Amatonormativity

Amatonormativity is a word I coined to describe the widespread assumption that everyone is better off in an exclusive, romantic, long-term coupled relationship, and that everyone is seeking such a relationship.

The belief that marriage and companionate romantic love have special value leads to overlooking the value of other caring relationships. I call this disproportionate focus on marital and amorous love relationships as special sites of value, and the assumption that romantic love is a universal goal, ‘amatonormativity’: This consists in the assumptions that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types. The assumption that valuable relationships must be marital or amorous devalues friendships and other caring relationships, as recent manifestos by urban tribalists, quirkyalones, polyamorists, and asexuals have insisted. Amatonormativity prompts the sacrifice of other relationships to romantic love and marriage and relegates friendship and solitudinousness to cultural invisibility.

Elizabeth Brake, Minimizing Marriage (OUP, 2012), Chapter 4.iii

Amatonormativity describes assumptions embedded in statements like “She hasn’t found the one … yet” or “aren’t you lonely/immature/irresponsible because you are not married/partnered?”

It is is a play on ‘heteronormativity’, which refers to social structures which take heterosexuality as the norm.  Amatonormativity can affect straight and LGBTQ people, and it discriminates against asexuals and polyamorists. (Even though polyamory involves romantic and sexual relationships, it can be marginalized by the widespread assumption that romantic sexual love is inherently monogamous.)

Amatonormativity is a kind of harmful stereotyping.  It also encourages structuring law and society on the assumption that amorous relationships are the norm.  This discriminates against, and at worst creates barriers to making other kinds of relationships – friendships, asexual romances, some kinds of polyamory – central to one’s life.

Amatonormativity and its privileges can also pressure people to enter and remain in exclusive sexual dyadic relationships – even when such relationships are bad for them, or costly, or simply not what that individual needs.  Think of all the advice to ‘settle’ for a mediocre mate, just to be partnered or coupled!

The idea has struck a chord – just recently I’ve been interviewed by New York Magazine, The Washington Post, the CW Morning Dose TV show, and Ha’aretz.  I’ve also found discussion of it all over the internet – as well as in Wonder Woman and Philosophy (Chapter 7)! Here are just a few:

Amatonormativity and Heteronormativity

“amatonormativity” is modeled on the term “heteronormativity,” which refers to the assumption of heterosexuality and gender difference as prescriptive norms. Because heteronormativity normalizes the gender roles that define heterosexuality, as well as heterosexuality itself, its critique emerges from feminist as well as queer theory. Critique of heteronormativity calls into question a wide range of social institutions, because sexuality and gender are assumed throughout the social system. Such critique attempts to make visible the cultural prevalence and effects of such assumptions. Heteronormativity not only marginalizes gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. It also marginalizes single parents by assuming that the reproductive family contains opposite-sex biological parents. ‘Compulsory heterosexuality’ [Adrienne Rich’s term] undermines strong relationships between women by drawing women’s attention magnetically to their male partners. Some critics of heteronormativity argue that the exclusive, dyadic relationship is a heterosexual ideal. Thus, marriage law that recognizes only exclusive dyads is heteronormative even if it recognizes same-sex marriage, and so heteronormativity marginalizes adult care networks.

To the extent that exclusive, dyadic relationships are a heterosexual ideal, amatonormativity overlaps with heteronormativity. Like heteronormativity, it can be found throughout social life, and it can be understood in relation to other systems of oppression, for example in its relation to gender roles (e.g., the stereotype of the single male differs from that of the single female, and men and women are understood as needing marriage for different reasons). Heteronormativity can be understood through considering what counts as violating it: the subversion of gender roles or displays of same-sex sexuality. Violations of amatonormativity would include dining alone by choice, putting friendship above romance, bringing a friend to a formal event or attending alone, cohabiting with friends, or not searching for romance.

Elizabeth Brake, Minimizing Marriage (OUP, 2012), Chapter 4.iii