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All year long, and on Valentine’s Day in particular, we hear one narrative about love. It looks like this.

  • The most important relationship in your life will be a romantic, sexual, monogamous relationship between you and a member of the other sex.
  • This relationship will result in marriage, biological children, and a nuclear family structure.
  • If you are a man, you will fill a role of dominance and leadership in this romantic relationship and nuclear family. You will initiate in the relationship. If you are a woman, you will take a following role in the relationship. You will wait for your male partner to take major steps in the relationship.
  • Love is scarce. You can only truly love one person.

This narrative is restricting and damaging for all of us. But I think it’s particularly harmful for those of us who are sidelined by patriarchy. Most of the close, intense relationships that women see in the media fit this narrative. So where are the bonds of love for us that don’t imprison us in a passive role? Where are female friendships, relationships that can be as important to us as romantic relationships or even more so, and don’t come with a gendered power dynamic? Where can we find models for love and relationships that don’t hurt us?

I’ve found that I’ve learned the most about how to model relationships in my life by listening to the voices of people who are silenced or sidelined by the standard narrative of love: trans*, asexual, queer, and poly people. Of course, I’m queer and poly myself, but there are so many voices within these communities that I still have a lot to learn. So, without further ado, here are the lessons of love I’ve learned from…

…the trans community.

You bring who you are to how you love.

The way you love someone isn’t just about who they are and why you love them; it’s also about who you are and why you love yourself. I have a friend who is a gay trans man. When he came out as trans, his parents asked him why he couldn’t just be a straight woman, since he loved men. He told them that he didn’t love men as a vacuum, with no personal context; he loved men as another man. He brought his own manhood on dates with other men, and to the bedroom with other men. After he transitioned, he told me that dating, love, and sex were much more joyful for him, because he could love his partners in a way that felt authentic.

Those of us who aren’t trans can’t know what it’s like to experience love or sex for the first time after transition. But I think this lesson applies to everyone: the way you love is colored by who you are, and when we are able to express our authentic selves, we are also able to love more fully.

…the asexual community.

Romantic and/or sexual relationships are not necessarily more important than relationships that lack sex and/or romance.

When denying that they’re in a romantic and/or sexual relationship, people often say, “Oh, we’re just friends.” When they want to change a friendship into a romantic and/or sexual relationship, they say, “I want to be more than friends.” This is bullshit. It’s not only insulting to aromantic folks, implying that they’ll never have a fulfilling relationship, but it does harm to all people. Friendships and familial relationships can be just as deep and important as romantic relationships, if not more so. Having sex does not magically make your relationship more meaningful. This is just as important for sexuals to know as for asexuals. You might feel that your best friend is more central to your life than the person you’re dating. A romantic relationship, too, is as strong and meaningful as you make it, regardless of the sexual activity within that relationship or lack thereof.

…the queer community.

Your role within a relationship can always change.

The mainstream narrative of love tells us what the roles of men and women are supposed to be in dyadic heterosexual relationships. Men initiate sex. Women expect men to buy them expensive gifts. And so on. We’re even told, in another narrative, how friendships between women and friendships between men are supposed to be. Male friends don’t like to be physically affectionate. Female friends like to talk to each other, while male friends like to do things together.

But once we toss out the idea that romantic relationships have to be between a man and a woman, and that every man and every woman has to express their gender and sexuality in the same way, then we’re also able to overturn all our preconceptions about how a woman is supposed to love her partner or how a man is supposed to love his friend. A woman could be her partner’s protector, and a man could spend hours telling his friend about his deepest fears and vulnerabilities. And even more importantly, their roles could change over time. A woman could top her boyfriend today, and he could top her tomorrow. In other words, we can find freedom in our relationships.

…the poly community.

Love is infinite.

The Valentine’s Day narrative of romance is that love is scarce. If you’re single, you’d better find a partner soon, because love is a finite resource and if you don’t get cracking then there won’t be any left. Love becomes a zero-sum game. If another woman talks to my girlfriend, that’s time she isn’t spending with me. That’s an emotional investment she’s making in somebody else that she could be investing in me.

When people ask polyamorists why they don’t get jealous of their partner(s) having romantic and/or sexual relationships with other people, they like to say, “Love is infinite.” Just because my partner loves someone else doesn’t mean they love me any less. In the human heart, there’s always room for one more. If we believe that platonic and/or non-sexual relationships are just as important as romantic-sexual ones, then all of us can adopt this philosophy, whether we’re polyamorous or not. If we value our friends, then we don’t have to give them up or spend less time with them if we enter into romantic relationships. We not only have the right to maintain these friendships, but we should, because love is infinite. As far as I’m concerned, anyone I date is in a polyamorous relationship with my best friend, whether they sleep with him or not, because I value the time I spend with him, and my partner had better respect our love for each other and respect him as well.

Tomorrow, I’m going to visit some friends I haven’t seen in a while and give them valentines. Whether you’re in a romantic relationship or not, consider all the people you love, and appreciate them for the unique bonds you share.

Further Reading:

For Lovers and Fighters by Dean Spade

The short instructional manifesto for relationship anarchy by Andie Nordgren