Thoughts on Relationship Anarchy

This is for the November 2016 Carnival of Aces.

Like many people in the asexual blogosphere, I was introduced to the concept of Relationship Anarchy via The Thinking Aro (which was then called The Thinking Asexual), and traced it from there back to Andie Nordgren. At the time, I thought it was interesting and cool theory.

However, it has the classic problem which Yogi Berra describes thus: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

The theory of relationship anarchy – at least as it is described in Andre Nordgren’s manifesto which I linked above – is vague enough that it is easy to project whatever one wants to project onto it. As an aromantic asexual who isn’t interested in coupled relationships, what I like to project onto it is a refusal to consider sexual-romantic coupled relationships the most important personal relationships. However, when getting into deeper discussions on relationship anarchy, it becomes clear that people interpret it in different ways. For example, in this post, Sciatrix says:

One of the things that bugs me about “relationship anarchy” is that you just can’t devote equal amounts of emotion and time to everybody in your life. I don’t have all that much free time, honestly, and I have even less that I really want to spend socializing. There are only so many relationships I am capable of maintaining at a time, and I’m going to invest more energy into the ones that are really super important to me. And that’s okay.

Thus, Sciatrix interprets relationship anarchy as being about devoting “equal amounts of emotion and time to everybody in your life”. It’s understandable that Sciatrix rejects that, but I think just about any proponent of ‘relationship anarchy’ rejects that too because it is utterly and obviously impractical.

However, in the comments to that post, we find:

I don’t think relationship anarchy requires spending equal time with everyone- in fact, I’d question why we judge a relationship’s value by how much time we spend with it. I think relationship anarchy is more about seeing your relationships as not comparable. A relationship where I go out once a month with philosophy friends and discuss papers is fundamentally different from this other relationship where I cuddle and watch a movie once a week with a person, and they (either because of the activities, or more likely the people in them) are too different for me to compare and rank in a meaningful way- even if I spend a lot more time in and maintaining the cuddle/movie relationship.

Thus, Captain Heartless interprets relationship anarchy as being about not comparing and ranking relationships. I am not sure how that concept of relationship anarchy is useful. After all, most people who value sexual-romantic relationships about all feel that it is natural, so if you tell them ‘don’t compare/rank relationships’ they’ll say ‘of course I don’t compare/rank relationships’ and then continue to ‘naturally’ treat sexual-romantic relationships as being more important that other kinds of relationships.

Another comment on that post is:

Also, my understanding of RA is it doesn’t rank significant relationships, not not ranking relationships at all. Granted, an acquaintance I’m on good terms with is less important to me than my SOs, and a common friend is somewhere in between. I think the spirit of RA is not ranking relationships based on arbitrary rules, e.g. “My husband’s needs always come first, because marriage should be the #1 priority.” However, if you just naturally click better with one person than another and see the former as more important, that’s totally okay.

So, according to Eponine, relationship anarchy still ranks relationships – it distinguishes between ‘significant’ and non-significant relationships. Eponine herself lists three categories – significant other, common friend, and acquaintance. She says that what distinguishes relationship anarchy from mainstream approaches is that it’s not based on ‘arbitrary rules’.

See what I mean about people interpreting relationship anarchy however they want, and ending up with such different interpretations of relationship anarchy that they are not talking about the same thing?

Anyway, how does relationship anarchy work out in practice? I do not have personal experience with putting ‘relationship anarchy’ into deliberate practice, but what I’ve read about people describing their own experiences with relationship anarchy tend to be negative. The most detailed writing I have found in this vein is Rotten Zucchini’s series, including this post.

In conclusion, I find ‘relationship anarchy’ to be too vague to be useful.

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Relationship Anarchy

  1. I’ve found the main thing I’ve got out of the concept of Relationship anarchy is to let your relationships form how you and the people in them want them to form and not to form or fit the them to preconceived forms and expectations.
    But beyond that it really doesn’t offer any guidance to be useful and can potentially be counter productive to forming relationships.

    • Ironically, some of the people who promote relationship anarchy also talk quite a bit about their ‘ideal’ relationships, which would certainly be a preconceived form and expectation!

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