It’s been really nice to see non-monogamy gain some cultural traction over the last few years, and to see ‘alternative’ relationship models depicted across different media. Of course, I wish all those depictions were positive, inclusionary and didn’t focus solely on sex… but those are discussions for another time. Rather than concentrate on what many are already aware of, I thought I’d focus in this essay on how I personally practise non-monogamy. Obviously, these thoughts, courses of action and reflections are my own, and others who practise non-monogamy or relationship anarchy (RA) can and will do things differently with varying rewards and challenges.
What is relationship anarchy?
Relationship anarchy is the practice of doing away with some (and sometimes all) of the traditional sociocultural ‘rules’ or formalities usually applied to romantic relationships. (To be frank, in my case, all of that was burned to the ground a long time ago – but more on that later). In my RA, there aren’t any titles, expectations, feelings of entitlement or pressure on any of the humans involved. This is not always the case with other kinds of RA relationships. Even polyamory (which I personally view as a different relationship model from RA) can successfully incorporate aspects of RA.
Now, I’m quite sure some of you reading this will see the idea of ‘no expectations’ in a romantic or sexual relationship as an easy excuse for people to shirk responsibility, evade commitment and not treat others with basic human decency and respect. With all respect, that’s where you’re wrong. All those things are mandatory. It’s simply that I don’t believe formalities or ‘official’ titles are necessary in order for me to treat a person in the same manner in which I would like to be treated, any more than I believe that you have to believe in God to be a good, caring, compassionate person. Furthermore, I also don’t believe that the absence of titles or rigid boundaries has a negative impact on love, intensity, adoration or commitment.
Why relationship anarchy?
So why RA? To understand that we have to go back to when I practised what I could describe as more traditional polyamory. During my time there, while I wasn’t operating within the confines of monogamy per se – because obviously I was involved with several different people, in relationships that were unique to me and those individual partners – I was still operating within the confines of what’s socioculturally expected of romantic/sexual relationships, albeit with several different people. And one aspect of that dynamic that perpetually rubbed me up the wrong way was the existence of expectations.
To be clear: expectations in and of themselves aren’t a bad thing. Everyone has expectations – it’s unavoidable. I just believe that in the context of romantic/sexual relationships, realistic, mutually understood expectations can only come after a lot of honest, transparent and maybe even hard-to-hear communication between all parties – including communication about individual boundaries. Left unchecked and undiscussed, it’s easy for expectations to become feelings of entitlement. For example, if you’ve never said clearly and explicitly that you don’t have the emotional bandwidth – or heck, even just the actual, literal time – for more than a casual, every-so-often play date or hangout, the person you’re involved with may very well be expecting that your relationship will follow a trajectory that it simply will not ever take. And when you decline to hang out with them for the third time in a row because you just don’t have the energy or time, that’s going to hurt them – and it’s going to stress you out, knowing that you’re chronically disappointing someone you may care a great deal about. On the other hand, by communicating clearly and candidly about what you can offer, you give the person the opportunity and self-determination to decide for themselves if that kind of relationship is something they’re interested in participating in.
It was my personal opinions concerning entitlement that nudged me out of more traditional polyamory and into the arms of RA. I believe that entitlement runs rampant in many relationship orientations. ‘We’re together, so I’m entitled to x-number hours of your time,’ or ‘you’re my partner, so I expect to know what you’re doing with your time when we’re not together,’ or worse still, ‘we’re together, so I am entitled to your body.’ It is important for me to say that yes, you can remove entitlement from other kinds of relationships, but it was important that I went about things in my own way. Relationships are what you make them through discussion, negotiation, courtesy and a whole lot of listening. I also think it is important to lead with intent and purpose.
For me RA is a celebration of agency and bodily autonomy. I want my partners to put themselves first on a continuous basis. They are free to allocate their time, attention and energy however they see fit. I want the individuals who have allowed me the privilege of being in their lives to follow their dreams, realise their respective potentials and see projects through from start to finish. I hold these sentiments free of expectation, while welcoming change at any moment. Job offer halfway around the world? Go for it! Want to pour yourself into your art and hone your skills? Make it happen! Remember that dream you had about backpacking in some foreign country for months on end? Send me photos of your travels please! We will see each other when we see each other – and when we do, it will be all the sweeter for having spent that time doing what we love and not worrying that our relationship was rusting from resentment or neglect. I am often confused by how people judge the time they get from other individuals. I don’t see a whole lot of difference between 15 minutes of time vs. several hours or even days. Whether we’re out and about doing an activity or just cuddling at home is of no importance to me. Time has been given and it is the most precious of commodities. I am endlessly happy to have it at any length or ‘quality’ from my partners.
How does Relationship Anarchy work?
By now, you’re probably wondering how this all works. My model looks like this: I start with communicating my relationship orientation, needs, wishes and desires while requesting that potential partners do the same. Then, and only then, can our expectations be realistic and in sync with each other. I also want to make clear that what I’m describing when I talk about RA isn’t the same thing as when folks claim to be ‘low-maintenance’ – easy as it might be to confuse the two. RA actually requires a lot of maintenance to work – and by ‘work,’ I mean for the people involved to be happy, content and fulfilled. That maintenance comes through what I like to call ‘running inventory’; taking stock of the interpersonal dynamic and being prepared to both give and receive honest responses to questions like, ‘How are we? Are we good? Does something need to change? Do you feel good about us?’ Some relationships require less maintenance – less frequent inventories, if you will – and some take more, but even the most ‘anarchic’ relationship needs at least some, or it’s not really a relationship at all.
The bottom line is that RA is not for everyone, but it is for me. I feel free. I feel cherished. I feel loved. What I can tell you is that there are amazing human beings in my life.