to putting a label on any of it very challenging,” said Grofu. “Once I found the term asexual I started thinking that I didn’t know there are different kinds of attraction.”
Asexuals (‘aces’) and aromantics are often confused by people outside the aro and ace communities. Being aromantic is not the same as being asexual. Asexual people do not experience sexual attraction.
“I found the initial step to putting a label on any of it very challenging,”
“[Aros and aces] can go through similar alienating experiences,” Wynn told me. “However, not experiencing sexual attraction compared to not experiencing romantic attraction will give two different experiences of life,” he continued. “The two are viewed in different situations.”
While aromantics and asexuals are both underrepresented in discussions of sexuality and identity, aromantics are far less well known and understood. The term ‘asexual’ can be found in research literature at the tail end of the 19th century; the term ‘aromantic’ doesn’t seem to have been in use until the early 2000s.
“There is an option on Tinder for asexuals, but not for aros” said Grofu. “People just don’t separate the two communities. There are overlaps between, but many aros and aces are only part of one community.”
You don’t have to be asexual to be aromantic, and vice versa. Recognising these different types of attractions can be a helpful way to navigate your feelings. “I think putting a label on my romantic orientation is a difficult one that I’m still struggling with,” said Grofu. “It’s such a big spectrum with a big grey bit in the middle.”
Is it useful to have all these labels?
As Grofu talked about the aro spectrum, I asked if it was helpful to pin yourself down to a specific definition. “I see [the label] as a lighthouse to guide you to the right place,” explained Grofu. “There are 8 billion people on this planet, and we don’t have 8 billion labels. You can find something pretty perfect, but let yourself be you and find a label to match, rather than sticking to [a definition] rigidly.”
There are plenty of people who are sceptical about the many different definitions or labels given to sexual and romantic orientation. I would suggest that these people spend some time with young people like Grofu and Wynn. I was impressed by the confidence and clarity they showed in the way they described the process of understanding themselves, even at such a young age. For them, labels have been part of a very mature approach to the complex problem of understanding who they are.
“It wasn’t until I was almost 16 that I started realising that there was a term for how I was feeling,” said Grofu. “A lot of my friends had been in relationships before, and it wasn’t something I could relate to. I had no real desire like that and it sometimes made me feel uncomfortable to talk to them about their relationships. I was lost in my own feelings. But the aro community and the ‘label’ gave me words and phrases that helped me describe how I felt and explain it to my friends.”
“There are 8 billion people on this planet, and we don’t have 8 billion labels. You can find something pretty perfect, but let yourself be you and find a label to match, rather than sticking to [a definition] rigidly.”
Wynn also found that definitions helped him to understand himself. “I find the term ‘cupioromantic’ helpful,” he said. “It’s when someone desires for romance and romantic relationships but doesn’t experience it themselves as they have no romantic attraction.”
I found it interesting that both Grofu and Wynn used a range of terms to describe themselves. Imagine yourself as a teenager, struggling to make sense of how you relate to other people, and not recognising yourself in the terms that your friends are using or in representations of relationships in popular culture. Speaking to these young people has made me see that these definitions of romantic and sexual orientation are not there to put you in a box, but to help you make sense of yourself, both in your own head and to other people.
The importance of community
The term ‘aromantic’ has also been valuable to both Grofu and Wynn as it allowed them to find a community. From what I’ve seen online, the aro community acts as a caring and consistent friend, helping people figure out what it means to be aro while raising awareness of the aromantic spectrum.
“I think the aro community is really supportive because we are all in this strange experience together,” said Wynn, who had found it hard to accept being aro at first. “Often as an aro you feel alienated from those around you so to find others like you is amazing…we support each other because we are all going through the same thing.”
Grofu echoed this, “It helps me feel less alone. All of my friends are alloromantic (people that experience romantic attraction) so it’s harder to connect with them on certain subjects. The aro community lets me know that what I’m feeling is valid and normal…People outside [the community] can be very negative and degrading, but when that happens, the community really comes together. They are always there for me.”
“I think the aro community is really supportive because we are all in this strange experience together”
I asked Grofu how this support translated into offline relationships. “The community is mainly online, but it’s helped me to talk about my experiences with friends; they’ve realised that some of these terms apply to them, and that their confusion over romantic attraction is normal.”
It seems like a healthy discussion to have as a teenager. Certainly, both Wynn and Grofu were able to share their thoughts in a way that I could never have done at 16. Young people are taught a bit about sexual orientation at school, but not about romantic orientation.
“The only reason I know about it is because of communities online,” said Grofu, who thought that learning about this at school would be helpful to “so many people who are unable to express themselves.” Grofu felt that the focus on sexual orientation at school “really slowed me down, it made me think I was broken.”
I’ve read a few articles recently that have been wary of the role of online communities in young people’s lives, particularly around sexuality and gender. The argument is that some communities encourage young people to identify in one way or another when they are too young to be able to make a reasonable and informed decision about who they are.
Yet it seems that, for Grofu, the aro network has been a positive influence. It has given xem the confidence to talk to friends and be open about the questions and anxieties that many teenagers keep hidden. Wouldn’t this be a sensible discussion to have in schools, to set young people on a path to happy, healthy and safe relationships?
Do aromantics actually have relationships?
It’s a misconception that aros don’t have relationships. As Grofu explained to me, it’s perfectly possible to have a strong relationship without romantic attraction. “Lots of people on the aro spectrum want to have relationships,” xe said. “Many people now use the term ‘queer platonic relationship’ or QPR. This is a really progressive and positive relationship that bypasses social norms.”
I have some friends who are in what might be defined as a queer platonic relationship. They both have different sexual and romantic orientations, but they chose to have children together. They live together sometimes, but mostly just nearby. Their platonic bond has created a positive and healthy environment for their children. By having children, they’ve made a lifelong commitment to each other, but neither sex nor romance come into it.
“Lots of people on the aro spectrum want to have relationships,”
But of course, those ‘social norms’ still have an incredibly powerful influence on many of us, and stop us from doing the things that could make us happy. “I tried to get into a romantic relationship a few times.” said Grofu. “I was just trying to keep up with my friends. I’ve just never been able to form a connection. I realise now that I’m very complete without the need for one.”
Wynn is open to trying out a relationship. “I think I would be interested…I’m not sure how it would work but I’m open to a lot of different things. I’d love to be in a QPR.”
What do you want to tell people about the aromantic spectrum?
I asked Grofu and Wynn what they’d tell people who don’t know much about being aromantic.
“I would simply want to tell them all about it,” said Wynn. “I would want to educate them on all things aro so they get a better understanding of what we go through and that we exist.”
“One misunderstanding that frustrates me is that people think it's a phase and that it's not proper. It can be viewed as an orientation people choose if they are scared of romance or have failed to get into a romantic relationship. This is obviously not the case; being aromantic is not a choice and it's real and important!”
The idea that we choose how we feel seems outdated but is, sadly, still pervasive. The aromantic spectrum recognises that people’s feelings about romantic relationships might change over time, but that, fundamentally, some people just don’t feel romantic attraction.
Grofu felt that people need to be more aware of definitions of romantic attraction, but also that everyone has boundaries. Just because you’re aromantic doesn’t mean you want to tell a stranger everything about your personal life.
“Some topics are uncomfortable for some people, so don’t try to persuade them to talk about it. I had a friend who was very open about their relationships, while I felt very uncomfortable talking about these things. I couldn’t put it into words at the time, so it wasn’t a nice situation to be in.”
What are the challenges of being aromantic?
Grofu went on to talk about how the lack of awareness can make it hard to come out to people. “Every time, you have to explain ten different words because it’s just not talked about enough. If I came out as greyromantic, it’s complicated to explain, so it can be more awkward.”
Grofu uses @amazingasexuals to help other aros find the right words. “It’s a learning curve, but practice makes perfect!”
Wynn feels the same. “It can be hard to come out to someone who doesn’t even know what you are coming out as,” he said. This can add to the sense of alienation. “When everyone else is experiencing something you are not, it’s very weird, confusing and negative,” said Wynn. “The lack of representation of aros in media and pop culture means that a lot of people don’t know aros exist.”
Having so little representation perhaps wrongly suggests to people like Wynn that they are missing out on something that everyone else has.
The way relationships are portrayed places importance on romantic attraction as some sort of essential part of growing up. Is this putting extra pressure on young people like Wynn to ‘feel’ something, when they could be having all sorts of other interesting and important experiences?
“The lack of representation of aros in media and pop culture means that a lot of people don’t know aros exist.”
“It can be quite sad and lonely to not experience romantic attraction,” he said. Yet Wynn feels positive about the future. “Friends and people to talk to are necessary for a healthy existence, but loving and respecting yourself is important as well. A good thing about being aro is that you don’t need to rely on other people to find happiness. And you don’t go through any of the bad parts of romance such as getting rejected or breaking up!”
Where to connect with aromantics
Both Wynn and Grofu have found great support online. “Looking at what other aromantics have said online can help you figure things out,” said Wynn, who reached out to @aromantic._.pride. “You can also look back and think about whether you were trying to force yourself to do something romantic to fit in.”
Grofu now advocates for aros and aces through @amazingasexuals. “It started off as a way to educate more people about my sexuality. It helps to connect people who are going through what I’ve been through, who have a shared perspective.” Grofu’s Instagram following has grown quickly. “People find it useful, but I’m just one part of a whole network of support pages online.”
I was left in awe of how confidently and coherently these two young people described their experiences. They were both keen to share what they’d been through to help other people who are finding it hard to understand their feelings. They were positive and optimistic. They’d like to educate people about aromantics and make it easier for all of us to talk about different kinds of attraction.
Being aromantic is as normal as any other sexual or romantic orientation. We just need the rest of the world to see it that way.