Do you feel under pressure to find The One?
"So, are you seeing anyone yet?"
If you dread this question at family gatherings, or feel like literally everyone’s dating apart from you, you’re experiencing something very common.
We all know it’s okay to be single and the importance of self-love. Even so, you may have felt that you absolutely needed to find The One (or at least someone), no matter how much you might enjoy focusing on other things. So where does all that come from?
The pressure is real - and it has a name. ‘Amatonormativity’ is, in essence, the assumption that everyone desires, and should aim to have, a romantic relationship. The term was coined in 2016 by professor of philosophy Elizabeth Brake, though research around the concept goes back decades. ‘Amato’ comes from the Latin word for 'loved', and ‘normativity’ is what is seen as culturally normal.
Dr Meg-John Barker, psychotherapist and specialist in gender, sexual, and relationship diversity (GSRD), explains in our culture it’s normal for people to want romantic love and to prioritise that kind of love over other kinds:
“Other kinds of love includes the love we have in friendships, family relationships, work and play relationships, relationships with ourselves, with companion animals, our communities, the world around us, and our spiritual beliefs.”
All for one, no fun for all
In one way or another, amatonormativity affects most of us. Some people don’t fit into its typical patterns: single or solo people; aromantic people who don't experience romantic attraction; people who prioritise other kinds of relationships; or people who prioritise many relationships, such as polyamorous people.
"It's hard for these categories, because the world around them assumes they will want one type of love and may discriminate against them or make them feel weird or isolated for being 'different',” says Dr Barker.
Likewise, some people might be affected by amatonormativity because they do want to fit into cultural norms, but can't seem to make romantic love work for them. This can lead to individuals being unhappy when single, staying in toxic relationships or repeatedly going through break-ups and getting hurt because of a genuine fear of being alone when society expects us all to have a partner.
“There's this cultural norm in pop songs and Hollywood movies, reality TV and social media. They've been taught to really want this thing but they just can't get it,” explains Dr Barker.
And there's more. According to Dr Barker, people with childhood trauma might find it difficult to navigate romantic relationships as adults.
“It's very easy to jump into relationships quickly and to try to get the love which we were missing - or lost - as a kid… 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.”
How ‘happily ever after’ can hurt us
Because there's so much pressure to focus on romantic love, people can often hold their romantic partner to unrealistic standards and expectations. Dr Barker believes this huge expectation on a romantic partner to be everything to you means that most relationships often don't work out long term:
“It’s just too much pressure to be someone’s best friend, their lover, the person they live with, have kids with, their cheerleader, and the person who looks after them when they're sick or struggling. They can end up breaking up with one person after another because they're so busy searching for someone perfect.”
However, a romantic relationship does come with its perks. 'Couple privilege' is a phrase for the many ways in which it's easier to be in our society as a couple.
Dr Barker says that most couples don’t tend to have to explain why they want to be together or stay together, whereas, “people who are single or prioritise other relationships are always asked to explain themselves. It can be easier to get a house together if you are a married romantic couple than if you're single or in another kind of relationship.”
But cultural messages to settle down with a romantic partner can be pretty daunting, especially when you’re not ready for it:
“This means most people just accept amatonormativity, and everyone from our mates to our families are pressuring us to date - especially around events like proms and weddings, or at times like Valentine's Day and holiday seasons.”
Stuck on the relationship escalator
Dr Barker describes the concept of the ‘relationship escalator’ as getting married, having a family, and trying to stay together for life - in that order.
The rush to get on that relationship escalator can make it difficult for young people trying to find out who they are and what works for them - particularly for girls who are still taught in stories, films and magazines that love is their big adventure in life. Perhaps you’ve felt pressure to talk about who you fancy, or been upset when your friends start spending all of their time with their new partner and no longer make time for you.
“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 find it weird to talk with us about how we might make commitments in our friendships.”
This can also mean that pain caused by a ‘friendship breakup’ isn’t taken seriously by parents or peers - after all, it’s not like they were the one. But losing or struggling with any kind of relationship, including with yourself, can be very painful and shouldn’t be dismissed just because it isn’t romantic.
How can we change an amatonormative society?
You might feel this whole romantic love thing is pretty overwhelming, whether you want it, have it, hate it or none of the above. Dr Barker has some ideas on how inclusive could become the new normal, and how to reframe the way we think about romantic love and relationships:
“It’s 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 similar in order to get support."
Dr Barker added it’s not wrong to want all the things amatonormativity enforces. Just make sure you recognise what’s right for you (not what the telly says is right for you) and be mindful that it might not be right for everyone else. Also remember you have plenty of love around you in other forms, and from other places.
“That's why the concept 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. Finding online and offline communities of other people who want to do relationships the way you do is a great plan.”
They concluded: “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.”