Amatonormativity is the assumption that everyone in society benefits from and aspires to be in a monogamous amorous (i.e. romantic and sexual) relationship. This hierarchical relationship model places a disproportionate emphasis on amorous love and centers marital partnerships.
It supposes that exclusive romantic relationships hold a higher value than any other form of close and caring interpersonal relationship. The effects of such assumptions are widespread and varied across society, though they have may a greater effect on some demographics than others.
Relationship anarchy, a non-hierarchical relationship model that de-centers amorous relationships and states that one close relationship does not hold any greater inherent value than any other, could be considered a pushback response to amatonormativity.
History and Etymology of Amatonormativity
The term 'amatonormativity’ was coined by Elizabeth Brake, a professor of philosophy at Arizona State University. It was born of the pressure she felt from the people around her and society at large to focus on obtaining an amorous relationship that would lead to marriage: something she knew that she did not want for herself. The word comes from the Latin amatus, meaning “loved” with a sexual context, and the French normatif, which refers to a set of standards meant to be followed.
By Brake’s own account, it is a play on the term ‘heteronormativity’, which refers to the set of social assumptions that heterosexuality is the default and preferred form of sexual orientation (see: Comphet). This belief system assumes that sexual and romantic relationships are meant only to occur between cisgender, heterosexual individuals and that any alternative to this lifestyle is a breach of a universally held social code of conduct.
Amatonormativity and the Relationship Escalator
Under an amatonormative belief system, a significant emphasis is placed on following the rules of the “relationship escalator” – a set of arbitrary social scripts and progressive steps that one should adhere to in romantic relationships for them to be considered healthy and successful.
The assumption is that two people come together to merge as one unit and there are a widely accepted set of social rules to achieve this goal. The steps on the relationship escalator can include:
- First date and early courtship etiquette
- The stages of initiating physical and sexual touch (e.g. first kiss, first time having partner sex)
- Declaring the status of one’s relationship “official” in a public way
- Moving in together
- Getting engaged
- Getting married
- Buying a home
- Having children
The relationship escalator concept states that once courtship has begun, the couple must follow the progressively escalating milestones until they reach the intended goal: a sexual and romantic monogamous marriage in which partners cohabitate, share expenses, and produce children. The expectation is to remain in this scenario (i.e. at the top of the escalator) permanently or until death.
The Impact of Amatonormativity on Relationships
While this method of forming and maintaining relationships may work for and benefit some people, it is not a universal experience nor does it need to be. Many people can and do find great satisfaction and abundantly loving relationships without adhering to amatonormative expectations. Despite this reality, the burden of expectation can create undue stress on couples.
The pressures placed on people to find and maintain a lifelong amorous relationship are not necessarily helpful. These expectations (e.g. having to move in together or get engaged after a certain amount of time invested; getting legally married and having children) can do more harm to relationships than support them, causing stress and conflict for the people involved.
Divorce, while more accepted and widely practiced than it once was, is still perceived with judgement by many. The aphoristic implication that even though marriage is difficult, one is meant to stay in a relationship forever (i.e. “fight for your relationship”) can also trap people in unhappy, sometimes even dangerous and abusive situations.
The Pressures of Amatonormativity on Single People
People who are not in an amorous relationship or never have been can feel the pressure in a way that affects their sense of self and their self-worth. If they are not able to find “the one”, it may be perceived by themselves and/or others that they are socially flawed, unable to live up to society’s expectations, and therefore unworthy of the relationship they are supposed to have.
By decimating their self-confidence, it only exacerbates the difficulty they may feel to find fulfilling relationships that suit their individual needs rather than the ones prescribed to them. Furthermore, this discredits and undervalues the people who choose an independent lifestyle either by remaining single or by engaging in solo polyamory.
Asexual and Polyamrous Discrimination
While amatonormativity affects everyone regardless of sexual orientation or the style of relationships they uphold, it strongly disfavors people on the asexual and aromantic spectra (a-spec), and people who engage in polyamory.
Because they do not experience a romantic and/or sexual connection in the way an allosexual, amatonormative society demands, it renders a-spec people “abnormal”. Without amatonormatively adequate sex or romance in the relationship, their interpersonal relationships may be considered incomplete or lacking, ignoring the fact that a-spec people are more than capable of forming important and fulfilling connections with others.
Though people practicing ethical non-monogamy may fall in line with the expectations of forming long-term romantic and sexual relationships, their relationship model is deemed inappropriate or lesser than simply because it is not exclusive to two people within the couple.
Further Effects of Amatonormativity on Society
Discrimination against those who choose to focus on a career and remain independent persists. It devalues the importance of other intimate and caring relationships such as family connections, close friendships, romantic relationships that do not involve sex, sexual relationships that do not involve romantic love, and other relationships that bend the amatonormative rules like queerplatonic relationships.
Beyond the socio-emotional implications and effects, amatonormative stereotypes have also led to societal and legal structure that favors long-term monogamous relationships while de-prioritizing other forms of partnership. For example, tax advantages are often afforded to common-law or legally married couples that other styles of close relationships cannot access.