“I relate to others in a different way”

Relationship Anarchy is the application of anarchist principles to the personal realm. Primarily:

the concepts of freely accepted and revisable commitments, responsible autonomy, and personal sovereignty - an ethical tripod.

This doesn’t mean individualism however:

In ideological terms, relationship anarchy is by no means a praise of individualism and freedom as a rejection of commitment and solidarity. It isn’t related to the liberal tradition.

While often considered in the same sphere, relationship anarchy has a distinct history, development, and ideological basis from other dominant non-monogamous models. Non-monogamy is possible within this framework, but it is a secondary implication and isn’t assumed:

an anarchist relationship is first and foremost one of cooperation and setting our own rules. By that definition, it is not self-serving but always mutually beneficial. By that definition, it can be a monogamous relationship if that’s what makes the people involved feel happiest. By that definition, it can be about friendship, about romance, about sex, about a selection of those things, but by definition it will be about care.

Anarchy has accumulated a number of harmful stereotypes in mainstream culture that are not present in the actual ideology. For example, to counter a popular myth:

Anarchists are not against organization or structure; rather, they object to organizations or structures that are based on unequal relations of power or are maintained coercively.

This quote from Noam Chomsky captures it nicely:

I think that all authority has to be justified. That any hierarchy is illegitimate until proven otherwise. Sometimes, it may be justified, but most of the time, it is not. And that… that is anarchism.

Labels & Normativity

Relationship anarchy seeks to do away with labels such as “couple” and “friend” (described as normative: establishing norms of behaviour, which may not have been consciously agreed to), instead attempting to explicitly and freely define the commitments and scope of relationships independent of these labels:

we must pay attention to the possibility that these labels condition us. They’ve got baggage. If we’re not highly attentive to this, we will bring in authoritarian behaviors, automatic rights over others, the expectation that they behave “like they should” with me – how “everyone knows” they should, as someone who accepts that recipe for a pre-cooked plate of rights and obligations.

That said, labels can be useful, particularly when interacting with the rest of society. They don’t need to be avoided, but used with care:

If I’m aware that labels are double-edged swords, that I have to pay special attention when using most tools to avoid hurting myself or someone else, I will be able to identify those dangers and avoid them to the extent that I deem appropriate at different times: perhaps today, I’ll risk using a chainsaw, because I need it now and the danger is worth it, even though I know I can hurt myself if I’m not on guard.

Commitments & Autonomy

relationship anarchy doesn’t ever suggest avoiding commitment; rather, it suggests that you can design your own commitments with the people around you according to the circumstances, affinities, and the very course of events.

There is an inherent tension in designing commitments while respecting autonomy and personal sovereignty:

Among the many difficulties I can find in putting this into practice, the most basic ones are: how to distinguish a free and voluntary commitment from a concession stemming from an implicit agreement associated with imbalances of power and lack of assertiveness?

I also have to be able to renounce that communication without feeling as though I am repressing or curtailing my freedom of expression. It’s a complex balance, and my impression is that it should be weighed as a cost-benefit calculation: if I express all my impulses and desires, even going so far as reproaching when they’re not fulfilled, I am being transparent and exercising my assertiveness; at the same time, I may be applying pressure and giving rise to more or less subtle emotional coercion and blackmail.

Further complicating is that (totally reasonable and likely) emotional states make this hard:

Even with strong motivation, states of anxiety and lack make it more difficult to maintain behaviors that respect other’s autonomy.

Fundamentally, the idea of freely-entered commitments respecting our own agency is really tricky:

The consequences of applying an anti-authoritarian and anti-oppressive paradigm to the dynamics of self-management at the relational and affective levels go through recognizing the great difficulty that normally involves detecting and neutralizing these invisible forms of violence and, thus, looking at the idea of negotiation with suspicion - assuming that there are asymmetries and imbalances, power gradients that induce us to accept concessions regarding our agency and our boundaries. But without demands and cessions and a process of negotiation and agreement, how can I come to an understanding in my relationships that lets me be at ease? It’s not easy to answer this question.

A reframing of commitments helps though:

A responsible commitment, however, is not an exchange: it is the recognition, expression, and celebration (because I think this should be experienced with at least some enthusiasm) of a purpose that is voluntary and adaptable as well as reliable and firm. Again, it would be naive to say that nothing is desired in return. There are always expectations of reciprocity, which is surely understandable, but there are no demands.

Personal Sovereignty

Where Relationship Anarchy departs most from other relationship ideologies is the inviolability of personal sovereignty and autonomy.

Above all, no one grants their own personal sovereignty in exchange for the personal sovereignty of another or others.

While it takes commitments, community and solidarity seriously, it views negotiations about aspects outside the “shared space” of a relationship with scepticism and concern:

Evaluating how ethical it is in terms of my moral principles – whether they’re close to anarchism’s not – to negotiate aspects that go beyond my body, my presence, and my direct interaction. Assessing whether it is an exchange between equals or coercion, as well as assessing whether everyone who may be affected now and in the future are represented in the negotiation. Since it is practically impossible for those who will be affected in the future to participate in coming up with the agreement, assessing whether it is really ethical to include elements besides those involved only in the interaction at hand – that is, whether it’s ethical to negotiate what can or cannot be done outside of shared spaces and times.

Transparency—at the extreme, a commitment to share everything—would be a violation of this principle, but honesty in a relationship seems like a fundamental requirement. Relationship Anarchy reconciles this by introducing the concept of sincerity:

Sincerity, understood as the need to share what’s important – everything that involves those in a relationship – is a value.

That doesn’t mean it is easy to manage, but it does provide language to at least discuss it:

The most difficult aspect that requires careful analysis is distinguishing between sincerity and transparency. As I mentioned in the previous chapter, there is little doubt that honesty is a commitment that should be part of any ethical relationship. But this commitment’s exact structure doesn’t have to be automatic. In fact, how it is managed is a highly relevant aspect.

Not Poly

The book spends some time contrasting its approach against more dominant strains of consensual non-monogamy.

However, the bibliographic material that seems to have a more significant role in constructing polyamorous identarian sentiment employs an empowering, subversive expressiveness. Its expository model, though, is sometimes more reminiscent of self-help guides than political and social reflection or analyses of oppressions and power structures.

It characterises polyamory as adapting normative approaches to be applicable beyond the couple:

Polyamory is a coherent ethical response to having to choose and give up one person to get closer to another, but it is still a response within the framework of the relationship escalator.

As another example of a typical difference:

In the case of relationship anarchy, when establishing new relationships, there would not be a demand for explicit authorization and management of potential conflict from the community’s members. This is like how, when we traditionally “meet someone”, we don’t think about how this new connection of camaraderie will affect each of the people we’re already friends with – much less do we meet with each of them to manage it.


the best readings are those that reveal that what you already intuited… wasn’t just in your mind.

Despite the overly-academic language, this was a valuable read that gave me plenty of new insights. It is available for free online if you wish to sample it.

Cover image for Relationship Anarchy