I’ve long seen discussions on autistic forums that seek to find a nice, clear, universal definition of terms like “romantic relationship.” What is the difference between two good friends, maybe who share an intimate understanding and connection, and two people who are in a “romantic relationship?”
Like many things, the answer isn’t simple. We humans are pretty darn messy. We don’t fit nicely into categories. Sure, you might be able to find categories that fit 90% of us 90% of the time, but there will always be the messy, fuzzy edge.
First, does it matter if your relationship is a romantic one or a friendship? If it doesn’t matter to you, I wouldn’t worry about it. But if you are very concerned about whether or not a relationship is “romantic”, then I suppose it matters.
The only definition I believe is valid is “Do you and the other person involved think it is a romantic relationship?” If so, it is. If not, it isn’t. Simple.
But of course there are always some people who dislike the idea of having to take someone’s word for their own life. We all would love a world where we could see, objectively and without any dispute, whether or not someone is in category A or category B. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.
Things do get complex because plenty of people do try to give a definition of a romantic relationship. For instance, sex usually comes up as a differentiator between romance and friendship. But that falls on it’s face – not all people who consider themselves romantically involved have sex, whether it is for medical reasons, dislike or lack of interest, or circumstances (long distance, for instance). Nor do all people who have sex feel they are in a romantic relationship – certainly people who have sex forced on them don’t feel that way, nor probably do prostitutes, nor do people who want a casual fling. So sex doesn’t make a romance.
Certainly, sex is intertwined for many people with romance – I know I personally would not want to have sex with someone I’m not in a romantic relationship with. Among other things, and without going into details, the relationship frankly makes sex better . The most important sex organ is the brain, after all. So an intellectual and emotional connection associated with what I call romance is important to me. But sex doesn’t make or break romance, at least not universally.
For me, romance is between me and one other person. Someone else may have different ideas. I think emotions, intimate sharing, trust, and respect are really important to make something a romance. Sure, these things can also exist in friendships. As can other elements, such as a mutual commitment to each other. So what distinguishes close, long-term friends who are committed to each other from a romance? I don’t know. For me, it’s the spark and desire – I’ve had plenty of close friends over the years. But my wife is different. It’s even more intimate and closer. And I’ve made a commitment to her I’ve never made to another person. I’ve had friends where I would drop pretty much anything to help if needed (and they felt the same). But this is different. It’s not just helping. It’s having my identity and hers intertwined in a way that is beyond help, beyond support, beyond wanting the other person to have a good life.
For me, my life and my wife’s life are combined. We don’t live separate lives. We live a life where her well-being, happiness, and success are just as important to me – if not more important – than my own. And she has that same concern for me. Certainly, I’ve wanted friends to have well-being, happiness, and success, but it’s just different.
And that’s part of the problem. Romance isn’t logical. It’s not definable. I can’t tell you in black-and-white terms what makes this relationship I have with my wife completely different than relationships I’ve had with close friends. And certainly I had no idea it could be different until I experienced this relationship. I had no frame of reference. I had never experienced this spark.
But I do believe autistic people can and do feel the spark. Now some people may go through life without ever feeling romantically attracted or attached to someone. Others feel the desire for this from an early age and know that it is out there for them to find. Yet others, like myself, don’t feel the spark or even the desire until they run headlong into it – and then it burns but doesn’t consume within their heart and soul. Not their logical processing unit!
I do think most people – including most autistic people – can feel this spark. Too often, autistics are told we can’t. Too many public examples of autistic people are people who don’t feel the spark, so it’s easy to feel that may be a universal experience. Of course it’s possible to not feel it, not want to feel it, and still live a completely full and wonderful life – I do reject the “My kid will never know what romance feels like” type of garbage I hear some say for both reasons. I reject it because it may not be factually true (we can’t know if someone will or won’t feel it, autistic, neurotypical, or otherwise). And I reject it because I and you have no right to push our hearts’ desires onto a kid who may or may not want or need those desires to be happy.
I would suggest to that hypothetical autistic kid, if he were my kid, or if he asked me for advice, the following: if you don’t feel the need for romance in your life, that’s fine – no point in trying to change that or to feel defective. It’s a perfectly wonderful way of living! As Song of Solomon says, “do not awaken or arouse love until it so desires.” But, at the same time, just because you don’t feel it today doesn’t mean it won’t impact you powerfully tomorrow – so don’t close yourself off to the possibility either. If it happens, let it happen. If it doesn’t happen, let it be. Don’t force it and don’t prevent it.