Giving Up On 'Love' - And Why The Labels Can Help
Asexuality, aromanticism, and a life without love
"So, are you gay?"
This wasn't the first time in my life I'd been asked this.
In a bookshop I used to work in, someone once described me as the 'gayest straight man you'll ever meet', while someone one else christened me 'Queenie': The latter stuck, and became my nickname. But this attitude wasn't limited to just work colleagues: Even some of my (all female) romantic partners have described me as 'camp.'
I'm not gay but never took issue with any of this; my gay friends were always my coolest, most authentic, and bravest ones - I took it all as a compliment.
"No," I replied.
"But you wrote an article about coming out."
"I also wrote a short story where all the main characters were goldfish. Doesn't make me one either."
Yes - this was a facetious, cheeky answer, but also true.
It's very weird - when you start posting work, you have no power over what people will read into any of it. Some pieces are biographical, some aren't. Some are deeply personal; some aren't even your idea. (This one, by the way, is the former.)
However, despite not knowing any of that, someone else will still decide why I wrote it, who it's about...
"So, why are you single?"
This was possibly my least favorite question - after, "Do you know what speed you were driving at, sir?" and "It's alcohol-free; is that okay?"
I wasn't in the mood to yet again retell the story of why I'd given up on relationships, so I was evasive, and - instead - answered a completely different question.
"Because I'm in recovery after a prolonged, and very bad, bout of poor mental heath. I'm not professionally successful, and am neither funny, intelligent or charming. And look at me; I resemble a meth-addled, alcoholic, homeless tramp. I have the aesthetic appeal of a landfill site."
"Fair enough," they replied. "But, maybe, once you're feeling better, you might be tempted to... you know... to try again."
"I am getting better."
"No, I meant feeling better about yourself."
"The landfill site-thing."
I didn't have the heart to tell her that this wasn't necessarily the by-product of low self-esteem; someone once actually had described me that way.
Only one person in my life has ever called me good-looking; but she had been my wife at the time. I'm not being falsely modest, nor fishing for compliments; I just accept myself for what I am, especially physically. If anyone had ever wanted to be with me, it was never for my looks. I'm not naive.
"I'm not an expert," she said, stretching the truth. Because she was an expert - before Covid, she had been a relationship coach / counselor; this was kind-of her 'thang.' "But, the thoughts we have of ourselves do impact on our life, including our views on relationships. If you see yourself that way, you're hardly going to be an advocate for love."
She was right. And I didn't disagree with her at all. If cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) had taught me anything, it's that we are indeed our thoughts.
And it's why I now had a more realistic view of myself.
An Honest Reappraisal
I used to think that I was quite witty, quite kind, quite clever, and not entirely ugly. However, my life to date hadn't been the life of someone who was any of those things.
And, although you should never read too much into the words of others, you also can't completely ignore them. There might be some truth in there you can use to build a better 'you.'
As I said, only one person has ever complimented me on my looks, and I was to married to her. And, as for me as a person? I had never exactly drowned in praise. Maybe I wasn't the person I (used to) think I was?
I was getting better for lots of reasons, but one of the biggest was that I wasn't coasting anymore when it came to how I viewed myself. I no longer saw myself purely as a victim, as someone who had only ever been a thoroughly wonderful human being, and had simply been an innocent party in everything that had later happen.
I saw myself, more accurately, as a flawed human being, who'd - at times - acted like a imbecile. I might have been on the receiving end of the mistakes of others, but - by God - I'd committed some catastrophic errors of judgement myself.
The unpalatable truth is that we don't become something by telling ourselves, and others, we are that thing - we become that thing by doing it.
It's not enough to shout about your levels of compassion, or empathy, or support; you've got to actually be understanding, try and see things from someone else's point of view, and turn up. There's really no point posting that kind of stuff online, if - in reality - you only give a damn about yourself.
The labels we give ourselves aren't always true. And it helped looking at the ones I'd always bestowed on myself. Working on all that horrible stuff - i.e. who I really was, and not just who I either thought or wanted to believe I was - was a key part in my recovery.
As a result, my perception of myself was undergoing a radical revision.
I wasn't liking what I was seeing, and - granted - it was far more negative than positive, arguably reflecting my low self-esteem. But, I was growing. Getting better. The truth will set you free; at first it will p**s you off, but it will ultimately set you free.
"Do you want to find a partner?"
Now, that was an entirely different issue, and one that wasn't about how I saw myself...
"No," I replied.
"Are you aromantic?" Given her professional background, I wasn't surprised she knew the terminology.
"I don't like the label, but yes."
For those of you who don't know, 'aromantic' is a term of sexual orientation used to describe someone who experiences little or no romantic attraction.
A few years earlier, this was possibly the very last word I would have ever used in relation to myself. I was overflowing with the stuff.
However, this is where I was now.
I hadn't been romantically attracted to a woman for a long time. I wasn't gay; but I no longer felt romantically interested in females. Whether that ability was temporarily dampened due to the events of recent times, or destroyed for good, isn't relevant.
All that matters is this is what I am today. Now.
'Asexual' is a variation on the above; in this case, it means feeling little or no sexual attraction.
You can be one or the other; you don't have to be both asexual and aromantic. But, the honest truth is that, despite the rather bold labels, these both exist on a scale, and so most people probably are both, or at the very least one of them, to some extent.
Being either 'aromantic' and 'asexual' isn't a problem at all. Whether single or in a partnership, either one, or even both can be worked on. As long as you want a relationship, that is.
Besides, it's all fluid anyway.
A Permanent State of Flux
We all lose interest in the opposite sex at times, even if we're in a relationship. Due to life events, such as extreme stress, or pregnancy, or depression, or bereavement, or a million other things, our points are never rigid, never fixed: They ebb and flow, just as the partnership does.
One day we're as randy as Hell, or flowing over with romantic love for our life-mate; the next day we don't want that person to even touch, or look at, us. But, in most part, there's a reason, and it's nothing to worry about.
There's also the added issue that, in addition to both being fluid on an individual level, the relationship itself can dictate where on either spectrum you may sit at any given moment in time. For, when two people form a union, it's created in the space between them - it is what is, has a life of its own, and isn't defined purely by the individuals as separate entities, nor by their past relationships, but by what specifically happens when they come together.
And sometimes, that 'reaction' might mean the relationship takes a form you never envisioned, and one that can fly in the face of any previous one.
Which is why it's always dangerous to compare past lovers: What you had with someone else can't be compared with what you have with your present partner - they're completely different people, and so the relationship itself is completely different.
You might have always seen yourself as more 'romantic' than 'sexual', but one person might bring the physical side out of you in a way previous partners never did. And, you might have always been someone who sucked at the romantic stuff, but, with someone else, this becomes hugely important to you. It happens.
And it's no problem if one side holds more sway than the other.
After all, it's not unheard of for couples to be very much in love with each other (i.e. romantically attracted), but to have little or no physical relationship. Likewise the opposite: Couples can have a vast physical connection, but might experience little romantic, or emotional, depth.
The absence of one or the other doesn't automatically signify a lack of love. Every relationship is different, and the love between two people manifests itself in different ways.
A couple who has lots of great sex, but live quite autonomously, tackling 'things' in their lives pretty independently, isn't automatically a sign that they don't love each other. As long as they each turn up for the 'big' things, maybe fighting the smaller wars on their own works for them.
Just as a couple who join forces, and work as a team battling all the fires that come their way together, but sleep in separate beds, in separate rooms, isn't evidence they don't care about each other.
It could simply be that's what the relationship is.
In many ways, these two elements can be a form of 'love language.' And, if it works for you, it works for you.
The problems come - obviously - when there is a vast discrepancy. When either you or the relationship itself needs more emotional or romantic heft, but you're stuck between the sheets all day.
Or when you need some physical connection, but you're too busy being wonderfully supportive you forget to hug or hold hands.
Or, occasionally, you know, f**k.
Outside of a relationship, the only time it is a problem if you know you are both asexual and aromantic, but - deep down - you also know you WANT to be with someone. That can be tricky.
Thus, for me, it's not a problem.
Where I Am Today
I'm not attracted to females anymore, whether temporarily, or for good, but also don't want a relationship. Quite frankly, it's not really a big thing for me.
However, it is for others. Boy, is it for others.
"What about.. you know... sex?"
It wasn't really a concern. I hadn't had any for ages, and didn't appear to miss it. If anything, it proved that the idea that men only thought about sex was a myth; I couldn't be bothered.
To be honest, nowadays I'd rather go for a run.
Plus, there was a more practical concern on this front. Namely, the 45mg of Mirtizapine I swallow down daily.
Even if I wasn't feeling asexual, that level of anti-depressant affects your libido. I doubt I could feel aroused even if the 10 most beautiful women in the world were standing in front of me naked.
"Aren't you lonely?"
The truth is, yes. Of course I was. But, everyone was.
We were living through Covid. Loneliness came with the territory. My loneliness wasn't about a lack of a romantic partner, but - like everyone - due to someone eating a raw bat eighteen months ago.
But it was also 'no.'
Take away the edge of solitude provided by Covid angle, and the fact that I didn't have as much meaningful contact as I used to because the world was in lock-down, and - to be honest - I was actually less lonely than I had been for a very long time. Apart from one (very) brief dalliance, I hadn't had a 'proper' partner for over 2 years now. And, right now, I was probably less lonely than I had been for years.
For the first time in ages, I had people who turned up for me, listened to me - I didn't have a partner, but I had love and support. Being single had actually made me less lonely.
I didn't see the need to have a relationship. And, due to land of 'aromanticism' and 'asexuality', I wasn't going to seek one. Maybe not ever again.
"Then... I mean... Well, that's one of the reasons for living, isn't it? To love."
And THIS is the big, big point. The one EVERYTHING else always comes back to.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Romantic love is one of the reasons for living. It's what we aspire to as humans: To find 'love.' There's this belief, albeit unspoken, that if we don't find it, we're not complete. After all, that's part of the human journey. A key part.
Although my first encounters with the labels had thrown me, my acceptance of my burgeoning asexuality and aromanticism, had forced me to consider another aspect: What if it wasn't my journey?
What if my journey involved other things?
What would my life look like if romantic love wasn't something I achieved again?
Initially, this is terrifying. You see decades of scary solitude opening up in front of you.
But, as you pick this idea up and explore it from all angles, you quickly begin to see how much of the life you've dreamt of having is one put there by other people. By the stories we - as a species - have always told ourselves. Most of which revolve around the pernicious idea that somehow being single is tantamount to being a failure, and that happiness can only truly be found as part of a couple.
Or by the questions you've asked yourself due to a flawed attachment style, or an underlying struggle with codependency. Questions you don't even understand, but you're certain that the answer can be found if you could only find your soulmate.
Strip that away, explore it, and it actually gives you the chance to begin thinking about the right life for you. Not one that would make your Grandmother happy, but one that suits you.
And maybe romantic love isn't part of mine.
I don't yet fully know what my journey is. But, the more I consider it, the more I'm okay with a partner not being a component.
To be honest, given the friends I had either found or rediscovered over the past few years, I already have enough love. I'm not sure what I could possibly be missing out on. The idea of romantic love is lovely; but how many times does reality match the fantasy?
I'm fine with saying, 'Nah - the way things are now is pretty cool.'
Nothing is set in stone. I might be in a different place a year from now. But, truthfully? I doubt it.
Take romantic love out of the equation, and you find another bit of you that's needs working on, and polishing.
And, right now, I'm enjoying that journey. Heck - that could be part of my overall journey.
"Fair enough," she said.
"I think so."
And I really do.
The labels of 'aromantic' and 'asexual' are clunky. They are intimidating, and make you feel as if your are making a bigger statement that you actually are. In reality, they're just words, ones that sum up how I feel, and allow me to explore the issues behind them.
That's why they've helped me.
They've not only forced me to look at parts of me I need to focus on, they've also enabled me to look at a life that may not have romantic love in it again. It'll still have love, just in the form of friends and family. Not in the shape of an 'other half.'
And, you know what? That life looks just fine.
If you've liked what you've read, please check out the rest of my work on Vocal. Among other things, I write about film, theatre, and mental health: The story of my admission to a psychiatric ward, and my attempts to rebuild my life following my discharge, starts with 'Flow: The Psychiatric Ward' -
You can also find me on Elephant Journal and The Mighty.
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