Aromanticism: What if romantic love goes extinct?

Moses Sumney's Aromanticism album cover

A musician I adore named Moses Sumney has a new album out today called Aromanticism. It's an exploration of our cultural fixation on romantic love, something that Moses says he's never experienced.

This of course echoes some of Carrie Jenkins' writings in What Love Is: And What It Could Be about amatonormativity, the concept that everyone should want to be in a romantic relationship.

Then I'm reminded of this article: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? and all the news about how teens aren't having as much sex.

And then I think about this post I wrote years ago about how my grandchildren will shock me

In that post, I mused about android lovers or underage lovers, but now I think to myself: what if the way my grandchildren will shock me is not by falling in love with this kind of person or that kind of person or even that kind of robot… what if they just STOP FALLING IN ROMANTIC LOVE COMPLETELY!?

And then my head blows up, because, I mean, if I believe in anything, I believe in romantic love. But then again, I don't know WHY I do. Certainly it's full of pain and heartbreak and risk and challenge and it's contextual and historical and… but… I… but I do!

But then again, what if every love song was about the Broad City kind of love?

I mean, that wouldn't be a bad thing! We could use more love stories about different kinds of love!

Then I'm reminded of this song:

With these lyrics:

Do you believe, believe in love?
In all kinds of love, not just the ones you understand
Do you believe, believe in love?
In all kinds of love, in all kinds of love

And I think of how, while I am obsessed with romantic love and spend much of my time walking around dusting my life keeping it tidy and ready for whenever that particular kind of love may reappear, the daily relationships that bring me the most joy are the friendships with folks who can compassionately call me on my shit and lovingly push me to be my best self. There aren't many songs about that kind of love.

In the meantime, we've got Moses' songs like this:

Lyrics, for those who want to read along:

Hollow one
With inverted tongue
From whence does fulfillment come?

When I expel
From this mortal shell
Will I die for living numb?

Am I vital
If my heart is idle
Am I doomed?

I feel you
But nobody else
Though you’re someone I can’t see
Yet you say nothing
Of the stoic suffering
That stirs lukewarm in me
If lovelessness is godlessness
Will you cast me to the wayside
Well I feel the peeling
Of half-painted ceilings
Reveal the covering of a blank sky

Am I vital
If my heart is idle
Am I doomed?
Cradle me
So I can see
If I’m doomed
Am I vital
If my heart is idle
Am I doomed?
Cradle me
So I can see
If I’m doomed.

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  1. I don't think young people will leap into a widespread movement to discard romantic love, but they might wisely recognize and include all kinds of love that are not what we'd call romantic.

    I really enjoy romantic love! But it's ephemeral; it comes and goes like weather. A great murderer of marriage is the idea that once it leaves the marriage is over, and people don't give it a chance to come back, and don't notice the other seasons of love while they're there.

    Because in my experience, love does have its seasons. There's the initial romantic spring phase, sweet and heady and unabashedly sentimental, delicate with color and drunk on each other's scent. And if it's infatuation, it will fade like a spring flower in a few months, dried and pressed into your book of memories. But if it's meant to last it will become like a great, strong, blossoming tree, growing in your life, and it will eventually move on into the next phase:

    Summer. A different kind of joy. You and the other work gladly together, building something between you. Flowers are nice but now you're into equally beautiful and more practical leaves–that is, the vitality of being alive together, breathing as one, soaking in the light and rain and nourishing each other, and working towards mutual dreams swelling on the twigs. You feel purposeful and strong, powered on the synergy between you. You feel mature, at the pinnacle of the Good Life, and enjoying the work and the delight side by side.

    Then comes harvest! Your marriage will have its autumns, where everything that you've built together ripens, dazzling you with its colors and its flavors, and you and your partner(s) get to enjoy the fruits of your labors. Time to celebrate–life is ablaze! And you have more shared work than ever, making the most of it, but it is so bright and beautiful and incredibly nourishing that it's more than worth every second of effort.

    Then something happens and the winter of your marriage hits. Hardships and griefs rock your world. You get stripped bare of everything except survival. This can make or break a marriage. If you don't hold onto each other the relationship will die. But you can get through it, holding onto each other shivering through the worst of it, drawing strength from each other, strengthening each other, enduring each snapped bough of a plan, each cracked root of a resource. Life seems bleak, as devoid of romance as a snow-smothered field is devoid of all appearance of life. And yet you find, if you look, a stark beauty there, all the hardships outlining the unbreakable core of your love. It bares what you're made of, and even without the flowers and fruit and leaves you can find that the very structure of your bond is heartbreakingly lovely still.

    And then, miracle! Spring returns! You fall in love all over again! Romantic love. But this time it is so much better! Because, all through that winter you were sinking your roots deeper, your mutual trunk thickened, you grew taller, and now you can branch out more than ever before. You have at least twice as many blossoms, and your romance has become majestic! And each new blossom will swell into a new dream come summer, and new fruit come autumn, and the next time winter hits you will have the strength to take on any storm!

    (Mind you, none of this follows a regular calendar. Each "season" can last for years, and be uneven in distribution. Regardless, they are all, in their own way, beautiful. At least that is my experience.)

    God, I love marriage! And I rejoice that all kinds of people can now experience its benefits who couldn't legally before.

    22 agree
    • And yes, some people do enjoy relationships like conifers, that don't bloom in the same way as romantic love, that more or less stays the same through all seasons. I don't have experience with that kind of relationship, but I can see that it also is fair and strong and a good thing to have rooted in your community.

      4 agree
      • OMG yes. Your words are perfect.

        " Like a conifer, without the flowery exuberance and much less prone to drama despite going through all the same seasons." Just… there. Deep and sturdy and somewhat boring.

        You have just impeccably validated my 18 year relationship; I've always carried this weird doubt that maybe this wasn't IT, wasn't real love because it was not flamboyant like movie romances. We've watched other couples rise and fall apart, been through sickness and child raising and joy and tragedy. Despite occasional disagreements, there was never any notion that we weren't in this together forever though. Ours is not a love of grand gestures and head-over-heels passion and heart-eyed romantic date-nights. It never was. Our love just is.

        Thank you so, so, so much for the insight.

        7 agree
    • I'm fully there with you — I *LOVED* being married, for reasons you perfectly capture.

      But I'm aware of the number of younger people who are dealing with a new kind of tech-influenced social anxiety. Who are having sex less and less. Who are putting off marriage until later and later.

      I have to recognize that if one of my grandchildren was like "Why bother with fickle untrustworthy people? Having sex is risky — disease and assault and unwanted pregnancy! Falling in love brings pain! Why bother? I'll just meditate and hang out with these robots instead" … I'm not sure I could totally argue? People ARE fickle. Sex IS risky. Falling in love DOES come with some pain. We bother because it's worth it, but what if there was a generation that was decided it wasn't worth it? What if they opted for artificial insemination and robot lovers and a culture with less sexual assault and heartbreak and and STIs and domestic violence? What if I was the old lady who was like "Back in my day, we fell in love with each other and it was intoxicating and messy and disease-riddled and violent and exciting and awful and amazing AND WE LIKED IT!"? And my grandkids would roll their eyes at me and be like "Gawd, things are so much easier now, Gran."

      2 agree
      • If it works for them, it works. I never knew the hard work and joy of plowing a field behind oxen that I loved more than any tractor. I'm still a happy human being.

        1 agrees
      • This idea cracks me up! I kinda love it. Romantic love IS kinda ridiculous when you put it that way. Let's let the kids come up with something better.

        4 agree
    • Because to experience all or any of this, you need to be legally married… what?

      Also, I despise the pressure society (that means people like you) puts on married people to always try to make it work even when it's not worth it.

      What Ariel describes in her comment below sounds amazing to me.

    • You are so eloquent; I'm in awe! Thank you for sharing this perspective on relationships, especially that hard winter before those little shoots of hope start to poke through the snow.

      If you haven't yet, PLEASE submit a post on something – anything! Your words are moving and eloquent and I want more!

  2. I actually know a few people (only 5 or 7 years younger than myself) who identify as aromantic and/or asexual, and to me it seems brilliant. Growing up, I was fascinated with romantic love- it made me feel powerful and confident in a way nothing else did, because it was my crutch. But it also felt like something I *had* to experience, or I would be cast out of society. And that's a hell of a lot of pressure to put on a girl, especially a smart, fat girl with low self-esteem. It led to a lot of very bad decisions and traps. I think if I had grown up with the option to be aromantic, I would have felt more free and probably not fallen into the tiger pits that I did.

    I can't see an entire generation adapting to that identity (romantic love is ingrained in our Victorian ideals), but I can see, and definitely encourage, enough people doing it that children and teens feel more free to self-identify. And hey, even if I'm wrong and people DO become aromantic, that doesn't mean institutions like marriage will disappear. After all, human society for HUNDREDS of years had no notion of romantic love, and we did just fine.

    3 agree
    • EXACTLY!! Romantic marriage is actually a relatively recent cultural construct… I love some of the thinking about psychological marriage from folks like Alain du Buton:

      Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person https://nyti.ms/1RAnp1X

  3. I imagine that romantic love is much like having kids.
    From the outside, it's really easy to see why having kids sucks. No sleep, no money, no free time, etc. It's really hard to see why having kids is "worth it." I can't see why having kids is worth it. So I don't have them. But to the people who want them, even if they can't see why having kids is worth it, they're willing to take that jump and trust that it is worth it.
    If you don't want romantic love and you've never experienced it, I bet it looks awful. You're likely to be rejected or do the rejecting, you're likely to catch some kind of disease (even just a cold) from constant closeness, you'll have trouble sleeping, you'll fight, you'll get bored, etc. It's hard to see why it's worth it. Why would someone put up with all that bullshit just to make a specific person smile? How could that smile be worth a $700 necklace (or sports tickets or new tires or whatever)?
    But I can't imagine we'll ever be a world without love. As we know from art, love has been a staple as long as people have been around. Hopefully we'll reach the point where people who don't want love are allowed to avoid it without being weird, just as we're reaching the point where people who don't want kids are allowed to avoid that without being weird.

    2 agree
  4. I was actually reading an article just yesterday saying that the idea that kids "aren't having sex" isn't entirely true. It's extremely difficult to collect the data in the first place, the kids then lie anyway, and also they aren't having p.i.v. sex but are having oral, anal, and digital sex (as finger/ hand stimulation, not sexting), but don't consider it as having had sex.

    Although to be honest, I'm not sure why people seen to be considering this a bad thing? Awash as I was in hormones, it would haven't been a bad thing for me to not have sex until I was 18. It would have saved me from the terrible "sex" the boyfriend who became extremely clingy after our first time together (I know, ours was a rare role reversal).

    1 agrees
    • I saw that article yesterday too! Great to have some clarification on that research.

  5. I suggest looking at some articles about the steep decrease in sexual activity and birth rate in Japan, if you want to freak yourself out. Google away, or this is a starter article https://www.google.com.au/amp/www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/japan-sex-problem-demographic-time-bomb-birth-rates-sex-robots-fertility-crisis-virgins-romance-porn-a7831041.html%3famp

    Japan is unique because it has never been a colony, was closed off for quite a while during the Edo period, takes almost no refugees and very few migrants, has a small Christian population, is very focused on its own culture, has high suicide rates and most people are working themselves to death… but besides all that, yes, romance is at a low point in younger generations. It's hard to predict if western countries will go a similar way. We are quite interested in travel and diversity and having children. As a whole culture I mean, many individuals don't want those things, but advertising and policies and general societal norms encourage us towards it.

    Personally if I could wave a wand, maybe I would prefer my teen years were less focused on finding some sort of magical impossible romantic ideal, and a bit more about living in the moment and being happy with what I have, pursuing my own version of pleasure despite what a partner or person told me I should do. But I've learnt to critically examine the wails of bands as just an expression and not the only way that life has to be. The same with all the other media pumped out like Disney movies and tv commercials about buying a house or dating app ads or alcohol billboards…. yuk.

    You could also look at some cultures where say marriages are arranged and romance comes afterwards, as partners learn to love each other (hopefully, doesn't always happen as we know). They've survived ok.

    I don't have a definite idea on if it will happen or not, but I think we will be ok!

    1 agrees
  6. When sales figures say that a third of all fiction books sold in the U.S. are romances, I have a really hard time believing that romanticism is going away any time soon.

    Oh we'll see changes in the future, to be sure: limited-term marriages, group marriages, and other arrangements we haven't even thought of. Heck, romance may come to be categorized into different flavors. Or tempered to be a shade more realistic. As well, aromanticism may also come out of its closet and become more commonplace.

    But romance going away? In a permanent, pervasive way for us as a society? IMHO, I don't see it. Humans are dreamers and it's going to take more than a smartphone to root that out if us. 🙂

    2 agree

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