What Is Relationship Anarchy and Is It for You?
If you haven't heard of the term "relationship anarchy," don't fret — you're not out of the loop, nor are you alone.
The term first appeared in a 2006 essay entitled, "Relationsanarki i 8 punkter" on a Swedish blog written by Andie Nordgren, who translated the work to English six years later, titling it "The Short Instructional Manifesto for Relationship Anarchy." The essay is exactly that: a manifesto for relationship anarchy. Considering Merriam-Webster defines anarchy as "absence of order and a state of lawlessness," trying to understand how a relationship anarchist navigates their relationships can be confusing. Good thing there's a manifesto for both anarchists and the rest of us, so you don't need to scratch your head all day long muttering "WTF?"
"Relationship anarchy is a growing movement, with people all over the world identifying as relationship anarchists," says Megan Harrison, L.M.F.T., creator of Couples Candy, a project dedicated to providing couples with information to help promote happy and successful relationships. "You might be thinking of some kind of free-for-all where anything goes… But it's not that simple."
What Is Relationship Anarchy, Exactly?
Relationship anarchy is actually a philosophy, says Harrison. This philosophy includes how relationships should be structured with the ultimate goal of alleviating all elements of control, ownership, and power within romantic relationships.
"In relationship anarchy, you're free to choose what kind of relationship dynamics will work for you, whether they are monogamous or non-monogamous, or not defined at all," says Harrison. "You also get to define what relationship anarchy means for you and what it would look like in your life, rather than falling into a certain ideology that's expected of you."
In other words, contrary to the word "anarchy," there is a structure involved, but not quite the structure that other relationships might have — the structure of relationship anarchy is the lack of structure itself. What Nordgren was trying to cultivate was the elimination of expectations and the societal "rules" as to what makes a relationship, well, a relationship. (Think: Practicing monogamy, being on a path towards marriage, assuming traditional gender roles, etc.)
"I believe Nordgren was trying to help people get rid of the 'shoulds' in relationships," says Taylor Sparks, erotic educator and founder of Organic Loven. "We tend to lean toward what the majority thinks is 'normal,' when, in fact, you and your partner(s) are quite capable of establishing your own way of relating that works best for you all."
The Relationship Anarchy Manifesto
As for that manifesto, Nordgren came up with nine points to explain what relationship anarchy entails. Keep in mind, this manifesto isn't the end-all, be-all of relationship anarchy, and is just a jumping-off point of what this could look like.
1. Love is abundant, and every relationship is unique.
This is asserting that love is not limited. Love is abundant and humans are capable of loving more than one person. In doing so, love for other people is equal, and relationships aren't ranked. This means there's no primary relationship, which tends to be the case in many non-monogamous relationships.
2. Love and respect instead of entitlement.
Those who practice relationship anarchy want and even encourage the people they love to be independent in choosing their path and the others they will love along the way. "Staying away from entitlement and demands is the only way to be sure that you are in a relationship that is truly mutual," writes Nordgren. While there are boundaries that should be respected, relationship anarchy shouldn't include compromise; loved ones are given the opportunity to follow the beat of their own drum, so to speak. "Love is not more 'real' when people compromise for each other because it's part of what's expected," writes Nordgren.
3. Find your core set of relationship values.
When it comes to your relationship(s), your core set of values should be used in all of them. These values are unique to every person, of course, and exceeds just sex-related values. It's how you see the world, how you want to be treated, what respect looks like to you, among all other values that define you and make you who you are. There shouldn't be differing exceptions for one relationship or differences in values; as all relationships are equal.
4. Heterosexism is rampant and out there, but don't let fear lead you.
Lead you where, you might be asking? Toward the "powerful normative system in play that dictates what real love is, and how people should live." According to Nordgren, heterosexism is what forces people into a "normative system" (ahem, heteronormativity) of relationships. Because of this, Nordgren says that people who aren't relationship anarchists will likely question your ethics and morals as well as the validity of your relationships. It's here that Nordgren really drives home the fact that fear shouldn't affect your relationships, who you love, and how you love.
5. Build for the lovely unexpected.
"Being free to be spontaneous — to express oneself without fear of punishments or a sense of burdened 'shoulds' — is what gives life to relationships based on relationship anarchy," writes Nordgren. If something works out when you meet someone new, then great! If not, there's no room for disappointment; there are others out there to meet and love.
6. Fake it 'til you make it.
Because relationship anarchists are constantly breaking the norms when it comes to relationships, going against societal pressures can sometimes feel overwhelming. If you "fake it 'til you make it," in terms of your mindset and being at peace with the relationship lifestyle you've chosen, you'll be able to put a positive spin on the relationships you're cultivating and how you're living your life on your terms, writes Nordgren. (Related: Couple Privilege Is One Reason Why Being Single Sometimes Feels So Hard)
7. Trust is better.
The concept here is that in trusting your partners, you're likely to have fulfilling relationships. While trusting (especially if you've been burned before) can feel like a risk, trust is necessary for relationship anarchy because there are so many components involved. It's about not thinking the worst when a partner withdraws a bit but, instead, supporting that. People need their space sometimes and it's important to realize and trust in that.
8. Change through communication.
Any type of relationship — whether it's monogamy, polyamory, non-monogamy, or anything else — requires communication to make it work. This is even more paramount when your relationship doesn't fall under what's considered "normal" in our society. "Radical relationships must have conversation and communication at the heart — not as a state of emergency only brought out to solve 'problems.' Communicate in a context of trust… Ask each other about stuff and be explicit," writes Nordgren. (Related: 6 Things Monogamous People Can Learn from Open Relationships)
9. Customize your commitments.
For relationship anarchists, their commitments are designed with the people they're in relationships with, therefore "freeing them from norms dictating that certain types of commitments are a requirement for love to be real," writes Nordgren.
Is It a Relationship Structure or More of a Mindset?
Relationship anarchy's concept of "anarchy" may not be completely "absent of order" (per the dictionary definition of the word), but it's definitely about freeing yourself and those you love from the restrictions and expectations that come with society's view of relationships. "Relationship anarchy challenges the traditional idea that people must conform to certain roles in relationships, whether they be the breadwinner or homemaker, the dominant or submissive partner, etc." says Harrison. "Relationship anarchy is about rejecting those norms and creating your own path."
Because relationship anarchy can be whatever you want it to be, trying to categorize it isn't exactly easy. While, yes, there are some specific core values that fundamentally rebuff what's "normal" when it comes to relationships, to define it as a "relationship structure" (such as, say, a polyamorous relationship) goes against what relationship anarchists stand for in the first place: ultimate freedom from the trappings of normative lifestyles.
"Relationship anarchy stems from the concept of anarchy in a political sense, so it's more of a philosophy and ideal than a relationship structure," says Courtney Kocak, co-founder and co-host of Private Parts Unknown, a podcast exploring love and sexuality around the world. "While the term connotes dissent, consent is actually a core principle of relationship anarchy. The whole idea is that relationships shouldn't be defined — or confined, in many cases — by rules that all involved parties don't agree upon. Obviously, relationship anarchists make their own rules, but they typically don't subscribe to cultural norms, they avoid hierarchical power structures, they buck against heteronormativity, and they tend toward non-monogamy. Thus, relationship anarchy and polyamory aren't exactly the same, but they do share a large overlap on their Venn diagram." (Related: Here's What a Polyamorous Relationship Actually Is — and What It Isn't)
Sparks, too, agrees that relationship anarchy is an approach to relationships that has been deconstructed. "There are boundaries, but they are set by those involved within the relationships and do not follow the 'norms' of society," says Sparks.
Is Relationship Anarchy for You?
Well, it depends. How does that manifesto sound to you? Do you think you could live a life and be in relationships with so much freedom that break away from all the societal norms? Setting your own rules and boundaries that don't coincide with what people usually think of when it comes to relationships does seem extremely freeing, but some people need "normal" to ground them. Some people struggle when there's too much freedom in their life — and that's totally okay!
"I think relationship anarchy is for everyone because the focus is on making a relationship that works for you, and on the idea that love isn't a finite resource, and that monogamy isn't inherently better or more moral than any other kind of relationship," says Sofiya Alexandra, co-founder, and co-host of Private Parts Unknown. "That doesn't mean you can't practice monogamy as a relationship anarchist, it just means that the freedom to make the kind of love life you want lies with you. Freeing yourself from the way we've been conditioned to view love, sex, and relationships can only enhance the way you live."
It also involves mass amounts of trust and communication, as Nordgren points out in the manifesto. People who have a difficult time communicating their feelings, concerns, and desires, as well as those who can't trust wholeheartedly, might not be the best fit for relationship anarchy.
"As its principles center around self-determination and personal freedom, this means that each person gets to define the parameters of their own relationships based on how they feel and what they need," says Harrison. "And when it comes to these parameters, there's no limit on how many partners you can have or how often you see them... Of course, this might bring up some questions about jealousy and possessiveness. After all, it's only natural to feel those things when you see your partner getting close to someone else." (Related: Why This Polyamorous Therapist Thinks Jealousy Is a Wonderful Emotion)
The best part about relationship anarchy is that there is no "right" or "wrong" way to practice it. It's steeped in freedom of the individual, as well as the rejection of norms that are constantly being shoved in our faces. It's about commitment on your terms, believing there's no end to the love that exists and can be shared, and customizing a sort of utopia, especially in comparison to traditional relationships. There are so many ways to love and explore love — why limit yourself to just one way of being in a relationship that's been deemed socially acceptable?
Although definitely not for everyone, relationship anarchy could really jive with how you feel about romantic relationships and what you want out of partnerships in your life. In fact, you might already be a relationship anarchist and didn't even know it until now.