Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Do I Learn To Fall In Love?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a 21 year old girl, and I’ve known I was asexual since I was about 17. I’m pretty aromantic as well, though the most accurate label is probably gray demiromantic — I’ve only ever had romantic feelings about two people, both of whom were my close friends. I’m not even sure that they were really romantic feelings, because they occurred very, very infrequently (like every 1-2 months). I would say the primary feelings I remember identifying were kind of a glowy, warm feeling, wanting to sit a little closer, and an overwhelming sense of “wow, I’m so, so incredibly lucky that this person is in my life”. But I don’t know whether those types of feelings count as any sort of attraction, because I don’t really have any other experience to compare them to.

Anyway, there’s a couple different things going on. My great-grandma is 96 and in memory care right now, and we can’t see her for pandemic reasons, and the whole experience of worrying about her has had me thinking a lot more about my own mortality than I ever had before. Not in the sense of wanting to die, but in the sense of realizing that my subjective perception of reality will just suddenly stop one day, and anything I don’t do/feel/experience in the next seventy-odd years is something I’ll never experience ever. I won’t ever know what it’s like to not be aro or ace, so I’ve been thinking that I should start trying to find ways to create the life that I want for myself, regardless.

I’m pretty sex-neutral, and while I’d be enthusiastic about trying it at some point with the right person (provided they were cool with the fact that I don’t experience sexual attraction the same way they do), I wouldn’t be too bothered if I never had it.

But romantically, I’ve been feeling not so great recently about the fact that my brain can’t really seem to fall in love. I’m not even that lonely—I love my friends, and I’m a pretty self-sufficient person with plans to maybe go the ICI/sperm bank route when I’m older and settled in my career. But I grew up really, really loving romances in books and movies and other people’s stories about their lives, and it’s been hard for me to accept that I’ll never know what that’s like for myself.

A bit of background: the friend who I most recently had a “squish” (ambiguously aromantic crush-ish thing) on is another student at my small arts school. We’ve been friends for three years now, and become really emotionally close. It’s been a rough three years for both of us—I had never been away from my family before college, which did a number on me, and she had a TON of s

tty, traumatic experiences, one with a creepy, borderline harassing/emotionally abusive professor, and one where her roommate stalked her and made death threats against her.

(When another friend and I talked her into going to administration about the roommate, my friend had her entire reputation dragged through the mud, the other girl spread a bunch of straight-up lies about her to the rest of the student body, and after being briefly suspended, this other girl is now back at school and basically free to keep hurting my friend.)

I am almost constantly furious about the way she was treated and is still treated, but every time we try to call out the perpetrators (for example, a kid in our creative writing class posted a nasty essay about her to the whole class), they react even more violently, whether or not we involve the authorities.

The point is, after all this s

t, we’ve become SUPER emotionally close, closer than I’ve ever been with someone who isn’t part of my family. She says she loves me and calls me her “North Star” friend because I’m someone who was always there for her and never doubted her. So my tiny, intermittent possibly-romantic-maybe-not feelings for her are really, definitely off the table. My common sense is telling me that that is in NO WAY WHATSOEVER something that she needs from me, what with all the stress in her life right now. I care a lot about her, and I would feel incredibly terrible if I ever did anything that hurt her. And there’s no good reason to try to tell her that I’ve been feeling this way, because I’m actually really happy with the current extent of our friendship. It’s not like I secretly really want to try kissing her or something—emotional closeness and occasionally sitting together on the couch is pretty much all I need or want from a relationship, at least for now.

But the fact that I’ve even BEEN recently having recurring feelings for her that I could characterize as possibly romantic (the other time was much less strong, and only once) has made me wonder about possibly trying to develop that for myself. Not with my friend, obviously—see above. But I want to try to see if “falling in love”, or whatever my brain chemistry’s version of that is, is something that might work for me once I’m not quarantined with my family and it’s safe to see other people again.

So my question is, how do I go about that? I don’t really even know what to look for. Everything I’ve felt that I could categorize as romantic attraction has been towards someone I already knew super well, and I just literally don’t experience sexual attraction. What little I know about romantic interest indicates that it’s generally based on reciprocity, by which I mean that two people subtextually communicate that they find each other cool/hot/compatible/ whatever and mutually agree to try it out. But I don’t know how to navigate that for myself, because I don’t even really feel like I know enough to have a “type”, if that makes sense. It doesn’t help that I have a sensory processing disorder and get really overwhelmed in large groups of people!!

I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings by expressing an interest that I’m not sure exists. But I don’t know how to find someone I might be interested in without somehow expressing interest myself. Writing all this down, I’m thinking my best option might just be to accept that I don’t feel romantic attraction and that’s okay, and maybe one day I’ll meet another aro person and have a queer platonic relationship (QPR). But I’m scared that if I only look for aro people, I won’t be able to find someone whose interests and emotions are very compatible with mine.

I don’t have any delusions about asking for exclusivity. I know that what I have to offer in a relationship is basically nil compared to an allosexual person, and that anyone I was partnered with would probably have romantic and sexual needs that I wouldn’t be able to completely fill on my own, no matter how willing I was to try. I’m prepared and happy to make compromises, whatever they will need to be. I feel like I have things to offer as a potential partner beyond sex and romance (and I want to be able to DO both sex and romance as well, I just know that I don’t feel either form of attraction very strongly/at all, so people would probably generally rather be with someone who “feels that way”). But I give good cuddles, I listen well and care a lot, I love discussing all sorts of weird niche things, and I’m super loyal and devoted to the people in my life. I just want to know how to get started finding people who want that from someone and are willing to look past the ace/aro thing!!

I have a thick skin and I’m not afraid of tough truths. Whatever I need to hear, I’ll listen, and any insight/help you can give would be really, really appreciated.

Thanks for your time, Doc!

Sincerely,

Best Friends Forever

DEAR BEST FRIENDS FOREVER: A lot of times I get a letter where the problem the writer has isn’t the problem they think they have. More often than not, the problem that they think they have is a symptom, rather than a cause and the answer is to address the underlying issue. In your case BFF, your problem — such as it is — is that you don’t actually have a problem so much as an issue with expectations and definitions.

Let’s tackle the most obvious issue head on: you’re somewhere on the asexual/aromantic spectrum and you’re wondering whether you can essentially “force” yourself to fall in love with someone. The issue with this framing is that love, like sexual attraction, isn’t really something you can force or learn to do. It would be one thing if, for example, you weren’t letting yourself open up to people. There are plenty of folks who are incredibly guarded, who don’t allow themselves to be vulnerable and emotionally open with people. They focus on shallow or non-committal encounters because they have a fear of rejection, being hurt or otherwise putting themselves in a vulnerable position with another person.

(This is in contrast to folks who just prefer shallow or non-committal encounters; no shame in folks not wanting more…)

That’s something that a person can learn to overcome, with therapy, with work and self-exploration. By putting in the work, they can get to a point where they feel empowered or  brave enough to actually open up to the possibility of a committed relationship. But that’s not the same as simply not being in love with someone or not being attracted to them. People have tried to force themselves to feel — or not feel — for others and it never works. Similarly, folks have tried to force themselves, or have had others try to force them to be attracted to people they aren’t attracted to. This has almost always ended badly for everyone involved.

Even people who aren’t aromantic can’t force themselves to fall in love. God knows people have tried; there’s a veritable mountain of books, products and snake-oil salesmen that all promise that they have the secret to “making” someone fall in love with you, and they all work about as well as you might think.

But the thing is: love’s goddamn complicated. Love isn’t just emotional, it’s chemical; it’s oxytocin and dopamine in the brain, firing off because we’ve got a head full of wiring that loves novelty and new experiences. But those same chemicals fire off when we have sex or achieve orgasm — part of why people can mistake REALLY liking to bang someone with love, only to discover that they don’t have any of the other qualities that they need to make a relationship work in the long term. Similarly, we can have intense emotional connections with people… but have absolutely no sexual attraction to them whatsoever. Those connections aren’t any less romantic because they’re platonic; they’re just what you might call a romantic friendship. Those sorts of friendships used to be far more commonly accepted than they are today; in fact, there were a multitude of people who believed that those friendships were more important than love, which was often seen as being fleeting and capricious.

And there are many kinds of love, too. There’s eros, or love of the body. There’s agape, or love of two souls and philios, the love between siblings and family, whether a family of blood or a family of choice. A person can experience these types of love separately or with the same person; they may never experience one of them but experience the others. Love is goddamn weird.

But our culture doesn’t just hype up romance, it hypes up limerence. The focus is on the early days of a romance, when it’s more about the chemical rush and excitement of New Relationship energy. And while that’s unquestionably a fun part of falling in love with someone, it’s not the only part… hell, it’s not even the part that lasts. The early, giddy, butterflies-and-isn’t-the-way-they-chew-their-food-adorable stage fades, and faster than we’d expect. But we’re trained to think that this is the only part of love that counts. We have damned few examples of romances that go beyond the early days of falling in love. Most of our love stories tend to end with marriage and just assume that it’s all going to sort itself out in the long run. Very few love stories are about long-term relationships, and most of the stories we see about couples in long relationships tend to be about when it all goes horribly wrong.

Hell, even Han Solo and General Leia didn’t get the happy ending we were promised at the end of Return of the Jedi.

But all of that pop culture celebration of love creates an unrealistic and unfair portrayal of what love is and what forms of love “count”.

So honestly, I’d say you’ve already been in love. You love your friend; I would go so far as to say that you have a romantic kind of friendship. Frankly that’s as real and valid and valuable as anything you might read in a romance novel or see celebrated in TV or movies. And to be perfectly honest, I kind of wish we saw more relationships like that; while I appreciate the desire for more queer representation in media, shipping has a tendency to erase platonic friendships and perpetuate the myth that emotional intimacy is the same as — or the precursor to — sexual intimacy. This has the result of accidentally devaluing the idea of a romantic friendship or a platonic lifemate, whether straight or queer.

Will you ever experience the cartoon-birds-and-cupids kind of love that people write s

tty pop songs about? I can’t say; in a world of infinite possibilities, the only answer I can give is “maybe?” Can you “learn” to feel that? Probably not. You can certainly do the things that generate oxytocin in the brain — physical touch, laughter, great conversation, even sex if you want to give that a try — but that’s not going to “make” you fall in love with someone. The only advice I can give is this:

First: let yourself be open to possibility. It’s possible that you’ll meet someone who’ll be that rare person who actually flips the switch and gives you that movie kind of love. It’s also possible that you’ll meet someone for whom a sexual connection isn’t necessarily important. Plenty of people have companionate marriages and relationships, where their relationship is based around mutual respect, companionship and yes, love… just not sex. Sometimes one or both partners will have sexual partners outside the relationship. Sometimes they won’t because sex just isn’t a priority for them. That’s as valid and valuable of a relationship as one where folks are banging out on every flat surface in the house.

Second: don’t devalue or ignore the love you do feel. Just because it’s not the “lone figure in front of crashing waves” kind of feeling doesn’t mean that it’s not love, that it’s not real or that it’s not important. The feelings you have for your friend are love, they are passionate, even if they’re not sexual or intense in the way you’re told they should be.

Third: don’t forget that you’re young. It may be hard to find someone who isn’t also on the ace/aro spectrum who wants a committed relationship while you’re in your 20s; you may not find it until your 30s, 40s or older, when your peers are more in tune with their own desires and interests. A lot of those companionate marriages I mentioned are often between people who are older… but not always. Again: there’s a world of near-infinite possibilities out there. Don’t close yourself off to the opportunities that may come your way, but don’t despair just because your ideal relationship may not be one that you’ll have in your 20s. Love isn’t any less meaningful when you’ve aged out of the 18-35 demographic, and romance isn’t any less romantic when you’ve got some gray in your hair. Love comes in its on time and in its own way. The best thing you can do is be ready for it when it arrives and in whatever form it comes in.

Good luck.

Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, doc@doctornerdlove.com