Is There Only One Healthy Type of Relationship?

Dr. Stephanie Buehler
I came across a term recently that caught my attention: amanormativity.

Being a curious sort, I poked around on the Internet to find out its meaning. Amanormativity was coined by Elizabeth Brake, a university professor, to describe the assumption that everybody is their best self only when they are involved in a coupled, intimate relationship, and that a dyadic intimate relationship is a requirement for optimal health. Furthermore, amanormativity assumes that a romantic or marital relationship is superior to other forms of relationships, i.e., friendships.

Brake states that this worldview excludes and devalues the experience of people who may have difficulty or who do not want to form romantic relationships of others. The people who come to mind immediately for me are people who are asexual. However, this gets a bit conflated, because on further reflection I know that some asexual people enjoy having a close romantic relationship without having a sexual physical one.

To me, the important piece is that some asexual people may feel societal pressure to be in relationship because of amanormativity. Sometimes asexual people end up in the sex therapist’s office, trying to sort out an intimate relationship with a partner based, at least in part, on attraction and shared sexual activity. The asexual person may have wanted to fit in, to be like everyone else. It also may not have ever occurred to them that it was okay to stay single.

Similarly, there are people who state that they “do not feel monogamous,” challenging ideas that we are all somehow born with a monogamy gene or natural proclivity to pair solely with one person for the entirety of how adult lives.

Brake points out that amanormativity is present all around us—in the macrosystem of our sexological ecosystem. Consider how many television or movie plots are based on a main, overwhelmingly heterosexual, character’s quest for “the one”. They are always distressed about their single state, as if it there were something unnatural or weird about it. Their friendships are secondary to the search to find a permanent, monogamous sexual partner. Once they locate that “special someone,” all of their troubles seem to be over. They have satisfied their manifest destiny as a human being. Now good mental, emotional, and sexual health are guaranteed.

Or are they?

Therapists and clients may need to check and explore their biases regarding amanormativity. Relationships are not one size fits all.  Helping someone identify what types of relationships they want in their lives may relieve a lot of internal stress.  Leave room open for flexibility, too--the idea that people's relationship needs may change over the course of time.

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