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 soul mate. 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.”
“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. The first being that a person who isn’t in a monogamous romantic relationship is seeking that type of relationship, and the second being that that 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 modeled “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 practice another type of non-monogamy; and those who identify as aromantic or asexual, which is a growing sexual orientation among millennials born in the 1990s.
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 — anyone! — 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 amatonomativity in the questions she used to get 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 20s and early 30s,” 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,’ Catron 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.
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting a relationship,” she added. “I think that’s fine. But I think most of the advice you get is sort of guided by that presumption, which makes it not that useful. Because it isn’t really about you; it’s about our culture.”
Brake said she’s spent years with people asking her: Why do you need such a fancy word for this problem?
For her, it’s a matter of questioning why we assume that a romantic type of relationship can give this unique value to our lives. “There’s this sort of assumption that little girls dream of this big wedding. I never had that experience. For much of my life, that wasn’t one of the major goals that I had on the horizon,” Brake said.