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Here I am again, picking up the pieces of my heart. I gave it away again, and again, it's been crushed. Someone I used to call a friend tossed it aside, an unwanted thing. It's my own fault, really, for getting my hopes up. I should know better by now. I've been here enough times before. Friendships are frivolous things to most people. I should stop expecting anyone to treat them otherwise—as precious gifts to be treasured, as prosperous gardens to be nurtured. I should stop hoping friends will reciprocate the genuine care, tenderness, passion, and commitment I hold for them—as if I really matter. As if platonic love will ever matter to them as much as romantic love. As if I won't be a sacrifice on the altar of their exaltation to romance.
Here I am again, left to cobble these pieces back together, left to hold my grief alone.
Romantic love is not a fixture in my life. Platonic love and community will always be my most significant and most cherished non-familial intimate connections in this world. Living in a culture dominated by romance, this makes me an oddity. For people like me—whether we are seen as oddities, non-conformists, relational misfits, freaks of nature, inhumans, undesirables, or just romantic failures—our focus on platonic love and community leaves us too often grieving lost friendships and unrealized intimacies when romance ultimately, inevitably wins out.
Being abandoned by friends, in one way or another, for their pursuit of romantic desires is a recurring loss for people like me. Cisheteropatriarchy (though queer romance is not immune to this phenomenon) and the culture of romantic domination require platonic relationships to come secondary, or even tertiary, to romantic ones. They require the relegation of friendships to the margins, and the perpetual centering of romantic relationships. They require the disposability of platonic love and community, and the measuring of our worth and desirability by our (in)ability or (lack of) desire to secure romantic connections.
In a society that privileges romantic partnership, all other connections will inevitably be treated as lesser, and those who are not romantically partnered are seen as less worthy of care—both intentionally and inadvertently. This is true at the personal level, and even on an institutional level: Single people, those not romantically attached, experience documented prejudice and discrimination in our romance-centric society. Stereotyped as being less functional and less productive members of society, unpartnered people—especially if we are also childfree—are often asked to put ourselves in more danger than our coupled counterparts, expected to work longer hours and accept more undesirable assignments than our romantically-partnered coworkers. Policies like paid leave and medicaid expansion are biased against unpartnered people. It's even harder to gain access to life-saving organ transplants without being romantically attached to someone.
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This disregard for people who are not romantically partnered and society's devaluing of platonic connections are central to cisheteropatriarchy, the culture of romantic domination, and how they operate. Within these structures, the romantic unit must always take precedence over everyone and everything else. Because the romantic unit is central to the creation of the cisheteropatriarchal nuclear family, people outside of that unit are more disposable in the social imagination.
Unpartnered people are just bodies that can be thrown in more danger and laborers that can be even more siphoned from We are lonely people with lives less worthy of saving without romantic partners there to grieve our deaths. Friends are just temporary placeholders, stepping stones to supplement people on their way to romance, people who can be devalued or completely disregarded once romance is achieved—and romance is always the greatest priority and the ultimate goal. Romance is always allowed to overshadow friendship, because friendships are not viewed as sustainable connections worthy of time, patience, loving cultivation, and work in the first place.
But in the words of the late Toni Morrison: "In the absence of so many support systems, we are it for each other. You have to work at your friendships with the same seriousness you did when you went to school." Despite all societal messaging to the contrary, if we want to have true community, then we do have to work at our friendships the way many of us did before we grew up. We have to work at friendships the way we did before the ideology of individualism convinced so many of us that creating a nuclear family is the most important thing we can do with our adulthoods—rather than building and working to strengthen interdependent support systems yoked by more than just romantic love or familial relation.
For those of us who don't participate in romance—the oddities, non-conformists, relational misfits, freaks of nature, inhumans, undesirables, and "failures"—our grief is manifold. We grieve lost friendships and lost possibilities of unrealized community. We grieve the friendships that were never allowed to flourish, the communities that were never allowed to solidify, the support systems never put into place. We grieve the friendships that never were but could have been if only we didn't live in a culture of romantic domination.
We also grieve the fact that we may never be anyone's significant other—despite the fact that significant others need not be romantic—and we grieve the fact that there may never be someone who wants to "do life" with us—despite the fact that life partners need not be romantic either. We grieve a world where platonic partnerships are normalized, not scoffed at by those who cannot fathom an experience in non-romantic love that is different from their own. We grieve a world where platonic love, communal love, and romantic love are all valued and cherished, and none are marginalized in favor of the other.
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We grieve the fact that many of the people around us, many of the people closest to us, will never even see or understand our grief, or regard it as valid.
Consider what it means for community, especially for people who never or rarely experience romantic connections, when non-romantic connections are understood as inherently more expendable and non-essential by dominant society. When romance culture normalizes the belief that we should never have to prioritize or offer genuine care to the people in our lives unless they are romantic partners (or sometimes relatives), especially if those people are considered undesirable, it prevents us from fostering true community with one another. When romance culture normalizes the belief that people not in romantic partnerships do not deserve the same consideration when it comes to our rest and well-being, we are left to tend to our own wounds because the pain and grief we experience from living in a romance-dominated culture become diminished and invisibilized. When romantic love is upheld as an achievement that marks us as worthy of being cared for by others, being lonely, unpartnered, and uncared for in this life is considered our own fault, our own failure.
Our beloved bell hooks once said,
"I think that part of what a culture of domination has done is raise that romantic relationship up as the single most important bond, when of course the single most important bond is that of community… We have to beware of the extent to which liberal individualism has actually been an assault on community. The notion that 'real freedom' is about not being interdependent, when the genuine staff of life is our interdependency, is our capacity to feel both with and for ourselves and other people."
Centering platonic love and community in your life is counter to and subversive of cisheteropatriarchy and the culture of romantic domination which ask us to insulate ourselves in the romantic partnerships that lead to nuclear families, to uphold liberal individualism and shun the interdependence of genuine communal care. When you center platonic love and community in your life, and are constantly told—and have it proven to you time and again—that the intimate connections that matter the most to you matter the least to dominant culture and its followers, it leaves you in a cycle of grief.
This grief is not only about the repetitive loss of platonic love. It is also about unrealized intimacies in many of the friendships that manage to stay alive. A culture of romantic domination creates an imbalance of power in friendships for those of us who don't participate in romance—either because we have no desire to do so, or because we are barred from accessing it due to the violence of desirability. The social norm dictates that romantic relationships must always be more important than us, more important than community, and many people follow social norms without ever interrogating them, why they exist, who they serve, or who they leave behind.
Even when our romantically-inclined friends (claim to) love us, they are always allowed to demote or remove us from their lives in favor of romance, according to social convention, and we are always expected to understand that romance takes precedence over us, unless they decide otherwise. Unless they decide to hold platonic love and community at a similar level of importance as romantic love. It means that power dynamics in friendships with the romantically-inclined are always skewed in their favor and against the interests of community.
Throughout all of our lives, some of our friendships will have an imbalance of power regardless of the romantic inclinations of those involved—whether due to race, class, desirability, or something else. Those friendships tend not to last because the inequitable power dynamic makes them unhealthy and unsafe for us.
When most or all of your friendships have a power imbalance that leaves you as the powerless one, it's traumatic. You never feel completely safe in your friendships, and it leaves you both expecting to be disposed of and terrified of what feels like an inevitability. It never truly feels safe to put your entire self into the connections you share with others because that will only make it hurt worse when it's over, when they leave you.
Many of us carry around abandonment wounds and friendship trauma because of these recurring experiences, which in turn makes it more difficult to create connections, build trust, and find intimacy with new people. It makes it near-impossible to believe others when, or if, they say they won't treat friendships as secondary and trivial connections. What we have ultimately come to know as true, as casualties left in the wake of romantic domination, is that abandonment and disposability are endemic to traditional models of friendship in our culture. Being repeatedly abandoned, disregarded, and disposed of by others to make way for their romantic ventures and being devalued for not having our own romantic connections are experiences not explored or interrogated often enough. There is not enough acknowledgment of how much weight they hold, how traumatizing they can be, how much grief they can create.
It's a grief that will largely go unrecognized and misunderstood as long as romantic relationships are upheld as "the single most important bond." Grieving the end of a romantic relationship is a socially-accepted and widely-recognized experience. It's expected to happen to everyone at some point in our lives. Growing pains, a rite-of-passage. There is no shortage of movies and television shows about this heartbreak, endless lyrics put to music, countless poems penned. We are allowed and even encouraged to live in this grief, and we are understood by the world when we do. If only the same were true for grieving lost friendships and community, for shedding tears, drowning sorrows, and losing entire parts of yourself in the wreckage, in the aftermath of meaningful, fulfilling, irreplaceable non-romantic connections coming to an end. This, too, is heartbreak.
Southern mourning rituals are community work. We're inviting fellow Southerners to share your grief stories with Scalawag—whether it's just a few words, or a full essay.