Nonsexual Nonromantic Relationships, Pt. 1

Also known as friendships.

The trouble with calling them that, though, regardless of the fact that it’s accurate for most, is that there’s such ambiguity to the word and such a wide range of what it can cover, from mere acquaintances to soul twins — which I think is part of the reason why friendship is treated as this kind of base level of human interaction, to the point where some people think it makes sense to use the phrase “more than friends” to describe even a nonromantic relationship.

This post was inspired by some observations by Queenie and some observations by Ace Admiral that point out the ace community’s lack of discourse about relationships that actually exist in our lives (in contrast with those we fantasize about in theory).  In the paragraphs below, I consider why that is, why it’s important, and how to get around the difficulties of writing about relationships that we’re already in.

As Queenie commented in a footnote:

But seriously, try to think of examples of aces writing about their relationships.  I collected some posts on nonsexual relationships here, but it’s actually very hard to find people writing about relationships they’re actually in.  Most people either write fairly non-personal descriptions of their relationship structure (romantic, queerplatonic, poly, kinky, etc.) or write something sufficiently vague that it won’t come back to bite them if their relationship falls apart.  Others mention relationships they have (partner, boyfriend, zucchini, etc.), but never delve into specifics.  It’s also much easier to find posts on how people got into relationships than it is to find posts on people being in relationships.  I could find exponentially many more posts on what relationships people want to have than what relationships people actually have.

I think “sufficiently vague that it won’t come back to bite them if their relationship falls apart” is a key phrase here.  One of the issues that prevents more detailed exploration of existing relationships is the “I don’t want to jinx it” instinct.  Contrary to how they’re sometimes treated, relationships are not Things to be acquired and then admired on a wall; they’re ongoing processes, the sustained continuance of relation and interaction with another person.  It’s not so much a thing you “have” so much as a thing you do.  As a result, a fundamental characteristic of relationships is that they’re always in flux, growing and changing, as the people relating to each other are always growing and changing, which means that relationships are never truly static.  And so it’s naturally difficult for anyone to talk about them as if they are.

To describe existing relationships, people have the option of using adjectives to label them, or the option of using present-tense sentences to say “We do this” or “We do that,” which can be difficult in that it’s a commitment to a specific pattern in your interactions that may not last as long as the relationship itself.  It’s not just a matter of avoiding proclamations like “We’ll be together forever!” that might come back to bite them if the relationship falls apart (although that, too, can be an uncomfortable concern).  It’s also facing the fact that there may have been things y’all used to do that y’all don’t do anymore, and there are things y’all do now that y’all may not do in the future, and that’s okay, because it’s in the nature of relationships to shift and shed and develop over time.*

*For a second, I sat here thinking “How should I make it clear that this form of ‘you’ is intended in the plural?” and then I remembered, “Oh yeah, I’m from Texas.”

That said, there are still some communicable facts about how current relationships are and have been, and it’s important that people share with each other about how it’s done.

In their response post, Ace Admiral wrote:

I dated an ace, and it went horribly wrong partially because of a lack in the scripts and narratives for friendships.

[…] This community and all its constituent parts and associates seem to me to spend a lot of time talking about traditional romances, non-traditional romances, queerplatonic relationships, non-normative relationships, &c., and while there is nothing wrong with that, I think we really need to put serious effort and thought into friendship.

Because if we want to talk about “messy, human reality” (and I think we should), let’s start with how ace/aro spectrum peeps are, on balance, going to need to lean on their friends as they try to struggle through getting and keeping and navigating capital-R Relationships, and how a lot of those Relationships are going to have a strong foundation in the principals, tools, and expectations of friendship.

We need to take a more serious look at friendship because it’s a relationship type common to people of all orientations and because sprinkling in sex or romance or heavier commitment isn’t a magic recipe for making a relationship easier to navigate.  We’ve just been taking for granted that we know what friendship looks like, without really talking about it.  And while the expectation that friends shouldn’t be as elusive as other types of relationship partners may lead us to take our friendships for granted, I think Ace Admiral’s post makes a case for how we could benefit from giving them more explicit attention.

They hardly even get explicit attention in our media, for that matter, except for war buddy/buddy cop movies and children’s media, and I think that right there is a clue for how we can address this problem: stories.  We need more stories — stories of teens and adults whose friendships are not forged through participation in violence — not just as representation from fictional characters but also in the telling of our own stories, to get a better picture of what real friendship looks like and the many forms it can take.  We need more specifics about what makes a friendship work but also, ideally, to learn how to identify abuse within friendships as well.

So the solution may not be to describe what a relationship is “like”, per se, but to start posting and circulating stories that illustrate the happenings of past and current relationships — maybe with a moral of the story at the end, or maybe none at all.

Click for part two.

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15 responses to “Nonsexual Nonromantic Relationships, Pt. 1

  • notunprepared

    I think Hermann and Newt from Pacific Rim could be a good example of friendship that isn’t forged in violence. Eventually, yes they fought a kaiju together, but they were friends before that. Most of their relationship is filled with arguing over science though, so it might not be a good script. But it is a start.

    • Calum P Cameron

      I get the impression that friendships in media that are not forged in violence are ones where we don’t see much of the “forging” at all. Pacific Rim is a good example of that – the most obvious non-violent friendship is that of the scientists who are implied to have been on friendly (if constantly bickering) terms since before the start of the movie, while the most obvious friendship to be forged over the course of the narrative is that of Raleigh and Mako, which is forged mostly through sparring and piloting a war machine together. Most of the other non-violence-related friendships I can think of from media are from sitcoms (‘Friends’ and ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and so forth), where the friendships usually come pre-forged and don’t tend to develop very much because sitcom writers don’t like to shake up the status quo for too long once they’ve found a pattern that works.

      • Calum P Cameron

        Although, thinking about it, I guess it depends on what you count as “forged through participation in violence”. Do Holmes and Watson count, for example? Detective partnerships generally seem to have a habit of basically being “buddy cop duo without so much violence”.

        There could actually be a lot to explore down this route of thinking. I may need to look into this further. Stories are, after all, kind of my thing.

    • acetheist

      They were friends at the beginning of the movie? Hm. I’ve only seen it once.

      Anyway, the idea was not so much to compile examples of friendships in fiction (for which I primarily had in mind stories which center the friendship as their main plotline) so much as encourage people to talk about their own friendships, as I plan to do sometime next week.

      I really should see that movie again, though…

      • Calum P Cameron

        I think it may be somewhat ambiguous. There is a definite mix of crotchety argument and pleasant respect which leaves itself open to interpretation as either “friends who disagree a lot” or “not friends but forced to work together so they’re trying to be civil”.

  • Calum P Cameron

    I think the main thing preventing me from greater discussion of my friendships is an intimacy thing. Firstly, it doesn’t seem right for me to go much beyond the surface details of a deep interpersonal bond without permission from the other person(s) involved. Secondly, there is a vulnerability aspect. By telling comparative strangers about my friendships, I am baring a relationship about which I care very deeply to the eyes of people whom I have not yet been given much reason to view as trustworthy.

    It may be a person flaw of mine, I’m not sure, but generally there are things about myself – generally things that are intimately tied to my emotions, which is a category that includes most of my significant platonic or familial relationships – which I am naturally hesitant to discuss with anyone who is not themselves already close to me.

    • acetheist

      Perfectly understandable! It’s something we need more of, but not something I’d expect from everyone (and yes, getting permission first is definitely recommended).

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  • Jo

    It’s funny, because when it comes to talking about friendship and relationships I have two things going on in my head. One is that I think friendship needs to be valued and recognised as powerful far more than it is – because all this stuff about brushing friends off as ‘just friends’ and placing all the responsibility for your happiness on one romantically-coded significant other is unrealistic and even harmful in cases. On the other hand, your opening comment, saying that non-sexual, non-romantic relationships are otherwise known as friendships (thus equating them both) doesn’t seem right to me either, because I am in a non-sexual, non-romantic relationship which still differentiates itself from my friendships quite decidedly. It’s setting a line in the sand and saying ‘well, if your relationship is not sexual or romantic, then it is a friendship, and there is nothing in between.’ Or am I reading this wrong? That, to me, seems shortsighted, just like saying any serious relationship must be sexual.

    • acetheist

      I’m not quite sure what you’re asking, but: yes, I do believe that there are nonromantic nonsexual relationships that also are not friendships. A lot of people have relationships with bosses, parents, teachers, coworkers, etc. that they wouldn’t describe as being the same as a friendship. I’m not interested in making the claim that the absence of romance/sex = friendship. That said, the kind of relationship that could plausibly be described as a (nonsexual) friendship is the kind of relationship category I wanted to talk about in the post, and I wanted to address that right off the bat. The idea was to cut off anyone who might interject, “Hey, isn’t that just a friendship?” (using “just” here not in the sense of insignificance but in the sense of “you are using more words than is necessary for that concept”).

      Nonromantic nonsexual relationships are also known as friendships, in a lot of cases, but I’d say the former is a slightly larger category.

      • Jo

        I meant more in the opposite direction – things like (queer)platonic partnerships, ‘significant other’ relationships that aren’t romantic or sexual, but characterised by deep love and affection and committment.

        • acetheist

          Well, if it makes sense to you to distinguish those as not-frienships, whatever works, I suppose. I would just think of them as different types of friendships.

          • Jo

            I think it makes sense to a great many aromantic people searching for or in committed non-romantic relationships. It’s not that they’re not friendships (because most significant relationships are built on friendship), but that they are other things as well.

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