This one gets a worse rep than it deserves for a couple reasons. First, people hear anarchy and think “oh gosh everything will collapse,” because most people don’t understand anarchy as a leftist-libertarian political theory and guiding principle, but have heard it used to describe the collapse of worlds and governments. Second, there are a bunch of people in the polyamorous community who are selfish assholes and excuse it with the double claim “You don’t hold up your own emotional processing and I never agreed to take on helping with that,” and “Of course it’s OK that I offer none of my 7 partners emotional support - I’m a relationship anarchist and we never explicitly said I had to.”
BIG GIANT BOLD NOTE: I DON’T THINK MOST RELATIONSHIP ANARCHISTS DO THAT. I ACTIVELY BELIEVE A LOT OF THE TENETS OF RELATIONSHIP ANARCHY ARE CORRECT. BUT SOME JERKS MEAN A LOT OF PEOPLE GET VERY CAGEY WHEN YOU SAY THAT’S YOUR APPROACH.
So, having got all those caveats out of the way, what is Relationship Anarchy (RA) anyway? In the most basic and technical sense it’s the application of political anarchy theory to relationships. It’s anti-hierarchy, anti-government intervention in relationships, pro-autonomy, pro-community interdependence, and anti-monogamy. In being extremely pro-autonomy, it’s also very in favor of setting (preferably pre-emptive) explicit agreements, and a lack of explicit agreement means an absence of responsibility on that subject - or at least that after the immediate situation is over, a discussion to determine responsibility sharing on that subject and an amicable explicit agreement is required to not need to unfold it all the next time.
Generally, this is compatible with non-hierarchical forms of polyamory. If you’re self-aware enough to communicate well and work in explicit agreements, and don’t particularly require the privileging of romantic over non-romantic connections, then your relationship with a relationship anarchist will probably go just fine. The places where you might get hung up, and where relationship anarchists will go “oh no I’m not polyamorous, I’m A Relationship Anarchist,” are, principally, the issue of whether romantic relationships should get precedence above say, old or emotionally intimate but platonic friendships, or familial relationships; whether partners get any say in someone’s interactions with someone else and what the ‘oppressive ownership’ undertones of that are; and that of believing in marriage as anything except intentionally exploiting a governmental system that shouldn’t be there at all for some Life Efficiency Gain, and disregarding all the cultural baggage around it. (Relationship Anarchists are your poly friends who live in a half-commune, run the local food pantry, and maybe got married at city hall and you didn’t realize it until a decade later when one of them made a comment in an online forum that starts, “well I’ve been ethically non-monogamous and married for ten years, so…”) Basically, if you’re non-hierarchical and willing to own up to a rule you agreed to being “my policy is to X” rather than saying it as “well my partner prefers X so I do X,” you can be polyamorous and involved with a relationship anarchist.
The reasons they get their own label are threefold: First, that they’re a separate relationship philosophy - they think you can be in inherently unethical relationships, even with everyone’s consent, because not supporting autonomy and opposing ownership models and codependency is always wrong. Second, because in not applying a hierarchy between those on and off the relationship escalator, and trying to dismantle categories like “friend” as opposed to “lover” as opposed to “partner” and leaning into communal cooperation and families of choice, they are actually more radically reshaping relationship discourse than most polyamorists are, and moreso than current culture is generally comfortable with. (That’s one of the things that makes me, personally, a polyamorist, not a relationship anarchist - I most likely with spend my old age with my heart-friends like a bunch of Golden Girls and have romantic/sexual partners who visit; but I find a lot of personal comfort in labels and in the internal hierarchy of friends and romantic partners.) Last, Relationship Anarchy as a movement self-defines as rebuilding social expectations around relationships from the ground up, where polyamory is renovating those norms and expectations - so not only are we respecting their personal identification, but we’re acknowledging the difference between buying some land and building your house, and doing either a minor reno (for very hierarchical forms of polyamory or closed polycules) or a variety moving up to a gut job (less and less hierarchy moving to “non-hierarchical and regardless of knowing my metas they have no say in my relationship’s progress and choices”). The latter might look a lot like the end result of rebuilding from the ground up but it was a very different process to get there, so RA is its own thing, separate from but overlapping polyamory under the ethical non-monogamy umbrella. There’s a lot more to say about this form of ethically non-monogamous relationship, but I’m trying to stick to an overview.
A relationship anarchist can practice polyamory as a relationship style, but they are still a believer in relationship anarchy. A polyamorist can support some or most of the underlying premises of relationship anarchy and not be a relationship anarchist because the one or two they don’t are A Big Deal in RA. So, essentially, RA is an autonomy-focused, community-building, non-monogamy-espousing way of life that aims to rebuild our views of human interrelationship that is compatible with but not identical to non-hierarchical polyamory.
Here’s a link to the relationship anarchy manifesto, if you’re interested.
Next time, instead of an RA manifesto, my own, of sorts.
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