Whether you’re monogamous, polyamorous, or somewhere in between, there’s a good chance your relationships involve some sort of hierarchy. Maybe you give more attention to your spouse than your platonic friendships, or maybe—if you practice hierarchical polyamory—you have an anchor partner or primary partner who takes priority over your secondary partners.
Some people thrive under the structure of hierarchical relationships, but others find it limiting. That’s where relationship anarchy comes in. You may have heard of relationship anarchy in the context of polyamory—specifically, as an alternative hierarchical polyamory—but it’s actually less of a relationship style and more of a philosophy about how we interact with the people in our lives.
What does relationship anarchy mean, exactly?
The idea of relationship anarchy—a term coined by Andie Nordgren—is that people within a relationship are the complete and total agents of that relationship. Relationship anarchists reject outside rules of what a relationship should look like. They believe that no one type of relationship is inherently more important than another, and that romantic and platonic love are infinite resources.
Under relationship anarchy, your relationships can look however you want them to. You might want to live with ten partners in a big house and have orgies every night, or you might want to live separately from a partner you share a child with. Maybe you have a spouse, but you’re very close to your best friend and commit to vacationing with them twice a year, or maybe you’re single but have strong bonds with your siblings and lean on them during times of stress. We are often encouraged to think of romantic relationships as the “ultimate” relationships, or the most valid ones in our lives, but relationship anarchists say all relationships can be equally important, though perhaps in different ways.
Anarchy is often thought of as synonymous with chaos, but modern definitions that first appeared in the 19th century hold up anarchy as a Utopian system where people enjoy freedom and live harmoniously and peacefully. “Crucially, anarchy does not mean chaos; if we look at political anarchy, it’s about dissolution of the state, and the rejection of hierarchical power structures,” says polyamory coach Morgan K. “Relationship anarchy is quite similar. It’s about rejecting any outside systems that would dictate how the relationship ‘should’ go. Instead, only the people within the dynamic can decide together how it will look. If a hierarchy or power imbalance does exist, it is never coercive nor mandatory, and can be renegotiated at any time.”
Can you be a relationship anarchist and monogamous?
We tend to associate relationship anarchy with polyamory because both involve resisting societal rules around relationship structures, but the diverse and self-governed nature of relationship anarchy means it could apply to a monogamous situation, too. If you and your partner both decide you’re happy being monogamous, then that’s great! The most important thing is that you made the decision together.
“[Relationship anarchy] could involve having more than one sexual partner, but also not,” explains sex and relationships educator Justin Hancock. “So the bloke in a monogamous romantic relationship, who has deeply loving relationships with his mates, his family, and his communities, is practicing some kind of relationship anarchy. Going even further, we can extend this to deeply loving relationships with non-humans: the environment, pets, God or spirituality, art, music, or even football clubs.”
How do you practice relationship anarchy?
The point of relationship anarchy is to pursue any type of relationship you want without the pressure to conform to existing rules and structures, but all partners have to be onboard with whatever the arrangements are.
If you feel your partner isn’t spending enough time with you, you can say, “I feel upset because I’d like us to spend more time together,” but ultimately, it’s up to them to choose how—or whether—to adjust their behavior. Saying “you have to spend more time with me” wouldn’t fit within the tenets of relationship anarchy, because you’re becoming an outside agent dictating terms.
This is equally true in sexual relationships and platonic ones. Let’s say you have a friendship that feels one-sided, where your friend is asking too much of you. Your friend is free to seek emotional support from whomever they want (not just from a partner, which society has deemed more appropriate), but you are under no obligation to provide that support if you aren’t happy to do so. In this case, you’d clearly explain to your friend the impact of their behavior—but with no expectation of changing them. Instead, it’d be up to you to step away.
“Our partners can tell us how they’re impacted by our behaviors, and they can choose to opt out of a relationship that doesn’t suit them,” Morgan says. “But veto power or external rules imposed by a third party have no place within relationship anarchy.”
It’s normal to have to renegotiate the terms of each relationship over time, Morgan says—not just as feelings change, but with major life events like a person moving away or someone wanting to have children. It’s important to think carefully about your own feelings, why they might have arisen, and how you would like to deal with them, and then explain this as clearly as you can. But remember, you cannot expect people to do things just because you have asked them to.
A lot of the language around relationship anarchy, Hancock says, can seem off-putting or overly complicated, but there are actually very simple ways that anyone can incorporate this philosophy into their lives. If there are people you value, make time for them—and that includes yourself, Hancock says. Relationship anarchy could look like scheduling solo dates with yourself, or “making dates with mates and keeping those,” he says. “When I say dates, I don’t mean dinner and drinks; I just mean making time. It could just be a phone call, or a half-hour text exchange, or a weekend away … Anyone can try this kind of thing and if we all did, it might be pretty transformative.”
This article was first published in Men’s Health US.