I see a lot of stereotypes and fear surrounding the idea of Relationship Anarchy from a lot of people. Perhaps these are inspired by real people calling themselves Relationship Anarchists. I haven’t personally run into many that fit these stereotypes, but I’ve heard intelligent people that I trust say they have. So I am going to assume for the moment that they exist, that they call themselves Relationship Anarchists, and that they’re assholes.
Guess what. Assholes exist in every relationship structure. There are monogamous assholes, celibate assholes, hierarchical assholes, poly-fi assholes, Relationship Anarchy assholes, and solo poly assholes. There are assholes in every group I didn’t mention.
It would be fantastic if we could all stop defining other groups by their assholes.
Yes, it is good to point out various weaknesses in every structure (or lack thereof), and the places where people make most mistakes within them. But for us to reduce any other group to the people within it that do it the worst is unfair and unethical. Each philosophy has its own strengths and weaknesses, and unique system of challenges to overcome. Being aware of these things helps us to know the risks we are taking at any given moment and what to prepare for in the various styles of relationships we might try on.
My purpose in writing to you right now is to communicate what Relationship Anarchy means to me, and what it doesn’t mean to me. Now, other Relationship Anarchists may disagree. That’s one of the terrible and wonderful things about the philosophy. Far be it from me to tell other Relationship Anarchists what they should think about it and how they should do it, or to speak for them. A unified definition is pretty much excluded as a possibility, based on the very nature of the philosophy. So is the idea of any one authority having the power to say exactly what Relationship Anarchy is. That’s kind of the point.
I’ll also make an argument for why I think this is the best way to do Relationship Anarchy, which I will from here on out refer to by its abbreviation, RA. It doesn’t mean anyone has to listen to me, but hopefully they’ll be motivated to do so if they find value in it.
At its most basic level, RA means that no one has any power over anyone else at a fundamental level. We each get to choose what is right for us, the agreements we enter into, and the commitments we’re willing to make, and if and how we’ll uphold them. We can give some powers to others, like the power to impact us emotionally, decisions to live in power-exchange relationships, and the power to move toward greater interdependence in areas like finances, cohabitation, and coparenting. But those powers are always ours. We give them always as gifts. We can take them back at any time.
This is the place where many people balk. It sounds scary to hear that someone you love and care about has the power to break a commitment at any time, to choose to walk away from the things you’ve built together, and to drastically change or scale back the level of intimacy you share without any input from you. It sucks when that happens.
But do hierarchical, monogamous, or any other kind of commitments protect us from this? Do they really? How many of you know someone who got married under vows saying “Till death do us part,” that are now divorced? How many of you know someone who has broken promises or commitments? How many of you have done it? Be honest.
The reality is that any concept of safety we have is ultimately an illusion. Just like anyone could be hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow, so could anyone change in a drastic and fundamental way that makes them incompatible with us, no matter what kinds of precautions we take to avoid that. RA is simply the only philosophy that I have found so far that doesn’t run from that or hide from it. It walks full in the face of that reality and allows for the space to love in authentic ways in spite of it.
Does every RA person do this perfectly? No. Does any RA person do this perfectly? Probably not. We’re human. We all have traumas in our past and places where we hurt, and ideals that we really love but haven’t quite lived up to yet. In my experience, those in the RA world that tend to be abrasive to those outside of it are the ones that have been severely burned by abusive and controlling relationships in their past. They might be hostile to hierarchy because hierarchy has been used as a weapon to control them. They might be hostile to the idea of commitments and agreements because they’ve experienced partners that use those things as a way to make their fears and insecurities their partner’s responsibility instead of their own.
But you know what? They’re allowed to take that space away from intensely committed relationships while they heal, or forever. They’re allowed to set their own boundaries around what they will agree to or not. And if that’s not what you’re looking for, you’re allowed to say no and walk away. What you shouldn’t do is shame them for being afraid or unable to commit. What you shouldn’t do is treat them like the relationships they do have are invalid or not “real.” What you shouldn’t do is assert that this means they are just “using people for pleasure,” and “not caring about anyone else’s feelings.” If they’re honest and up front with you, they don’t owe you closeness or intimacy they don’t want to give.
They don’t owe it to you anyhow, but being dishonest is one of those behaviors that lands people in Camp Asshole. There are some dishonest RA people. There are some RA people still struggling with deep emotional issues that create spaces of blindness and make self-awareness challenging. However, RA people do not have the market cornered on that and it is intellectually dishonest to suggest this is the case. These problems exist in every philosophy and every place on Earth where humans are.
But this is the gem I find in the middle of all of that. RA actually means people can be assholes. They can. They will, no matter what pet name they are giving their asshole behavior today. But it also empowers you to walk away from assholes. It empowers you to find relationships that fulfill you and make you happy. It means that there is absolutely no requirement to give second chances, to be emotionally available for someone who is hurting you, or to be understanding and patient with people who are treating you like shit. Instead of trying to guilt, shame, or force assholes to stop being assholes, it gives you the freedom to leave the assholes to deal with their own mess. It’s up to them to clean it up, not you.
Now, you can still choose to give those second chances. That’s up to you. You can choose to be patient and compassionate. I do these things all the time because I want to in the part of me that knows what is best for me in the long run. I prefer to act thoughtfully rather than on impulse because my experience has shown me that is usually what works best. People that are unforgiving and cruel often lose friends. But I also take responsibility for the risk I take in trusting someone who has already betrayed me. They’ve shown me what they’re capable of. It’s on me to decide if I want to give them that power again or not. The beauty and the terror of this philosophy is that no one call tell you what is right for you. Well, they can, but you don’t have to listen, and they’re probably wrong.
I actually feel a lot more security in this system. Seems paradoxical right? But think about it. Would you want someone to stay with you, even if they didn’t want to, just because of a commitment they made? Would you really want to have someone in your life that feels obligated to spend time with you and give you attention if that isn’t what fulfills them anymore? Would that be fulfilling for you? It might be. But I’m guessing for most of you, it won’t. I’m guessing that most of us want to be with people that want us right back. When I encourage the people in my life to be honest with me, to do what they want, and to set boundaries with me, then every person that I have around is someone that really and truly WANTS to be there. They have their freedom and their choice, and they choose me. If that isn’t a huge honor and a gift, I don’t know what is. I also don’t really want anything less. Why would I want to spend my own time and energy on someone who doesn’t want me (which is a valid choice for some people, even if I don’t understand it)?
Rather than extracting illusions of security for the future, I feel security in this moment that the person spending time with me is here because they haven’t chosen anything else, and they didn’t want to. One of the biggest gifts a person can give me is their unfiltered heart and soul. But in order to get that, I have to be willing to stare in the face of the things that might hurt me, the places they might reject me, and the things they don’t share mutual desire for. And I have to love and accept all of that if I want them to feel safe showing it to me. I really can’t think of any better way to show I truly treasure someone than to appreciate them for who they really are.
Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t have your feelings about rejection, broken commitments, or spoiled expectations. However, your feelings are yours. You are responsible for deciding what to do with them. The only person you can control is yourself. Absolutely express your feelings. It hurts and it sucks to be rejected or told “no.” Be authentic. But consent is important. Your feelings do not mean you get to control another person. Your feelings do not make it okay to degrade them or abuse them. The fact that your feelings are about them do not mean they are obligated to engage with you about those feelings. You may need to express yourself to someone else. And I agree, they probably are a bad partner for you if you have a lot of needs they aren’t meeting. But the correct conclusion following that observation is not to pressure them to be a better partner for you if they don’t want to. Some correct possibilities might be to leave them, to transition your relationship to something less intimate, or to see if they are willing to negotiate different behavior in the future.
You can always set your own boundaries. They can always set theirs. You don’t owe them anything. They don’t owe you anything. It is shitty if they try to control you. It is shitty if you try to control them. Humans are messy, and sometimes people get hurt without anyone doing anything wrong. And I’m with you. That sucks. It’s great to be able to blame someone when we’re hurt. But sometimes there really just isn’t room for blame. We can’t really control how we feel about another person. It doesn’t make any sense to punish someone for their desires changing, and for them to act in accordance with their desires. This doesn’t help anyone to heal and only perpetuates the hurt.
Now, there are people that do this more gracefully than others. Some people like to set the world aflame, burn all their bridges, and leave a nuclear wasteland in their wake. Those people live with the consequences of that. It might be worth it to them. It’s why I move slowly with people who seem to be surrounded by a great many “hot spots.” Believe people when they show you who they are, even with other people. You aren’t special. Expect that they will treat you the way they treated their other partners. Sometimes people change, but change is a really slow and painstaking process. Setting up your own defense against high-risk people is your responsibility.
Now here’s where I get really contentious. I think someone can be RA and still participate in a hierarchy. Yup. You read correctly. It’s actually not that crazy of an idea. I believe that an RA person can participate in hierarchy just like I believe someone can be RA and participate in a 24/7 Total Power Exchange (TPE). An RA person can choose what agreements they make. They don’t have to avoid commitments forever and always to be RA. Personally, I don’t see any good reason to choose hierarchy. But other people might. That is their right. The important part is that everyone involved is choosing it, willingly and with information that is as complete as possible. This includes secondaries joining up with a hierarchically partnered person. Know what you are getting into. Don’t agree to stuff you don’t want. Don’t blame anyone else for the risks you take. Some relationship mistakes and hurts are part of the learning curve in how we figure out how to love other people. Sometimes we’ll get burned. That’s when we start learning to avoid the type of people that burn us.
The important part is choice. Just like an ethical 24/7 TPE should have some kind of safeword in place for renegotiation or termination of the relationship, so should hierarchies have these structures in place. People can negotiate away their power in limited and temporary ways based on their preferences and the kinds of lifestyle they really want to live. But it is important to remember that consent overrides everything else. Always. Anything else is (nonconsensual) slavery. Anything else is abuse. If you can’t safeword out of your own hierarchical dynamic, something is toxic and needs to be addressed.
All of this makes RA a pretty broad umbrella, maybe so much so as to make the idea meaningless to some people. But I really like a definition that is this simple, and this powerful. The idea that each and every person out there has the right to choose their life path, to change their mind, to do what they want to do, it’s scary. It’s a lot of power. It’s a lot of responsibility. But there is no other place I’d rather live from. I own my mistakes. I own my successes. I don’t have a predetermined path set out for me. It isn’t easy. It isn’t comfortable. But my goodness the adventures I’ve had, the lessons I’ve learned, and the joy and fulfillment I’ve gained out of life. I wouldn’t trade it for all the security in the world.
Because RA might not be quite so much a relationship philosophy as it is a philosophy of life. See reality for what it is. Radically accept it and radically move within it in the way that is right for you. How we relate to others is an extension of how we relate to ourselves. Do you give yourself the right to choose? Do you embrace freedom and personal empowerment?
I trust myself to make choices. I trust myself to be able to deal with the consequences of my choices. I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t trust me with these things.
Relationship Anarchy means I choose. Relationship Anarchy means you choose. Relationship Anarchy means we choose. That’s all.