Quick: List your identifiers.
Likely, you rattled off your gender, sexuality, race, ethnicities, class, age, and ability status. Maybe you also noted your body shape, occupation, and relationships (whether you’re a parent, partner, sibling, etc.). But odds are you didn’t share your romantic orientation.
No shade — romantic orientation isn’t talked about much! That’s why we put together this explainer. Because we think understanding how and why we make connections can help us lead more intentional, fulfilling lives — especially dating lives. So here’s what you should know about romantic orientation.
Also known as affectional orientation, romantic orientation generally describes the gender identities of the people, if any, a person most wants to:
- fall in love with
- be around all the time
- let their (metaphorical) guard down around
- be emotionally intimate with
It’s also important to note that romantic orientation is how you identify. You can’t name someone else’s romantic orientation — only they can do that.
Romantic orientation exists along a spectrum. We have the potential to experience romantic attraction from a little to a lot, rarely to frequently.
Here’s a nonexhaustive list of romantic orientation labels you may identify with:
- Aromantic: someone who experiences little or no romantic attraction now and probably won’t experience it in the future (A 2016 study involving 414 people found that about 1 percent of people identified as aromantic.)
- Alloromantic: someone who does experience romantic attraction and likely will in the future
- Heteroromantic: someone who experiences romantic attraction toward people of genders different from their own
- Homoromantic: someone who experiences romantic attraction only to people of genders similar to their own
- Biromantic: someone who is romantically attracted to multiple genders
- Grayromantic: someone who experiences sexual attraction very rarely or with very low intensity
- Demiromantic: someone who experiences romantic attraction only after they get to know someone really well emotionally, spiritually, and mentally
These four tips can help you figure out your romantic orientation.
1. Look for patterns in your dating history
Even if your dating history doesn’t reflect your innermost truth, it still holds valuable information about your preferences. For example, if you’ve always dated men but haven’t desired an emotional connection with any of them, it’s possible you’re not romantically attracted to men.
You might also ask yourself these questions:
- Have I ever been attracted to someone romantically but not sexually?
- Have I ever been attracted to someone sexually but not romantically?
- Have I experienced love-feelings before? For whom and in what contexts?
2. Get real about what you actually want
“Society teaches us to think about relationships in terms of who we want to have sex with, so taking a step back and interrogating who we want to spend time and have romance with can be helpful,” says counselor Maggie McCleary, LGPC, who specializes in queer-inclusive services.
Some questions to ask yourself:
- Who do I want to spend my time with?
- Who do I want to share my inner, emotional self with?
- In my dream world, what does my life look like 5 years from now?
- Who do I share space with? Who am I building a life with?
3. Follow folks with a wide variety of romantic and sexual orientations on social feeds
Fill your feeds with aromantics and alloromantics, people in and not in LGBTQIA+ communities, and pleasure-seekers in a wide variety of relationship structures.
Why? Because representation matters, folks! As McCleary puts it, “Seeing really is believing.” In other words, they say, seeing the full spectrum of romantic possibilities and configurations can help you see how expansive your own romantic self is.
To start expanding your feed, McCleary recommends following some sex educators and pleasure activists:
Your romantic orientation describes who you want to spend time and be emotionally intimate with, while sexual orientation describes who you want to have sex and be physically intimate with, says McCleary.
How can these two things be different? A 2003 article suggests that the chemical processes that happen when we feel horny and/or have sex are separate from the ones that happen when we feel in love and/or emotionally close with someone.
|Examples of sexual orientations||Examples of romantic orientations|
Many people are sexually oriented toward the same folks they’re romantically oriented toward. For example, you might be bisexual and biromantic.
But that’s not always the case. Having romantic and sexual orientations that are incongruent is known as being cross-oriented. For example, some people are sexually attracted to many genders but date only one particular gender, says McCleary.
Or there’s the example of asexual people, who usually don’t experience sexual attraction, having romantic relationships. A 2020 analysis of studies including more than 4,000 asexual people found that 74 percent had romantic feelings toward other people.
Why understanding your sexual and romantic orientation can help you choose your relationship structure
Having different sexual and romantic orientations might sound complicated. But according to McCleary, not only is it common, it’s also totally possible to be in a happy, healthy relationship if you’re asexual.
For example, Daya Dare, a peer, anal, kink, and BDSM sexpert who is cross-oriented, says he feels “fulfilled,” “happy,” and “supported” in his current relationships.
Of course, it can take work to get to that point. Many of us will have to wade through the cultural and societal expectations that have been planted in our brains about who we should love and feel desire toward before we can start living our whole truths.
Another question to ask yourself is what relationship structure you, personally, need for your relationships to work. What fosters healthy communication, allows for a fulfilling sex life, and so on?
For example, if you’re romantically attracted to people of a different gender but you want to have sex only with people of the same gender, you might consider polyamory to try to have both of those needs met.
On the other hand, if you know you feel the most secure when you’re in a monogamous relationship, you might prioritize your romantic needs in a long-term partnership while fulfilling your sexual needs through things like a robust masturbation practice, erotic content consumption, and group sex, says McCleary.
Or you may seek out a partner who meets (most of) your sexual desires and spend more time building your friendships, McCleary adds.
Does having the language of romantic orientation feel helpful and/or validating for you? For many people — especially cross-orientated people — it will. In which case: Cool! Use it!
But don’t forget: “Sexual and romantic orientation labels are designed to help people name an experience and find community,” says Dare. “They are not designed to be rigid, static terms.”
So if you find the romantic orientation framework helpful, once you find a romantic orientation label that feels good to you, he says, “remember to be playful and continually curious about yourself.”