What It’s Like Being a Relationship Anarchist

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Relationship anarchy (RA), a term coined by Andie Nordgren, is a relationship philosophy which draws its tenets from political anarchy, the main one being that all relationships (romantic and otherwise) shouldn’t be bound by any rules not agreed upon by the involved parties. What those relationships might look like may vary greatly from pair to pair, but there are several core values shared by most relationship anarchists: being non-hierarchical (i.e., they don’t rank their romantic partner[s] as necessarily more important than their friends); anti-prescriptionist (i.e., there are no built-in prescriptions about what a partnership must look like); and often, nonmonogamous. (Some relationship anarchists are polyamorous, and some poly people practice relationship hierarchy, but the two are more like overlapping circles than synonyms.)

Like many minority populations, relationship anarchists are no strangers to in-group fighting, and what does and does not “count” as relationship anarchy is a subject of spirited social-media debate among the thousands of members of RA Facebook groups — Nordgren’s term (and its subsequent adherents) appears to be little more than a decade old. To learn more about what relationship anarchy is like, the Cut spoke to two people who define their partnership (and their other partnerships) by these terms. Kelli is a 34-year-old trans nonbinary person who uses they/them pronouns, and Aviva is a 35-year-old queer, genderqueer lesbian who uses she/her pronouns.

I don’t know if this is the right way to ask this, but how long have you two been together?

A: Kelli and I have been dating … I would say dating, right? We’re dating.

K: We were dating.

A: We were dating, now we mostly are couching. [They both laugh.] We don’t really go out that much. But it’ll be four years in December.

K: I wonder if a good way to ask that would be, “How long have you been doing intimacy together?”

A: Yeah, I like that.

K: I like that, too. Because when we first met we weren’t really trying to build intimacy, and then there was a friend intimacy a little bit.

A: We were not friends.

K: Okay, great. Good chat.

A: We were acquaintances, and we did karaoke together, too.

K: And there was a point at which we started building some kind of intimacy that quickly, quickly turned into super romantic, sexual intimacy, then that transformed into emotional intimacy as well as romance and sex, and social intimacy.

A: And now practical intimacy.

K: Our anniversary is in December, and it’ll be four years.

What does that date mark?

A: It’s kind of complicated. We performed in a show together, and then we started hanging out with a mutual friend, and then we kissed for the first time on that mutual friend’s birthday.

K: That was November 13.

A: Yeah, and the first time we said “I love you” was Christmas Eve. So those seemed like really bad dates to pick for our anniversary, so December 3 and 4 are exactly in between. So that’s our anniversary.

That’s very mathematical of you.

K: Well, the actual date doesn’t really matter.

A: Kelli and I had an “unniversary” party, which was to celebrate how awesome our relationship is regardless of how long we’re together. We’re not promising to be together forever, because maybe we won’t. Neither of us believes that longevity is the marker of a successful relationship. It’s about whether or not the people in the relationship are happy, and we’re really happy, so we were like “Let’s throw a party!”

K: It’s different from a commitment ceremony and different than a wedding. But my parents had no idea how important it was, because it wasn’t called a wedding, so they casually were like, “We’re not going to show up tomorrow,” and I had this whole dramatic thing over it, and had to explain to them that actually it was really important that they be there.

How do you define your relationship when you describe it to other people? And how do you define your relationship(s) to your other partners?

K: Aviva and I refer to [our relationship] as an anchor partnership. That essentially means that we are each other’s significant support. It’s a grounding, home-type relationship.

A: An anchor partnership isn’t necessarily the person you’ve been with the longest, it’s not your primary partner, it’s not your spouse. For me, the word “anchor” is somebody who I have emotional intimacy with, who is an emotional support for me, like: who might I call when I go to the hospital, or who might I call if I’m having a rough day? That’s what anchor partnership is to me. That’s not to the exclusion of other anchor partnerships. I have more than one anchor partner. Kelli is one of them.

Forgive me for making comparisons, but is it sort of like the way we use “best friend” now — as Mindy Kaling says, as a tier, rather than a single person?

A: I think what’s so tricky about having these comparison conversations is that the idea of relationship anarchy is decoupling those prescriptive labels — like “this person is most important to me in the world, and everyone else is after that,” it’s the opposite of that. So when we say things like “best friend,” we’re saying this friend is more important than our other friends. That’s like the opposite of relationship anarchy, which is where this gets really confusing. [My anchor partners are] somebody who’s like a stable person in my life, who gives lots of emotional support, we might do vacations or hobbies together.

And what’s the difference between your anchor partners and your other partners? Can you tell me a little bit about the other relationships you both have?

K: Considering I don’t have any other partners, this is the perfect opportunity for you to go first.

A: You don’t have any other partners right now.

I have three other partners, one of which is another anchor partner. But also, the labels don’t really matter in that they’re all like family to me. We do holidays and things together, and we all support each other. I think that terminology is always in flux. All relationships ebb and flow, and sometimes you reach a certain level of intimacy where you might want to change what you call each other, and sometimes relationships change — you might say, okay, maybe we don’t have this romantic aspect anymore, or we don’t have a sexual aspect anymore, and we might want to change a label, but maybe not. The idea is that we’re using words that describe what we’re doing, rather than words that prescribe how we have to do it.

So how do you describe the other relationships?

A: I just call them partners. I don’t use any gender based labels for partnerships. Boyfriend/girlfriend isn’t really a thing that works, especially not in the queer community, where lots of people are genderqueer, or their gender identities might be in flux, or they’re non-binary or trans. Even if they’re not, girlfriend and boyfriend and spouse all have very specific connotations. When you say “So and so is my girlfriend,” automatically you’re like, “Oh, are you going to invite them to family dinner? Should I ask your girlfriend if it’s cool if you come out with us to the movies? Should I let your girlfriend know you’re going to be home late?” It implies all these ideas about how this person is included in your life, and what role they have in decision-making about your life and your body and how you spend your time, and the way I live my life is really antithetical to that, so I try not to use words that imply those things possessiveness, or degree of enmeshment.

Is a “partner” always romantic and/or sexual? Or can it be platonic?

A: It can be all of those things. My relationship with Kelli is romantic and sexual. I’ve got another partner that is a very romantic and sexual relationship. My other anchor partner, we’re deeply emotionally intimate, and I would describe our connection as sometimes more of a romantic friendship. And I have another partner who is definitely family, sometimes romantic, sometimes sexual.

There are some relationships where romance and sex are a big part of the identity of the relationship — that’s the first way you connect with that person. And then there are other relationships where it’s like, even if we never have sex again, I would still be super in love with you, or even if I wasn’t in love with you anymore, I’d still want you to be my family.

For comparison, let’s take a heterosexual couple that’s been married for 20 years. Do they still have a sexual relationship? A lot of people do, but maybe once every six months, or once a month. Would you say that they’re sexual partners, or would you just say they’re family? Relationship anarchy dissociates all those things from being one person, and says, you can explores all these kinds of connections in whatever combination with whoever, as long as you both agree to that and it feels good to you.

Kelli, what is it like for you to be in a relationship with Aviva while she has other partners and you don’t?

K: It’s definitely constantly communicating about everything, which is a relationship thing in general, really, or at least it should be. I like hearing about what’s going on with Aviva and her relationships. It’s certainly not a rule, but it does help me to feel safer since Aviva and I are in each other’s lives in such a big way. Fortunately Aviva’s really, really, really good at that.

A: Thank you.

K: She tells me every single step of the way, and it’s partly because she wants to give me a heads-up, and partially because she wants to share that part of her life with me, and partially because she knows I want to hear about it.

A: I think the other piece of it, Kel — and I’m gonna start this for you, and you can finish it yourself, because I don’t want to speak for you, but my other partners are part of your life, too.

K: Yes. I personally like to do either kitchen table polyamory, which I hope is what it sounds like: essentially, I like to have everyone at the table — as much as everyone wants to be — but I really like getting to know my metas.

Your what now?

K: My metamours [partner’s other partners]. I said “metas” I guess, which is shortened. I kind of look at them like in-laws, but not in a bad way. They’re family, and my partner loves them, and I’m sure I’ll love them too. And then I have my own boundaries around that. I get overstimulated really easily, so I can’t hang out forever.

How is relationship anarchy connected to polyamory?

A: Relationship anarchy isn’t just a political act against hierarchy, but also against any rules and restrictions, which include monogamy and legal agreements, but which can also include polyamorous relationships that have rules and restrictions in place. There’s a lot of confusion about relationship anarchy and how it fits in with polyamory.

I think a lot of folks think relationship anarchy is the same thing as egalitarian or non-hierarchical polyamory, which is, “I don’t have a primary partner, I treat all of my loves the same.” But they’re not the same thing. 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 have any or all of those things in your relationship. 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.

For example, why can’t you have a romantic friendship, or a sexual friend that you’re not involved with any other way? Why can’t you have a companion partner that you’re not romantic with or sexual with? The terms monogamy and polyamory really talk a lot about sex and romance, when there are aromantic and asexual people, and those folks have relationships too. So how are they supposed to be represented in our language?

K: You can be polyamorous and relationship anarchist, but polyamory is not a subset of relationship anarchy, and vice versa.

But you can’t really be monogamous and a relationship anarchist, can you?

A: That is up for debate. It’s a constant debate that comes up on the RA Facebook group, all the time. My personal belief is no, because RA is inherently political, and fights against coercive or closed relationships, whether you’re monogamous, or you’re polyamorous but you control what your partner does with other people. Those are all fixed relationships with rules. There are lots of people who say, “Ooh, I really like relationship anarchy but I’m not comfortable with the political piece,” and it’s like, anarchy is political. If you’re not comfortable with politics, maybe that’s not exactly what you’re going for.

I’m not saying I’m personally going out to dismantle monogamy. I don’t have the time or energy for that.

K: Monogamous is a personal identity, and you don’t get to put that on somebody else. Just because you’re monogamous doesn’t mean your partner has to be monogamous. Sexuality is fluid, romance is fluid. For example, I sometimes like to have sex with penises. I don’t fall in love with them, but all these things are really fluid, and nothing is fixed, and you can’t say you’re one way forever.

The system of toxic monogamy puts you in the place of committing to it when you didn’t even get a choice in the first place. You don’t get to opt out. You don’t get to tell your partner you’re having feelings for another person without blowing up your whole life. There’s no room for that [kind of monogamy] in relationship anarchy. But I think there’s definitely room for people who just don’t feel drawn to having more than one partner. They might also say they don’t have room for more than one best friend.

I assume neither of you wants to get married. Marriage doesn’t seem very relationship anarchist.

A: No.

K: That is true. The system of marriage is based on trading women for property, so it’s inherently not an anarchist establishment.

A: It’s literally monitored by the state.

K: That too. Now, since marriage does provide protection for people of all genders, especially with children, there’s privilege in being able to not be married.

A: Yeah, it’s complicated. Marriage is a forced power imbalance. Anything that is recognized by the state in that way, that is sanctioned by the state, and you get benefits from that, that’s a forced power imbalance. On the other hand, there are people who can’t afford to get married because they’ll lose their disability benefits. So that’s another area where your privilege really comes into play. Can you financially live by yourself? Are you physically able to live by yourself? What’s your immigration status? There are so many reasons why you might not be able to not do those things. With relationship anarchy, it’s more about finding the connections that are in between what we call a partner and a friend, or family and a boyfriend, or whatever it is. The anarchist piece is about examining oppressive systems and power imbalances.

Are you out to your biological families?

K & A: Yeah.

How did they respond to your coming out as being a relationship anarchist vs. coming out as queer?

A: For me, I think it was kind of the same. I don’t think it was shocking. I’m really lucky that my family is very open and loving, and just like my mom said, “Oh, I’ll just get used to you bringing home a girlfriend instead of a boyfriend,” she was like, “Oh, I guess I’ll just get used to you bringing home two girlfriends!” She just rolled with it. She was awesome. I recently had an experience where I was in a hospital, and a bunch of partners came to visit me, and my mom was there the whole time, and it was awesome. I felt really supported.

K: It was really awesome. I had a super happy poly moment over it.

So for me, when I came out as gay, it was kind of awkward, but not the worst experience in the world. Both my parents kind of had a hard time with it, but tried really hard to be okay with it, and it was uncomfortable for a few years, and then it was mostly fine. Partially that had to do with partner selection, too — when you’re in your 20s, you suck at picking partners. That’s just how it is.

Then I came out as poly, and my parents were like “What? I don’t get it, but okay.” Fortunately by then I was better at picking partners, so it was a little easier to be like “See? You like this person, it’s fine.” And then, coming out as trans/non-binary has been super, super awkward, and I don’t know that my dad will ever be able to reconcile that I’m not his daughter anymore. So being polyamorous and being not straight was kind of awkward, but mostly good. The worst thing was the gender.

Do you guys ever feel like you get the rules confused, or mess something up? Or fail to be properly RA in some way?

A: Totally. One of the things that comes up a lot online in the discussion groups I’m in is people asking “Am I bad at relationship anarchy, because I’m doing this?” I think it’s the difference between descriptive and prescriptive labels. We’re trying to use words to explain to people who we are, which is so powerful and important for understanding more about ourselves and our self-discovery. But also, sometimes when we use the labels, they’re confining, too. We know these things to be so much more complicated. I have that experience. I like to check in with myself to see if I’m acting in alignment with my values, and a lot of times, when something feels weird, sometimes it’s monogamy hangover stuff.

Monogamy hangover?

A: I think “monogamy hangover” was coined by Mel … ?

K: I think so, it’s hard to say.

A: Mel Mariposa has this monogamy hangover workshop, and it’s basically learning how to distinguish between your social conditioning versus what you really want. If you’ve been with somebody for two years, and you’re like “Oh, they didn’t propose to me!” Do you really want to get married, or do you just think you should, because you’ve been together for two years? Because that’s the automatic next step? Things like that.

K: It’s a lot of unpacking, always. We conflate sex and romance all the time in society. I have to go, “Do I just want to have sex with this person because I think that I should, because I’m romantically attracted to them? Or do I want to have sex with them because I want to?” It’s about breaking down or throwing out rules, norms and structures, and building back up from a place of what works and doesn’t work.

What It’s Like Being a Relationship Anarchist