This is my first time writing something specifically for the Carnival of Aros! My previous post, “The Relationship Between My (A)sexuality and (A)romanticism” was written for the joint Carnival of Aces/Carnival of Aros.
When I was seventeen years old, a guy I’d recently met called to ask me out on a date. I was confused, since he was dating one of my best friends. I wasn’t romantically or sexually attracted to him, and, if I had been, his relationship status would have kept me from doing anything about it. I liked him, and I liked the idea of getting to know him better. But I wanted to know exactly what he meant by a “date”.
I consulted with his girlfriend, and she told me I should talk to him directly and let him explain his relationship philosophy himself. And so, one day, the three of us sat in the school basement and had one of the most important conversations of my life.
In his view, he said, relationships were made up of different pieces. Some elements were reserved only for romantic relationships – but those elements were relatively few and discrete. Most of the other elements could potentially be part of his platonic relationships. Being in a romantic relationship with one person did not prevent him from enjoying rich friendships with others. Moreover, he believed that friendships were worth pursuing and cultivating in much the same way as romances. If someone interested him, he would make an effort to spend time with them. If he liked them, he might ask them out on a “date”. These “dates” weren’t considered romantic, but they had a similar function: to get to know someone, to get closer to them, and to lay the foundation for a close, long-term relationship.
There are moments of revelation in life, when you hear for the first time something you instinctively recognise as true. It had never occurred to me to think of “dating” this way before, but as soon as I heard it I knew it was right. There was no reason to treat romantic relationships one way and platonic ones another way. Both were valuable; both were worth time and effort. Why should we pursue one kind of relationship actively and purposefully while expecting the other to just happen? Wasn’t a romance just a friendship with a few extra features, anyway? Why not focus on the friendship and worry about romance if and when it became an issue?
That was how I came to my theory of dating – a theory I continue to hold twenty years later. Although I didn’t have words to explain it back then, I realise that it has a lot to do with being demisexual and platoniromantic. Being demisexual means I usually need to spend some time getting to know someone before I develop sexual feelings for them. It makes sense to start by dating people as friends rather than rushing into a sexual relationship with someone I’m not (yet) attracted to. Being platoniromantic means that, apart from the question of sex, I make no distinction between romance and friendship. That means that the sorts of things I like doing with a romantic partner are pretty much the same things I like doing with a friend.
In university, I learned the word “teleological”, which means “having a goal or purpose”. The problem with the standard dating model is that it’s too teleological – there’s too much focus on the destination. If you think of dating as simply a means towards sex, romance, or marriage, then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration every time you don’t achieve your goal. But is focusing on the goal really the best way to achieve it? I know two people who weren’t looking for a romantic partner and had no particular interest in each other. But when one of them suddenly became homeless, the other let her sleep on his floor. Through the resulting proximity, they got to know each other, and now they’re happily married. I also knew a guy who went on date after date and through girlfriend after girlfriend, trying to find the person he wanted to settle down with. Last time I heard from him, he was still single and still searching. It seems that even if you do want a partner, normative dating isn’t necessarily the best way to find one.
At this point, I’d love to say that I practise platonic dating on a regular basis, that I “date” lots of people, and that I make lots of friends that way. But that’s not how it’s worked out. In my early adulthood I tried – without using the word out loud – “dating” a few people. However, even though I’d made it clear that I was only interested in them platonically, they soon expressed concern that the relationships were becoming too much like romances. These rejections made me wary of pursuing platonic relationships too openly.
Still, I continue to believe our society would be better if we stopped thinking of dating as inherently romantic or sexual, for several reasons:
- It would make it easier to form friendships. If we were allowed to put the same effort into platonic relationships as we do into romantic ones, it would be easier to make friends, and fewer people would feel friendless and lonely. That would benefit everyone who values friendship, asexual, aromantic, and otherwise.
- It would mean there was less pressure on relationships to become romantic or sexual. People wouldn’t feel like they “owed” each other, and so wouldn’t feel pushed to engage in sexual/romantic activity they didn’t really want. Conversely, if sex and romance never became part of the relationship, they wouldn’t feel cheated or see the relationship as a “failure”; they’d be able to appreciate it for what it was.
- It would encourage people to accept and validate their partners’ outside relationships. One of the great things about the couple from the beginning of this post was that the girlfriend gave me and her boyfriend space to develop our friendship. It’s not that their relationship was polyamorous – it wasn’t. But it was one where both members were allowed to have outside friends, and the friendships could be taken seriously without being treated as a threat to the romance.
- It would make it easier for people to form romantic and sexual relationships. The current dating system is actually pretty bad for this – especially for people who don’t experience primary attraction. In “Asexual, Allosexual, and Other Labels That Don’t Quite Fit”, I wrote:
The “normal” way to form sexual relationships is to find people you’re attracted to, engage in sexual/romantic behaviour with them, and build a relationship based on that. This dating system is really rigged against demisexuals, who usually need to be in a relationship before experiencing sexual attraction… Trust, commitment, and intimacy are … hard to come by, and if you require those things before engaging in sexual activity then your options are limited.
By encouraging people to get to know each other as friends, platonic dating would allow them to set this groundwork. It would make it easier for demisexuals to find people they were attracted to. And it would give everyone else a chance to get to know their partners before introducing the challenges that come with sex, romance, or monogamy.
One of the few times I did systematically date someone long-term, you could say the result was a resounding failure – in that I ended up developing sexual feelings for him that he didn’t return. Certainly, if I was trying to prove it was possible to date someone without sex becoming an issue, I failed at that. I also failed if I was trying to find a romantic partner. And yet I don’t think of the relationship as a failure. For one thing, it proved a point I alluded to earlier: that the best way to find people you’re attracted to is to start by making friends. And, for another, because I did make a friend; that made the experience worthwhile, even if it also caused some sexual frustration.
Romantic dating is a means to an end; people usually do it with some kind of destination in mind. With platonic dating, the destination is far less certain. You might end up in one place, or you might end up somewhere completely different.
Enjoy the journey.