What I learned from a new relationship model could help monogamists be happier.
I’ve always been pretty good at monogamy. I’m a Scorpio: Loyalty is in my blood, while being vulnerable with a lot of different people is not.
Still, something about it felt painful for me. Despite the love and affirmation, vulnerability and intimacy, I often found myself feeling deeply sad in my romantic relationships. I would lose myself, giving over my sense of identity to my partner and the bond that we had built.
We are taught that monogamous romance equals ownership over another person’s body and decisions, and that this is the epitome of love. Love is seen as a finite resource and in order to secure our portion, we have to take possession of another person’s supply. Ownership, however, comes with a cost: the expectation that romantic partners will do nearly everything for each other, from care-taking to sex to financial support.
The downside is that possessing something is inherently haunted by the prospect of not possessing it. I would often find myself consumed with the possibility of loss before it was even on the table.
Out of curiousity, I had read the essential non-monogamy texts like The Ethical Slut and Sex At Dawn, and they made sense to me as someone who often resists “normal” ways of living.
So in my last primary partnership, I took my first real crack at a non-monogamy. I hoped that distributing my needs among a larger network of romantic partners would ease some of the heaviness I felt with just one person. My partner and I developed rules for how we would engage with each other and with others. We checked in regularly about our feelings and needs.
In the end, however, it felt like very similar to monogamy. Once again, I had devoted most of my energy to one person, only exploring the freedom of non-monogamy with the occasional casual sex partner. Once again, I expected my primary partner to meet most of my needs, and I struggled to relinquish my false sense of control over her.
Looking back, I realize that even within non-nonmonogamy, my expectations of her had been far too high. I had lost my sense of self and sacrificed valuable time and energy that I should have devoted to working on my own life. I had put distance between me and my friends, making the breakup feel incredibly lonely.
Then, last year, after explaining to a date what I wanted from life, she introduced me to the concept of solo-polyamory. I liked the idea, but I didn’t like the way “solo” stood at the fore. So, I did some more digging.
That’s when I came across relationship anarchy.
What Is Relationship Anarchy?
The term relationship anarchy was popularized by Andie Nordgren, a self-described “genderqueer relationship hacker.” Nordgren wrote a popular instructional manifesto that has continued to serve as a guide for many relationship anarchists.
Relationship anarchy is about a lot of things. It’s about resisting the tendency to hierarchize our relationships, with romance at the top and friendship below it. It’s about refusing to draw distinctions between romantic, sexual, and platonic relationships. It’s about letting relationships be what they are, and not trying to force them into given or socially acceptable models. It’s about developing loving networks of community and support.
The objective of relationship anarchy isn’t, as some mistakenly believe, to adopt an anything-goes policy, blind to how your actions impact others. Relationship anarchists do in fact make commitments, but the terms of those commitments are tailored to individual relationships. And commitments are never made in the interest of limiting another person’s autonomy.
I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should pursue relationship anarchy. It simply doesn’t work for everyone. It requires a lot of emotional work, and demands we resist everything we’ve been taught about romantic relationships—which in itself takes huge amounts of energy.
What I want is to show how taking to heart the principles of relationship anarchy, even within the context of a monogamous partnership, can help us to develop healthier relationships, more realistic expectations, and stronger networks of support.
Relationship Anarchy Lessons for Everyone
- Put yourself first. I used to believe that I needed to put my partner’s needs and wants before my own, that complete selflessness was the goal. I would take care of my partner to the detriment of my own well-being. But, in the past year, I’ve noticed that all of my relationships, romantic and otherwise, have benefited from me prioritizing my needs. When I take space to be alone and practice self-care, I have more energy to devote to my friends and my lovers.
- Be deliberate about your relationships. Historically, I’ve met people I liked and quickly put them in the friend zone, or rushed into romance. Now, I take more time to get to know people. There are folks I’m attracted to, but who I want to keep around without introducing the complications of sex and romance. And there are folks with whom I’ve gradually developed intimacy and romance. In relationship anarchy, the lines between friendship and romance are blurrier—but ironically, the decisions I’m making about those lines are more thought-out.
- Treat your friends more like lovers and your lovers more like friends. I tend to be somewhat reserved and hard to read, but with my partners I have always been abundant with affection and actions that demonstrate my care. Relationship anarchy taught me that I had been reserving that care solely for my romantic relationships. So, I started inviting my friends over and cooking them a meal, one of my favorite caretaking activities. I began to praise them more, because I genuinely love them. My friends are integral to my support network and I strive to show them the same love and care as my romantic partners. This, by the way, makes my romantic relationships even stronger—because it makes me stronger.
- Focus on compatible needs and expectations, not just chemistry. My ex and I had incredible chemistry. She was brilliant and imaginative in ways that complemented my own ideas well. But great chemistry can’t trump having incompatible needs and expectations. At the time, I wanted to spend most of my free time with her and she needed a lot more space. I wanted to be more deliberate about how we scheduled time with each other, and she needed a lot of flexibility. Our chemistry couldn’t overcome our incompatible needs. Now I strive to open lines of communication with my dates and lovers where we can talk freely about what we want and need in order to figure out if those things are compatible or if we can make reasonable compromises.
- Re-examine the “Relationship Escalator” myth. We’re taught that as time passes and we develop intimacy in our romantic relationships, we must also move towards deeper commitments. However, this compulsion can cause us to enter into relationships that we don’t want or aren’t ready for. I have lovers I only see every few weeks or months though I care about them deeply. I understand now that my relationships will take on the shape and the parameters that work without me trying to unnecessarily impose a societal script on them.
- Trust others’ intentions. In the past, when I wasn’t getting what I needed, I would start to question my partner’s intentions. I would feel they were deliberately withholding or, worse, trying to hurt me. But often the reality is that when people we care about aren’t meeting our needs, it’s because they simply don’t have the capacity to do so. As I’ve practiced building healthy, sustainable relationships and being open about my own needs, I’ve realized that trust forms in the process of negotiating boundaries, and to assume the worst of the people we care about only amplifies negativity and mistrust. Learning to trust people’s intentions has made me more able to empathize with the people I care about so I can meet them where they’re at.
- View relationships as experiences, not transactions. I used to believe that if I gave something, I should receive the equivalent in return. For instance, I might think that because I was doing a lot of the traveling or a lot of caretaking in a given week, I could expect the my partner to do more travel or caretaking the following week, or in the near future. But operating that way caused me to miss out on relationships with people where, for good reason, this might not necessarily be the case. People, myself included, aren’t always able to give equivalently, and when we can, we will. Now, instead of expecting a “return” on my relationships, I feel able to appreciate the people in my life for who they are and what they have to offer.
Even if you’re a diehard monogamist, many of these principles can strengthen not only your primary relationship but your community of friends. In a time where the political climate has left our communities fractured, resisting the tendency to isolate ourselves into small units of two is a positive step. Embracing the people who sustain us and whom we sustain in return can help us to form deeper, stronger networks of support and make life easier and more joyful in the process.
KC Clements is a queer, non-binary writer based in Brooklyn. To find more of their work, check out kcclements.com and @aminotfemme on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram.