By Miriam Levitin
I can’t even count the number of times in the past few years that somebody has asked me if I am dating anyone, and this question never fails to frustrate me. I am first and foremost an individual; there is so much more to who I am and how I live my life than anyone with whom I might be romantically involved. Second, I am troubled by this prioritization of romance, and I want to challenge how we think about relationships in our society.
We engage in all types of relationships that add meaning to our lives be they romantic, platonic, physical, sexual, caregiving, emotional, financial, social, collaborative, or professional. However, our culture expects that we pair up with one other person to share resources, and that this relationship – which should include cohabitating, financial dependence, care, sex, parenting, and inheritance – be superior to all others.
Our capitalistic society depends on scarcity. Yet, what if love and care were abundant and even infinite? What if love and resources shared with one person didn’t diminish those for another?
While studies show that love has a universal, biological basis, marriage and normative relationship structures are a relatively new, cultural construction. The state controls the institution of marriage – how it is defined and who has access, how it is recognized and endorsed, which rights and duties come along with it, and whether and when divorce and remarriage are possible. Historically, this has led to the state wielding marriage as a method of discrimination – including preventing interracial and homosexual unions, refusing to recognize marital rape, and facilitating forced child marriage.
State-recognized marriage places married couples above unmarried couples in similar relationships, people in sexual relationships above those in other types of relationships, and couples above singles and polyamorists. It situates sexual partnership as the ultimate goal and assumed norm through an oppressive patriarchal framework. Benefits are granted solely based on the marital agreement without accounting for the actual practice of the relationship.
When I learned about relationship anarchy (RA), it resonated deeply. The term is somewhat misleading – it does not mean eradicating all relationships; rather, each relationship is defined individually. It involves rejecting societal pressures to build relationships that are satisfying for all people involved rather than simply following a script, and it refuses socially imposed hierarchies.
Here are the points of Andie Nordgren’s Relationship Anarchist Manifesto, which has been translated from Swedish into English:
“Love is abundant, and every relationship is unique” – questioning that love is a limited resource restricted to a couple; each relationship is independent and can be cherished equally.
“Love and respect instead of entitlement” – respecting others’ independence and autonomy; having feelings for someone or sharing a history does not entitle you to command them to follow what is considered “normal” in a relationship.
“Find your core set of relationship values” – how do you want to be treated, what are your basic boundaries and expectations, and how do you want your relationships to work?
“Heterosexism is rampant and out there, but don’t let fear lead you” – finding ways to cope within as well as counter a powerful normative system; not letting fear drive relationships.
“Build for the lovely unexpected” – engaging with others based on want instead of duties and demands.
“Fake it till you make it” – forgiving yourself for sometimes succumbing to normative pressures; envisioning how you would like your life to look; creating guidelines and sticking to them; seeking support from likeminded others.
“Trust is better” – trusting that others do not wish you harm; trusting without constant validation; supporting someone’s need to withdraw when they are low on energy.
“Change through communication” – communication is at the center of radical relationships, not just a reaction to arising “problems”; we are accustomed to avoiding speaking our true thoughts and feelings, so we must ask and be explicit.
“Customize your commitments” – clearly defining commitments within each individual relationship; may or may not be monogamous.
Empathy, communication, and consent are the guiding principles of RA. It means believing that traditional romantic love and partnership do not have to be the top of the pyramid; in fact, our relationships need not be hierarchal at all.
If I am in a relationship that has heternormative aspects, it is what I want in that context and we have agreed on those terms – not because it’s what I am supposed to want. If I ever get married, it will be a conscious choice for deliberate reasons – not because it’s what society tells me should be the next step in a serious romantic partnership.
Many of my past relationships of all types have fallen apart when unspoken expectations were not met; for example, a longtime best friend expecting to always be prioritized above new friends or a romantic partner expecting around-the-clock emotional support.
How can something so vast and complex – human relationships – possibly fit into one box?
What if we consistently valued all of our bonds, wove a tapestry of connections, and built strengthened networks?
These ideas may seem radical, but I believe that we can all benefit from bringing more open communication and value into all of our relationships. RA is not equivalent to fearing commitment; instead, it is about making intentional, strong commitments that work for everyone involved. It is about freeing yourself from the idea that love is only valid if it meets certain expectations.
Rather than automatically privileging one relationship type, please ask me about all of the connections that are currently enriching my life – including my most primary relationship, which will always be with myself. If we gave the same time, energy, empathy, and value to ourselves as we give away, our self-sufficiency would only enable us to do greater things and be open to more mature, thoughtful, meaningful relationships with others.