From interpersonal connections to law, we're told that our most meaningful relationship in life will be romantic. In reality, no relationship is inherently more or less meaningful than any other.
Earlier this semester, in one of the several literature classes I'm taking, we discussed excerpts from the German opera “Tannhausser.” The plot, essentially, is that the titular character leaves his sexual, infatuation-driven relationship with Venus and returns to his old life, where he is reacquainted with an old friend who apparently loves him.
Naturally, since the excerpts we watched focused on these relationships, our class discussion did, too. I don’t remember the context anymore, but a classmate typed a comment into the Zoom chat:
“Once you have tasted love it is hard to go back to platonic love.”
That’s a lot to unpack.
It encapsulates an ideology that permeates our society: Amatonormativity, or the “widespread assumption that everyone is better off in an exclusive, romantic, long-term coupled relationship, and that everyone is seeking such a relationship.”
The term was coined by Elizabeth Brake, a philosophy professor at Rice University, to describe the societal attitude that a person who is not in a particular type of romantic relationship is unhappy, immature, lacking in personal or emotional fulfillment and more.
Amatonormativity, according to Brake, devalues our opinions of relationships that do not match social expectations — for example, polyamorous romances or intimate friendships. It leads to seemingly innocuous comments in an attempt to be comforting, such as, “You'll find someone,” as though a romantic relationship alone can fulfill someone.
It reinforces the idea that singleness means loneliness. If we are told we must find all of our emotional fulfillment in the singular person we are romantically involved with, then it might be hard to think singleness could result in anything else. This leads to real interpersonal conflict beyond passing comments in a Zoom chat box.
We've all had — and maybe we are — that friend who becomes utterly unavailable as soon as they begin a new romantic relationship. When they eventually break up, they return to their platonic relationships without comment. It's expected that the friend being "dumped" will not be upset or hurt by this — wouldn't anyone do the same? For those who haven't dated, they're told they'll understand once they have. Amatonormativity leaves no space for people who will never understand — or, even, never date.
The amatonormative idea that we should find — and marry — a singular romantic partner leads into actual law combating anyone who lives differently, even if they are romantically involved.
Unmarried Equality is a nonprofit organization that advocates for "equality and fairness" under the law for single people and people in various unmarried relationships. According to the organization's website, "a landlord can legally refuse to rent to an unmarried couple" in about half of U.S. states. Additionally, towns in these states can decide roommates or extended or unmarried families can't live in certain neighborhoods, the site says.
South Carolina is among these states. In Columbia, no more than three adults can live in a single-family house together if they're unrelated. The rule isn't consistently enforced — but it only takes one neighbor deciding they "disagree" with the people in a polyamorous relationship next door, or that those four roommates are a bit too loud, to report it.
Yet, increasingly, our concept of what makes a family is changing. One such instance is that of platonic co-parenting: Friends who come together to raise a child or children together. It might be in the form of two single mothers who move in together for a short period of time while going through breakups.
Or, it might take the form of two Canadian best friends seeking to recognize the bond the other has developed with her son through adoption, a process made more difficult by the lack of romance or sex in their relationship.
"Amatonormativity prompts the sacrifice of other relationships to romantic love and marriage and relegates friendship and solitudinousness to cultural invisibility," Brake wrote.
It's time to recognize how amatonormativity impacts our worldview — and to make conscious decisions about our relationships as they relate to our personal experiences, not society's idea of a perfect life.