There's an ingrained belief for most people (including me, sometimes) and it goes like this: if you're not intensely attracted to whoever you're in a romantic or sexual relationship with, then something is wrong. If you're not mutually attracted to each other, then why are you with them in the first place?
To some extent this is probably an accurate statement. If you don't even like your partner and continue to feel that way, then it's probably not much of a stretch to assume that your relationship won't turn out too well. The issue I take is with the semantics of what it means to be attracted to someone. When does "liking someone" enough become attraction?
The relevant meaning of attraction as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is "something that attracts or is intended to attract people by appealing to their desires and tastes". If I wanted to be like a particularly obtuse twelve-year-old I'd say, "I like ice cream, does that mean I'm attracted to ice cream?" and most people would answer “no, of course not, that's a different thing”. It does tend to be different when it's used in a context about people – when it's about someone who has feelings and agency and the ability to reciprocate (or not). Ice cream isn't sentient. Ice cream doesn't ever change fundamentally, can't really be interacted with, is a flat entity.
However, you can interact with people. You can have a deep and involved relationship with people. You can like people, and they can like you back.
Sometimes I like people. Does that mean I'm attracted to them?
I don't know. This is where it starts to get confusing. There's always some kind of line, some kind of point where others can point and say, "the landscape is different here compared to over there" and I'm still lost, still thinking that it all looks and feels the same to me. I'm not sure if it's because it's all the same landscape for me or because I can't tell the difference or because the concept of "landscape" doesn't apply for me. Attraction is supposedly such a big feeling, something unbudgeable, inescapable, ever-present, instantly identifiable. However, I cannot identify it.
Do I not feel attraction, then? Do I feel attraction differently? How far can I stretch the definition of "attraction" if I want to include my feelings under its umbrella? If I don't know what it means to be attracted, how am I supposed to conduct any of my relationships (if the ideal basis for one is attraction)?
Maybe the problem is that I don't really experience attraction in most ways. I don't know what it's like to be drawn to someone physically, for me to like someone based on their physical existence. It's always intangible things for me; things like the sound of someone's voice or the shape of their life so far or the ideas they have — and even then, it's not often intense or overwhelming the way it's supposed to be. It doesn’t scramble my brain or make me flustered. Maybe attraction to something solid and tangible is a lot different from those kinds of feelings. It's so hard for me to determine when all this is happening and I often only realise that those instances are of (probable?) attraction when I'm thinking about it later, way after the fact.
It's not that determining if I like somebody is hard, or whether I feel like we get along, or whether I'd like to spend more time with them. It's not that there aren't many people I know who fit into these categories (there are). I just don't know where "I like you" becomes "I'm attracted to you".
Rather, I'm not sure why being attracted to somebody is the ideal basis for a romantic or sexual relationship to occur. Most people would agree that a relationship of any kind based solely on attraction wouldn't be optimal, yet the vast majority of romantic or sexual relationships in media are based purely off attraction that occurs immediately after the characters cross paths. I can understand how important attraction can be as a factor for other people, and although I have my doubts about how attraction contributes so strongly to a romantic or sexual relationship that it should be considered the most important starting point, the fact remains that this isn't a model that is workable for me. I couldn't use it even if I tried.
I wish attraction and wanting to have a significant relationship weren't so inextricably linked together, and the latter wasn’t assumed to fail without the presence of the former. Maybe you're not attracted to each other but you just like hanging out and would like to do it for the rest of your lives. Maybe you just want to be fond of someone without others constantly alluding to "something more" going on. Maybe you don't even want to cultivate a significant relationship with someone you're attracted to. Concentrating only on whether attraction exists in a given romantic or sexual relationship detracts from other, potentially more relevant, factors.
In focusing solely on the most dominant narrative as the only "correct" way to conduct a significant relationship, a lot of other more unusual permutations are left unacknowledged and dismissed as not being "real" relationships purely on the basis of not having attraction as a key component. This line of reasoning bars a lot of aros and aces, who do things differently from having "legitimate" significant relationships (if they happen to want them), since these groups tend to experience attraction in mostly non-normative ways.