Let’s start with three questions. One: When was the last time you watched a movie where the protagonist didn’t have a love interest and/or finding love wasn’t a part of their journey at all? Two: Do you have different expectations regarding how soon you need your friend vs your significant other to text back? Three: If you heard of someone who has never dated anyone in their life, nor intends to, how would you honestly feel about that person?
Your answers to these questions might give you some insight on how you view romantic or amorous relationships, and how they compare to other kinds of relationships. Think about it - most of us see partnership as some form of universal goal, like it’s on everyone’s checklist. You’re not a “real adult” until you’re cohabiting with your partner, right? Until you’ve found that one person to spend forever with? If, as a society, we had to rank human relationships, categorize them somewhat hierarchically, friendships would always rank lower than romantic partnership.
Many of us know what heteronormativity is and how it plays out in society. The assumption is that straight is the default, anything else strays from the normal. That’s why people tend to expect heterosexual patterns of behaviour even in queer couples, such as asking who wears the pants in the relationship. Just like heteronormativity prioritizes heterosexual relationships, amatonormativity prioritizes romantic and amorous relationships in general. Amatonormativity is a term coined by Arizona State University professor Elizabeth Brake to describe how romantic, monogamous relationships are placed on a pedestal in our society. It focuses on cultural assumptions that degrade friendships and solitude as inferior, or lesser than, and make “finding the one” the central purpose of an adult’s life. We’ve all heard these assumptions before: you’re not “whole” without your partner, there is a “right man/woman” out there for you, etc.
The effects of this phenomenon are easy to spot: almost all movies, music, or books, tend to put a spotlight on romantic love. Even in narratives where a character is “happily single”, this is either villanized or later changed when they realize they’d been looking for love all along! The societal prioritization of romantic relationships has real life implications too; the world we live in is designed for monogamous partners. That’s why when you get to bring a ‘plus one’ to a wedding, it’s expected to be a romantic partner. It’s why a friend might not have the same right to demand information about you at a hospital compared to a partner. Romantic relationships can be legalized by marriage, making it easier to buy a house, pay taxes or have kids.
Moreover, subscribing to the values of amatonormativity can hurt people on the asexual or aromantic spectrum, whose desires or lack of such can be viewed, then, as abnormal or invalid in a society that compels everyone to find a monogamous, romantic relationship. Violations of amatonormativity can be very simple things like dining alone by choice, putting friendship above romance, bringing a friend to a formal event or attending alone. Cohabiting with friends at an older age is strange in an amatonormative culture because living with friends is supposed to just be a phase in a person’s life, something they do in their twenties before they move on to creating their “own family” with their partner.
Rejecting the inherent superiority of romantic love isn’t just for people who want to be single. Even for those of us who truly desire romantic partnership, there are ways in which this romanticization of love hurts us. It is no surprise that in a culture that values amorous relationships to a suffocating degree, people feel compelled to stay in relationships that aren’t good for them, simply because it’s better than being alone. The shame of being single in an amatonormative culture can be so intense that you’d choose to be with someone who doesn’t make you happy, rather than stay alone. This is why, if you’re single, you may have heard things like: “Why is a pretty girl like you single?” or “Don’t worry, we’ll find someone for you” because it’s assumed that no one would willingly want to be single. In his comedy special Jigsaw, Daniel Sloss talks about this to an extent. He uses the jigsaw metaphor to explain how all of us have this incessant need to find a partner who will ‘complete’ us, that we aren’t whole unless we’ve coupled up. “We’re so trying to be an adult that some of us will take the wrong person, the wrong jigsaw piece and just fucking jam them into our jigsaw anyway, denying that they clearly don’t fit… because we’d much rather have something than nothing.”
At its core, then, amatonormativity has overvalued romantic relationships and devalues platonic relationships. As bell hooks said, we have “raise(ed) that romantic relationship as the single most important bond, when of course the single most important bond is that of community.”
Further reading: Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality and the Law by Elizabeth Brake