What is not love
Aromatic: what it is like when you cannot feel love
At school, all that passed her "by the way", says Sabina: raving about boys, whispering, giggling, having a crush on them. And that's still the case today, says the 20-year-old on a park bench in Bremen's Bürgerpark. A couple sit on the bench and hold hands.
In the third grade there was the first boy who was interested in her. "It wasn't serious or dramatic, of course, but he gave me a card that said 'I love you'. That didn't impress me." Even if you guys said "I love you" after this elementary school admirer, she still didn't care. Romantic love doesn't make sense to them. Sabina describes herself as aromantic - an emotional orientation that has nothing to do with sexuality. In return, she keeps reaping perplexed looks. And until a year ago she didn't know what Aromantik was either. This is also due to the fact that aromantics have been relatively little researched.
People who cannot love
"This concept arose from queer, theoretical and philosophical perspectives," says social psychologist Dora Simunovic. It was only five years ago that Simunovic read about it for the first time in a forum. Queer theories have been part of cultural theories since the 1990s with the aim of questioning common notions of genders or forms of relationship. In this environment, the word aromantic has been appearing more and more since 2013.
With her aromantic orientation, Sabina is an exception. For many people, romantic love is considered the key to happiness. We reproduce them in romantic comedies and love songs; look for them in dating apps and at single parties. But what is this love that our society revolves around?
Love is not a higher state of mind, but an addiction
Depending on whether you read Shakespeare, Plato, the Bible or Dieter Bohlen's autobiography, you will find different explanations for what romantic love is. The Duden defines love as "strong, emotional affection for another person" or also as "strong physical, spiritual, emotional attraction, combined with the desire to be together or to be devoted". In the meantime, science has also dealt with the topic.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher conducted a neuroscientific study in 2005 in which she put 2,500 students in love in an MRI scanner to investigate how their brains react to romantic feelings. The result: love is not a higher state of mind or a feeling, but an addiction to the happiness hormone dopamine. Hormone rush can cause neurochemical changes in the brain similar to cocaine. So romantic love is a drug and dopamine is its powerful stimulant.
One often hears that love is a basic need. The social psychologist Simunovic sees it differently: "Love is a combination of different basic emotions", she explains: "It is difficult to say whether everyone absolutely needs love. But they certainly need social support, acceptance and affection."
From failed relationships to outing as aromantic
Sabina had more dates after her elementary school admirer, but no one had any great feelings. Then she downloaded a dating app. "I only had the app for one reason: I wasn't interested in the guys, but I was receptive to comments. I like the feeling that someone wants me, even if that sounds totally selfish," says Sabina. She was looking for confirmation, but did not want to get involved in a chat under any circumstances: "The sense of flirting does not open up to me."
At some point a simple "Hi" appeared as a message between superficial compliments. She did what she hadn't done otherwise: she answered. The guy became her boyfriend.
Sabina lives a little outside of Bremen, the guy on the other side of town. Today he is no longer her boyfriend. She says that it took her an hour to get to him on the bus and that she was never excited to see him again. "I found it visually attractive, but I did not wish to cuddle on the sofa for hours."
"At first I was excited because he was a complete stranger from an app. Then I thought: This is it now, that big tingling sensation everyone is talking about." Then she noticed that she thought kissing was okay, but cuddling was exhausting. And that the tingling sensation disappeared after the first meeting. Although the time with him was nice, she didn't want to sleep with him in the evening. She tried it, but instead of being romantic, it was annoying that someone else breathed loudly next to her or gave off too much body heat. Most of the time she drove all the way back that same night.
At some point, the three words were said that Sabina could not return.
"In a relationship, there is only one answer to 'I love you', 'I love you too,' but for me these are just words without meaning," she says. "I liked his attention. But after a few weeks that changed: other couples do something every day and once a week I felt too much."
She broke up with him last year after six months of relationship. While he was shedding tears, she became indifferent, says Sabina.
"I don't think it's bad to be alone," says Sabina
A video changes Sabina's worldview
Until this separation she knew nothing about aromantics. But she has since noticed that, unlike others, she did not dream of a future for two. "I've often wondered what's wrong with me. But I never googled my 'symptoms' because I thought it would pass."
During puberty, she once kissed a girl to find out if she was a lesbian. She is not. "Am I a sociopath?" - She lay awake for nights on end over this thought. But she has too close friendships for that. After all, she wondered if she was asexual. The answer is: yes and no.
She hasn't had sex yet, says Sabina, but: "I find smooching satisfying." She doesn't know whether she is simply not ready yet or really not interested in sex: "I don't want to write asexuality on my forehead as well." Then, last year, she discovered a video that completely changed her worldview.
In it, a young woman from Spain explains that she is "lith-romantic". This is a subgroup of aromantics.
Sabina could identify with it: "I can be attracted to someone else, mostly because I find them attractive. But as soon as my interest is returned, everything fizzles out for me. Then it becomes too much for me." Shortly after the separation, Sabina came out in front of her mother and close friends. She also told her ex-boyfriend about it. She saw in it the explanation for her lack of interest and the last two failed relationships: "He replied that I shouldn't spin around. I found this self-knowledge not great either, but plausible." In the meantime she has got used to her emotional orientation. But not the reactions to it.
Also at VICE: This is how our generation is redefining love
"Oh, you just don't know what love is!", "You have to open up!", "This is just a phase!", "You just haven't met the right person yet". After her outing, Sabina receives sentences like this as unsolicited as spam emails. Only in real life is there no tool to filter them. "I had to hear that I was a psychopath. Or people asked me if I was previously abused or if something went really wrong in my childhood," she says. She is a very emotional person.
She had the word "Warrior" tattooed on her forearm, a reminder of difficult times when the three of them lived in a one-room apartment in her home country Poland as a child - and of getting up after each setback. Anger, sadness or empathy are strong feelings for her, says Sabina. When she watches a movie in which someone dies, she cries. If someone treats her friends unfairly, she gets angry. Only when Celine Dion warls "My heart will go on" on the radio or a series character is dramatically abandoned does she feel nothing. "I've never had a heartache, not even after a breakup. I don't know what that feels like."
It is unclear whether one feels aromantic for a lifetime. Sex educator Michael Sztenc says that many people he works with describe themselves as unable to relate or love: "For many, it makes sense not to live out their need for love for various reasons: bad experiences, too much risk or fear." Aromantic people have not yet come to him. But Simunovic says she does not want to rule out that fear of attachment or a repression mechanism can be reasons that people cannot fall in love.
Sabina's father left her mother before she was born. To this day she doesn't know who he is. She doesn't care, she says, because her mother has met a new man for ten years, with whom she is also married and with whom Sabina has a good relationship. She doesn't know why she doesn't feel romantic attraction, she says. Only that the concept of aromantics no longer makes her feel abnormal.
Aromantics is an antithesis to conventional ideals of romantic love
Simunovic believes that the development of emotional concepts is related to our pop culture: "I think aromantics is an answer to a culture where, more than ever before, we collectively fantasize and talk about romance." Love sells well because society likes to consume it. The constant interest in formats like The Bachelor and Love Island or news tickers on possible celebrity weddings at least suggest that.
The sex pedagogue Sztenc also says that our society produces relationship concepts that expand and develop the old idea of the romantic ideal of love. This also includes aromantics who find it pleasant not to have an intimate relationship at all or to act out models such as Friendship Plus. "Every young person has the need to somehow master the big issues like love and eroticism. Orientation, directions, categories are needed that make the incomprehensible tangible," says Sztenc. For a long time the concept of romantic love was considered the ultimate thesis, now an antithesis is forming with aromantics. So the question about the synthesis is: What comes after?
Sabina says she couldn't stand the pressure and expectations in romantic relationships: "I don't like the rules in relationships. You should only do everything according to your mood and keep your own life". She could not understand the search for a soul mate: "For me, life is a house in which a romantic relationship is just a wall. When it's gone, nothing breaks in for me. For other people, a relationship is the same whole house. "
Social psychologist Simunovic says that although aromantics has yet to be explored, it is useful for people to identify with it. "The zeitgeist allows you to make yourself heard as a member of a minority and thereby drive research and get more answers about your own orientation."
One year after her outing, Sabina also says that she won't be alone forever, "I have friends". Then she pauses for a moment and thinks: "Although, they too will find their partners at some point and start their own families." She seems sad for a moment and falls silent, until she says what her real wish is: "Maybe I will find someone who is also aromantic and can imagine an unconventional relationship with me, in which one may not even live together."
When Sabina thinks about the future, she doesn't see an imaginary partner by her side. "I don't think it's bad to be alone, I've seen myself all my life. Even if I should become a mom, I'll see myself alone without a partner." Only sometimes, it gnaws at her an oppressive feeling that everyone else has something that, as an aromantic, she will never have.
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