The pandemic has been hell for some couples. Could "relationship anarchy" be the answer?

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Many of us are anxious to make change in our lives and in the world, what with far right fools looting democracy and the global pandemic and all. Except that we’re still stuck at home, with precious few opportunities for face time with like minded folx. One way to publicly disrupt the status quo in our own homes is to use the microcosm of our relationships to imagine a more empowered future. And the pandemic has put a strain on many of our romantic relationships, anyway, so we may need to rethink them. Could relationship anarchy help us liberate our relationships in 2021?

“Relationship anarchy” is a term coined by Andie Nordgren in his 2006 book, “The Relationship Anarchy Manifesto.” Nordgren isn’t a “relationship expert.” He’s just a guy who was trying to create conversation around having less hierarchical relationships. It definitely worked, because his manifesto went viral. Relationship anarchy was subversive from the jump, because instead of working within the relationship models imposed on us by cultural norms or trying to repurpose traditional psychological models, Nordgren took his inspiration from his politics.

“Relationship anarchy pulls its creed from classic political anarchy,” says Sabrina Romanoff, a psychologist in New York City. The underlying premise is that all relationships, regardless of their structure or label, should be unencumbered with traditional rules or expectations, Romanoff explains, and it is assumed that everyone involved is both capable of making sound decisions for themselves and also invested in making choices in the best interest of all.

“Instead the rules of relationships are co-constructed by the individuals who agree to enter,” Romanoff says. Relationship rules, in case you haven’t noticed, often disproportionately restrict the freedom of anyone who isn’t a straight cis-man — like, for example, the unwritten rule that women should be married by a certain age.

No matter how feminist, queer, or rebellious we are, most of us end up following these inherently oppressive rules anyway. Relationship anarchy is about putting power in the hands of people in relationship with one another instead of blindly accepting the rules invented to support the white heterocapitalist patriarchy. “Relationship anarchy relationship styles center the people involved as capable of making decisions in conjunction with others,” says Sarah Sloane, a relationship anarchist and sex educator in Chicago. In other words, each relationship has its own rules in relationship anarchy, and everyone in the relationship has a say in what those rules are.

The first tenet of relationship anarchy, according to Nordgren, is, “Love is abundant, and every relationship is unique.” For me, that means love isn’t the limited resource that capitalism has taught us to believe that it is. Instead of relying on the established relationship patterns we have all used to work within the white heterocapitalist system — marriage, heteronormativity, strict gender roles — relationship anarchists try to find the internal logic of each relationship. For some people, that may mean decentering the idea that coupledom is the apex of human connection, subverting gender roles, rejecting heterosexual relationship models, resisting hierarchy, or letting go of monogamy and/or marriage.

Okay, cool, but what does that mean in practical terms? Well, relationship anarchy can look like a lot of things, and relationship anarchists often disagree or contradict one another, which can make it look confusing for an outsider. Some relationship anarchists are polyamorous, some are monogamous, and some are in relationships that may look like couples, but one partner is monogamous and the other practices polyamory.

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For example, I once dated someone who didn’t want to date anyone else even though I was actively engaged in other sexual and romantic relationships. I have also sometimes been sexually exclusive with one person while maintaining other romantic relationships, a strategy, I might add, that has worked for a lot of poly-minded people during this pandemic.

We are all working to find new kinds of freedom within the limitations of lockdown. This experience has changed the way we relate to our partner/s — whether we live with them or not — and adopting some of the elements of relationship anarchy could be both personally empowering and also good for our relationships. “Relationship anarchy is about freedom,

flexibility, and respect for the desires of your partner, says Romanoff. That sounds like powerful medicine for any relationship that may be wilting in quarantine, but to be clear, relationship anarchy shouldn't be considered a band aid for covering up real issues.

Some people consider themselves relationship anarchists because they don’t create hierarchies between all the different kinds of relationships they have. In other words, their romantic partners may not be the most important people in their lives. “My closest relationship is to my best friend,” says Gina Pellicci, a Brooklyn-based psychotherapist who also practices relationship anarchy. “This is often a conversation I have to have with my partners, as society tells them to expect to be most important to me.” So far, though, she says that no other relationship has outshined what she has with her best friend. While that may not conform to what most people think of when they think “anarchy,” prioritizing a platonic relationship over romantic ones is low key radical in my book.

A lot of people have a sandpapery response to the word, “anarchy,” because, colloquially, it’s associated with chaos. For the record, neither political nor relational anarchy are about chaos. Instead, both ideas center around the notion that each human should get to be autonomous and self-governing. To be clear, that’s not the same as the I-do-what-I-want style of actual chaos we saw at the Capitol last week. Generally speaking, relationship anarchy is more community-minded than that, and it often works for people who are also community minded.

“None of our relationships operate in a vacuum, and to engage in relationship anarchy ethically, we must consider the effects of our decisions on our other partners and our families,” Sloane explains. Romanoff concurs. “Relational anarchy is ultimately about empowerment. It is based on consent and communication about what is most valued and desired by those who agree

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to enter the relationship.” While that doesn’t mean that everyone gets what they want in a relationship all the time, it does mean that everything is negotiable.

Recently, one of my loved ones asked me for space in a moment in which I was craving intimacy. What they were expressing was a psychological need, while what I wanted was just a desire. Even though it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, I backed off, and I think we’re both happy about being in a relationship that explicitly aligns with our values instead of compulsively — and subconsciously — playing out socially constructed scripts.

“Relationship anarchy is well suited for those who do not hold a fixed conception for what their partner must do, act, or present themselves to others,” says Romanoff. Constantly questioning roles and dynamics may not be the kind of emotional labor that everyone wants to do in their relationships, and it requires a certain amount of tolerance for both conflict and uncertainty. “There is an amorphous quality to relational anarchy, which requires a high degree of comfort with the unknown,” says Romanoff.

Given the year of hellish helplessness many of us have experience, relationship anarchy seems like a good way to quietly shake up systemic power structures from the comfort of our homes. Mixing our collective coronavirus fear and grief with the helplessness we felt watching white supremacists storm the Capitol created a pretty disempowering cocktail. Even before the clown riot, a lot of us were feeling very fuck you to systemic oppression and ready to make waves. I’m not saying that relationship anarchy is the best or only way to dismantle the status quo, but for some people it might be a small step towards untangling ourselves from the white cis-heterocapitalist patriarchy.