Relationship Anarchy Applied: Friends with Benefits and Play Partners
The word ‘polyamory’ means ‘many loves,’ but just like the Greeks had seven words that translate to the English ‘love,’ there are many kinds of relationship that fall under the umbrella of polyamorous relating. This can all be defined somewhat differently and personally by the people engaging in a given relationship or network - some people very decidedly only “count” relationships that are romantic and sexual, but many of us need only one or the other of those dimensions to consider a relationship a “partnership” for the purposes of inclusion in our mental map of our polycule. Still others need neither, and elevate close or deep friendships to an equal level as romantic or sexual relationships - the Greek “philia” being equal to “eros” (passionate/sexual love) or “pragma” (longstanding/romantic love). This attitude strikes me as particularly appropriate, given my fondness for relationship anarchist theory as an approach to relationships.
The last time we talked about relationship anarchy, we only had time to define the theory and mention a little bit that one of the principle ways it differs from ‘everyday polyamory’ is that folks who subscribe to RA as a relationship theory are actively trying not to prioritize one type of relationship over others. RA says that friends are equally as important as lovers, all of whom are as important as family - that family should essentially be chosen, regardless of if you choose to include your family of birth - and that sexuality and romance are lovely and meet needs but don’t deserve special priority over friendships, which also meets human needs. Keeping all of this in mind, let’s consider two kinds of relationships that often get foot-note consideration in polyamorous discussions: friends with benefits and kink play partners.
Both these types of relationships are frequently dismissed with “only” before them, despite often being long-lasting or with close friends who people grow with over time. Polyamorous people are often pretty good at acknowledging that shorter relationships helped them grow and change - but just as a six-month or one year relationship where we loved and lost might have been a space of growth, an affectionate and friendly relationship where (for example) we were not romantic, but we chatted regularly while doing kink play a couple times a month for a few years can have been just as meaningful, if not more so. Our friendships and social circles help form us and giving false priority to romance in our personal development ignores the strength and community we build in those bonds. One of the best things about polyamory is the expansion of community and family - so consider not gatekeeping partners back out by saying they’re “only” play partners. Some of my play partners have been my closest friends, even after we stopped playing, and the transition into long term ‘philia’ and ‘ludus’ - Greek for ‘playful love’ - has formed the basis of my long term chosen family and platonic support network.
The kink community is really understanding of lots of non-monogamous relationship identities, and there are lots of romantically and sexually monogamous people coming to a more intentional and nuanced understanding of their monogamy through these close friendships with nonsexual play partners. Between negotiation of boundaries around seeing play partners outside of an existing relationship, management of jealousy (because different play with different partners can set off all sorts of feelings in people), communication of changes as they take place, and boundaries around spending time with a partner’s play partners, a lot of monogamous kinky people learn most of the same relationship management skills as consensually non-monogamous people. The places you ‘trip up’ are the same - and so are many of the joy points: emotional support, fun, more people to do hobbies you really enjoy with.
The other category I mentioned, friends with benefits, is the other side of the same coin - it’s the same token of friends help form you, so don’t discount your friendships! But unlike many kink relationships, most friend-with-benefits relationships are explicitly sexual and explicitly nonpartnered. Not being my labelled partner doesn’t make someone unimportant to my life, however. I have best friends of over a decade who are in the first couple phone calls I make if something wonderful or terrible happens - neither of them is or has ever been a ‘partner’ named or labelled as such. But I can’t imagine triumphs or terrors that they don’t face with me.
Our culture is built on a premise of fairytale ‘true love’ in which we run away to be happily ever after with romantic partners who fulfill us in all senses. Reality is much more complicated than this, and I think the relationship anarchist principle of all relationships being equally valuable as one another, and therefore friendships of all kinds being equally important as romances and sexual relationships, is important to keep in mind before dismissing any relationships as “only” a friendship with benefits or “only” a play partnership.
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