what is relationship anarchy and should I explore it?
Monogamy not working? Maybe you need to try relationship anarchy.
In November last year, Louis Theroux returned to our screens with bumbling aplomb. In a three-part BBC docuseries, the typically well-mannered Theroux offers a window into what the broadcaster captioned “how modern America deals with birth, death and love”. The first, Love Without Limits, dealt with polyamory and it was predictably popular: the UK’s Theroux-phile Twittersphere pouncing on the fodder offered up by the nation’s favourite unassuming uncle moseying about Portland from ‘thrupple’ to ‘thrupple (a list of reactions can be found here).
The online poly community didn’t think it so funny, their dismissals ranging from ‘cringeworthy’, to brazen “freakshow editing”, bringing it closer to Theroux’s Y2K-era Weird Weekends than anything resembling a serious attempt to discuss an oft misrepresented subject. Then there were those that felt entirely erased, like a commenter in the forum linked above, who decries the ‘criminal’ act of ‘not [spending] time with a solo-poly or relationship anarchist’ on his tour.
Saying that ‘polyamory’ has safely found its way into today’s relationship discourse will be a surprise to no one: you may not practice it, nor know anyone in your immediate circle that does, but you’ll certainly have an idea of what implies. But ‘polyamory’, often ignorantly read as ‘cheating and getting away with’, is not a catch-all term; and as the complexity of our relationships grows, so does the vocabulary we use to describe them
I first happened upon the term ‘relationship anarchist’ in this Guardian piece late last year. Before I even read, I stopped; I sighed; I shuddered, my mind’s eye clouded with visions of faintly chiseled, Ayn Randian fuckbros, their misogyny barely veiled as they misquote Judith Butler in a sad attempt to chirpse. A deeper dig, however, dispelled my fears that ‘relationship anarchy’ existing solely as an emotional Ponzi scheme for ‘anarcho-capitalists’ to fuck.
"The most commonly held consensus seems to be that 'relationship anarchist' entails the refusal of socially imposed or inherited hierarchies within relationships, rejecting the prioritisation of relationships that said hierarchies call for."
That said, putting a finger on exactly what relationship anarchy (or RA) is isn’t the simplest of tasks. The most commonly held consensus seems to be that RA entails the refusal of socially imposed or inherited hierarchies within relationships, rejecting the prioritisation of relationships that said hierarchies call for. Unlike in many polyamorous relationships, a long-standing romantic partner doesn’t come before a newer, more casual partner just because they’ve been around longer. And for many RA practitioners, an intimate, platonic friendship could be just as valued as a regular fuckbuddy. This concept will not be alien to members of the LGBTQ+ community, where ‘anarchic’ sex and relationship practices, under various names and guises, have historically been commonplace. But it’s only in recent years that RA has been gained mainstream attention.
It’s not without its grey areas, as subreddits like r/relationshipanarchy attest, where users posit and debate situations, hypothetical or real, where RA intersects with issues of sexual responsibility, ethics, even monogamy -- despite being heralded as ‘the new polyamory’, an intriguingly significant minority of RA practitioners attempt to reconcile what could typically be considered a monogamous relationship practice with the values of RA.
Put in plain terms, “it’s about creating relationships entirely on my own terms, and working to disassemble all of the societal pressures that are put on us and our relationships. It’s about creating the relationships that I want from scratch, rather than following some preconceived path,” as Berlin-based model and artist Aja Jacques tells me over FaceTime.
Like many who identify with RA, Aja first came into contact with the philosophy through polyamory. During her first relationship with a non-monogamous partner, she came across Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up. In it, Taormino “talks about lots of different types of non-monogamous relationship structures, accompanied by interviews with couples in each one; reading it made me realise I wanted to be polyamorous,” with further online research leading her to RA.
"Far from being a call to wanton narcissism, RA might be best considered a self-determined, conscious approach to what you and your partners want from a relationship."
However, it’s not necessarily a term she readily affiliates with: “relationship anarchy is about removing all these structures, and not treating relationships the way society expects. I often feel like some of my relationships end up looking similar to some heteronormative relationships, but they end up that way, because I want them to, they’re created exactly as my partners and I want them to be. I still abide by the values of relationship anarchy”.
So what exactly are these values? Where is the golden rulebook that solemnly declares what does and doesn’t fall under the banner of RA? The closest one comes is Andie Nordgren’s Relationship Anarchist Manifesto. First published in 2006, and translated into English in 2012, the manifesto transposes the fundamental principles of political anarchy into the relationship domain. Among the commandments are things like, well, that there are no commandments: “Your feelings for a person or your history together does not make you entitled to command and control a partner to comply with what is considered normal to do in a relationship”. Or compromises, for that matter: “Love is not more ‘real’ when people compromise for each other because it’s part of what’s expected”. It also departs from the conversion of love into a scarce commodity, “[questioning] the idea that love is a limited resource that can only be real if restricted to a couple. You have capacity to love more than one person, and one relationship and the love felt for that person does not diminish love felt for another”.
The impact and future breadth of RA is hard to foresee, and most that practice it will advise that it’s not necessarily for everyone, requiring a great deal of maturity, time management skills, and, moreover, open communication. But Aja believes this is perhaps the greatest positive attribute it could offer: “if it’s is done right, it really increases communication in relationships. So I would hope that the more people adopt this style of relationship, the more we’re communicating in our relationships, and approaching them from a more conscious place”. Far from being a call to wanton narcissism, RA might be best considered a self-determined, conscious approach to what you and your partners want from a relationship. As Nordgren puts it, it’s “not about never committing to anything -- it’s about designing your own commitments with the people around you, and freeing them from norms dictating that certain types of commitments are a requirement for love to be real”.