Like most things in life, my practice of non-monogamy is constantly evolving. From those first tentative steps into dating more than one person simultaneously to learning how to work through jealousy the hard way, it seems there's always a new hurdle to cross.
And, so, last year I found myself at yet another crossroads in my pursuit to perfect my polyamory. I had just ended my first primary partnership, a beautiful but challenging relationship that had left my heart tender and raw. There were many lessons from that relationship, but most of them took shape in hindsight upon measured reflection.
What I realized was that, while that relationship had been a good first crack at a non-monogamous partnership, I had fallen into many of the same patterns that had caused me to experiment with non-monogamy in the first place. I had relied on her to meet most if not all of my needs. I had failed to open my heart to other people outside of our unit. And, once again, I had lost my sense of self in the course of that relationship.
I knew that I needed to figure out something different, and I was slowly gathering up pieces of what that might look like. I needed to maintain my autonomy and be intentional about taking care of myself. I needed to relinquish my desire to control my partners’ and dates’ behaviors for the sake of my own comfort. I needed to learn how to share my love abundantly in all of my relationships, platonic, sexual, or otherwise.
But, it wasn't until I had a conversation with a date that these disparate desires concretized into something more like a roadmap for me. We were both newly out of relationships and were seeking ways to be more flexible and more autonomous. They told me they thought of themselves as being “solo-poly,” that they were their own primary partner.
The thought resonated, but I didn't like that the word “solo” stood at the fore. The life I was imagining for myself involved a vast, intimate community of friends and lovers. It didn't look like me facing the world alone.
So, I did some more digging. That's when I came across relationship anarchy.
You might be rolling your eyes right now, or you might be nodding along with me. Earlier this year, relationship anarchy was the subject of a buzz worthy article on VICE which asked the question: Is Relationship Anarchy the Future of Polyamory. Its popularity has grown recently, and it can feel sometimes like it’s just the latest competitor in the “who can do non-monogamy best" Olympics.
In order to dispel some of the skepticism you might have, let's clarify what exactly relationship anarchy is. The term was coined by self-described “genderqueer relationship hacker” Andie Nordgren, whose 2006 instructional manual continues to serve as a guide for many relationship anarchists. The basics of it are fairly simple. Relationship anarchists don’t allow outside rules or social norms to dictate how we relate to the people in our lives. We don’t deliberately hierarchize our relationships whether they are platonic, romantic, sexual, or otherwise. We believe in letting relationships take their course without trying to impose structure on them.
And, no. RA is not an excuse to shirk commitments to others. Ideally, it’s about being very intentional in how we relate with others, tailoring our unique commitments to each individual in our lives.
In the time since I started living this way, I’ve learned a lot, and I'm here to impart some of that wisdom on the Multiamory community. My intent is not to preach the gospel of relationship anarchy or to get you to convert; it's just not the right course for everyone. Rather, I feel that many of the things I've learned can be useful for people of any relationship lifestyle, non-monogamous or not.
That said, let’s dig in:
There are as many different ways of being intimate as there are people in the world.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the idea our own personal way of being intimate is how everyone in our lives should be intimate with us. For me, intimacy often involves time spent together and mutual caretaking. For someone else, it might mean giving one another affirmations or texting regularly. And, for someone else it could look completely different. People form bonds with one another in many ways and we owe each person in our lives the trust that their way of connecting with us is intentional and true.
The relationship escalator has a forceful gravitational pull, but you don't have to get sucked in. We’ve all been taught that if we enter into a relationship with someone and spend more time with them, we must increase our commitment to that person and intensify the relationship. This is what many non-monogamous people call the “relationship escalator,” and it can be a challenge not to get drawn in by it. It’s important to remember that our relationships are fluid and they will take the shape they need to without imposing outside norms on them.
Friends give us just as much life as our lovers, and we should treat them that way. I used to lean heavily on my romantic partners for support, and I used to reserve certain types of care for only them. However, in blurring the boundaries between my romantic and platonic relationships, I’ve realized just how much I love my friends and want to take care of them. To me, this looks like cooking dinner for them, giving them affirmations, and being available for them when they’re going through rough times. I realized from doing this just how ridiculous it was for me to withhold so much of my love from the people I’m closest to. Being more intimate with my friends has strengthened my bonds with them and expanded the network of support available to me when I’m in need.
Conversations about commitment shouldn't happen once, they should be ongoing. It’s crucial to any good relationship to be communicative about what our needs and expectations are. But, just because you or the person you’re building a relationship with has one set of needs and expectations at a given time doesn’t mean that those needs will always be the same. It’s always a good idea to check in with our friends and dates regularly to see where they’re at and what they need. Expecting that someone’s needs won’t change over time means unnecessarily imposing a structure on them and on ourselves that we may not consent to and may not be capable of living up to.
Be honest with yourself about your needs and your capacity. Sometimes you meet someone, the sparks fly, and you want to give them everything. Sometimes we make a small commitment like just hanging out with another person, and we don’t want to let them down. But, it’s important to be honest with ourselves about how much we are actually capable of giving and how much we truly want to give. If we overextend ourselves or commit to something that’s not sustainable or not good for ourselves at a particular moment, it can put a strain on our relationships and on our own well-being. Being honest with ourselves can be hard, especially when all of those happy, endorphin inducing feelings are involved, but it will ultimately spare a lot of heartbreak and frustration.
Allow for the possibility that your relationships may evolve a lot over time. An electric, physical connection with someone may eventually fizzle out. A gradual, slow-building relationship with someone might turn into a powerful, loving bond. The only thing that seems to be guaranteed in this life is change, and that includes the evolution of our relationships. The key is to remain present with our relationships and to not dwell on how things were in the past or how they might be in the future. Take a moment to focus on what it is you love about your bond with another person right here, right now.
Stop, breathe, be deliberate about with whom and how you form relationships. I used to be the person who would either friend-zone someone immediately or jump recklessly, whole-heartedly head-first into a romantic relationship. But, learning about another person’s personality, habits, and our compatibility with them takes time. Now, I strive to be deliberate about how I relate with people and give myself the time to get to know them. There are some people who I find wildly attractive, but who I also want to keep around without introducing the complications that sex and romance can bring up. There are others whose friendship begins to evolve into something different as we realize we “click.” Being deliberate can help to avoid becoming emotionally attached to someone with whom we simply aren’t compatible.
People are experiences, not transactions. I used to operate under the assumption that for everything I gave in a relationship I should expect something equivalent in return. Of course, it’s great when our relationships feel balanced, but to expect that giving our time or energy to someone should come with a reward belies a selfishness of our own motivations. When we focus on the experiences we have with the people we care for and what they have to offer us of their own accord, we can free ourselves from the notion that our relationships are solely transactional and learn to embrace the people we care about simply for who they are.
Be generous with yourself; it's okay to make mistakes! Nobody is perfect, and we’re all trying to slosh through this mucky world as best we can. Remind yourself that it’s okay to make mistakes, to mess up, and, yes, even to hurt someone as long as we are open to doing what it takes to be accountable to them. Non-monogamy isn’t about being the best, it’s about figuring out the unique and beautiful ways we build relationships with others. Given time and practice, you’ll get better at knowing what works for you. In the meanwhile, give yourself the benefit of the doubt, and the humanity to know that it’s okay to err.
KC Clements is a queer, non-binary writer based in Brooklyn, NY. You can follow their work at www.kcclements.com or on Twittter, Instagram, and Tumblr @aminotfemme.