In 2020, viewing monogamy as the only way to successfully conduct a relationship seems a little passé. Growing numbers of people are living nonmonogamous lifestyles. In fact, a 2017 study found at least one in five people have engaged in some form of consensual non-monogamy before. One approach to living a nonmonogamous lifestyle can be to adopt a philosophy of relationship anarchy.
What is relationship anarchy?
Relationship anarchy is a way of approaching relationships that rejects any rules and expectations other than the ones the involved people agree on. This approach "encourages people to let their core values guide how they choose and craft their relationship commitments rather than relying on social norms to dictate what is right for you," Dedeker Winston, relationship coach and co-host of the podcast Multiamory, tells mbg.
People who practice relationship anarchy, sometimes abbreviated as RA, are beholden to themselves and only themselves when it comes to choosing who they conduct sexual or romantic relationships with and how they do it. Relationship anarchists look to form relationships with people that are based entirely on needs, wants, and desires rather than on socially mandated labels and expectations. Some central tenets of relationship anarchy are freedom, communication, and nonhierarchy.
An RA mindset also seeks to dissolve the strict divides between platonic friendship and sexual or romantic love that exist in wider society. Practitioners of relationship anarchy see it as superfluous at best and harmful at worst to rank relationships in order of importance according to the presence of sex or romantic love, and they reject the prioritization of romance above friendship and the elevation of the monogamous couple above all else. (The poem "On Leaving the Bachelorette Brunch" by Rachel Wetzsteon puts that philosophy into art.)
The relationship anarchy manifesto.
The term "relationship anarchy" was originally coined by Andie Nordgren, who published an instructional manifesto for relationship anarchy in a pamphlet in 2006. Nordgren outlines the following principles to guide you through a relationship anarchist life:
Love is abundant, and every relationship is unique.
Love is not a limited resource. You can love multiple people without it detracting from the love that you feel for each of them. Every relationship that you have is an entirely new creation between its two (or more) parties and should be approached as such.
Love and respect instead of entitlement.
Your bond with someone does not give you the right to control or coerce them. They are an autonomous person who can act as they wish to. Love is not a byword for bossing someone around, nor is love only real when we're willing to compromise parts of ourselves for others.
Find your core set of relationship values.
Focus on what you want and need when it comes to how you will treat and be treated by others. Don't be tempted to compromise on your inner values in order to try to keep a relationship that no longer serves you.
Heterosexism is rampant and out there, but don't let fear lead you.
Be mindful of the way in which heterosexism (the assumption that heterosexuality is the only correct, moral, and desirable way to organize relationships) can corrupt your ideas about what is acceptable within relationships. Stay aware of the assumptions you hold about what gender means with relation to love and work to untangle them.
Build for the lovely and unexpected.
Be spontaneous in your connections. Don't feel held back by the "shoulds" or the "ought to's."
Fake it till you make it.
Breaking with monogamous, heterosexist relationship norms is hard work. Setting out to do the work can feel like a tall mountain to climb. Push through and go for it nonetheless until it feels like second nature.
Trust is better.
Choose to assume that your partner(s) want the best for you. When we approach our relationships with a bedrock of trust, we do not engage in validation-seeking behaviors that can drive unions apart.
Change through communication.
Be in continuous dialogue with your partner(s). Do not rely on "sensing" what they think or feel. Communication must be enacted at every step along the way in order to establish how things will function, not just when there are problems to solve. Without communication, people fall into old norms and can inadvertently hurt each other.
Customize your commitments.
Do you want to have children together but never move in together? Do you want to get married but never have children? Do you want to maintain separate homes but be committed life partners? Whatever it is that you want, you have the power to make happen. You don't have to travel along the accepted "relationship escalator" of dating exclusively, moving in, getting married, and having children.
Relationship anarchy versus polyamory versus monogamy.
A monogamous person chooses to eschew all sexual and romantic bonds with people other than their one chosen partner. This is the model of relationship that is most common and holds the most societal recognition. While the majority of relationship anarchists are nonmonogamous and therefore have (or wish to have) sexual and/or emotional bonds with more than one person at a time, Winston says relationship anarchists can also engage in monogamous relationships.
"I do believe that someone can choose to be sexually or emotionally monogamous with a particular person and still be a practicing relationship anarchist," Winston explains. "As long as you are questioning the status quo, examining your values, and communicating your needs, it is possible to build a radical relationship anarchist life."
Relationship anarchy thus differs from polyamory, which it is sometimes confused with. Polyamory is the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the informed consent of all partners involved. It is sometimes known as ethical or consensual nonmonogamy. To be polyamorous means to acknowledge that people can love more than one person simultaneously. This is different from an open relationship, in which the couple goes outside of the relationship for sex, and not necessarily for lasting and committed emotional intimacy or love.
How relationship anarchy works in practice.
It's not really possible to give an outline of what the average relationship anarchist's life might look like. "Typical is a myth. In reality, each of our lives is unique and one-of-a-kind, which is also true for people practicing relationship anarchy,” says Anna Dow, LMFT, therapist and founder of Vast Love, a coaching and counseling practice for people navigating nonmonogamy.
She continues, "A lot of people hear the word 'anarchy' and think of radical punk rockers with tattoos and mohawks. While that's sometimes on point, the lives of relationship anarchists are also as varied as they come. Relationship anarchy is the 'choose your own adventure' version of relationships. It's a belief in coloring outside the lines and going off-trail. When we expand our minds past the predefined boundaries, the possibilities can be endless!"
That being said, a common thread between all relationship anarchists is the time given over to communication. Dow says one characteristic that links together those who are well suited to RA is "strong communication skills, including the abilities to empathetically listen and to authentically express one's feelings/needs in a direct way. If someone struggles with compassionately considering other people's perspectives or feels guilt when expressing their own feelings/needs, they likely have some personal growth work to do before being optimally ready for sustaining healthy relationships in the context of RA."
While it's impossible to identify an "average" relationship anarchist, some of the ways in which it might look to live an RA lifestyle are to live with a mix of romantic and platonic life partners who are all equally responsible for maintaining the household and making big life decisions. Or to have two romantic partners who aren't given more time and precedence in one's life than one's platonic friends. It can look like choosing to have children with platonic friends instead of with lovers. In short, the sky's the limit.
When people think of the word "anarchy," they imagine a lawless and chaotic state of order, but "contrary to common misconceptions, relationship anarchy is not a justification for people to do whatever they want in relationships without consideration of other people's feelings, needs, desires, or boundaries," says Dow.
Taking the jump into relationship anarchy is not for those who are looking for an easy way out. "It's not a magic spell for reducing the amount of work that you need to put into your relationships," cautions Winston. Like any nonmonogamous setup, relationship anarchy will not solve problems you have in your current relationship.
“To me it means that my partners and I don’t control our relationships with other people — we set boundaries, but we don’t ask to enforce rules on each other. I find it much more meaningful to say, ‘I’m choosing to do this because I care about you and I know it will feel good to you,’ than to say, ‘I’m doing this because it obeys our rules.’”
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Kesiena Boom, M.S., is a sociologist, writer, and poet. She has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Manchester and a master’s degree in Gender Studies from Lund University. Her work has been featured at Slate, Buzzfeed, Vice, Autostraddle, and elsewhere. Her writing focuses on sex, pleasure, queer experience and community, feminist theory and practice, and race and anti-racism.