Read my latest for GQ. Illustration by Alicia Tatone.
When I first heard the term “relationship anarchy,” I found it infuriatingly pretentious. “Simmer…the fuck…down!” I thought. Anarchy is a fine and dandy concept, but let’s be real: Very few of us are actually living as imposed-authority-is-no-good anarchists, even in Trumpland 2018. Those who do identify as anarchists are too often leftist bros who had their girlfriend iron an anarchist patch onto their denim vests. Yes, I said it. So when I heard about relationship anarchy, I assumed these dudes had gone to Burning Man, learned about polyamory, and begun identifying as relationship anarchists as another way to use supposed self-reliance, leftist politics, and feminism to excuse their commitment issues and desire for multiple girlfriends. As I learned more about relationship anarchy, I came to see that it has its perks, even if the label is a little bit over the top. So, what does it mean?
RA uses anarchist concepts to deny hierarchy within relationships and forgo imposed expectations. Relationship anarchists don’t apply different values to their relationships: A relationship that is sexual doesn’t take priority over a relationship that is platonic. For a relationship anarchist, an intimate friendship, a sexual partner, and a roommate may all have equal weight and importance.
Additionally, relationship anarchists take things as they come and have no set expectations, unlike monogamous relationships and even most polyamorous ones: In polyamorous partnerships, there’s still an assumption that if you’re in love and partnered with someone, when you wake up tomorrow, they’ll still be there and accountable for you. Relationship anarchists don’t have that, but they’re not devoid of commitment. They just believe that all parties involved have total freedom and flexibility in what that commitment looks like.
Relationship anarchy is a label used by some polyamorous people, but not all relationship anarchists identify as polyamorists. “Hierarchical poly” is what most of us think of when we consider polyamory: In a hierarchical poly situation you have a primary partner, which is a relationship that may even appear monogamous to outsiders, but you also have secondary partners. “Solo poly,” in which all sexual partners are given equal standing, is probably the relationship format closest to relationship anarchy. However, relationship anarchy is not the same as solo polyamory, because RAs reject sex and romance as an inherent aspect of their partnerships (a solo poly person would probably not put their platonic roommate on the same pedestal as their sexual partners).
The term “relationship anarchy” was probably coined by Andie Nordgren, a Swedish activist who wrote the relationship anarchy manifesto in 2012. Nordgren explains that “love is abundant, and every relationship is unique.” Nordgren suggests that love is not a finite resource and asks you to “customize your commitments” and design your own relationship responsibilities based on desire rather than societal pressure. It sounds like it takes incredible trust, maturity, and a ton of work. But, then again, so do all successful relationships. I’m in a monogamous relationship, but I believe that we all have a lot to learn from the tenets of polyamory, from how polyamorists navigate jealousy to how they examine what binds you and your primary partner together beyond than sexual exclusivity (i.e. true love). And even if the name “relationship anarchist” makes your eyes to roll back into their sockets when you come across one on Tinder, you might be more of relationship anarchist than you think.
For instance: My boyfriend is my intimate partner, my bringer of orgasms, my trusted friend, and the person with whom I’m planning a shared life with. But I also have a best friend who lives next door to me and occasionally even spends the night in my bed, even though we don’t hook up. My other best friend is a woman I used to date and still love, but who is no longer a romantic or sexual partner. Likewise, my boyfriend has close and intimate friendships with people whom he was once sexually involved with. Despite our commitment to one another, we also give each another room for those other intimate relationships. Are we relationship anarchists tricking ourselves into believing we’re monogamous based on imposed societal structures?
The answer is no, but also sort of? In the relationship anarchy manifesto, Nordgren states: “Don’t rank and compare people and relationships—cherish the individual and your connection to them.” For many people, a commitment to a primary or monogamous partner best suits their desires and needs. Those people might read about “customizing their commitments” and feel that they have already done that by entering a monogamous relationship. But other people may read the relationship anarchy manifesto and feel like they’ve finally found a sensible way to balance all their relationships.
Whether you enjoy your relationships without hierarchy, or if you love the romance of committing yourself to one person who comes before everyone else, there’s one line from the relationship anarchy manifesto, in the section named “Trust is better,” that’s so soothing that I have to share it: “Choosing to assume that your partner does not wish you harm leads you down a much more positive path than a distrustful approach where you need to be constantly validated by the other person to trust that they are there with you in the relationship,” Nordgren writes. A toxic relationship trap many people fall into, which I am certainly guilty of, is assuming that my partner is going to betray me at some point. It’s a cynical, nasty, jealous place to be in. Could my partner truly love me, never wish me harm, and have my best interests in mind? That’s a really nice mindset. Relationship anarchists don’t disregard commitment; they just go about it very differently than monogamists do. Whether you think of your friends as being separate from your romantic partner, but not someone you’d walk down the aisle for (in relationship anarchy, it’s totally chill to marry a platonic partner), or want everyone to have the same power, imagine how healthy your relationships would be if you assumed that the people who loved us had our best interests in mind. Now that is radical.