When you think of anarchy, you probably think of black eyeliner, punk rock, and someone who doesn’t subscribe to any type of hierarchy or rules. Relationship anarchy isn’t totally far off from that definition. (Except for the eyeliner, obvi. Unless you’re into that!) It’s actually a different approach to relationships and non-monogamy altogether, intentionally defined loosely so that relationship anarchists can define it for themselves.
What is relationship anarchy?
Coined by Andie Nordgren in a pamphlet in 2006 (later published online), relationship anarchy—or RA— is a relationship style in which there are no rules or expectations other than the ones the people in the relationship decide upon. So, basically tossing traditional societal ideas of what relationships “should be” and defining them for yourself, with your partner(s).
“RA is a philosophy where people follow their own core values to create individualized relationship agreements rather than relying on social norms,” says Dr. Heath Schechinger, co-chair of the American Psychological Association Division 44 Committee on Consensual Non-Monogamy. “People who embrace this approach to relationships tend to value autonomy and non-hierarchical relationship practices.”
Nordgren’s original relationship anarchy manifesto includes nine tenets that outline the values of relationship anarchy, all meant to be customized by the people who practice it. These tenets include things like, “Love and respect instead of entitlement,” which states that your feelings for or history with someone don’t entitle you to control them or their actions, and “Trust is better,” which states that instead of needing validation from your partner to feel confident in their feelings for you, you should choose “to assume that your partner does not wish you harm,” and let that be enough.
One big principle of relationship anarchy is shedding any type of hierarchy, aka, believing that a romantic relationship shouldn’t be more important than any other type of relationship. “It is based on the idea that love is abundant and not a finite resource that needs to be carefully doled out to the people around you,” says Donna Oriowo, sex and relationship therapist at AnnodRight. “Relationships are experienced as being more on a spectrum instead of a hierarchy.”
How is relationship anarchy different from polyamory?
Relationship anarchy and polyamory are both types of ethical (sometimes also called consensual) non-monogamy, but they differ in that RA does not have to be non-monogamous if you and your partner don’t want it to be. Although most relationship anarchists are non-monogamous, you can choose to eschew every other traditional relationship norm but still be each other’s only partner if that’s what you and your partner want. Polyamory, on the other hand, does involve having intimate, sometimes emotional relationships with more than one partner.
Polyamory can also involve hierarchies (like having a primary partner). RA rejects that concept entirely unless those involved decide otherwise.
Who should practice relationship anarchy?
Like with all types of non-monogamy, relationship anarchy isn’t for everyone and requires lots of time, effort, and communication.
“Anyone who wants be in relationships outside of our cultural expectations around them [is suited for relationship anarchy],” says Elise Schuster, MPH, co-founder and executive director of OkaySo. “Beyond that, relationship anarchy requires skills that really are fundamental for any healthy relationship or relationships (but are often lacking), like good communication skills, awareness of one's own needs and desires, and healthy boundaries.”
And because RA may include several other partners, relationship anarchists should be “able to work through issues related to jealousy,” says Kristen Lilla, certified sex therapist and author.
“People who engage in relationship anarchy reject societal standards of how relationships ‘should’ be, so it works for them because they get to engage in relationships that work for them, not that work because others told them how it has to work.”
Why is communication so key in relationship anarchy?
TBH, communication is key in any relationship, no matter what it looks like. But because relationship anarchy is all about creating a relationship that works for you basically from scratch, all parties need to be willing to express their needs, boundaries, and expectations. And, as Dr. Schechinger points out, as the number of people involved increases, “so does the need for clear and healthy communication.”
“I've talked to thousands of people about their relationships, and I can say with confidence that the ability to communicate well with a partner or partners is the most important thing in relationships,” says Schuster. “In traditional relationships, we often allow those expectations to become assumptions, which become resentments and hurt, which become breakups, which we then repeat. So really, communication is important for everyone, but people who are relationship anarchists might need to use these skills more often.”
Communication with those outside of your relationship can also be important if you ever feel the need to explain your relationship to those who might not understand it. (Although it should go without saying that you don’t owe anyone an explanation, period.) Remember: “You may be going against the societal grain of what is deemed ‘appropriate’ in building the relationship you want,” says Oriowo. “This can cause a lot of feelings and have family members feel it’s their place to tell you about what you’re doing wrong, relationship-wise.”
Ultimately, how much you share about your relationship with others is up to you. But you shouldn’t let anyone make you feel like your relationship is less valid or important just because it looks different.
Where should you start if you want to practice relationship anarchy?
Anyone who’s curious about relationship anarchy is capable of practicing it if they feel they have the skills and qualities to do so (ahem, see above). But if you’re already in a relationship, and you’re interested in moving toward relationship anarchy, there are a few important things to remember. Namely: talk, talk, and talk some more. Abandoning all relationship expectations and starting from scratch can be tricky, and it’s going to require lots of communication.
What do you want your relationship to look like? What are your expectations? Do you want to be monogamous, or non-monogamous? Do you want to have an open relationship? Do you want to live together? Get married one day? Have children? These are all things to be thinking about, and your answers can evolve as you move through your relationship. “Couples should expect the relationship to change and acknowledge change isn’t a bad thing,” says Lillia.
And remember: Take your time. You don’t have to have it all figured out from the start. “Go slow and be realistic,” says Dr. Schechinger. “It can be exciting to move closer to what you want, but there are challenges that come when you deviate from social norms. Make sure you are both fully on board and have a support system before you make this leap.”
What if you’re struggling to make relationship anarchy work?
Relationship anarchy can be an incredibly difficult style to adopt, especially if you’ve always been in traditionally monogamous relationships. If it’s harder than you expected, be patient with yourself and your partner(s).
“Take a moment to consider what you’re struggling with and why,” says Oriowo. “Trying something new can be hard, give yourself time to learn more and adjust.”
If you and your partner(s) are committed to making RA work, supporting each other is essential, but seeking support outside of the relationship can also be hugely beneficial too. “Read available resources, engage in self-introspection and self-awareness to help determine personal values, and seek a therapist who is competent with this model,” says Lilla.
Oriowo also stresses the importance of finding community. “We’re often told we have to do so much alone and figure it out for ourselves,” they say. “It can be really helpful to find a group of like-minded folks who can support you through the transition and even give you some pointers on how they were able to make it happen and work for themselves.”
Ultimately, the impact RA will have on you and your partner(s) depends on how aligned you are in your values, and communication when you’re feeling less than 100 percent about any of it.
“The beauty, and sometimes frustration, of RA is there are few implicit agreements that you can rest on— you get to co-create them with your partner or partners,” says Dr. Schechinger. “We’re not robots—we’re humans with real feelings and attachment needs. Be compassionate, realistic, and flexible with yourself and your partner(s) as you navigate the RA waters.”
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.
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