Thoughts on hacking aromanticism?

by hg003 min read2nd Jun 201637 comments

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Several years ago, Alicorn wrote an article about how she hacked herself to be polyamorous.  I'm interested in methods for hacking myself to be aromantic.  I've had some success with this, so I'll share what's worked for me, but I'm really hoping you all will chime in with your ideas in the comments.

Motivation

Why would someone want to be aromantic?  There's the obvious time commitment involved in romance, which can be considerable.  This is an especially large drain if you're in a situation where finding suitable partners is difficult, which means most of this time is spent enduring disappointment (e.g. if you're heterosexual and the balance of singles in your community is unfavorable).

But I think an even better way to motivate aromanticism is by referring you to this Paul Graham essay, The Top Idea in Your Mind.  To be effective at accomplishing your goals, you'd like to have your goals be the most interesting thing you have to think about.  I find it's far too easy for my love life to become the most interesting thing I have to think about, for obvious reasons.

Subproblems

After thinking some, I came up with a list of 4 goals people try to achieve through engaging in romance:

  1. Companionship.
  2. Sexual pleasure.
  3. Infatuation (also known as new relationship energy).
  4. Validation.  This one is trickier than the previous three, but I think it's arguably the most important.  Many unhappy singles have friends they are close to, and know how to masturbate, but they still feel lousy in a way people in post-infatuation relationships do not.  What's going on?  I think it's best described as a sort of romantic insecurity.  To test this out, imagine a time when someone you were interested in was smiling at you, and contrast that with the feeling of someone you were interested in turning you down.  You don't have to experience companionship or sexual pleasure from these interactions for them to have a major impact on your "romantic self-esteem".  And in a culture where singlehood is considered a failure, it's natural for your "romantic self-esteem" to take a hit if you're single.

To remove the need for romance, it makes sense to find quicker and less distracting ways to achieve each of these 4 goals.  So I'll treat each goal as a subproblem and brainstorm ideas for solving it.  Subproblems 1 through 3 all seem pretty easy to solve:

  1. Companionship: Make deep friendships with people you're not interested in romantically.  I recommend paying special attention to your coworkers and housemates, since you spend so much time with them.
  2. Sexual pleasure: Hopefully you already have some ideas on pleasuring yourself.
  3. Infatuation: I see this as more of a bonus than a need to be met.  There are lots of ways to find inspiration, excitement, and meaning in life outside of romance.

Subproblem 4 seems trickiest.

Hacking Romantic Self-Esteem

I'll note that what I'm describing as "validation" or "romantic self-esteem" seems closely related to abundance mindset.  But I think it's useful to keep them conceptually distinct.  Although alieving that there are many people you could date is one way to boost your romantic self-esteem, it's not necessarily the only strategy.

The most important thing to keep in mind about your romantic self-esteem is that it's heavily affected by the availability heuristic.  If I was encouraged by someone in 2015, that won't do much to assuage the sting of discouragement in 2016, except maybe if it happens to come to mind.

Another clue is the idea of a sexual "dry spell".  Dry spells are supposed to get worse the longer they go on... which simply means that if your mind doesn't have a recent (available!) incident of success to latch on, you're more likely to feel down.

So to increase your romantic self-esteem, keep a cherished list of thoughts suggesting your desirability is high, and don't worry too much about thoughts suggesting your desirability is low.  Here's a freebie: If you're reading this post, it's likely that you are (or will be) quite rich by global standards.  I hear rich people are considered attractive.  Put it on your list!

Other ideas for raising your romantic self-esteem:

  • Take steps to maintain your physical appearance, so you will appear marginally more desirable to yourself when you see yourself in the mirror.
  • Remind yourself that you're not a victim if you're making a conscious choice to prioritize other aspects of your life.  Point out to yourself things you could be doing to find partners that you're choosing not to do.

I think this is a situation where prevention works better than cure--it's best to work pre-emptively to keep your romantic self-esteem high.  In my experience, low romantic self-esteem leads to unproductive coping mechanisms like distracting myself from dark thoughts by wasting time on the Internet.

The other side of the coin is avoiding hits to your romantic self-esteem.  Here's an interesting snippet from a Quora answer I found:

In general specialized contemplative monastic organisations that tend to separate from the society tend to be celibate while ritual specialists within the society (priests) even if expected to follow a higher standard of ethical and ritual purity tend not to be.

So, it seems like it's easier for heterosexual male monks to stay celibate if they are isolated on a monastery away from women.  Without any possible partners around, there's no one to reject (or distract) them.  Participating in a monastic culture in which long-term singlehood is considered normal & desirable also removes a romantic self-esteem hit.

Retreating to a monastery probably isn't practical, but there may be simpler things you can do.  I recently switched from lifting weights to running in order to get exercise, and I found that running is better for my concentration because I'm not distracted by attractive people at the gym.

It's not supposed to be easy

I shared a bunch of ideas in this post.  But my overall impression is that instilling aromanticism is a very hard problem.  Based on my research, even monks and priests have a difficult time of things.  That's why I'm curious to hear what the Less Wrong community can come up with.  Side note: when possible, please try to make your suggestions gender-neutral so we can avoid gender-related flame wars.  Thanks!

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You've missed two large subproblems.
5) stability and lifelong committment. There really aren't any community-supported pledges comparable to marriage. If you want a true life partner, then romance is the likely path. Not the only way, but the most well-understood and well-accepted one. 6) desire for children. Way easier to achieve with a romantic partner, and way easier to care for if you've got a lifelong committed partner.

While true and relevant in a wider context these are not strictly sub-problems for aromanticism.

Historically speaking, the usual way to reach aromanticism for males was castration. Less, um, decisive methods included fasting (starving, really), LOTS of praying (getting into an alternate state of consciousness, really), and physically removing oneself from the sources of temptation (poor sheep).

Here's how St.Benedict dealt with it, for example:

Suddenly, the saint’s mind was filled with the memory of a “certain woman … which some time he had seen.” The mere memory of her “mightily inflame[d]” him with desire for her. Then, just as soon as he had been nearly overcome with passion, God intervened. Here is how Pope Gregory describes it:

But, suddenly assisted with God’s grace, he came to himself; and seeing many thick briers and nettle bushes to grow hard by, off he cast his apparel, and threw himself into the midst of them, and there wallowed so long that, when he rose up, all his flesh was pitifully torn: and so by the wounds of his body, he cured the wounds of his soul, in that he turned pleasure into pain, and by the outward burning of extreme smart, quenched that fire which, being nourished before with the fuel of carnal cogitations, did inwardly burn in his soul: and by this means he overcame the sin, because he made a change of the fire.

You want to subvert some of your basic, biologically hardwired drives. If you manage to find effective tools, I suggest that the chance to seriously fuck yourself up is high.

While I agree that there might be some difficulty of overcoming elementary reproductive hard-wiring I disagree with the motivating quote because it seems that hg00 isn't suggesting to go against point 2 in particular.

Hacking aromanticism is the wrong framing for this, IMO--fighting romantic insecurity has much wider applicability. You can be open to relationships and still want to be able to be single without feeling like a failure.

In my experience it's impossible to do this as a young healthy individual. You will simply have too high of a sex drive and too high of a drive for personal connection. It's physiological; if you're healthy and in a natural state your brain will assume you're ready for what you were built for: finding suitable mates and reproducing.

Your body is likely different, but I can tell you how it works for me. I can increase or decrease my necessity for female companionship and sexual contact very easily. When I want my drive to be very high, I eat more or less paleo and I do as much natural movement as I can, eschewing sitting for constant walking and exercise. When I want it to be low, I eat a lot of grains and drink a lot of tea. I also sit a lot, take hot bathes, and do various forms of meditation. I avoid social contact in general, and create a fantasy world in my mind where I believe that the average person cares about my intellectual projects.

It's doable, and as others have mentioned you may want to look into the Buddhist tradition for ideas. But it's not natural. Invariably you will end up less physically healthy than you would be otherwise. Is this a trade-off you're willing to make? You could always alternate between them; that's my solution.

If you're a socially adept individual looking to remove distractions and increase your focus on certain projects, then you'll be okay. If you hurt your health, you'll notice and you'll go back to a situation where the artificially-engineered aromanticism evaporates and your sex and companionship drive returns. But if you're trying to wire aromanticism into yourself to compensate for lack of success in the social realm, then you're on a dangerous path. Loneliness and sexual frustration are horrific circumstances from an emotional standpoint; many people would choose to destroy their physical health instead.

My suggestion: Prove to yourself that you don't need to be aromantic to enjoy your life before you begin the process of learning how to engineer it into yourself. Then you'll be in a position to abort mission if your health suffers.

Honestly, you mentioned it in there, but there are people that've been working at this for far longer than we have been thinking on this; I'd suggest finding a monastery or nunnery nearby and speaking to them about it. I realize this may be kind of obvious and low-hanging as far as suggestions go, but it's the best I've got. I wish you the best fortune in your endeavours.

I'd suggest finding a monastery or nunnery nearby and speaking to them about it.

If you do, take what they say with a grain of salt. A monastery is unlikely to tell outsiders stories of how they screwed up and screwed.

To me it seems that hg00 is suggesting something

  • informed by these experts
  • less extreme
  • more practical
  • and presumably more scientifically sound

Regarding validation, I don't think it's useful to combine that idea with romantic self-esteem. They seem to be different things to me, though somewhat related.

If it is just romantic self-esteem, then I'm confused. If the goal is to be aromantic, why care about romantic self-esteem at all? It seems like the level of romantic self-esteem is a measurement or variable that is irrelevant to the non-romance-based life that you are building. Like, sure "that person is checking me out" or "their partner just tagged me as a threat and staked their claim" is a neat little boost emotionally, but it seems irrelevant to the type of life that you'd be building. "I could be doing more to find partners" seems a matter of time management, and is probably a poor band-aid over insecurities. It seems to me that making this about romantic self-esteem is still putting it in terms that do not really fit with an aromantic mindset.

Validation makes more sense to me. One suggestion could be to get validation from other activities, where people see who you are, and what you do, and give feedback on it and appreciate it. But there may not be many contexts and opportunities for that sort of thing in our cultures.

When I think about the type of validation I get from being in a romantic relationship, it is subtle. I think sometimes that we see each other and ourselves though lenses, or mirrors (metaphorically speaking.) Sometimes, when I'm not sure about my own view of myself, I lean a bit on my partner's view of me. Usually, that picture of me is delightfully more pleasant than my view of myself. But, even within a romantic relationship, it is good to develop skills to assess oneself and the effects of one's behaviours, and one's place in the world, without relying on using the other person as a distorted mirror. Sometimes if the other person is in a bad mood or depressed it can distort in the other direction, showing a more dire view than is accurate. So...not relying completely on outside validation is a skill to develop even inside a romantic relationship, that makes the relationship better, and can help get through some tough times.

When I say "not completely relying on outside validation" I don't mean stop seeking it at all. I still pay attention to it, but I think of it more as a weighted probability input, with a much lower percentage weighting than I used to give it. That's better than leaning on it 100% without much other plan for how to form an accurate picture of oneself. It is nevertheless a more uncomfortable place to be.

On a slightly different topic, another way to keep the focus off of romance is to review what you are focused on and why, what you want to be the top thing on your mind. It may take writing things down and deliberate reminders. I think it's easier to not get caught up in thinking about "hey I'm not doing this thing related to romance" when there is something to keep your thoughts on instead.

Tongue-in cheek: just give relationships your best go, you'll become all aromantic soon enough.

OK, now I'm serious: try some romances while paying close attention to how your instincts manipulate your motivation system. Notice all biases that appear. Use your usual debiasing methods. Done.

I think I did more or less the above, and now I have a reverse problem: I do not know how to become romantic again, while staying unbiased.

Why did noticing and removing bias make you aromantic?

SSRIs have aromanticism as a (rare-ish) side effect, allthough Scott Alexander didn't mention that in http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/07/ssris-much-more-than-you-wanted-to-know/ . He says it is super easy to get a SSRI prescription.

I think your list of goals people try to achieve through engaging in romance is woefully incomplete. Humans function better when they're deeply attached to other people, on all sorts of levels. Romance and (non-solo) sex are nearly the best way of creating those attachments. (Filial relationships might be even better. So you might not need romance as long as your parents are around.) Lack of such attachments shortens lifespan, causes depression and has a bunch of other terrible effects.

If you think the companionship to be found in romantic relationships is comparable to that of deep friendships, I'm sorry, but I really don't think you know much about romantic companionship. There's an attainable depth of romantic love where you say "I'll spend my life with you even if you become a cripple tomorrow and I give you everything I have, including all opportunities for romance with anyone else ever, and if you feel the same towards me that's the best thing that's ever happend to me" and actually mean it. (And it isn't infatuation if it's still there after a couple of years.) Can you imagine such a state of mind? Because that's among the things you say you're trying to get rid of, and I find that hard to understand except by supposing you've never felt that. I have a lot of very deep friendships, including people I would literally kill for, and none of those come close to actual, capital L, Love.

While I agree that going for aromanticism foregoes the chance for the deep kind of Love I'd like to point out that

  • that kind of mutual attachment seems to be relatively rare (I seem to remember that only a smaller part of all romantic relationships are mutually that way, and for me it makes sense probabilistically and psychologically)
  • and in the cases where it isn't mutual it is much less satisfactory for either party than the state you describe (I'm reporting from own experience having been the deeply attached party being happy to do everything and happily enduring a lot until breakup)
  • strictly hg00 doesn't really forego this state permanently. Actually he may make himself more desirable that way and with the additional productivity end up in a position where he might decide differently later on.

Some thoughts by someone single but with children, low baseline romanticism and relatively high productivity.

I like the ideas put forward a lot. Or rather the approach behind the ideas: Systematic and informed optimizing of one-self. Like other commenters I'm somewhat dubious whether this can work in such an elementary reproductive area but as I have some kind of experience in that area I think it merits some thought.

From some discussions I get that the frequency by which people are drawn to other people romantically (or otherwise attracted) varies a lot (see poll in other comment). I hear that some people have to deal with strong attraction multiple times a month. I personally got infatuated only once (and that led to a long-term relationship) and noticed first stages one single second time. So I seem to be at the other end of the spectrum. But I can relate still. I sometimes feel a longing for intimate company - but I want it right and this isn't triggered by potential partners. Also there are phases of some sexual tension. These are interestingly largely absent if children are in the house - which they are often. Evopsych answer: Natural regulation of reproduction. I wonder if that work if these were not my own children.

So if I'm almost aromantic by nature and environment how come I think that I can contribute? Maybe my natural environment is one that lends itself to being aromantic and not the other way around. Or I can tell about how it actually feels to be aromantic - should your approach actually work.

To get a baseline of the severity of the problem I as so often suggest one of these popular polls.

The questions are suggested by the motivating "Why" paragraph in the OP:

Wound you like to be aromantic (for whatever reason in particular but more productivity comes to mind)?
[pollid:1149]

How much time does a romantic commitment take (while you are attached)? (time with your romantic partner that you spend productively together e.g. on the job does not count)

[pollid:1150]

And how often do romantic attachments occur (independent of how long they last and whether they overlap)?

[pollid:1151]

How long do these romantic attachments last (end to end each on average)?

[pollid:1152]

How large is the drain on your energy if the search for a partner is frustrated?

[pollid:1153]

[-][anonymous]5y 0

Strange... for example, I have fallen in love more-or-less twice, and in the same time, and have come to deeply admire several people with whom I try to hang out once in several months to a year, consciously spending up to half a day to talk for an hour. I even wish to be able to just fall in love with them properly, because it seems that they should be loved by as many people as possible:)

And AFAIK, my unattached twin treats them the same.

Maybe it would be a good idea to ask something like 'do you expect a change in [parameter] were you strictly aromantic?'

[-][anonymous]5y 1

Romance might also have the component of willing sacrifice, which I think loses something when discussed as only a tit for tat exchange. The desire to please another, to surprise by a lessened burden. It is, of course, not a thing that happens only between sexually attracted people, but it seems to me that finding a friend with whom I could maintain this level of trust is...at least as hard as finding a romantic partner.

I do have a twin, though, so I very much agree that it is possible to love someone without desiring them.

Another important thing that romance does is cause love.

Being loved (you know, that thing where you get to inject your utility function into another agents system, such that they now have a desire to fulfill your preferences) has many obvious instrumental uses, in addition to the inherent value of loving another person..

I see two ways to hack the need for validation, but they sort of run in opposite directions: creating, or hanging around, a community where you're the most or one of the most competent person around. This helps a lot because validation is fluid, is not necessarily related to romantic appreciation but also to social status.
A second way that I sometimes practice is to go in a place full of attractive people and begin looking each in the eyes, smiling. More often than not, they will reciprocate and it doesn't take much to fill your romantic validation meter, we are (at least, males are) very good at self-deluding.
Bonus tip: calisthenics or a home-gym are effective ways of training, you do not need to necessarily run to train alone.

creating, or hanging around, a community where you're the most or one of the most competent person around.

Don't overdo that. YMMV, but being around people much less competent than me makes me cringe a lot.

Don't overdo

Don't overdo anything!

Good point! (Though certain things are harder to not overdo than others.)

A second way that I sometimes practice is to go in a place full of attractive people and begin looking each in the eyes, smiling. More often than not, they will reciprocate...

This strikes me as weird. I think it's generally a good thing to smile and look people in the eyes vs. not smiling and keeping your eyes low....but to find a place that is full of "attractive" people and then systematically smiling & eye contacting them for the purpose of boosting your "romantic validation level" seems off.

Can you elaborate on what you think this is accomplishing?

If a person I find attractive smiles at me, I tend to think that she finds me attractive, and the thought oozes into believing that I am attractive. Even when the smile came simply from reciprocation.
True, it's a long-ish chain of stimuli, but I noticed that it works for me, so I suggested it.

So, you get the sort of "romantic validation" you need from getting people to smile back at you? Even if you are aware it's likely just polite reciprocation that you willingly delude yourself into believing is something more?

You are supposing that my conscious and unconscious mind are one and the same.
I know that it's probably politeness. My unconscious does not, and I get a kick out of it.
It's not even self-deception, they are two separate system altogether.
As I said, it works for me.

You are supposing that my conscious and unconscious mind are one and the same.

No. Only that being consciously aware of the intentions of your smiling/eye-contacting targets must limit it's value in being anything resembling authentic romantic validation. If it doesn't—if you are actually able to game this in a significant way through some combination of self delusion and pure unconscious engagement—then that strikes me as weird. Because it is such a significant departure from the reality of what is going on when you smile at people and they smile back.

I guess I would accept this as "social validation". And, you could say it's "romantic" in nature if your smiling/eye-contacting targets were attractive to you in a romantic way, I guess. But this is soooooooooo far away from anything like the sort of "romantic validation" experienced in actual romantic relationships that it still seems weird to use as a suitable alternative given the context as I understand it.

Out of curiosity, can you use this romantic validation hack on people who are paid to be nice to you? Like a store clerk?

Only that being consciously aware of the intentions of your smiling/eye-contacting targets must limit it's value in being anything resembling authentic romantic validation

Why?

But this is soooooooooo far away from anything like the sort of "romantic validation" experienced in actual romantic relationships

How do you know?

Note: it might be the case that I'm supremely weird. Who knows, it can be true. But what strikes me as odd is: as far as I can tell you have only your experience on romantic validation, how can you say that what you feel is the reality for everybody else?
As I said for the nth time, it works for me. It might work for others, it's a thing you can try and see if it works. It's a hack, after all.
What is weird for me is your sense of certainty regarding the way people should feel in such matters.

Out of curiosity, can you use this romantic validation hack on people who are paid to be nice to you? Like a store clerk?

Sure. I mistake politeness for interest every damn time :)

But what strikes me as odd is: as far as I can tell you have only your experience on romantic validation, how can you say that what you feel is the reality for everybody else?

You aren't arguing over actual feelings, you are arguing over word labels to attach to them ("romantic validation" vs "social validation").

How do you know?

Note: it might be the case that I'm supremely weird. Who knows, it can be true. But what strikes me as odd is: as far as I can tell you have only your experience on romantic validation, how can you say that what you feel is the reality for everybody else? As I said for the nth time, it works for me. It might work for others, it's a thing you can try and see if it works. It's a hack, after all. What is weird for me is your sense of certainty regarding the way people should feel in such matters.

I've had a romantic relationship. And I've smiled at and eye-contacted attractive people. They aren't the same.

Of course I've only experienced my experiences.

Normal people do this all the time. They just don't verbalize it.

I get the sense that you're not against the action but the phrasing. You agree that it's generally a good thing to do what MrMind is suggesting, but that it seems off to... do exactly what MrMind is suggesting. Clearly you're okay with someone subconsciously choosing to smile at people who pass because it makes them feel good, but you have a problem with someone explicitly describing the process with literal phrasing such as "romantic validation level".

Normal people do this all the time. They just don't verbalize it.

I don't think so.

I think it's a good idea to generally be assertive and friendly with your posture and eye contact. This will generally lead to better interactions socially. These interactions will sometimes include members of whichever sex you prefer. And these people will sometimes be attractive to you. (They might sometimes be attracted to you...)

But there is something distinct between this and the sort of "romantic validation" one might get from an actual relationship. You could argue the difference is only a matter of degree, but it is still significant...significant to the level it is weird to think you are getting anything resembling bona fide "romantic validation" from playing some kind of intentional eye contact/smile reciprocation game with strangers you deem to be "attractive" and then deluding yourself into believing there is a romantic connection happening.

creating, or hanging around, a community where you're the most or one of the most competent person around.

I don't recommend this. It leads to a variety of undesirable consequences, from letting your standards slip to developing unhealthy levels of arrogance.

How about getting a balance? Sometimes you could hang around a community where you're one of the most competent people around, and at other times you could put yourself in a position where you're a student to most of the other members.

This seems to get the benefit MrMind was describing without the drawback you've identified.

It's hard to argue against balance :-) at this point we're in the "it depends" situation. It could work or it could fail.

However this advice contradicts a heuristic I have: "Try not to spend time surrounded by idiots".

"Try not to spend time surrounded by idiots".

A time-honored heuristic if there ever was one. But the opposite is just as depressing.
You can be happy in a group of peers... or as a teacher.