Content warning: This post contains mentions of drug use and mental illness and abuse and heartbreak.

This is not the full story. I’d like to preface this post by saying this is not the full story. There is also triumph and joy in my life and I am much more than my trauma. But this is a true story. And I’m sharing it because I don’t know of any other way.

I have spent the past two and a half years in a near-constant state of being triggered. Re-evaluating how I love and relate has forced me to confront old aches I didn’t even know I had. Trauma I thought I’d processed a decade ago reared its head again. Trauma I didn’t know I had announced itself. There were times I felt surrounded only by naked loss – new losses mingling seamlessly with old ones, like a sinister forest crowding out my life. There are months from last year that I barely remember; when I try to recall how I got through last winter I just feel the reflexive urge to roll into a little ball and start weeping.

The arrival of another winter, all thin air and silent mornings, coupled with lockdown and the general angst of current life, has forced me back into myself once more. There is nobody I can turn to, so again I go inward. And there I ask myself: is it worth it? This long strange journey into unknown territory, where nothing is as I learned to assume it must be, why am I still on it?

Because.

Yes it’s worth it.

Ask me again tomorrow.

Sometimes.

Nothing is worth this searing desolation. Nothing.

Help me.

Yes.


Everything I do these days is tinged with pain. Over the past few years I have had moments of soaring joy and triumph such as I have rarely felt before, but they were never uncomplicated – for me joy comes with grief now; I struggle to distinguish between the two. Laughter is prone to tip into sobbing. I am very, very tired.

This is how these years have gone:

I had prepared myself for the first hard bit. I woke up one morning in early 2018 and in the night I had left my life behind. I had an entire journal explaining why, and a tiny empty flat, and many books about non-monogamy. But I had wounded someone I loved; my resolve did not keep me warm at night. In the mornings my heart dragged itself across the bathroom tiles for a numb silent shower. Life would get better soon, I knew. I just had to get through the hard bit.

I woke up on another morning and I was busy making death-defying choices. I was buying cocaine in a strange car from strange men with whom I had to speak French to be let out. I wasn’t sleeping much. In the silent hours of the night I daydreamed about my death while my fuck-buddy (lover? best friend? co-dependent hanger-on?) lay twitching next to me.

When that ended in a muddle of drug-addled open-relationship-miscommunication, resentment and searing jealousy, I went to spend three days alone by the ocean. This was almost exactly two years ago: wintertime, and pouring with rain. I walked. And walked. I sat on rocks with the wind whipping into my face, feeling Brontë-esque, enraged and abandoned.

So far, so familiar. Just because something feels intense doesn’t mean it’s unknown. I swam through the seas of heartbreak with my usual mixture of despair, self-pity and panache. But when time came to get up… I couldn’t. I didn’t want to eat. I had unlearned how to sleep. I felt forgotten and weak and terrified.

Below my feet the ice gave a resounding crack.

But it held.

I finally checked myself into a psychiatric clinic because my mind wouldn’t obey me anymore: I’d sit in front of a screen with time to kill and interesting research to write up, and my mind would spit up blanks. The energy to string together any words at all was missing. My memory was hazy, my ability to formulate thoughts almost non-existent. It scared me.

In the clinic the angst subsided. On my first night there another patient said to me “No offence but I don’t think you should actually be here”. I laughed and replied: “I just look functional”. But a part of me agreed with her. I might be crazy but at least I’m self-aware, I thought. At least my family is functional, supportive and loving. In comparison to most of the people there, I had a lot going for me. Within days I was the nurses’ favourite patient, the little eager one with all the answers in group therapy, the empathetic one who made friends with all the other patients. When I left, they made me a card and each wrote a personal message. “I have never met, such a gifted person like you,” said one. Another went: “You made me feel special without me having ever asked for it”.

I’m likeable. I’m kind. I’m gifted. I deserve to exist.

And I was fine now. I was fine. I’m fine.

After the clinic my psychologist said to me: “Well I hope you’ve learned not to try open relationships again”, so I promptly stopped seeing her. I still wanted to do non-monogamy. I wasn’t sure why, but it felt true, truer than my former ways of engaging. Looking back, perhaps it’s simply because our intuition guides us to the paths where we might find the most growth and healing. But healing demands discovering and acknowledging that we are wounded first, and I didn’t have the space or the courage to see the immensity of my own brokenness yet. I don’t know if I have it even now.

Things were different after the clinic. Colours were more intense. Everything moved me. I cried a lot. I felt closer to God, even while my definition of God remained as vague as ever. In my every spare moment I walked – through suburbs, down little paths next to streams, over hills, through private properties, in nature reserves. I had to keep moving; I was aflame. I felt very alive and it wasn’t always pleasant.

After some months I fell in love. Of course I did, I am addicted to falling. All the months of guarding my health closely, of reading spiritual books, of doing yoga, of listening to uplifting music, of walking, all said to me: “This time you’ve got it. This time you’re balanced and healthy and totally capable of having a relationship(s) without disappearing into it”. And so I fell.

All the other times my relationships ended, I could point my finger at the other person: He couldn’t communicate. We wanted different things. He was a drug addict. He was severely conflict-avoidant. We were too different. We grew apart.

So I had control over the endings, and when I didn’t, it was clearly because the other person was at fault. Perhaps somewhere inside there was the niggling fear that I, just as I am, might not be good enough. But matters never came to a head; I would end relationships, or the other person would turn out to be an asshole, long before the question of my worth came up. I left each relationship battered but unscathed. Within my heart doubts of my own worthiness could bloom unchecked and unacknowledged.

But this time. This time I fell in love with a worthy adversary. He was verbose and self-aware and emotionally astute. He was almost as kind as me. He was more gifted. He was raw and real and wise and fucked-up in a profoundly moving way. He took up a lot of space. His way of being demanded engagement and authenticity from me in larger amounts than I had ever had to bring before. I was hungry to show up. I wanted to rise to the challenge.

I was petrified but I unfurled. I powered through my insecurities. I gave of myself unquestioningly while tamping down on my need to be reassured. I impressed myself with how well I navigated the waters of non-monogamy, his other connections and then mine too. I communicated my heart as bravely as I could while editing carefully the jealousy, the fear, into digestible titbits, without even knowing that I was doing it.

Sometimes my bigness would spill over. I’d react to something like a frightened child or a wounded animal and then apologise profusely for my emotions. I’d try to explain myself. I’d try to control his reaction by showing less of me, yet more of me demanded to be known. As time passed I found myself weeping more often after our encounters. Loss. Loss. Loss is coming, screamed my heart.

Loss came. It came in threes, as these things do. First, just more than a year ago, deep wounds at the heart of my family surfaced, long overdue. I sat back in horror as I witnessed the uncomplicated truths I had clung to as a child dissolve: “My dad might be an asshole but my mom is a superhero”, “The women in my family are strong” (I realise now I had confused strength with the ability to suffer), “My pain as a child was worth it somehow because my siblings came out okay”, and, resoundingly, this myth: “We’re fine. We’re all fine now.”

‘Crack’, went the ice. But I was still standing.

The second loss: The second person I was seeing did a runner. He disappeared with barely a sound. I coped because in the larger scale of things, there were more serious crises. I’d loved this person but I’d known for a while we weren’t compatible and perhaps his disappearance was a tiny bit of a relief. I could tell myself it was on him: he didn’t have the courage to communicate. He didn’t know how to show up. It was on him. And I still had my other relationship, the scary one, the authentic one, the one where I was bringing unknown amounts of myself to the table and was being met in equal vulnerability. I was weepy, and wounded, and my family didn’t make sense anymore, and I wanted to run into a mountain and scream my guts out. But I was fine. I was standing.

Then in a casual conversation my remaining lover admitted that things were changing for him. “It doesn’t feel like it has to be a big deal because I don’t think it’s necessarily permanent,” he said. “It’s just that I feel a moving-apart kind of energy for now.”

Even as I lashed out in terrified anger, my mind whispered to me: “What did you think would happen? Did you really think you were capable of having a mature relationship? Did you really think someone, anyone, could hold space for the entire mess of you? You’re too broken. You’re too intense. You’re too much.”

Without a sound this time the ice beneath me dropped away.

                                                                                          * * *

Just about a year ago now my heart broke itself irreversibly. The closest I can come to explaining it is by saying that it feels as if I have a different heart now. It is still recognisably mine, it still has the texture and intensity of my own heart. But it feels much older, and tired, and achingly vast. It feels like I have a war veteran for a heart now.

And perhaps like a war veteran my heart vacillates between expansive acceptance and abject terror. I lie awake at night and feel the blood rushing through my body as if in mortal danger. I feel my mind groping for a way out like a terrified child. My heart stutters one message, over and over: alone. Alone. Alone. Alone.

I hadn’t heard or read much about trauma before. So six months after the ice broke, in December 2019, I was still flailing about, trying to get back onto a patch of land, confused about how utterly devastated and ravaged I felt. I mean, I’m not a complete idiot. I knew how I’d grown up had left a mark. But I’d dealt with SO MUCH of it already. I’d wept and read and forgiven and loved and prayed and WORKED, worked really hard, for over a decade. How could I still be this broken? How could life be so unfair?

But this had to be acknowledged at some point and eventually, begrudgingly, I did: I was reacting to something more than what was visibly here. I was reacting as if my very life was in danger. The rejection was real, the loss was real, but it was nowhere near as big as my reaction to it. A year after the heartbreak, I still get stuck in loops of abandonment and unworthiness that are not being caused or confirmed by anything in my actual life. I am still extrapolating like a maths wizard. I am still descending into spirals of shame and terror caused by unseen bogeymen.

And I am having a really, really hard time existing right now.

I know it’s happening now because I never had the energy or the insight to face up to it before, but I don’t want this to be happening. I don’t want to be the sum of my parents’ errors. I don’t want to be just how I grew up. I have resisted the word ‘trauma’ for very long because I want to be NORMAL, dammit, I want to be at peace within myself, I want to love and laugh as easily as other people seem to do. I want to get to relax. I just want to get to relax.

But that’s not my path. What is on my path is blurting out my wounds wearily, knowing that my lovers and my friends will see me differently once I do. What’s on my journey is sifting through the mess left by generations of wounded ancestors as best I can, and right now my best doesn’t feel very good.

Because when do you tell someone? When do you say “so, about, ahem, ‘LOVE’: I think I might do it differently from other people. Like, more intensely or something. No sweat, it’s just trauma, I think. Or maybe it’s my personality. But I’m still having fun, I promise, it’s just that I can’t relax, never ever, and also, I know you’re going to leave me but my heart will shatter when you do so anyway. (But if you don’t leave I will.) But don’t worry, I’ve got this. I’m managing my shit. I know myself. If I break, WHEN I break, I won’t hold you responsible. And I’m really really healthy now actually anyway, I’m working on myself and I’m generous and brave so please never ever leave me. And I’m really sorry. I’m sorry I’m inconvenient. I’m sorry I’m an incoherent mess. I’m trying to make sense. In fact I’m actually quite considerate and I’ll rein in my terror until I can’t anymore and most of the time I am quite capable of communicating maturely and I have self-love practices in place and I even meditate sometimes and please please don’t run away”.

I have been feeling near-constantly triggered over the past two and a half years, and this has culminated for me in a weary acknowledgment that I am more traumatised than I care to admit. I think I should come with a warning: ‘This woman will use you to dig up old shit in her psyche and you won’t even see it coming (but she means well. And she loves hard, for what it’s worth).’ It has been years of digging through muck and the only thing I can say for sure is: I’m still here. I don’t like it very much, but I’m still here. And I’m fucking exhausted.

So is it worth it?

Yes.

No.

I don’t know of any other way.

I’m showing up. Most of the time. I’m here.

Go away.

Help me.


I’ve been working on a post which has been getting rather stuck in my throat. It’s a necessary piece, for me, but writing about it feels hazardous. I stop, delete, rewrite. I think ‘In the face of others’ much greater trauma, do I even have the right to tell this story?’ I wonder if I’ll offend people. I wonder if my words will be too triggering. I wonder if people will look at me differently. (Update: It’s two weeks later, I’ve written another post, and I’m still stuck with the above piece. At this point I think I might never actually finish writing it.)

So I’m busy writing that post, but I also really miss just sitting down in front of a laptop and feeling words arrive easily. In the meantime thus, here is my attempt at something less intense:

We are all going to die.

I’ve been thinking about death a lot over the past while. I always do, really, but naturally the continuing coronavirus crisis and the strange silence enforced upon my own life have been bringing up this topic more than usually.

A few weeks before the virus became a global reality I read an article titled ‘Deep adaptation’, which I also blogged about here. Basically, it says that climate change has passed the point of no return and that society as we know it can only last another few years before it collapses. Even as I was writing my reaction to that, countries were announcing extreme lockdown measures. I was reading forecasts saying that lockdowns would, on and off, last until a vaccine can be found, which might take two years. This most likely means an end to the world as we know it, at least for a good long while.

How strange; how anti-climactic. I was bracing myself for a climate-induced catastrophe and then out of the blue a virus comes and sweeps the world into a new shape. We hide in our homes as a breathless hush descends over the world, punctuated only by increasingly surreal statistics. The crisis feels urgent yet far away. I feel untouched yet shaken, profoundly isolated yet part of the most global crisis of my lifetime thus far. The truth I had been chewing on before all this happened became suddenly more urgent: Life is completely unpredictable.

The only thing I know for sure is that we are all going to die.

We tend to react to a sentence like the above by saying “wow, that’s dark”. When I say that I think about death a lot, people think I’m morbid. They even try to cheer me up.

But stop, stop that for a moment. Let’s stop the reflexive flinching we do when the topic of death comes up. What if we stared down the chasm of our own finiteness, what if we explored this one and only certainty? What would happen if we really believed the idea that we are mortal?

What happens for me is a blend of grief and relief that eventually, when I lean into it, crescendos into ecstatic nihilism. This is IT. This. THIS. Aaaaaaaaaaaaah.

My twenties were basically an extended time of existential crisis for me. When I started seriously doubting my faith at 21 I asked myself, over and over, “what’s the point of life if there is no God and no hereafter?” I watched a video by Stephen Fry around that time, wherein he waxed lyrical about our mortality and about the strange defiant beauty of our tiny lives in comparison to the chasm of eternity. To me he sounded like a man grasping at straws while dismantling the very fabric of his own life. Sure, I thought, there might be beauty in doing good without having a god forcing you to do so, but it’s a sad second place to actually, you know, having a MEANINGFUL life. (I wasn’t sure what I meant by meaningful, but I knew that I was missing it.) The departure of religion had left a large hole in my life, and saying that our insignificance can be beautiful was not going to fill it.

It took almost ten years. Ten years to dismantle the ideas that society and religion had planted so deep into my soul that I thought they were fundamental to who I was: ‘Life should be Meaningful, and Meaning is inextricably linked to making a mark. Leaving a legacy. Making a difference. Changing the world. Being remembered. Living forever’.

It took me ten years to dismantle the idea of ‘meaningful’, perhaps because this concept is as vague as it is deeply ingrained. What we usually mean when we speak of meaning is that we want our lives to feel like they matter. Naturally then the question arises: matter to whom? And the answer, if we’re honest, is ‘matter to as many people as possible’.

On one level, I think that most of us want our lives to matter to others because we are so deeply relational. We deduce that we exist from others’ reactions to us. We deduce that we are significant based on how important others think we are. This is part of what makes us human.

On another level, I think there is a yearning in most of us to form part of a cosmic story. We’re storytelling creatures. We want quests, adventure, romance – we want momentum and progress in our narrative. We want to form part of a story playing itself out on the stage of eternity and unfolding into intricate patterns, in which our footsteps, tiny as they are, form an integral part.  

I think it’s fine to want to have meaning in our lives. It’s fine to want to matter to others, and it’s fine to want to form part of an epic adventure. And in many ways I DO think we form part of a continuous unfolding tale, of a cosmic love story in which every creature matters tremendously and uniquely. Every cell, every particle, throbs with existence and with impending death, with the unending flow of endings and beginnings comprising the tragedy and the glory of this universe. We matter. This matters. Excruciatingly so.

And also: we are all going to die. And in many ways, it’ll be as if we’d never lived.

This morning my dog Waldo and I went for our daily walk through the neighbour’s vineyards. A thick fog was covering the landscape, so that the earth fell away into grey nothingness at the end of every row of vines. I was the only human on earth. I opened my arms wide and walked with hands flung into the sky, laughing, crying a little bit. “I am going to die soon”, I whispered into the air. No need to get too serious. No need to do Great Things. No fixed Destiny to chase down, no Person I might disappoint, no life-or-death decisions to make – death is the only given.

This realisation has been settling into my bones over the past year or two, but it’s really over the last few months that the relief of it has become palpable for me. I hear people talk about changing the world and I think ‘wow, I don’t want that anymore! Not in the way they mean it, anyway’. I witness people being really anxious about the state of the Earth, about themselves, about humanity, and I get it but I think, quietly: ‘don’t take it so seriously!’ I’m not being flippant – we are surrounded by suffering, we are separated from nature in untenable ways, we are destroying our habitat, we are the walking wounded blindly wounding others. These are big problems. But we can do much more about these things if we start from a profound admission of our own mortality.

Everything is really really precious because we are going to die soon.

And nothing will last forever. Not even the damage we are doing to the Earth. Not even greed, and capitalism, and inequality; not even radioactive waste.

Being profoundly aware of our own impending death means not taking anything too seriously, yet ascribing great significance to everything. Holding this paradox in our hearts: My life is fleeting. My life matters. Without any grand gestures, without monuments being put up in my honour, my life matters because it matters to me – and because nothing will ever be like ME again, not in a billion billion years. I get to fill my life with exactly what I want to fill it with. I get to people it with misty morning walks and Terry Pratchett novels and late nights watching sitcoms and many, many tears (because everything makes me cry now that I realise I’m going to die soon).

I like it here. I like existing, even when I’m not enjoying it. I like this realisation settling into my heart: If there is no Grand Plan handed to me by an all-knowing God, then there is just the daily adventure of figuring out how I want to fill my life. The ending of this book is certain: death. But the pleasure is in the reading, in the plot twists and grand romances and big reveals along the way.

P.S. I do actually think that there probably is some sort of Consciousness from whence I came, or whom I am embodying, or a kind of Cosmic Plan or something. I just don’t think that it matters very much for how I live my life right now. Whether or not there is a grand destiny at play, in this embodiment I can only hazard guesses about the greater scheme of things. And, if you ask me, with no knowledge comes no responsibility.

No holy duty, only play. No god-given task, only breath-given awe.

Love and chaos

For the longest time, I thought that the word ‘anarchy’ was synonymous with ‘chaos’. As in, “if I can’t get my hands on some cigarettes soon, there will be anarchy”. Vaguely I knew it was a political ideology, but surely one only hooligans and angry teenagers subscribed to.

So when I first heard about relationship anarchy (RA for short) I naturally thought much the same. I thought relationship anarchists must be entirely against all relationships, refusing to commit, to fall in love, or even to engage. To somehow find fault with all relationships they must be singularly difficult people, I concluded, and for a while I didn’t think about it much again.

Then somehow RA popped back onto my radar. I was questioning a lot of things: why did I feel a slight recoil inside whenever I’d describe myself as ‘polyamorous’? What did I really want from my romantic partners? What’s the difference between sex and romantic involvement? What even is ‘falling in love’?

Why did every new relationship style I researched feel like an increasingly complex system prescribing how I should and shouldn’t love?

Enter RA. This time I came across writings by Andie Nordgren, who is credited with coining the term and writing a short manifesto to accompany it. One of Nordgren’s 7 principles for relationship anarchy reads “Build for the lovely unexpected”. Another says “Customise your commitments”. This I like, I thought. This I can get behind.

So I devoured every thing about RA I could find. I joined the facebook group. There, every now and then, I’d see suggestions to newcomers that they familiarise themselves with the principles of anarchism itself, in order to better understand relationship anarchy. That sounded tedious. Ploughing through opaque texts written by old Russian men more than a century ago just to understand a current way of relating in this world felt mind-numbingly ineffectual.

Eventually, though, I felt the need to get a bit more savvy about anarchism. So I watched some Youtube videos. Skimmed through a few books. Got a bit lost, actually, in the maze of texts: interviews and thinkpieces and fantastical anarchist utopian sci-fis.

My knowledge about anarchism is still scattered and, at best, full of plot holes. But I get it now. I get why it’s so important to understand at least roughly what anarchism is before attempting to understand RA: you can’t have, nor DO, relationship anarchy if you don’t understand where it comes from, what its aims are, where it fits into the bigger picture.

I don’t think you have to be an anarchist to be a relationship anarchist. But I do think that we need a thorough understanding of whatever relationship approach or theory we adopt to do so properly. We get bombarded with information about marriage and the nuclear family from birth. Whether we want to or not, monogamous romantic relationships are the one style we know lots about – and still we mostly don’t get them right. It would be foolish to enter a new way of connecting with little to no information to guide our way.

Speak truth to power

Anarchism is mainly concerned with power. At its heart it believes that power “is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate” (Noam Chomsky); it is therefore concerned with all the ways that people’s freedom is curtailed. Specifically, it is concerned with identifying where power is located, and how it is wielded. Are people free? Even if they think they are, are they really free, or are they just choosing from very limited options every day because they’re not aware of any others? Chomsky (whom I love and want to quote for ever and ever) says about this that:

“people should be able to live in a society […] where they can develop their capacities freely – instead of being forced into the narrow range of options that are available to people in the world now”.

Chomsky, ‘On Anarchism’

In other words: we might be obviously un-free, or it might be more subtle. For instance, in South Africa the government put a ban on alcohol and cigarette sales during the COVID-19 lockdown, which is a ludicrous overstepping of the duties of the state. To me, that is some super obvious paternalistic state interference; an example of unsubtle un-freeness. Then there are also ways we might be less noticeably un-free, as when we can’t even imagine not being monogamous, because that never even came up as a possible way to be.

Power is everywhere, and of course it is not necessarily bad. It would be amazing, in fact, if every person felt personally powerful. Having power over someone, though, that’s dodgy. The question is thus: “Who/what calls the shots? And if it’s not the individuals involved themselves, why not? And how are we going to fix this?”

I came across the following definition of anarchism in a 1970s Dutch collection of essays titled simply “Anarchisme”. Loosely translated from the Dutch (words in bold emphasised by me):

Anarchism is in general defined as a theory or principle for life, characterised by the absence of power and authority, specifically of the organised political power we usually call ‘the state’. It has as point of departure a network of free agreement between groups and organisations […] to the satisfaction of the infinite variations of needs and aspirations found in humanity. To make such new forms of societal living possible, we will have to adopt entirely new premises instead of those on which current development is based.” (Arthur Lehning, Anarchisme). Isn’t that beautiful? I love the picture of freedom yet interconnectedness this awakens. This is what I want in life. This resonates.

Lehning’s definition places specific focus on the state as locus of power and therefore as the thing that must be opposed. That corresponds with thinking during the 1970s-80s, but in the meantime we have begun to think of power as much more widespread than just the state.

Power is systemic. It can be subtle. It is wielded in a variety of ways, and the first step in resisting it is to identify it, which can often be a lengthy process as we dismantle our beliefs and institutions.

The word ‘institutions’ here is important, since it is through institutions that power is legitimised. We see this in formal institutions (parliaments, universities, hospitals, courts, etc.) where it’s very clear who does what; we see this in societal institutions (religions, marriage, families, etc.) where we know exactly what to do and expect, and we even find this in those firmly entrenched habits that we share as a society (9-5 workdays, how to write an email to your boss, how to address the shop cashier, etc. – power comes into play in a million unacknowledged ways every day). And because there are so many holders of power, there are many branches of anarchism, of which many focus on more societal or even interpersonal contexts.

Is anarchism basically libertarianism, then?

NO. Nope. God I hope not.

Well, actually…

A little bit, maybe, yes.

The wide definition of libertarianism is simply “a political philosophy that upholds liberty as a core principle”. So far, so good, since anarchism is concerned with liberty too. But the thing is that nowadays when we think of libertarianism, we specifically think of right-wing libertarianism – what comes up in my mind is rich white men who own ridiculous amounts of land and complain about having to pay taxes. Basically, to me, libertarianism conjures up extreme capitalism, and the type of people who actually believe that the invisible hand of the economy will play a fair game and fuck over only those who deserve to be fucked over.

That’s not anarchism at all. Tom Wetzel sums it up well in a short online piece on anarchism vs. libertarianism (my emphases):

To the right-wing libertarians, being forced to work for employers, being commanded by bosses, is consistent with liberty because no one puts a gun to your head to take a job. And therefore it isn’t coercion. From the anarchist or socialist libertarian point of view, this is a drastically poverty-stricken definition of “liberty”.

Tom Wetzel, ‘What is the difference between libertarianism and anarchism?’

The point here is not that anarchy maintains that working for someone is bad (it doesn’t necessarily) but rather that anarchism seeks liberty beyond the lowest common denominator. It is not enough that some of us are free on surface level. We must all be free, and we must be truly so. So anarchy demands that we continue to notice all the subtle ways that hierarchies of power determine our actions, even in a ‘meritocracy’, even in a free market.

Freedom, but with heart

The kind of freedom that right-wing libertarians envision – unchecked freedom to seek more personal acquisition, basically – is a pretty unkind type of freedom. It’s every man for himself. It disregards the subtle and systemic ways in which power and inequality have been baked into the system, benefiting some to the detriment of others. That is not anarchism, nor is it relationship anarchy (although I have encountered some people who do seem to think that RA means placing personal desires above the well-being of anyone else).

Anarchism has a lot of heart. One of its legs might be the dismantling of power structures, but its other is a deep-seated belief in people’s ability to self-govern. According to anarchism, people can coordinate themselves. This might happen in a friendly communal way or a more tense way where people compromise despite anxieties and conflicts, but it will happen whenever the need for cooperation arises.

And according to Ruth Kinna cooperation will breed its own rules; it’s not for anybody outside this framework to judge what the rules should be: The rules will change over time, and people will adopt new practices, but they will always be cooperative.” In other words, Andie Nordgren’s principle “Customize your commitments”, see?

I find this very beautiful, the belief that people will cooperate and create something workable and creative together if given the chance. I have, however, often wondered whether it isn’t very naïve, given all the greed and opportunism in the world. But in Political Science class I learned that more and more, it is not the state but rather civil society which is causing change. In South Africa this is very apparent in our past liberation struggle, but also in our present: people lose patience with the government and simply start their own NGOs, charities, businesses and movements, lobbying for change or educating people or placing increasing focus on important issues such as sustainability or mental health. We’re doing it ourselves.

Look at all the groups and initiatives arising in the wake of COVID isolation – I form part of several Whatsapp groups and collectives that immediately popped up, arranging for food donations and collections, the distribution of educational activities for kids stuck at home, wider and better aid for people in need, etcetera. It’s imperfect and disorganised, but it’s normal people mobilising themselves to help. On the farm where I live, myself and all the neighbours (we’re about nine households) have quickly arranged ourselves into taking turns shopping, swapping ingredients, gardening tips and cigarettes when needed, and providing emotional support. The same is true of my colleagues, with whom I feel more allied than ever. The amount of initiative being taken by normal people right now is heartening.

Change comes from the ground up, it always has. Anarchism says that this change would be faster and more effective if we gave up on the idea that the state is supposed to do things for and with us, and stopped waiting for it to join the picnic. Instead we should dismantle it and directly manage our own lives, in collaboration with each other.

Relationship anarchy as praxis

Anarchism places a lot of emphasis on ‘praxis’ which is, as far as I understand it, just a fancy version of the word ‘practice’. In other words, praxis means bringing ideas and vision to fruition through doing. And that’s where I think relationship anarchy fits in.

If we take the principles of anarchism to their logical expression in relationships, and if we look at some of the texts on RA specifically, then altogether we can basically say that RA: aims to dismantle the (often unconscious) hierarchies and assumptions we have made around relationships, to identify where we or others are un-free in how we relate, to determine which patterns are detrimental or beneficial to our lives, and to decide what to retain or rebuild.

Relationship anarchy is one of the most accessible ways for us to DO anarchy.

While overthrowing the state or building small societal utopias isn’t quite as readily done, we can always, anywhere, start re-examining our relationships and rewire them to reflect our deepest truths. We can always start relating more authentically. We can always take a step back from all the relational and gender roles forced upon us and begin to live from the inside out.

Therefore I think that all self-professed anarchists must necessarily be relationship anarchists too. There’s an interesting reddit thread about that, actually, where someone asks whether they are morally obligated to be RA since they consider themselves an anarchist. “Do I have to be polyamorous now?” they ask. See how the writer mixes up polyamory and RA, using the terms interchangeably? Well, they aren’t the same thing at all. Here’s a lovely insightful snippet from one commenter:

heterosexual monogamy is a constructed vision of the “proper” relationship, but that doesn’t mean you’re immoral or anti-anarchist for being attracted to it. The point, whether with gender or race or relationships, is to be self-aware of what parts you’re inheriting from the society, and how those parts could be hierarchical.”

– insightful reddit commenter

In other words: if you’re an anarchist, you’ll do the work of examining and questioning your relational heritage, and of working towards greater freedom and consent. Yet practicing RA does not mean you’ll be non-monogamous.

But.

Practicing RA, according to me, is more than a relationship preference. It’s more than just a vague label allowing you to question some ideas and norms that bug you. It’s an unflagging task you declare yourself willing to see through.

More than just making up your own relationship norms, it demands that you look at your own life with searing honesty. “This thing I want”, you must ask yourself, “why do I want it? Why do I flinch at the thought of ‘sharing’ my partner? When I say I want to be monogamous, is it just because I’m afraid of the pain an alternative might trigger? Do I really want the things I want, or have I been conditioned to want them?”

Tailor-making our relationships into living things that reflect our innermost desires is not the hardest part of RA. The work begins before that, in the deconstruction of our unconscious norms and desires. Because we can have no real idea of what we truly want if we have been exposed to only one idea for the majority of our lives. If all the relationships we know follow the same trajectory, power is being exerted over us in that area, whether we know it or not.

And so I am wary of people who say that they are anarchists or RA but add “but I practice monogamy, personally. I’ve always just been a really monogamous person.” How do you KNOW that? Have you done the work? Have you faced the things that scare you about non-monogamy? Because it might well be that you end up choosing monogamy, after examining your life and the other options. But if you choose it by default, then that’s not really choosing.

To be clear: I am not saying that everybody should practice RA, nor am I saying that those who do (or anyone else) should be non-monogamous. I don’t think non-monogamy is inherently better than monogamy. But to misquote Socrates, I do think an examined life is more worth living.

Also, I may have painted a picture of RA being really hard, since it entails all this self-questioning and deconstruction and inner work. And I do think that it is often hard. But in my (still limited) experience, it’s about as hard as anything worth doing. And as one expands and develops confidence in one’s own voice, it becomes less hard. The things that I thought were simply a part of being human – jealousy, envy, fear – those get less over time than they ever were before.

Congratulations, you have made it to the end of this post

It’s ridiculous how much I still want to say. It’s ridiculous how long this post already is. Let me end by summarising the main points:

  • You don’t have to be an anarchist to be RA, but, as I see it, you DO have to be RA if you’re an anarchist.
  • To practice RA, it helps to know what anarchism is all about.
  • Anarchism is about two things: resisting power, and voluntary collaboration between people – change from the ground up instead of from the top down.
  • Therefore RA is about the same things: Dismantling power structures in our relationships, and collaborating with our beloveds to craft meaningful connections.
  • You don’t have to be non-monogamous to be RA, but to do RA well you do need to do the emotional work and engage with your own deep-seated assumptions and fears.

I leave you with this thought:

Any system that limits or stigmatises our imaginings of the possible, much less our ability to act upon them, is oppressive to all of us.”

Jamie Heckert, ‘Changing anarchism’