Relationship Anarchy Takes The Judgment Out Of Love
By Clare Wiley
Mel Mariposa Cassidy has lots of partners in her life. There’s the boyfriend who lives nearby in her East Vancouver neighborhood, and the partner who’s a few hours away on Vancouver Island. Then there’s the man who lives in the U.S. — they don’t see each other very often, but he’s the one who feels most like a soulmate. And that’s not to mention Mel’s closest friend — a woman she describes as her “platonic-ish life partner.” Meanwhile, she lives with her best friend, an ex-lover who’s listed as her emergency contact.
But Mel isn’t polyamorous. She’s a relationship anarchist — meaning she doesn’t distinguish between the romantic, sexual, and platonic relationships in her life. Members of the community she belongs to have decided that traditional monogamy, and often polyamory, aren’t working for them. They want less structure, fewer hierarchies. And so they’ve committed to a model that’s at once simple and radical: They give all their relationships equal footing.
Mel has an ongoing conversation with each of her partners to continuously discuss and examine the partnership, establishing what everyone wants to get out of it. She also makes sure that everyone’s clear that no one person is privileged above any other.
“It allows me to be very true to where I’m at in any given moment,” Mel says. “So if I’m not feeling like I want to have a date with someone, then I can just say ‘hey you know what, I want to have more time alone right now.’ It’s about finding that common ground from moment to moment. There’s a lot less complacency in relationship anarchy.”
The term “relationship anarchy” was coined by the Swedish activist and creative Andie Nordgren. In 2012, she wrote the Relationship Anarchy manifesto, laying out guidelines for a radically different approach to relationships. These include “Love and respect instead of entitlement” and “Heterosexism is rampant out there, but don’t let fear lead you.” Other guidelines declare “Trust is better” and “Build for the lovely unexpected,” which encourages followers to be spontaneous.
“In RA, the idea is that all kinds of relationships are important,” says Dr. Meg-John Barker, a relationship anarchist as well as a senior psychology lecturer and sex and gender therapist. “You don’t privilege romantic or sexual relationships over other kinds, such as platonic relationships. RA also tends to strongly emphasize the freedom of those involved, and ongoing negotiation of the relationship, whereas some versions of polyamory are more rules or contract based.”
For Mel, RA is a way of thinking outside the box. “It’s really about not adhering to any kind of obligations that might come with labels,” the 30-something relationship coach tells me. “I was married and one of the things that came up for us was the expectation that you have to have sex a lot if you’re married. RA is an antidote to the idea that we’re obligated to do things just because we’re in a relationship with someone. You get to customize what feels real, true, and authentic for everyone who’s involved in the relationship.”
After Mel’s marriage ended, she became polyamorous. “Even within that I found there was a lot of rhetoric around expectations and rules, and some of that didn’t quite sit right with me. A friend introduced me to the term RA and I was like ‘oh, this makes sense.’ The core principles of it are really about your individual autonomy and not creating hierarchies between people based on how sexually involved you are with them. That really appealed to me.”
It’s estimated that between 4 and 5% of Americans practice some form of consensual non-monogamy, with interest in non-monogamy on the rise. One study found that more and more Americans are Googling alternatives to monogamy. But it’s trickier to estimate the popularity of relationship anarchy specifically. As Meg-John notes, there has been no specific research on RA yet. “I’d say there are a few hundred people in the UK who identify in this way and go to online or offline groups and events relating to RA,” they say, adding that there could be thousands more who loosely identify with the ideas behind RA.
“I do think that RA is becoming more popular,” says Kale Gōsen, a relationship anarchist and queer woman in her thirties. “When I started a Vancouver RA group, we had 150 members on the first day. Our first discussion group was 20 people, with almost 50 attending the second.” The Facebook group she started currently has over 700 members, and Kale says she fields several requests to join every day.
So what’s the appeal of relationship anarchy? For Kale, part of the attraction is that she views RA as intrinsically feminist.
“Relationship anarchy means a lot of questioning, so it’s not necessarily going to default to some of the patriarchal fallbacks people have in relationships,” she says. “You can question: Why are we doing this? Are we doing this because it’s in every romantic movie that tells us how to act? You’re breaking away from those ideas.”
“The whole reason I wanted to be an RA was political. As I developed my politics, I wanted my relationships to be political. I feel like it’s a statement to be constantly questioning the things you’re told.”
Meg-John agrees: “The idea of developing an explicitly ethical way of doing relationships resonates with key feminist ideas around having an ethics of care for other people, as well as the idea that the personal is political. There’s potential for building sustainable communities based on RA, for example, or networks for childcare.”
They add that a big part of the appeal is also RA’s emphasis on friendships:
“People are interested in RA because it does reflect the reality of many people’s lives: that platonic relationships can be very important, and that things change over time, so it’s important to have freedom and flexibility to keep considering how we manage our relationships.
“A lot of movies and TV shows in recent years have dealt with the tension that someone’s closest person might be their buddy . . . I’m thinking of bromance movies, Sex and the City, Girls, and The Big Bang Theory. A lot of people are realizing that other relationships can be as — or more — important than romantic/sexual relationships, especially with high levels of separation and divorce.”
Mel believes women and people who are trans, queer, and on the non-binary spectrum “tend to gravitate more toward RA because it challenges a lot of the patriarchal notions of relationships that we’ve felt stifled by.”
Of course, being part of such a new and radical movement doesn’t come without downsides and stigmas. Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is generally perceived unfavorably in our monogamy-focused culture. One study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that:
“Although a sizable number of individuals engage in CNM, these relationships are highly stigmatized. Compared to monogamous relationships, CNM relationships are perceived by the public as less satisfying and lower in relationship quality; those involved in CNM are perceived as fundamentally flawed.”
But the stigmatization against RA goes deeper than typical mainstream aversion to alternative relationship models. “One of the first criticisms that people have is of the terminology of anarchy,” says Mel. “People will misread that as meaning chaos, disorder, haphazard and irresponsible. But the anarchy element really comes in because you’re not adhering to any preconceived notions.”
She also feels that some people might use RA as an excuse to behave badly. “I’ve certainly seen examples of that. People will say, ‘It’s okay, I’m polyamorous, my wife just doesn’t know’ or ‘I don’t need to tell my other partner about stuff because I’m a relationship anarchist, I can do what I want.’ That’s treating other people with a sense of disregard, which is not reflected in the RA manifesto.” (Indeed, the manifesto includes a guideline on “Love and respect instead of entitlement,” which encourages respect for others’ independence and self-determination.)
Misconceptions that Kale has encountered are that relationship anarchists can’t commit, or that every person has to be exactly equal in your life. “It’s not like saying someone I go out for coffee with is suddenly as important as the person I sleep next to every night. It’s about choosing commitments and who you want to spend time with. You don’t automatically have to like everyone in your life the same.”
“I think the more you’re confronting heteronormative beliefs, the more you’re going to bump into . . . I don’t want to say problems, but areas where you have to work harder. People aren’t going to understand why you’re doing it. A lot of people in my personal life didn’t quite get what RA was all about, so that’s part of the reason I built my website — to inform people.
“But for me the hard part — and the good part — is that it’s about working in a grey area. I like that less defined area. I want to play in a space where there’s room to breathe.”