What is ‘am­atonor­ma­tiv­ity’? The be­lief that you’re bet­ter off in a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - LISA BONOS

Be­ing sin­gle is not nec­es­sar­ily a prob­lem to be fixed, but it of­ten gets treated that way.

In women’s mag­a­zines that trum­pet how to find your soul­mate. In rom-coms where the hot mess of a sin­gle pro­tag­o­nist ends up with a man. In con­ver­sa­tions in which mar­ried friends pre­sume that their sin­gle friends would au­to­mat­i­cally be bet­ter off with a part­ner, any part­ner.

But what’s a sin­gle per­son to do when what she needs most is ... to stop get­ting so much un­so­licited ad­vice?

When I asked Mandy Len Ca­tron, au­thor of “How to Fall in Love with Any­one,” for ad­vice on how to deal with the ad­vice del­uge, she had a suc­cinct an­swer. Tell the per­son with a pre­sumed an­swer to your pre­sumed prob­lem: “Stop be­ing so am­atonor­ma­tive.” Say what? “Am­atonor­ma­tiv­ity” is a rel­a­tively new term — coined about five years ago by El­iz­a­beth Brake, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at Arizona State Univer­sity and the au­thor of “Min­i­miz­ing Mar­riage” — to cap­ture two widely held as­sump­tions: that a per­son who isn’t in a monog­a­mous ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship is seek­ing that type of re­la­tion­ship, and that this per­son would au­to­mat­i­cally be bet­ter off in a monog­a­mous ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship than he or she would be while sin­gle or in an­other type of re­la­tion­ship.

In a phone in­ter­view, Brake told me that she mod­elled “am­atonor­ma­tiv­ity” af­ter the term “het­eronor­ma­tiv­ity,” or the be­lief that het­ero­sex­u­al­ity is the de­fault sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. (“Ama­tus” is the Latin word for “loved.”) When the de­fault as­sump­tion is that be­ing in a com­mit­ted re­la­tion­ship — any re­la­tion­ship, re­gard­less of its qual­ity — is prized above all else, it can leave some sin­gles feel­ing sin­gled out.

Peo­ple who might chafe against am­atonor­ma­tiv­ity — in movies and pop cul­ture, in strangers’ pre­sump­tions about your life, in friends’ and fam­ily’s well-mean­ing ad­vice — are those who are look­ing for a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship but haven’t found one they pre­fer more than be­ing sin­gle; peo­ple who are per­fectly happy out­side of a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship and do not de­sire one; those who pre­fer to be polyamorous or prac­tise an­other type of non­monogamy; and those who iden­tify as aro­man­tic or asex­ual, which is a grow­ing sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion among mil­len­ni­als.

Brake said that part of the rea­son she wanted to cri­tique am­atonor­ma­tiv­ity is that she sees how the pres­sure to be in a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship can cause peo­ple to sac­ri­fice their hap­pi­ness or well-be­ing sim­ply to se­cure or stay in a re­la­tion­ship.

Am­atonor­ma­tiv­ity is ev­i­dent in the ad­vice col­umn in which a let­ter writer asks, “Should I set­tle?” be­cause he as­sumes be­ing with some­one is bet­ter than be­ing alone.

Am­atonor­ma­tiv­ity is ap­par­ent in the fact that it’s ac­cepted to bring a ro­man­tic part­ner as a plus-one to a wed­ding or a fancy event and less com­mon to at­tend with a best friend or sib­ling. Our laws are am­atonor­ma­tive as well, in that mar­ried cou­ples have tax ben­e­fits and pro­tec­tions that co­hab­it­ing friends or sib­lings can’t claim.

Brake heard am­atonor­ma­tiv­ity in the ques­tions she got when she was younger — “Are you mar­ried? Are you en­gaged?” — even though she wasn’t pri­or­i­tiz­ing ro­mance at that time in her life.

“A lot of peo­ple en­counter this pres­sure (to pair off ) in their twen­ties and early thir­ties,” Brake said. “You want a word to de­scribe it and re­spond to it.”

Hav­ing a word for the pres­sure has helped Ca­tron. “When I learned this term ‘am­atonor­ma­tiv­ity,’” she told me, “I felt like that un­locked a lot of things for me. There was a word for the prob­lem. And the prob­lem is that ev­ery­one as­sumes that your life is go­ing to be bet­ter and more mean­ing­ful and more ful­fill­ing in­side a long-term, com­mit­ted, monog­a­mous, mar­riage-minded re­la­tion­ship. That’s the de­fault as­sump­tion in our cul­ture."

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