Introduction to Relationship Anarchy

Introduction to Relationship Anarchy

Relationship anarchy: otherwise known as the relationship structure that defies all others. Relationship structures can take on many shapes and forms: for instance, monogamy can be relatively straightforward – there is only that “one special someone.”

Ethically non-monogamous relationships have their own specific structures too – some require prioritizing one person over another, but others not so much. Relationship anarchy, however, doesn’t quite fit into one structure or the other.

To help clarify how relationship anarchy operates, we’ll answer the following questions in this article:

  • What is relationship anarchy?
  • Is there a difference between relationship anarchy and polyamory?
  • What is the relationship anarchy manifesto?
  • How does relationship anarchy work?
  • What is a relationship anarchy smorgasbord?
  • Is my attachment style compatible with being a relationship anarchist?

What Is Relationship Anarchy?

Relationship anarchy is pretty much as its name suggests – it has no definable rules. Relationships within this structure are fluid, and therefore have no solid differentiation between sexual, romantic, or platonic relationships.

Importantly, relationship anarchists avoid putting their relationships in boxes or categorizing them with society’s labels such as “partner”, “friend” or “lover”. Instead, this structure is about breaking down societal relationship standards, as well as focusing on relationships as a community rather than as individuals in a relationship [1].

While relationship anarchy has its own definable philosophy of love [2,3], it can still be connected to the concept of sexual anarchy. The definition of sexual anarchy is, essentially, a challenge to the definitions of men and women in society, targeting the unspoken rules of behavior among them [4]. That is, perceptions such as that women should stay at home while men go out to work for the family. In contrast, relationship anarchy aims to challenge both the gender and relationship norms that still exist and pervade through many cultures.


Relationship Anarchy vs Polyamory

Relationship anarchy is considered to be a type of polyamory – or at least a radical version of egalitarian polyamory. That is, both forms of relationships involve intimate or romantic connections with more than one person at a time. However, the main differences between polyamory and relationship anarchy are twofold. First, while polyamory is an umbrella term for certain forms of ENM relationships, relationship anarchy has its own clear-cut structure. Second, and perhaps most importantly , relationship anarchy rejects the idea of a “romantic sex-based relationship hierarchy” [2,5].

The social norm for typical romantic relationships dictates that the main difference between platonic friends and romantic relationships is the level of commitment and duty towards one another – and also the lack of a sexual component with the former. For these reasons, when one partner is sexually intimate with somone that is not their partner, this is more often than not considered cheating.

In relationship anarchy, there is no standard definition or expectation of what a romantic relationship should look like – meaning there is no reason to use sex to differentiate or prioritize a romantic relationship from a platonic one.


The Relationship Anarchy Manifesto

In 2006, Andie Nordgren published the Relationship Anarchy Manifesto [3], proposing a new viable relationship structure. The main tenets of relationship anarchy, according to Nordgren’s manifesto, are the following:

“Love is abundant,
and every relationship is unique”

The first principle encompasses the essence of relationship anarchy – that love is not a limited resource, and that a relationship does not need to have a title – such as “spouse,” for it to be serious and meaningful.

“Love and respect instead of entitlement”

This second tenet defends that each partner in a relationship should not compromise their own choices and way of living for the sake of the relationship. According to relationship anarchy, such compromises for or demands on each other reflect a partnership that is not based on the true meaning of “mutual.”

“Build for the lovely unexpected”

The fifth tenet speaks to the element of spontaneity in relationships. This proposal is against making commitments based on duty and demands – or what one “should” do. Instead, it is – in favor of the freedom to express love and explore feelings and experiences with others.

“Fake it ‘til you make it”

This priniciple builds on the awareness that relationship anarchy is highly defiant of social norms – and this could undoubtedly put a lot of pressure on its advocates. Their suggestion is not to feel guilty or a failure when we give in to these social norms. Sometimes, feeling at peace with our environment is more important than changing everyone’s mind to adapt to our way of living.

“Change through communication”

The eighth tenet highlights one of the most essential components of any healthy relationship – communication. Recognizing relationship anarchy as a radically different experience to the normative relationship ideal, its proponents have to create the habit of communicating sincerely and explicitly. This is also a great way to avoid falling back into the relationship norms that relationship anarchists run so starkly away from.

“Find your core set of relationship values”

Everyone is different – we all have unique needs and wants in relationships. In fact, our attachment style can be a major influence on these.

Knowing what we want and need, and actually sticking to it, is an important part of relationship anarchy.

“Heterosexism is rampant and out there,
but don’t let fear lead you”

It is no secret that relationship anarchy strongly defies heteronormativity – assuming that the normal standard of relationships is based on female-male dyads, and that each gender fulfills a natural and intrinsic role [6].

As heteronormativity is the default on a social – and even legal – level, relationship anarchists are wary of its potential to ostracize their community.

“Trust is better”

Acknowledging that each individual within this type of relationship may have a completely distinct way of life and share different types of commitments and connections with one another, requires space and understanding. So when someone is feeling overwhelmed, or just needs to withdraw for some personal space, their wishes need to be encouraged or talked through for mutual understanding. This doesn’t mean that people can simply leave each other “on read” all the time and get away with it – instead it means that there is mutual respect for each other’s space.

“Customize your commitments”

The last principle of relationship anarchy refers to the concept of commitment within this radical relationship model. While there are no strict rules, and freedom from the norm is what governs this lifestyle, there is still commitment, expectations, and structures within each relationship. The customization of these commitments is what brings this relationship style to life – you don’t need to marry someone to have children with them, nor do you need to have certain feelings or a relationship with someone to move in with them. The idea is that relationships are tailor-made for the connection between the people involved.

How Does Relationship Anarchy Work?

Relationship anarchy works on the basis of its tenets outlined in the manifesto, but also by fostering attitudes and behaviors that align with a healthy relationship – regardless of its structure. We’ve come up with three C’s for establishing a healthy relationship within relationship anarchy:

#1. Customize

Relationship anarchy encourages its proponents to have meaningful relationships however best suits them. This is where you can really live up to its tailor-made aspect.

What are your principal needs and wants in a relationship?

What are your non-negotiables?

Relationship anarchy encourages conceptualizing what an ideal relationship would look like for you, and working towards that with like-minded others.

#2. Communicate

As with any healthy relationship, communication is key. Talking through the many aspects of any relationship, such as expectations, boundaries, and desires, can better ensure that all those involved are feeling good about themselves in the relationship. As outlined in one of the tenets of the manifesto, communication is essential for avoiding pitfalls – such as allowing destructive criticism to impede a healthy relationship from developing outside of the social norm.

#3. Create space

Within this love philosophy, is the idea that love is not a limited resource – we can love as many people as feels natural. Together with its inherent resistance to the social norm of relationships, relationship anarchy can become a challenge. As such, there needs to be a space for all those involved, both physical and psychological, to open up about thoughts and feelings. A space without judgment or expectation, but rather one where exploration and openness is chief.


The Relationship Anarchy Smorgasbord

In an attempt to simplify the process of customization, a smorgasbord was created. The Relationship Anarchy smorgasbord is like a buffet of relational styles, commitments, and expectations [7]. Below, we’ll include the relationship anarchy chart:

Emotional Intimacy

Sharing Vulnerability
Emotional Support
Confidante
Words of Affection

Physical Intimacy

Cuddling
Kissing
Hand-Holding
Dancing
Massaging

Sexual Intimacy

Sexual Acts
Intercourse
Sexual talk
Kissing
Fondling

Companionship

Playfulness
Shared activity/interests
Friendship
Intellectual/
Philosophical Discussion

Long-term partnership

Having shared goals for
the future,
Commitment, Chosen family, Embracing change in each other

Caregiving

Receiving care
Giving care
Emergency Contact

Co-caregiving

Elderly, sick or disabled
adults
Children
Plants
Animals

Entanglement

Cohabitation
Finances
Routines and chores
Legal commitment

Collaborative partnership

Teaching
Leading projects
Organizational activities
Artistic collaboration
Business partnership

Kink

Domination
Submission
Sadism
Masochism

Voluntary asymmetry

Sponsor-sponsee
Teacher-student
Mentor-guide
Guardian-ward

Social partnership

Public Displays of affection
Shared social circles
Presenting as a social unit

The smorgasbord works as follows: people in a relationship have a hypothetical platter, onto which they will put each item, such as “cuddling”, or “artistic collaboration” and so on, and items can be added to fit their particular contexts. The main condition is that items can only go on the platter if all parties agree to it. By the end of the exercise, their platter will be full of items that reflect their wishes, expectations, boundaries and commitments. In this way, truly tailoring the relationship to their needs and wants.

This chart has proved helpful because it allows for a deep customization of relationships. It shows that not everything goes in relationship anarchy – as would be the nihilistic perspective – but rather, that the people involved are not subjected to the norms and expectations of any other relationship style.

Does Attachment Style Matter in Relationship Anarchy?

Attachment style can have a strong influence on whether relationship anarchy works for you or not, but only to the extent that it does for any other relationship style. While in an ideal relationship anarchy structure all partners involved should go through some version of our Three C’s, not everyone will do this perfectly – we’re only human.

For example, an anxious attacher going through the relationship anarchy smorgasbord might allow for their partner to put in an item that they otherwise would not want in their relationship. In another perspective, we could imagine a disorganized attacher might want to change the items they agreed to depending on whether their attachment triggers are activated or not.

However, relationship anarchy advocates the deep customization of relationships so that these situations don’t develop into problems. For instance, an anxious attacher might need a little extra attention and commitment in a relationship, and if the others involved are in accordance with providing them with this, then it’s working. At the same time, a tenet of relationship anarchy is not to compromise or make exceptions for one person – relationships are meant to bring benefits to all those concerned, not just to fulfill the need of being involved in a relationship.

Naturally, this relationship style can bring up insecurities because it requires all partners to embrace one another’s freedom to live as they see best for themselves. It requires a focus on communicating about difficult feelings, expressing these, and implementing boundaries when needed. For some insecure attachers, all of these things can be difficult.

While, to our knowledge, there is no research on relationship anarchy and attachment style (yet), we can point you in a helpful direction. In our article on Attachment Styles and ENM relationships, we outline how our attachment style influences our success in ENM relationships.

Take-Home Message

In this article, we’ve introduced relationship anarchy as yet another viable relationship style. While ENM relationships are growing in popularity, structures such as relationship anarchy which focus on freedom are likely on the rise too.

This relationship style works for those who abide by its true purpose by communicating, customizing and creating space. Communication is key in any relationship, and as cliché as it may sound, it’s necessary here too. Customization is essential in relationship anarchy, as it is the basis of this relational style. To make this possible, the smorgasbord is a helpful tool. Finally, relationship anarchists must also hold space for one another because this relational style can be radically different from the norm.

Essentially, this relationship style isn’t a nihilistic concept where anything goes: it’s a relational style that defends freedom with responsibility, respect, and care for one another.

[1] Rose, A. (2017). Relationship Anarchy: Breaking the paradigm. 2nd Non Monogamies and Contemporary Intimacies Conference. Sigmund Freud University, Vienna.

[2] Gómez, R.D.H. (2018). Thinking Relationship Anarchy from a Queer Feminist Approach. Sociological Research Online, 24(4), 644-660.

[3] Nordgren, A. (2006). The short instructional manifiesto for relationship anarchy. The Anarchist Library.

[4] Richard Heffner’s The Open Mind (1990). Elaine Showalter: Sexual Anarchy [Video].

[5] Davy, Z., Santos, A.C., Bertone, C., Thoreson, R., Wieringa, S.E. (2020). The SAGE Handbook of Global Sexualities. SAGE. ISBN: 1529721946

[6] American Psychological Association (n.d.). Heteronormativity. In APA dictionary of psychology. Retrieved May 19, 2022.

[7] Moen, O.M., Sørlie, A. (2022). The Ethics of Relationship Anarchy. In Earp, B.D., Chambers, C., Watson, L. (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Sex and Sexuality. New York: Routledge.

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