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Romanticism: Trying to queer it, yet still getting stuck

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therapy, for me, is a space to explore what's happened in the past, what's going on now, and what might happen next, and to navigate these sometimes difficult roads we have experienced in order to get back to ourselves

Last Updated on December 29, 2023 by It’s Complicated

‘How can the light that burned so brightly, suddenly burn so pale’

Art Garfunkel / Bright Eyes

As I attempt to debrief myself after a recent break-up, I can’t help but think that this whole situation might feel a lot easier if I had not been so indoctrinated for most of my young and early adult life into romanticism.

I’m thinking particularly about those aspects of romanticism where there has been an intensity to the encounter; that this intensity, then, takes on greater meaning than the actual physical behaviour or boundary the other sets: i.e. they exit.

Even as a queer cisman, who has done a lot of unpacking around patriarchy, sexual and gender narratives, relationship deconstruction, setting boundaries in relationships whatever they look like (and respecting others’ boundaries also), I still wonder why this assumption crosses my mind: If you suddenly exit our intense ‘us’, surely you will come back. Is romanticism all that bad?

A person engaging in physical activity to help with depression

Relationship types

Over time, a lot self-reflection on romanticism and a bit of practice, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t necessarily need full monogamy. I realised that potentially there are a lot of violent & patriarchal notions embedded in the practice of classical monogamy: Ownership of the other; jealousy as an indicator of depth of feeling; the idea that your whole sexuality ends when you’re monogamous, to name but a few. 

I have also reflected on my ego needs: That I need some primary regard, that I want my needs met within the boundaries of whomever I’m dating, and that the act of seeking pleasure is in itself a queer & political act. As a counsellor, deconstructing heteronormativity with clients means trying to get them to find out what their wills, desires and expectations around relationship are, and exploring where these came from.

I also try to get people to imagine defining a relationship on their own terms – what would this look like? I might use words like responsibility, consent and care: If these were incorporated into relationship(s) you can imagine, how would this work for you?


As a therapist in my 8th year of working with clients, I’m pretty set on the idea that if we are expecting our clients to be brave and embrace change, then we should be too. For me, this looks like finding out where my comfort zones are in all aspects of my life, and standing outside of them.

Obviously, I don’t do that every day, and sometimes I just can’t, or it’s too difficult, or I’m not ready, or please, can I just think about that for a moment, and come back to you? But, I do try. And for me, vulnerability is one of those areas of my life where I practice where and when I can. This includes having difficult conversations with lovers and friends, getting it wrong, and sometimes entering into something when you might not necessarily know if it’s exactly the right time, or when you don’t know the outcome: Taking a risk.

In these moments, I recall Brené Brown’s maxim around daring greatly and getting oneself dirty in the arena. I’m happy to do this: Getting into the arena, showing myself, being visible: I deserve it! But, oh my, it’s painful: When we allow ourselves to be open to others, we are also open to being hurt. But always, I think I would rather dare to be brave and risk being hurt, than never dare at all. It reminds me that I’m alive, that I’m living my most authentic self. Call that romanticism or not.


I can definitely see that in the past when I have been rejected, the pain has been so much greater because somehow I connected their validation of me within the dating sphere as the indicator of my whole value.

As a queer cis man, I have been indoctrinated from an early age with the idea that my queerness is at best a novelty, and at worst an abomination; that my existence is not valid, and everything in between must be tolerated: the macro & micro aggressions around our bodies being a site of ridicule or dismissal, and often being viewed only through the sexualisation of our bodies. And we learn to be hypervigilant, to hide our desires.

There are no roadmaps or people to look up to for some of us (this is thankfully changing, but not always, and not everywhere). Biological heteronormative sex is all we see.  And here let me remove ‘us’ from this story. I am a cis white able-bodied male from the UK with the privileges that all that brings. I can pass (and learned to pass) as a straight white male. Though from working class roots, I still have a certain class & economic privilege which allows me to pass through the world pretty smoothly.

Queer narratives are unique to each person, and so dependent on our lived experience, culturally, socially, racially, bodily, abuse/trauma history, etc. The sum of all of this has an impact of how we see ourselves in the world and the value we put on ourselves. Self-esteem is a continuous journey. Old experiences can rear their ugly heads in times of stress or vulnerability, and get in the way. New experiences can sometimes seriously challenge us; for me, then, self-esteem is in constant flux.

Triggers and past relationships

Sometimes it’s hard to work through the pains of past relationships in completion; I imagine them as overlapping fragments, some narratives reappearing, other parts settled in memories past. New intimacies can often bristle against our defences, and trigger feelings and behaviours we thought were buried or forgotten in time.

When working with couples or partnerships, I might say to clients how are past intimacies continuing to play out in this current relationship(s), in order to try and at least name and communicate what parts might be getting in the way of your now.

Other steps might include finding out what boundaries you need, find out what you want the other to know about these pains, and see how things shift from there. therapy can also be a good point to unpack these traumas if these steps aren’t working by themselves.

Setting boundaries in a relationship

Heteronormativity taught me to stay in relationships regardless, and to only seek monogamy. Over time, and through trial and error you start to learn about other ways of being in relationship, ways to have difficult conversations with the other (conflict resolution skills), to find your voice, to find the right language, to learn about your body, and your desires, your wants, your boundaries, stop saying yes when you know you mean no. You learn about queer culture, through dialogue and through the arts/media/the queer scene. You learn that despite being othered by the dominant societal norms, there are potentially beautiful ways to exist in the world.

And back to romanticism…

If you imagine that literally every story you ever saw from childhood to adulthood had these dominant heteronormative stories of romanticism idealised where there is a whirlwind romance, and then one person suddenly changes their mind, and then the other has a lightbulb moment, and then the first person always comes back. and then there is a happy ever after.

And as you get older you kind of know this is bullshit, that life is more complicated than that, that happy ever after is a product of capitalism and the patriarchy. And you know that you are able to construct the type of ‘relationship’ that suits your wants, needs and desires: open/poly/closed/monogamish, etc. Yet, somehow, in these moments of wistful romanticism post break-up, you catch yourself saying, oh, but they just might come back.

And finally, maybe it’s helpful for clients to know that as therapists, we don’t always have the answers, and often struggle with our defences when we’re trying to be vulnerable, immersing ourselves in the dating world, and trying to find relationships that nourish us.

Visit Philip Sheldon’s counsellor’s profile on It’s Complicated here.

Recommended reading:

Brené Brown – TEd talk – The power of vulnerability

Meg-John Barker – Rewriting the Rules: a super useful book to help us deconstruct the structural and cultural narratives of what a relationship should look like, highly recommended.

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