“It is the beginning of wisdom when you recognize that the best you can do is choose which rules you want to live by.”
― Wallace Stegner
“Assumptions are the termites of relationships.”
― Henry Winkler
In 2012, I swore off of relationships.
I was beginning to realize that my orientation fell under the aromantic spectrum. I also had long since suspected that monogamous commitments were not for me. I knew that I valued intimacy, that I enjoyed kissing and sensual pleasures, that there were people in my life that I treasured greatly and whom I wanted to keep close to me for a long time; I also knew that I had never yet felt comfortable with the constraints of the presumed conventions of traditional relationships.
I didn’t like the feeling that one relationship meant more than any other, or that it came with so many assumptions of conventional rules and standards. I didn’t like the idea that intimacy and affection were reserved for only certain titles. I especially didn’t like that any sort of relationship title said more about me to the general public than I wanted it to: ‘single,’ ‘taken,’ ‘casual,’ ‘serious’—all of these meant something about my availability to others and what partnership I practiced, whether or not these connotations were true.
It’s not that I didn’t want to have love or intimacy in my life; I just wanted to do it in the way that was most fulfilling for me.
Then, I discovered the philosophy of Relationship Anarchy.
Never before had I come across a philosophy so well-suited to me. It was freeing, it was equitable, it was personal and dynamic. It removed the assumptions and expectations from relationships without cutting out respect, order, and consent. I didn’t have to rid relationships from my life, but I could approach them holistically and honestly, without compromising my own needs.
Relationship anarchy may not be for everyone. Some people truly feel complete and fulfilled in a traditional relationship and all the cultural rules it carries. Nevertheless, I think everyone could benefit from knowing that it is not the only way to conduct their lives. For that reason, I hope this article can reach at least one person who was feeling lost, and help them find a better choice.
So what is Relationship Anarchy?
The term ‘Relationship Anarchy’ (originally ‘Relationsanarki’ before translation) was coined by Swedish blogger Andie Nordgren in the 2000s, although its tenets have likely been floating around for quite some time. Nordgren’s self-translated manifesto for relationship anarchy can be read online, but to summarize, the central philosophies are as follows:
1. Love is abundant, and every relationship is unique
2. Love and respect instead of entitlement
3. Find your core set of relationship values
4. Heterosexism is rampant and out there, but don’t let fear lead you
5. Build for the lovely unexpected
6. Fake it 'til you make it
7. Trust is better
8. Change through communication
9. Customize your commitments
Rather than go through each and every one of these with extensive detail, I’ll do my best to define relationship anarchy in a plain and succinct way. Simply put, relationship anarchy is a set of practices rooted in the belief that all relationships are better when they reflect the individual values and needs of their partners, and that no type of relationship must inherently be more valuable or have a higher hierarchical role than any other.
Here are some things that relationship anarchy is not:
Cheating. The ‘anarchy’ in ‘relationship anarchy’ does not mean no rules, free-for-all, do whatever you want. Cheating on one’s partner is a violation of the trust and established boundaries of a relationship, and would by no means be considered a valid interpretation of this philosophy.
Abuse or inequality. Relationship anarchy is all about what works for each participant in a relationship; it does not indicate that anyone must be given anything they want or ask for, regardless of the other partner(s)’ feelings or wishes. It says, ‘You can ask for whatever you wish for or need.’ It does not say that anyone is therefore obligated to agree to give it to you.
Polyamory (necessarily). To be clear, polyamory and relationship anarchy are compatible lifestyles, and can overlap or present as the same thing. But they are not synonyms. There are various types of polyamory and nonmonogamy, including hierarchical polyamory [wherein a person may have one primary partner and other secondary partner(s)], open relationships [in which two or more committed partners agree to allow sexual or romantic contact outside of each other], polyfidelity [when a group of committed partners remains romantically/sexually faithful only to one another, and not outside of the group], and many others. Relationship anarchy is also a form of nonmonogamy, but is directly at odds with a relationship style that presumes a preexisting hierarchy of relationships.
What does Relationship Anarchy look like?
Relationship anarchy can look like anything for different people. It may mean the people you live with, the people you marry, the people you have sex with, and the people you share romantic attachment with are not always the same individuals. There are many conceivable examples of an RA-based lifestyle. For me, relationship anarchy looks like having a long-distance significant other, Laura, with whom I share certain commitments and promises that we both agreed to. Laura practices non-hierarchical polyamory and has another romantic partner-- let’s call them Gabby-- in addition to me; and while I’m not also involved with ‘Gabby,’ we do know each other and are amicably acquainted. Laura and I are both free to enjoy affection and intimacy with whomever we please, so long as we remain open and honest during the process.
Sometimes, my close friendships may also include kissing or sexual intimacy, whether out of closeness or just for mutual enjoyment. I am not expected to be ‘the guy’ or ‘the girl’ in any relationship, and my closest bonds often remain pleasantly unlabeled. There is no assumption that I will or should sleep with or ‘put out’ for any particular person in my life. For all important individuals—friends, partners, and otherwise—boundaries are negotiated. “What kind of physical contact are you okay with?” “Are you interested in sharing a bed, or sleeping separately?” “What words or terms should I not use in reference to you?” These questions and more are never assumed, but instead communicated about—something that I think should be true of every relationship.
Who benefits from Relation Anarchy?
Anyone and everyone. An asexual or sex-repulsed individual may wish to cultivate a situation in which sexual contact is not presumed to go with romance. A pansexual aromantic may want to be able to have low-pressure sexual relationships without the prerequisite of romantic ties. Both aro- and ace-spectrum folk can develop queerplatonic relationships that are individually defined. Someone who does not desire relationships but does crave intimacy can enjoy affection outside of the realm of convention. Folks who are nonmonogamous but also value different types of partners equally are validated in the relationship anarchy model.
Perhaps you don’t ever want to wed a singular, permanent spouse and fulfill the prescribed family lifestyle. Perhaps you don’t desire committed relationships at all, and prefer to surround yourself with platonic intimate partners. Perhaps you find it hard to articulate that you value your best friend as a soul mate, and they share equal importance with your significant other. Relationship anarchy may be the philosophy under which you flourish.
What can all people learn from Relationship Anarchy?
Even to those in traditional commitments, or those who don’t think they will ever engage in relationship anarchy, can learn from the tenets it is based upon. That is: that every individual is unique, and has their own needs, desires, boundaries, and expectations. All relationships should involve communication and consent to make each of these clear; no one benefits from assumptions surrounding their ‘role.’
And perhaps more importantly, if some aspect of your relationship—whether romantic, sexual, platonic, or otherwise—is detrimental to your health and happiness, you do not have to agree to it. Even if it is standard. Even if it is expected. Only you can know what is best for you, and no matter what, you have the right to pursue the life in which you can be truest to your real self.