Bar none, relationship anarchists are my favorite polyamorists. However, relationship anarchists also make up the vast majority of my least favorite polyamorists. While polarizing opinions are very rarely drawn between a person and himself, I’ve been musing myself in twain! Just like political anarchy, relationship anarchy is a profound shift in the existing paradigm. Also like political anarchy, it can leave people worse off than they were before if the revolution is executed poorly.
Firstly, definitions. Since the voice of the people is the voice of god. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of Relationship Anarchy:
The practice of forming relationships that are not bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree on.
Oooooh, shit! What a sexy relationship philosophy!
That’s how things look on paper. It’s tough to apply the structure of language to something as aggressively unstructured as anarchy, though. In practice, relationship anarchy is manifest in its different subsections; just like political anarchy! In all my experience with people who self-identify as “Relationship Anarchists”, I’ve found they generally fall into one of two categories:
Relationship Marxists & Relationship Libertarians
So if you have been flirting with or subscribing to the notion of relationship anarchy, there’s a real chance you could be one of these persuasions. But which one?!?
I wish there was a test we could take– like finding out which House you’d be in Hogwarts. But there’s no Sorting Hat in my sex life (except maybe this one), so we’re forced to self identify. At its base, relationship anarchy is a DIY relationship. That broad definition encompasses virtually all alternative lifestyle relationships, though. I hit up some of my buddies who identify with the relationship anarchy style, and most define it as a form of “non-heirarchical polyamory”.
While many non-monogamists might have a single or number of partners they view as their “primary”, there are some who prefer not to stratify their partners. And while complete equality of all the relationships in your life is not a realistic achievement, it’s certainly a goal worth reaching for.
Striving for that is what pushes relationship anarchists, and what I truly admire about them.
That being said, no revolution is without people using its tenets to advance their own agenda. If relationship marxists follow their namesake’s mantra:
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”
So to do relationship libertarians follow their namesake’s mantra:
“Got mine. Fuck y’all”
Alright, that’s harsh. But I’m a recovering libertarian, so I can say that. I still think Gary Johnson was the most entertaining third party candidate we’ve had in recent memory, and Ayn Rand has some decent quotes despite the fact that I disagree with the vast majority of her sentiments now.
Not every relationship anarchist I’ve met has a high regard for individual freedoms and personal boundaries. Many actually assume the mantle of the relationship anarchist to have even more control in a relationship than is normally granted by the unwritten rules laid down by the patriarchy of conventional dating.
Feminist author Jo Freeman has an excellent essay called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” where she talks about the inherent dangers of unseating the establishment coming from her experiences with the radical feminists of the 1970s. The dangers she calls out of anarchy are the same as the ones found in relationship anarchy. Over 30 years after Freeman, another feminist author, Hilary Wainwright, revisited that essay with her own “Imagine There’s No Leaders“. Wainwright explains:
“lack of structure too often disguised an informal, unacknowledged and unaccountable leadership that was all the more pernicious because its very existence was denied.”
A progressive relationship style with built-in gaslighting? Opportunistic liberals are chomping at the bit…
I’ve seen this paralleled in the poly communities by self identified “relationship anarchists” who believe that because they have absolved themselves of conventional obligations to their partners, they too can also absolve themselves of basic accountability.
The solution to people abusing relationship anarchy is the same as the solution to people abusing political anarchy: representation. The terms of the relationship need to reflect the needs of the partners. That may lead to obligation or feelings of ownership, but leaving yourself open to that is a better option than leaving yourself open to abuse. Wainwright goes on to explain:
“The only democratic answer lies in the creation of transparent structures based on collectively agreed rules that may or may not include leaders of some kind.”
Communication, the yardstick of polyamory, is another item that people abusing relationship anarchy often consider themselves ‘above’. This is the easiest way to determine if you are involved with (or are personally) a relationship libertarian: sit down and have a talk about preferences. Resistance to discussing shared boundaries often means that a person doesn’t want to get hung up on their route to having a good time. While any partner, even monogamists, can certainly be opposed to having certain shared boundaries; if just discussing them is off the table, then a stratification exists in that this person’s romantic status quo is their primary. In such a case, you might be better off leaving them to find some other objectivist heart to live together in whatever romantic utopia makes sense to them.
Relationship marxists on the other hand, are willing to address these issues with real responses. These people know that we’re all in it together, and preserving one’s individuality does not need to come at a cost of consideration. If you have the aforementioned discussion of preferences, they will be willing to open that dialogue. A relationship marxist would come to mutually agreed terms that can keep all parties satisfied. Even if it comes at some cost to their autonomy.
And I hate to use the word “cost” at the risk of making a relationship feel like it’s an exchange you have to haggle and bargain with. Relationships don’t need to have a cost. But everyone has to put in their fare share.
That’s just been my experience with relationship anarchy, though! Any of you reading are relationship anarchists who think I totally missed the mark? Anybody else relationship anar-churious and want to share your hesitations? Relationship libertarians who want to stand up for their rights? Let’s keep this discussion going in the comments!