If you’ve heard of relationship anarchy (RA), you might not know exactly what it means or how it works. Indeed, the term is relatively new, and only began cropping up in experts’ research over the past decade or so, according to Dr. Elizabeth “Eli” Sheff, a sociologist, researcher, relationship coach and author of the book, The Polyamorists Next Door. We’re here to break down the essentials, and explore how you can go about defining the type of relationship you want.
Relationship anarchy defined
Relationship anarchy is a relationship style that falls under the umbrella of consensual non monogamy. As you might guess, it pulls its roots from the classical anarchist political movement, which rejects authority and hierarchy in favor of the absolute freedom of the individual. As such, Dr. Eli tells O.school that relationship anarchy is a “style of relationship based on choice rather than obligation.”
Typically, each relationship in a RA’s life, whether sexual or nonsexual, operates separately and by mutually-agreed upon terms. “[R]elationship anarchists don’t tend to make rules about their partners’ other relationships,” Dr. Eli adds. While the vast majority of RAs never promise to be with any one partner “forever,” RA does not necessarily only entail short or fleeting relationships. Some RAs may find themselves in relationships that last for decades. That said, this type of relationship is predicated on the individual and their autonomy. It acknowledges that someone’s wants and needs may change or evolve over time, and that their relationships necessarily change alongside that evolution. A relationship anarchist knows that even a happy relationship might not last forever, and is content to wake up each day and ask “is/are my relationship(s) working for me?”
As one RA told New York Magazine’s The Cut, “Relationship anarchy is deconstructing all the pieces of your relationships — companionship, living together, romance, sex — so that those don’t all have to be in the same person. [...] You don’t necessarily have to prioritize your sexual relationship over your other relationships. You really focus on finding the way you connect with somebody, and nurturing the part that works for you, and disregarding society’s expectations of what you should do.”
Relationship anarchy is right for some people, but not everyone
RAs tend to be very independent and highly value their individual autonomy. That’s because, as Dr. Eli puts it, “you have to be willing to say ‘okay, if this isn’t working, we go our separate ways.’” RAs also prioritize freedom and fluidity in their relationships, which can appeal to free-spirited thinkers and nonconformists.
But RA isn’t for everyone. As Dr. Eli explains, “Relationship anarchy can be way too fluid for some people who like stability and predictability. That level of fluidity can feel way too slippery and unstable.” Folks who want to have all their needs fulfilled by one partner willing to make a life-long commitment are likely better off pursuing monogamy.
The relationship anarchy manifesto lays out central tenets
Though various practices of RA are not themselves new, the actual term was coined and explored by Andie Nordgren in a 2006 pamphlet called The Short Instructional Manifesto for Relationship Anarchy. The relationship anarchy manifesto lays out these central tenets:
Love is abundant, and every relationship is unique
Conventionally, love is treated as a limited resource to be shared with only one person. RAs prefer to see love as “abundant,” a view which allows for them to hold multiple, unique relationships.
Love and respect instead of entitlement
RAs believe in protecting boundaries by avoiding feeling “entitled” to anyone’s time or love, and instead valuing each individual’s independence and autonomy.
Find your core set of relationship values
Though each relationship might look different, RAs try to develop a set of core expectations and boundaries. These govern how they conduct all their relationships. This prevents unnecessary hierarchies from forming between different relationships.
Heterosexism is rampant and out there, but don’t let fear lead you
RAs may encounter doubt or skepticism from the heterosexist, monogamist-leaning outside world. The manifesto urges relationship anarchists to work with those they love to “to find escapes and tricks to counter the worst of the problematic norms.” This way they can feel comfortable conducting relationships on their own terms.
Customize your commitments
Act as the designer of your own relationships, creating commitments as they suit each individual partner. These commitments may include owning a home, raising children, or simply growing together.
Relationship anarchy is different from polyamory
RA and polyamory are often conflated, but typically, there are certain differences. For starters, many polyamorists categorize their relationships by hierarchy (primary, secondary partners, etc.), whereas RAs are not interested in hierarchies and consider each relationship to be equal, regardless of if they are romantic, sexual, or platonic.
This can have meaningful ramifications for sexual health, too. Dr. Eli explains that, “Under polyamory, people might say, ‘You should not have unprotected sex with anyone but me.’ Under relationship anarchy, they might say, “I am only having protected sex, because I don’t have any sway over what [my partners] do with their bodies when they’re not with me. So I am taking charge of my sexual health because I’m not telling anyone else what to do.”
There are also similarities between the two relationship styles, and many have pointed out the overlap between RA and solo-polyamory — polyamory where the person doesn’t have a primary partner. Dr. Eli notes, “For some people, you can’t really tell the difference between the two of those.” Others argue that there are some inherent differences. According to GQ, “...[R]elationship anarchy is not the same as solo-polyamory, because RAs reject sex and romance as an inherent aspect of their partnerships (a solo-poly person would probably not put their platonic roommate on the same pedestal as their sexual partners).” An RA, on the other hand, might ascribe equal meaning to both.
RA is less commonly confused with monogamy. Typically, monogamy involves romantic and sexual commitment to one partner, though the term has become more slippery in recent decades, with the rise of the swinger lifestyle and other “monogamish” sexual behavior. At its core, though, Dr. Eli explains, “Monogamy is underscored by an assumption of exclusivity. Relationship anarchists do not have that.”
7 ways to practice relationship anarchy
If you’re interested in trying out RA, you may be wondering how to practically make it work in your life. There are a few key elements that can help you enjoy this form of consensual non monogamy.
1. Consider your own boundaries deeply
To successfully practice RA, you need to fully understand what you want from each relationship, and from your relational life at large. Think about what boundaries feel safe, healthy and necessary, and what aspects of a relationship might feel uncomfortable or constraining. As Dr. Eli notes, it’s not just enough to consider your own boundaries, you also need to “hear other people’s boundaries and be willing to negotiate when boundaries appear incompatible.”
2. Hone your communication skills
When practicing RA, it’s crucial that you be able to communicate with each partner about your boundaries, wants, needs, desires and expectations in order “to figure out how to create your own relationship and how you want it to be,” Dr. Eli explains. This requires thoughtful, compassionate dialogue, and a willingness to express yourself honestly and kindly.
3. Embrace your independence
One of the main benefits of RA is that it allows you to feel independent and forge multiple relationships, each on its own terms. Learn to value time alone, and cherish the ability to live life without all of the obligations of so-called “traditional” relationships.
4. Don’t confuse relationship anarchy with not caring
“Don’t assume relationship anarchists have no integrity, or no ability to sustain relationships just because they are fluid and don’t necessarily look like the iron-clad agreements that come with monogamy,” Dr. Eli tells O.school. “It doesn’t mean that they’re not devoted or not in love. They just have a fairly realistic assessment of what to expect from relationships. Because lots of people who say ‘to death do us part’ don’t end up that way. So, in a way, even people who don’t claim relationship anarchy live by some of its tenets. Relationship anarchists are just honest about it.
5. Learn to tolerate fluidity
RAs live in states of fluidity, and may see their relationships grow, change, or decline over time. Learn to embrace that fluidity, and see it as freeing rather than destabilizing.
6. Practice non-judgmentally assessing your relationships
Because RA is predicated on the idea that individuals change, and thus relationships change, RAs need to be good at constantly assessing their relationships. This helps them identify what’s working and collaboratively try to find ways to fix things that aren’t.
7. Let go of assigning blame
When a monogamous relationship isn’t working, it’s common for partners to assign blame or see the situation as a “failure.” Dr. Eli notes that it’s vital that RAs be able to “flow with change without anyone needing to be the ‘bad guy.’” Letting go of blame makes it easier to communicate, and to honestly assess and improve an existing relationship.
The bottom line
Relationship anarchy opens a host of exciting possibilities for creating exactly the kind of relationships you want, on your (and your partners’) own terms. Though it comes with its own challenges, it also has unique benefits, like prioritizing your autonomy and allowing for your independence.