What is Relationship Anarchy?

This is a brief synopsis of what relationship anarchy is as I understand and practice it.

Traditionally, we categorize our relationships with labels, usually either as romantic or platonic. These labels are prescriptive; they determine the boundaries and expectations of the relationship, and not the other way around.

Relationships anarchy is a descriptive approach to relationships; labels are chosen to suit what each person wants out of the relationships or, more commonly, eschewed altogether. People are free to pick and choose what they want out of the relationship instead of allowing society to choose for them.

There are lots of behaviors that can characterize a relationship. Relationships may or may not involve:

  • Emotional intimacy
  • Vulnerability
  • Affection
  • Hugging
  • Cuddling
  • Holding hands
  • Kissing
  • Sex
  • Saying that you love one another
  • Using specific terms to refer to one another (“girlfriend,” “boyfriend,” “partner,” etc.)
  • Exclusivity
  • Commitment
  • Marriage
  • Shared responsibility
  • Shared finances
  • Cohabitation
  • Raising children

Most of the items in this list can be categorized as either platonic or romantic. Social norms dictate that people in platonic relationships are barred from the behaviors deemed romantic, while people in romantic relationships are expected to engage in all or most of them eventually. This prescriptive relationship model doesn’t allow for things like romantic partners who don’t want sex or platonic friends who want to cuddle.

Categorizing relationships can be toxic because it artificially limits what constitutes a valid relationship. Some people in “platonic” relationships want to enjoy things society considers to be strictly romantic, and some people in “romantic” relationships don’t want to do all the things which are expected of them. People should be free to decide with their partner(s) what they want out of their relationship, instead of the all-or-nothing approach enforced by the romantic/platonic dichotomy.

People often have a hierarchical view of relationship categories, where they feel like certain types of relationships are inherently more important than or should always take precedence over others. Specifically, people tend to prioritize romantic relationships over platonic ones. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having some relationships in your life that are more important to you than others. Relationship anarchy doesn’t mean giving all your relationships equal precedence; rather, it means not considering certain categories of relationships to be inherently more important than others. Rather than following the rule that romantic relationships should always come first, people should be free to distribute their time, energy, and affection however they want.

To be clear, relationship anarchy doesn’t necessitate that people abandon the romantic/platonic dichotomy all together. People are still free to label their relationships as such, and are valid in doing so if that’s what they want. The point of relationships anarchy is that people have the freedom to pursue the types of relationships they want and aren’t bound by arbitrary social norms.

While relationship anarchy is a popular concept among polyamorous communities, it’s also important to understand that relationship anarchy and polyamory are not the same thing. Wanting exclusivity in a relationship is valid, and the point of relationship anarchy is that people should be free to define for themselves exactly what that means for them and their partner(s).