Leaning While Aromantic

This is a submission for the October 2019 Carnival of Aros, on the topic of “Aromanticism and Aloneness“. This post has been crossposted to Tumblr.

I was talking recently with a friend about the distinction I make between relationships and partnerships to explain why I don’t want a queerplatonic relationship, and one of the differences we discussed was the idea of leaning, which invariably led to a lot of existential questions about aloneness. 

Present

In theory, leaning is simple: sometimes, when life is hard, you need to lean on something for support. But in practice, it can be pretty complex. There are a number of support systems you can turn to when you need something to lean on (money, family, partners, and interpersonal relationships, etc), but each one is different from all the others. Maybe you’re estranged from your family but you have a lot of strong interpersonal relationships, or maybe you have a lot of money but not a partner. There are also a number of societal expectations around leaning, like how if you catch a cold, it’s fine if your partner nurses you back to health, but it’s sort-of “““weird””” if your friends take on that task instead. 

My relationship to leaning is…complicated. I’m normally self-reliant, so I don’t lean very often, but when I am leaning, I’ll lean on someone a lot for a short period of time. When I’m not leaning, a part of me is worrying that I’m too independent and that I need more close friends, or else next time I won’t have anyone to lean on. And when I am leaning, in addition to dealing with whatever’s making me lean on someone, I’m worrying that I’m leaning too hard on them, and either I’m going to lose my friend once this is over (bad), or I’m going to lose them while I’m still leaning on them (very bad). 

Now, you might think the solution is obvious. Find someone who is always willing to be there for me to lean on and be my partner, right? Well, the problem is that I don’t like it when other people lean on me. A friend recently asked to borrow a book. I wasn’t currently reading it, I probably wouldn’t read it for the foreseeable future, and I had no sentimental attachment to it. It was just an ordinary book. And yet, my first reaction was one of possessiveness and defensiveness. I was able to perfectly rationalize that even if I never got the book back there would be no negative impact on my life, and that lending the book would lead to a positive impact on my friend’s life, but getting myself to lend the book was, well, hard. I don’t want to be this way by any means; I want to be able to support my friends. I just don’t like it when people lean on me. 

The kind of leaning that I’m most comfortable with is when other people need someone to talk to, but even that has its limits. Fairly low stakes stuff is fine and often times enjoyable, but if it’s about a super serious topic that’s well above my pay grade, I’ll worry in the moment that I’m not giving them the help they need, and then dodge the subject in the future. I am able to contribute some support, but I still have a net negative contribution; that is, I lean on others more than I let them lean on me. (Or at least, I think my net contribution is negative. More on this in a bit)

To further complicate matters, I’m okay with being alone for a while, but eventually I’ll need to have some lightweight positive interaction with my friends. I guess you could say I’m an ambivert; I go back and forth between needing alone time and social time to recharge, but in a sort-of extreme fashion. I need places that are just for me, where I have an absolute guarantee that I can be alone with myself, and I also need places that are for others, where I have an absolute guarantee that I won’t be alone with myself. Anything that infringes on my guaranteed aloneness is like the worst kind of lean on me, and while less immediate, being cut off from my guaranteed social interactions grows over time to be equally bad. 

So, in short, I rarely but intensely lean on people while also trying to avoid situations where they lean on me, even though I (at least theoretically) want to be there when they need someone to lean on, all the while needing a balance of personal space and social interaction. 

Future

But that’s just the present situation. What could my future look like? What’s a stable, long-term living arrangement that would make me happy? 

  • Totally isolated and self-reliant: This wouldn’t work because sometimes I’ll need someone to lean on (what do I do if I get sick?) or just have positive interactions with. 
  • Single partner: The idea of being the primary support for another person is a mix of uncomfortable, terrifying, and suffocating. If I met someone that I was comfortable being the dedicated support for, I could maybe see myself entering a queerplatonic relationship with them? But my repulsion from partnerships is pretty strong, so I’m not holding out hope that this would work. (And besides, I don’t like the idea of hoping that I’ll meet someone who will magically “fix” me and save me from all these problems)
  • Multiple partners: I used to think a polyamorous relationship might work for me, but as I mentioned earlier, I think I have a net negative contribution of support. I say “think” because it’s possible that I’m just very bad at objectively measuring the ways I support (or would support) my partners. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad if one’s contribution is slightly negative, but in my case I think it would be significantly negative. Furthermore, each time I redirected a partner’s lean away from me and onto someone else, wouldn’t I be separating myself from the rest of the group a tiny bit? And even if my partners didn’t end up drifting away a bit, even if they really were fine with my behavior, even if my net contribution of support was only slightly neutral or even neutral or positive, I don’t think they’d be able to convince me that everything was fine, so I’d constantly be worrying that this option was unstable and about to break down. 
  • Group of friends: No partnerships and no commitments should be better because I have no obligation to support others, right? Well, the trouble is that this would probably end up being an overcorrection. Without a partnership, I wouldn’t have any guarantee that my friends would value our interpersonal relationship and put in as much time and effort as I’d like from them. So if my friends started dating someone, there’d a good chance they’d end up abandoning me. 
  • Group of friends in the same predicament as me: Having a group of mostly or all aspec friends, where we all sort-of live together in a communal space but also have private spaces for alone time is definitely a dream of mine. The only problem is that the odds of finding people to make this work in the long term feels incredibly unlikely. 
  • Pets: I’d love to have one or more pets, probably cats, but I’m not convinced that I’d be able to always care and support for pets and put their needs above my own. 
  • Children: No. I don’t want kids, and that amount of responsibility for another life that’s completely dependent on you is terrifying. 
  • Learn to let people lean on me: Considering the amount of effort I put in right now to convince myself that I’m not taking advantage of my friends by leaning on them more than they lean on me, this feels like the obvious solution. And regardless of ethical dilemmas, I do like the idea of my friends leaning on me; I care about them and want to be able to support them. But when it actually comes to providing support, letting people lean on me when I don’t want them to is hard. I’m not sure if I could ever learn to let people lean on me enough that some sort of relationship/partnership/whatever could have a good chance of working in the long run, because often times it feels like my complicated relationship to leaning is intertwined with being aroace. When I look at people who are dating, people who are in partnerships of some sort, the only explanation I can fathom for how they’re okay with being a major form of support for someone else is that something about wanting to enter a partnership with someone makes supporting them more tolerable. 

So, am I just supposed to hope that I never need to lean on people? Remind me why our society is set up to encourage single people to find a partner who can always support them? I mean, I have nothing wrong with being alone. Often times, I actually like being alone, having some space that’s just for me. I spend a lot of my time thinking about stuff on my own, processing the topic at hand before I divulge my conclusions to other people. I don’t need people. I can be self-reliant. Let me put on some music, work on a project for hours or days at a time, and I’ll find joy in my work and be super productive. And when I’m in need of some social interaction, I’ll seek it out and recharge for a bit, and then be ready to keep working. I can adjust to small perturbations, as long as they don’t happen all at once. I have a self-balancing system that could potentially run indefinitely given the status quo remains unchanged.

But when a big wave rocks the boat, I’m gonna need something to lean on. 

7 thoughts on “Leaning While Aromantic

  1. Well, the trouble is that this would probably end up being an overcorrection. Without a partnership, I wouldn’t have any guarantee that my friends would value our interpersonal relationship and put in as much time and effort as I’d like from them. So if my friends started dating someone, there’d a good chance they’d end up abandoning me.

    While there’s something to be said about that as a pattern, I think it’s also important to point out that none of that is inherent. In fact, partnership itself (as a general premise) is no guarantee that a partner will be safe, trustworthy, or reliable. Just last night, I listened to some people talking about how they weren’t all that enamoured with their partners, were thinking of leaving them, or were/had only kept dating someone until they got back some money/favors they were owed. And that’s to say nothing of flakiness, lying, and abuse. Domestic violence shelters are a thing for a reason. So I don’t think it’s wise to think of partnership as a “guarantee” of anything in particular.

    And on the flipside, I don’t think friendship should be necessarily viewed as “lacking a guarantee.” I mean — if you want a guarantee of something from someone, you should negotiate it in that particular relationship. Friendship doesn’t inherently mean something casual and disposable. Even some friends I’ve had where our friendship was relatively surface-level and temporary were still people who would offer to bring me cold medicine when I was sick. While the fear of abandonment when friends start dating is real and based on something real (and I’ve been through that before like nobody’s business), that’s not *inherent* to “friendship.” That’s really important to me to say. If your friends are currently seeing you infrequently and don’t put a lot of effort into your friendship, that’s something particular to your relationship with those particular people, not something necessarily true of all friendships.

    I mean, I have nothing wrong with being alone. Often times, I actually like being alone, having some space that’s just for me. I spend a lot of my time thinking about stuff on my own, processing the topic at hand before I divulge my conclusions to other people. I don’t need people. I can be self-reliant.

    Everyone needs people. That’s something I very firmly believe. It might sound pedantic, but I think reconceptualizing what it means to “need people” might actually be helpful for adjusting how it feels to lean on people and let them lean on you, if that’s something you’re open to trying. I’ve been thinking about this more as of late since I started reading Braiding Sweetgrass again — from the day we’re born, we’re embedded in relationships, not just human relationships but relationships to all life around us. Robin Kimmerer is Native and a botonist and so talks about relationships with a lot of nonhuman life, especially plants (contextualized in terms of both scientific and traditional knowledge), which I think is super helpful for reevaluating how we approach those relationships we take for granted.

    But even without getting into any of that, too, even just looking at human relationships — no one is ever truly self-reliant. Do you make all the music that you listen to? Did you make all of the websites that you use? Did you build your own house or apartment? Do you make the fiber and the cloth to sew all your own clothes? Do you grow and hunt all of your own food? Were the one to pick all those plants or craft that electronic device? It’s dizzying when you think about it — there are millions of ways in which we are constantly relying on the labor and creations of others. It just gets obscured and thought of as something other than a “relationship” or “reliance” or “dependence” because it’s obscured by monetary transactions in my culture. But even money itself is a kind of relationship, economically, in that it is literally a promise of value from a national government (money is my go-to example of a social construct).

    The point of raising all this is if you stop taking all these relationships and webs of dependency for granted, if you stop thinking of individual independence as something even achievable or desirable, if you treat that as a natural part of human existence and something mutually beneficial, then it can be easier to adjust those individualistic thought patterns that say leaning on others is something to be avoided.

    Like I alluded to, I think individualistic thinking something heavily encouraged by capitalism, and that’s something that Robin Kimmerer touches on, too, when she talks about differences between commodity economies compared to gift economies (which, to white western ears, can initially sound very uncomfortable and untenable because how can people bear to depend on each other so nakedly?).

    I should add, though, that recognizing interdependence for what it is can still be compatible with alone time. Alone time is still very important and different people prefer different amounts of it. I do believe in that. In fact I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of the places I’ve lived haven’t made it very easy to just wander off in the woods/out in the pasture/out in the field to go be by yourself, if you want to. That’s something that’s not made readily available to everyone. So instead we mostly associate aloneness with access to physically walled-off indoor spaces and the human-density of wherever you sleep. What I’m saying is, there’s more than one way to think about situational aloneness, too.

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    1. In fact, partnership itself (as a general premise) is no guarantee that a partner will be safe, trustworthy, or reliable.

      Hm. That’s something that I haven’t consciously acknowledged in a while, if ever. It’s interesting, because I’m aware of stories featuring unhealthy relationships, partners cheating on each other, and so on, but I don’t feel like people explicitly acknowledge that there’s “no guarantee that a partner will be safe, trustworthy, or reliable.”

      if you want a guarantee of something from someone, you should negotiate it in that particular relationship.

      that’s the logical thing to do, but at that point, it starts straying (at least for me) into partner/partnership territory, which is what I want to avoid.

      Friendship doesn’t inherently mean something casual and disposable.

      I guess I should have clarified, “Group of friends” just means that there’s no official Relationship (TM) with particular rules or anything like that, not that it’s neccessarily disposable. If I ended up going the group of friends route, I’d definitely want my friendships to be very meaningful and close, just not for them to be Partners in a Partnership with me.

      *After spending entirely too long choosing exactly how to respond to your last 5 paragraphs*

      It’s dizzying when you think about it — there are millions of ways in which we are constantly relying on the labor and creations of others. It just gets obscured and thought of as something other than a “relationship” or “reliance” or “dependence” because it’s obscured by monetary transactions in my culture. But even money itself is a kind of relationship, economically, in that it is literally a promise of value from a national government (money is my go-to example of a social construct).

      The point of raising all this is if you stop taking all these relationships and webs of dependency for granted, if you stop thinking of individual independence as something even achievable or desirable, if you treat that as a natural part of human existence and something mutually beneficial, then it can be easier to adjust those individualistic thought patterns that say leaning on others is something to be avoided.

      That’s a very comforting thought. It doesn’t feel like it directly helps my situation as a sometimes-leaner who avoids being leaned on. But it’s still comforting.

      In fact I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of the places I’ve lived haven’t made it very easy to just wander off in the woods/out in the pasture/out in the field to go be by yourself, if you want to. That’s something that’s not made readily available to everyone. So instead we mostly associate aloneness with access to physically walled-off indoor spaces

      that’s a good point. (Although, in my case, I enjoy the romanticized ideal of being out in nature more than the reality of being out in nature. To each their own, I guess.)

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      1. that’s the logical thing to do, but at that point, it starts straying (at least for me) into partner/partnership territory, which is what I want to avoid.

        hm! I don’t know what that means exactly, although I believe you that there can be something truly aversive about that. That sounds like an interesting topic for further discussion: how can aros and/or partnership-averse people (not to imply that the two groups are the same, but y’know) negotiate specific things out of their relationships, without making those relationships feel like partnerships? How can people approach “state of the relationship” conversations with friends without triggering that aversion?

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        1. At least for me, part of it is this idea of obligation or being bound in some way. Part of why I like the non-partnered relationship I have with my friends is that it’s not particularly rigid. If I want to hang out with someone more or less often, I can kind of just. Do that. And that freedom is really important to me because my squishes and general closeness with friends can ebb and flow in mysterious ways. (Of course, it’s a double-edged sword in that my friends can also ebb away from me, particularly if they acquire partners of their own, but I digress.) So when you add back in having “state of the relationship” conversations, it feels kind of like a loss of some of that freedom? Which is a weird reaction for me to have, considering that I like talking with my friends and having deep conversations and knowing how they feel, but I guess it just has to be in the context of a non-partnered relationship?

          How can people approach “state of the relationship” conversations with friends without triggering that aversion?

          so, uh, luck?

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  2. Reading your post, I wonder whether the American fraternal/sororal orders of circa 1900 would have been what you are looking for. Many people joined these organizations because they wanted some guarantee of being able to lean on others during hard times. Organizations such as the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, etc. required membership dues, and in exchange, members had access to social activities, and if a member died, the order would pay for their funeral and financially support their surviving dependants (and there were possibly other means of support offered when a member fell on hard times, it probably depended on the group and the situation). Most Chinese Americans around the year 1900 were members of a family association, regional association, or one of the other organizations run by and for Chinese immigrants and their descendants because it was essential to their survival in the United States at that time. The Chinese American organizations helped members find jobs and housing, and assisted them if they became sick (they still exist, but are not nearly as important to Chinese Americans as they were a century ago). I’ve read that the implementation of Social Security was one of the causes of the decline in these orders/organizations, because people felt less of a need to join an organization and pay dues in order to strengthen their safety net.

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    1. Hm. I think that I wouldn’t like the artificial/commercial nature of a group like that (since it sounds like the barrier to entry is an entrance fee and not whether you like the other members), but it does sound interesting.

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