Relationship Anarchy is not Polyamory

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Relationship Anarchy is Not Polyamory

This is a guest post, written originally in 2013 for MultipleMatch (the first iteration of my polyamory pages)

About the Author: Autumn is a twenty-something musician, dancer, anarchist and relationship activist currently (mostly) residing in Malmö, Sweden. Ze enjoys breaking bread and connecting with friends, around campfires and kitchen tables alike. Ze constantly plots the downfall of capitalism and patriarchy. Join the anarch' side, we have hope! Current mission: remembering the dance in each step, the war in every word and the love in each and every moment.

God, or indeed the devil (as they say), is in the detail. Relationship anarchy (RA) is sometimes included under the polyamory umbrella, sometimes not. And yet many practices fall under the poly category – triads/triangles and other geometries, polyfidelity, open marriage/open relationships, swinging (though there is some debate on whether this should be included); so why not a practice which involves ‘loving many’?

I’ve sometimes heard people describe relationship anarchy very literally as “the practice of not organizing your relationships according to hierarchies.”My perception is that this definition is more or less inaccurate, if nothing else there will always be some people in your life you want to see more and others you want to see less, which is a hierarchy in and of itself.
Because these polyamorous practices have certain qualities in common – with each other as well as with monogamous relationships – which set them aside from relationship anarchy…

To begin with, in all of these configurations the people involved manage their relationships through the use of agreements, rules, compromises or promises. In this mindset, when any number of people enter into a relationship with each other each of them will either explicitly or implicitly put expectations in place regarding the behaviour of their partners. Relationship anarchists try not to do this. Our* philosophy is to not make rules governing our partners’ behaviour in our absence or presence, and we try not to harbour any expectations (especially covert ones) of how they ‘ought’ to act in a given situation. Issues and conflicts are instead resolved on a case-by-case basis. Especially important is the belief that no party should have to compromise, should have to feel as though they have to give something up, to be in a relationship with the other. In short, if we can’t find a way to relate to one another that is fulfilling for us both/all, then it’s better to separate. This uncompromising strategy can of course also exist in other polyamorous relationships, but for the relationship anarchist it is quintessential!

And then we come to the widely assumed definition of polyamory – that it is a ‘practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved’. But how is intimacy to be defined? In the monogamous norm which pervades most of our cultures, the assumption is that there is a truly profound innate difference between friendships and love-relationships, and in most forms of polyamory, this assumption still stands, although less rigidly**. Relationship anarchists try to do away with this distinction in its entirety.

For us, there isn’t necessarily a clear distinction between friends and lovers. We focus on each relationship having its own unique content, and not so much on whether that content places it in one category or the other. Which brings me to what I believe the word anarchy stands for in this context. I’ve sometimes heard people describe relationship anarchy very literally as “the practice of not organizing your relationships according to hierarchies”, a statement often followed by a lot of confusion on exactly what that means in practice. My perception is that this definition is more or less inaccurate, if nothing else there will always be some people in your life you want to see more and others you want to see less, which is a hierarchy in and of itself.

But then (as a wise CrimethInc. agent once said) anarchy and hierarchy always coexist to some extent. I believe anarchy means to not distinguish friendships from romances (with a hierarchy in place between the two), but instead treat each relationship as its own unique entity, which is free to develop as is may. Here’s another way to summarize it: People in the main tend to be adept indeed at juggling various friendships. When you meet up with an old friend, surely it doesn’t matter if you last saw each other yesterday or five months ago, surely it matters little what they did in the meantime, or who with. With old friends, the question is always “what do we want to do today?” This is a quality that relationship anarchists want to extend to all our relationships, regardless of whether they contain romance, or intimacy, or sex.

Parenting the Relationship Anarchy Way

People ask whether I consider relationship anarchy as a stable and sustainable configuration especially with regards to raising children. My short, dull answer: Yes, with good communication. Same as for any other kind of relationship. Now of course, what exactly constitutes good communication warrants its very own blog post.

One situation that comes to mind in which our approach could be truly helpful in parenting is a separation or divorce. As noted above, in the monogamous norm and elsewhere, break-ups are fearful things that cause all sorts of trouble. If there’s children involved, the scene darkens further with the possibility of tiresome custody disputes and a more complicated life for everyone for years to come. An anarchic approach in this sense might actually provide more safety for children than a more conventional one.
To answer the question with a little more zeal I’d like to point out that the use of the words stable and sustainable in itself may be begging the question in this case. What does it mean for a relationship to be sustainable? Literally that the relationship will be sustained? Till-death-do-us-part? If so you have to understand that “sustainable” isn’t what we’re aiming for at all, it isn’t the paragon for us. Like I touched on above, by our standards it’s better for a relationship to end than to go on if upholding it entails compromise and sacrifice.

As long as a relationship grants meaning to those involved and meets their needs, then sustaining it will likely be effortless and joyful. If it ceases to be meaningful and need-serving you will find its maintenance requiring ever-increasing force, and then the relationship should either change, or if it can’t, end. Which may be sad, but won’t be undesirable! I understand anybody who think this sounds crass or radical, but all the same, think of all the people throughout the years who stayed far too long in relationships in which they were unhappy, or that were hurting them. Who benefits from this? Who is made happier? What often happens though, is that as we get used to focusing on our needs in each situation, constantly re-evaluating what we want from each other as well as what we have to give, break-ups cease to be the dramatic episodes they tend to be in couple-oriented relationship and begin more often to take the form of change rather than end.

You could argue that this means anarchic relationships are in fact more sustainable than couple relationships, but personally I like to frame things differently, focusing on other values than sustainability. Does this mean that having children within this this framework is a terrible idea? Not necessarily. I’ve met quite a few people who are raising children in constellations other than the usual hetero-mono nuclear family, although none of them to my knowledge explicitly identify as relationship anarchists.

When I think about raising children as relationship anarchists what I picture is the parent(s) functioning much like single parents do in the sense that each adult functions like an individual, with much of their focus and energy devoted to the kids. I imagine it would require careful managing of their own needs and resources with respect to those of the child or children, all within the intricate web of connections that tends to be the day-to-day of people who organize their relationships in an anarchic fashion. You might think this easily could become too unpredictable a situation for kids to grow up in, but then instability or insecurity are problems that can emerge in any kind of relationship. Maintaining a stable and safe situation for children to grow in will likely (as so many other things) depend largely on the parents communication skills and wits, than whether they have a monogamous, polyamorous or anarchic love life.

One situation that comes to mind in which our approach could be truly helpful in parenting is a separation or divorce. As noted above, in the monogamous norm and elsewhere, break-ups are fearful things that cause all sorts of trouble. If there’s children involved, the scene darkens further with the possibility of tiresome custody disputes and a more complicated life for everyone for years to come. An anarchic approach in this sense might actually provide more safety for children than a more conventional one, because the parents romantic or sexual interest in each other cooling doesn’t necessarily entail trouble or instability for the family, as it inevitably does in more closed family models.

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    How it works in Practice

    The way I’m living my life right now, relationships are a very strong focus for me. I spend most of my free time hanging out with other people and that’s just how I like it. I have a few close relationships of different natures, and another group of people in my life that are not quite as close. The distinction between closer and less close relationships is not super clear though, and it’s mostly dependent on how much time I spend with the person in question, and not very strongly defined by whether my relationship with that person contains sexual intimacy. From time to time a problem arises within the context of a relationship, in which case we try to work things out using our best intentions and communication skills, ideally with all parties focusing on each others needs as best they can. My relationships are also constantly changing, and I try my best to stay positive and open about these changes. Allowing things to be fluid and mutable is a strategy in meeting my needs and those of my friends which has proven to work very well for me.

    But in order to describe how my anarchic relationships work out in practice I often find myself caught in traps consisting of language itself. The words most commonly used to describe close relationships just don’t cut it. Boyfriend/girlfriend, with their heavy burdens of gender and mononormativity, are not words I can comfortably use to describe the way I relate to the people closest to me. Most of the existing options have other kinds of problems attached to them, for example I personally really like “lover” but that word seems to hold connotations of negativity or illegitimacy for a lot of people.

    For now I stick with “friend” to denote pretty much all of my close relationships, for want of a better option. I’ve been trying to establish a language which focuses on the content of each relationship, rather than looking for a word to describe it. Some examples of such content could be: Intimacy, empathic connection, sex, philosophical debate, music making, support during hard times, working together, cooking, sports, intellectual discussion, spiritual practices, watching films, dancing etc… Each relationship consists of its own specific combination of content. Certain combinations translate easily into norms like “couple” or “friends”, other combinations are a little more unusual. In either case, this language focuses very clearly on the character of the real relationship that’s being discussed, rather than measuring that relationship against a preconceived model like “boyfriend”.

    Relationship Anarchy as a Movement

    In Sweden at least the relationship anarchy movement isn’t structured the way for example the polyamorous community is. For example there’s no specific RA meetups that I’m aware of (if I’ve missed something here, do let me know!). There is a movement, no doubt, but it’s simply made up of the lives and actions of the people who identify with it, there’s no given agenda and I think a lot of us like it that way. It’s not that it’s apolitical, I wouldn’t say that, relationship anarchy itself is inevitably rooted in or connected with a critique of normativity in close relationships, and a lot of times also interwoven with an analysis of hetero- and cis-sexism. As a matter of fact, some people like to use the word relationship *activism*, to acknowledge that part of what we want is to help make a freer, more equal and all around nicer world, much like activists in any other field. Still, the RA community is mostly disorganized, anarchic if you will.

    Relationship Anarchy is Not PolyamoryAs to why it should emerge in Sweden, I’m not sure there is any really good answer to that. [One hypothesis is proposed here: Why is there No Unicorn Hunting in Sweden?]Perhaps one explanation is that these kinds of relationships have been and are practiced in many places, but Sweden happened to have a bunch of clever feminist and anarchist writers who put things down in words, gave RA its name figuratively and possibly literally (does anyone know when the word was first used?), thus helping it form into a clearer idea which could then spread more quickly. One very important example are the many great writings on the subject by Andie Nordgren. Besides the “short instructional manifesto…” there’s also a host of very thoughtful texts up on (although all of them are in swedish). Granted, one person doesn’t make a scene, but all of those works probably inspired a great many people. Props to Andie for sharing all that insight!

    It’s not easy to say what the future holds for relationship anarchy. It can be expected that the scene will grow and that the concept will gain wider recognition. As is noted in the polymedia post from last year there seems to be a general movement away from the monogamy norm which is happening in a lot of different places right now (not just in the U.S.). On a spectrum with nuclear family monogamy on one side and relationship anarchy on the other, a lot of people seem to be moving gradually towards the latter. As more and more people find out about these concepts, as more and more communities begin to consider non-monogamy a legitimate choice, a growing number of folks are opening up their relationships to varying degrees. One aspect of our movement which deserves mention is self-scrutiny. As the community of non-monogamous identities grows and starts to form a clearer movement I believe it’s very important that we learn how to look at what we’re creating critically. We all grew up in a world of inequality, and all of us are more or less influenced by the structures of oppression that exist all around us. If we stay conscious of this, we can try to build a community that takes part in the struggle to undo these inequalities, and ideally constitutes a safer space for people of lesser privilege. Janani of Black Girl Dangerous has one or two things to say about this.

    Besides that, I’m mostly hoping that relationship activism will continue to grow as a positive force in our communities. I’m hoping that the people who are already out exploring the possibilities of how we can relate to each other will continue to inspire other people to develop their consciousness around relationships and the norms that surround them.

    My hope is that, in this way, we can help each other make a more peaceful and joyful world.

    *I use the words us, our, we etc even though as I point out in my answer to the fourth question, the movement of RA is mostly disorganized, without any clearly defined consensus around these topics. The views I put forth here represent my own perception of the ideas held by the people in this movement. Not all members of this community necessarily agree with all that I’ve written here, still I perceive the structures and patterns therein to be strong enough to form into a sense of we.

    **I have observed that this distinction between friendship and romance is internally experienced more strongly by some people than others. I personally never felt such a clear divide between them myself, but have talked to others for whom that divide seems absolutely essential. I theorize that just how strongly a person feels this division is one of the factors which governs how inclined the individual is towards non-monogamy. I don’t believe that it’s a fixed fact, I have faith that with time and patience (and a big load of forgiving yourself) you can rewrite your wiring and learn to function in a different way. However, that’s something you really have to do truly for your own sake, and know why you’re doing it.

    The Mass Exodus of Polyamorous People Towards Relationship AnarchyBeing a relationship anarchist can include LGBTQIA and non-queer folk. Monogamous and polyamorous folk. Highly sexual and asexual folk (like me).