I was listening to a song today while driving – Brandi Carlile’s “I belong to you” and suddenly I felt a wave of grief coming over me. Here are some of the words:

I know I could be spending a little too much time with you
But time and too much don’t belong together like we do
If I had all my yesterdays I’d give ’em to you too
I belong to you now
I belong to you

And I thought to myself: I don’t think I’m ever going to have that. And I want that.

And also: I’ve had that. And I didn’t want it.

Both things are true.

A while ago, on a Relationship Anarchy facebook group I’m on, someone mentioned the strange grief that comes from surrendering the idea of “the One”. I feel this grief at times more insistently than others, but it’s always there in the background. The dream of being known and seen and cherished is very hard to extricate from the dream of being part of a couple, a tight and exclusive and cosy couple.

I want to be somebody’s favourite person.

I want to feel radiant and beautiful as that person looks at me with awe. I want to know somebody’s body better than anybody else knows it. I want to be weird with someone and know that my weirdness is being held with compassion. I want to be someone’s top priority.

But experience tells me that I cannot have these things without their shadow side. And for me that shadow side is neatly encapsulated by almost everything on the ‘Relationship Escalator’, which Aggie Sez defines as “The default set of societal customs for the proper conduct of intimate relationships.”(She also wrote a really good book about it). Basically, some of the aspects of the Relationship Escalator include monogamy, sharing a living space, merging lives, public recognition as a couple. The normal trajectory relationships usually follow.

And while choosing the relationship escalator is a totally valid choice, for me its shadow side outweighs its advantages.

This is what happens for me when I’m in a long-term monogamous relationship: I look at my partner with equal parts love and exasperation. I chafe under the knowledge that the places we don’t fit will never fit. I grieve for the dreams I’m giving up as I meld my life with theirs. I grieve for the dreams they’re giving up to be with me. I feel guilty when I flirt with other people, and a little resentful over the guilt. I miss having my own space.

I worry about the future – a lot. What if I want to resign, sell all my belongings, and move to an intentional community, and they don’t? What if the way he holds onto his little routines start bugging the living hell out of me, and I can’t leave, because we’ve become too entwined? Wait, is that already the case? How do I love this person without losing so many of the things that bring me joy?

There are ways around these issues without abandoning monogamy, or without abandoning the relationship escalator entirely. Lots of people do it. They spend more time doing fun activities with their girlfriends because their partners don’t enjoy those things. They get permission to flirt with strangers, as long as it doesn’t go any further. They date long-distance.

That’s all valid. But somehow that’s not enough for me.

I want the breathless joy of exploring the beauty of other people’s souls without fearing that I might have to pull the brakes soon.

I want to live by myself entirely (for now at least; I am aware that this might change). I want to make spontaneous weird decisions, go on long road trips and have flings with strangers. I want to flirt with my friends. I want to get to spend entire days alone. I want to bring all of myself into every encounter without worrying that my partner might feel abandoned. I want to not have to explain myself and my choices all the time. I want to not have sex with only one person for the rest of my life.

If that means abandoning the idea of “the One”, then so be it. Because even as I was writing down some of the things I want, I knew I don’t really want them. I don’t really want to know somebody’s body better than anybody else does – when I find someone really beautiful, I want others to see that too. The idea of sharing friskiness and curiosity with others excites me; it even excites me to imagine others falling in love with my partners, when I pause for a moment and let the knee-jerk jealousy evaporate. I don’t want to be somebody’s top priority – the idea makes me nervous; instead, I’d like to be valued. I don’t want to be part of a tight, exclusive couple – there wouldn’t be enough air to breathe.

As for being someone’s favourite person – I am lots of people’s favourite person, even if they have, paradoxically, other favourite people too. And I have lots of favourite people too, people who fill my heart with gratitude and awe and curiosity. I am cherished by my family, by more than a handful of friends. I am known. I am loved. I will never be alone, even as I wander this earth feeling sometimes startlingly alone.

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” – Kahlil Gibran

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’