All about amatonormativity: the privileging of rom...

All about amatonormativity: the privileging of romantic love

Thanks so much to BBC Bitesize for interviewing me for this article on the pressure of finding The One. It’s something I’ve spoken and written about a bunch, of course – including this recent podcast with Justin on Love in the Time of Covid-19. But this interview helped me to learn about the concept of amatonormativity as a new way of framining it. You can read the BBC Bitesize piece here, and my full interview below.

What is amatonormativity?

Amatonormativity is a long word which philosopher Elizabeth Brake came up with. It means that, in our culture, it’s seen as normal for people to want romantic love, and to prioritise that kind of love over other kinds. Other kinds of love include things like the love we have in friendships, family relationships, work and play relationships, and relationships with ourselves and with companion animals, our communities, the world around us, and our spiritual beliefs.  ‘Amato’ means romantic love and ‘normativity’ means what’s seen as culturally normal.

Amatonormativity is linked to several other kinds of ‘normativity’: heteronormativity (where it’s seen as normal to want relationships with someone of the ‘opposite gender’), cisnormativity (where it’s seen as normal to be one of only two genders – male and female – and to stay in that gender all your life),  mononormativity (where it’s seen as normal to only love one person and to want a monogamous relationship with them), and sexual normativity (where it’s seen as normal to want to have sex, generally only with the person you’re in a romantic relationship with).

To make it simpler we could say that the overall ‘norm’ is to be in one gender yourself, to fall in love with someone of the ‘opposite’ gender (perhaps after dating a bit), and to form a monogamous relationship with them where you have sex and get more and more committed over time (the relationship escalator): getting married, having a family, and trying to stay together for life.

What are the different ways it affects everyone in society?

Amatonormativity affects everyone: the people who don’t fit into it and the people who do. 

The people who don’t fit into amatonormativity include people who are single or solo, people who are aromantic so don’t experience romantic love, people who prioritise other kinds of relationships in their lives, and people who prioritise many relationships rather than just one – like polyamorous people and relationship anarchists. Other people who don’t fit into amatonormativity are people from cultures where marriage and other committed relationships aren’t based on romantic love, which is actually people in many cultures around the world.

Some people don’t fit amatonormativity because they’ve realised it doesn’t work for them. It’s hard for them because the world around them assumes they will want romantic love and may discriminate against them or make them feel weird or isolated for being ‘different’. 

The people who do fit amatonormativity often have a hard time too. Because there’s so much cultural pressure – and pressure from friends and family and peers – to want romantic love and to focus on it obsessively, people often miss out on other great things in life like friendships and projects and community.

Also the huge pressure on a romantic partner to be ‘everything’ to you and ‘complete’ you and be your soul mate who meets all your needs means that most romantic love relationships often don’t work out long term. It’s just too much pressure to be someone’s best friend, and their lover, and the person they live with and have kids with, and their cheerleader, and the person who looks after them when they’re sick or struggling.

People can end up staying in really unhappy relationships because they’re scared to be alone in an amatonormative world, and they can end up breaking up with one person after another and getting really hurt by that because they’re so busy searching for someone perfect.

Is there anyone it particularly affects? 

Amatonormativity particularly affects those of us who are trying to do relationships differently because we’ve realised some of the problems with basing relationships on romantic love. While we might try to prioritise the other relationships in our lives, we may still find that our friends prioritise their romantic relationships and drift off as soon as they have a partner, or spend more time on dating than on friendships. Or they might find it weird to talk with us about how we might make commitments in our friendships.

Amatonormativity also affects people with trauma in their backgrounds – which is many of us. Romantic love can be quite risky when we have childhood trauma because it’s very easy to jump into relationships quickly and to try to get the kind of love there which we were missing – or lost – as a kid. Again that’s a lot of pressure to put on one relationship, and we can often end up getting hurt because painful patterns come up in intense romantic relationships and we can become very dependent on them.

Some neurodiverse people can struggle with amatonormativity because romantic love type relationships don’t give us the space we might need, enough solo time, or can just be too intense for us.

Finally, some people would say that amatonormativity – with its focus on one romantic relationship – isn’t so good for disabled people, or people with physical and mental health conditions, or even for parents, where being an isolated unit of just two people can be a lot of pressure. Perhaps community-based models and extended family structures where there are networks of people looking out for each other can work better when we need care and support.

Focusing on young people specifically, what expectations does it set and how might it harm them? 

For young people amatonormativity can mean that a lot of your focus goes on love relationships, particularly for girls who are still taught in stories and movies and magazines that love is their big adventure in life. When that message is all around you it can seem to make sense to spend a lot of your time longing for love, talking about the people you fancy, dating or hooking up. That can feel like the most fun and pleasurable thing in life. But what would it be like if we lived in a world where mates were seen as just as important as dates, where we were taught how to enjoy our relationship with ourselves rather than being so hard on ourselves all the time, or where we were expected to get just as excited about the things we’re passionate about as we do about the people we’re into?

If you’re a young person who doesn’t fit into amatonormativity there can be so much pressure to do so. You can end up being bullied for being weird and different if you don’t talk about who you fancy or get off with people, and you can end up feeling like an outsider or like there’s something wrong with you if romantic love isn’t something you’re interested in, or if it doesn’t seem to happen for you.

That’s why the idea of amatonormativity is really helpful. It reminds us that prioritising romantic love isn’t really the normal, natural, right thing to do. It’s just one thing we can do, and it might not even be a very good idea for all the reasons we’ve talked about.

Online communities can be a lot of help for finding other people who do things differently, and it can be good to see a counsellor if anyone is giving you a hard time. Website like BishUK and Scarleteen both have great advice for young people about relationship diversity.

Do you think there are structural things that favour couples, or privileges that come with being in a romantic relationship/marriage that are related to amatonormativity? 

One of the reasons it’s so hard to be outside amatonormativity, or to resist it if it doesn’t work for us, is because the whole of society is set up like it’s the One True Way to be. People who get married are given lots of legal and financial and health support that people who are in other kinds of relationships don’t get. It’s often much easier to get a house together if you are a romantic couple than if you’re in another kind of relationship with one or more other people. People who have kids together are often not recognised as valid parents unless they’re romantic partners.

Outside of these practical problems, cultural messages are So Strong that we should want romantic love and settle down with a romantic partner. It’s literally the ‘happy ever after’ of most fairy tales, movies, and novels. It’s also the focus of loads of magazines, soap operas, and reality TV shows like Love Island or Love is Blind. This means most people just accept amatonormativity and everyone from our mates to our families are probably assuming we’ll want romantic love and are pressuring us to date, especially around events like proms and weddings, or at times like Valentine’s Day and holiday seasons.

‘Couple privilege’ is a phrase for the many ways in which it’s easier to be in our society as a couple than it is as somebody single or in another kind of relationship. Couples never have to explain why they want to be together or stay together, whereas people who are single are always asked to explain themselves, as are people who leave romantic relationships, or who decide to prioritise other kinds of relationships.

Do you think society is changing in terms of amatonormativity?

I hope so. In 2012 my book Rewriting the Rules came out, which suggested that we could question the love rules that prioritise romantic love over other kinds of love. Eight years on we now have a word for this: amatonormativity, and people are having these kinds of conversations more widely. There are also more and more words and communities for people who want to do things differently like solo poly people, self-partnered people, relationship anarchists, aromantic people, etc. Popular TV shows like Modern Love have started to portray lots of different kinds of love rather than just romantic love.

However, at the same time, the mainstream media seems increasingly obsessed with people at a young age finding The One and getting married to them. Look at all the massively popular reality TV shows where winning is based on falling in love and making that commitment.

It’s a bit like what’s happening with sex and gender. At the same time that we have asexual communities questioning why there is so much pressure to be sexual, we also have more and more cultural obsession with having ‘great sex’ and ‘experts’ insisting that it’s vital to have sex. At the same time that we have non-binary people questioning why people are divided into men and women, there’s also a lot of cultural pressure to be a manly man and or a girly girl and ‘experts’ insisting that gender is binary.

What can we do to be less amatonormative or how do we get rid of amatonormativity?

It is So Hard to step outside of culture so go gently with yourself. If you see the problems with amatonormativity then it’s a great idea to be part of communities of other people who feel similarly in order to get support. Finding online and offline communities of other people who want to do relationships the way you do is a great plan. You might also read some of the books and zines out there which question amatonormativity and offer alternatives. I hope my book Rewriting the Rules is a pretty good place to start, and me and Justin Hancock (from Bish UK) have a podcast where we talk about these things A Lot.

For me one of the answers to how to do things differently has been to slow down all relationships. These days I tell everyone that I want to be friends first. In fact I aim to have a friendship for at least a year before I consider adding anything to it (whether that is sex or romantic love or working together or living together). New Relationship Energy or ‘falling in love’ is a major feature of amatonormativity and I think it’s a great idea to slow that right down, because it generally isn’t a great basis to build a whole relationship on.

Do you also happen to know if any cultures across the world are not amatonormative?

Actually all cultures around the world do love differently. More cultures are some form of non-monogamous than are monogamous, and many cultures base marriage or committed relationships on some kind of family and/or financial arrangement, or on choosing a good fit, rather than on romantic love (although that can develop over time in such relationships). If we don’t want to impose one view on the rest of the world – as we have in the past – we need to get on board with relationship diversity.

Patreon link: If you liked this, feel free to support my Patreon, it will certainly help this self-employed person to maintain some income during these uncertain times.

Plural tag: This post was primarily written by Fox.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).