Last week, I called my favorite flower shop in the city — a sweet Parisian-style boutique owned by French florists — to make an order for a 3-month subscription. One of my friends, who I consider part of my inner circle, has her birthday coming up in December, and I recalled a moment 2 years ago when she shared that surprise “just-because” bouquets are one of her greatest pleasures.
Gift-giving is a powerful way to share love, and I want the depth of all my connections with people to be felt through the presents I send them. I feel proud of what I’ve come up with for my three Sagittarius babies this year: gifts that show I’ve been listening to what brings them joy, what they’re struggling through, what their goals are.
Investing in those who invest in me is a stunning practice of self-love and community care. And yet, something as simple as scouring for the perfect gift is most often confined to romantic relationships. When we expect to do the most for our partners, for some reason, we often then accept doing somewhat less-than for our friends.
But since discovering the concept of relationship anarchy, I’ve been more intentional in how I demonstrate similar intensity of commitment across all of my relationships. Because every connection that helps me grow into a fuller, more authentic version of myself deserves parallel levels of care.
And especially now, at a time when our ability to share physical space with loved ones outside of our households is disrupted, don’t we all need to push a little further to feel connected?
To understand the value in and purpose of relationship anarchy, first we need to understand relationship hierarchy, which is how we’re socialized to understand who holds the most value in our lives.
Basically, relationship hierarchy comes down to family — and the idea of family can be split into two related spheres: our families of origin (those who raised us) and our newly forming family systems (romantic partners and children).
Quarantine is actually the perfect example of how American culture, including within our political system, hierarchizes relationships: The only people we’re allowed to spend time with are the ones we live with, and we’re most likely to live with people who represent a version of a nuclear family.
We’re additionally told we’re only allowed to see people from other households if those visits are “essential,” which is more or less defined as familial caregiving (like to our elderly parents or to children who live with another parent). These people are supposed to be our top priority.
Most of us don’t even question this regulation because we’re already indoctrinated into believing that the most “essential” relationships in our lives are our families.
But for many of us, when we pause to consider this, lots of questions arise! It could come up in the form of feeling shame for needing a close friend instead of a parent during quarantine, for instance. You know that this close friend is just as valuable — if not more so — than your parent is, but our system tells us that anything that doesn’t fit a narrowly defined version of “family” is not as precious or comparable a relationship.
That shame is a normalized result of systemic oppression, which can show up in shades of white supremacy, capitalism, and cisheteronormavity (or the normalizing of cis, straight experiences), among others. For example, individualism over collectivism is a white supremacist ideal. Family systems being tied to who we share financial and material resources with is a function of capitalism. Cisheteronormativity tells us that we should value monogamy and reproduction.
But people oppressed under American politics have often practiced versions of relationship anarchy. Whether out of social norms, survival necessity, or countercultural practices, they’ve rejected this built-in hierarchy. Relationship anarchy is a way to choose to do this, too — to free up living against social standards and choose what works for you.
Relationship anarchy is a term that was originally coined by Andie Nordgren to represent a philosophy that’s centered around the idea that relationships should not be contained by social rules.
In simplest terms, relationship anarchy is the practice of rejecting relational hierarchies and creating more equality (think: time, value, commitment) across relationships. It’s about challenging, both in our thinking and our actions, how society has structured relationships for us and endeavoring toward a more autonomous way of being in connection with others.
Relationship anarchy means that the boundaries of each relationship should be determined by the two people involved, not based on how the relationship is designated (like friend versus partner) or “meant” to escalate.
According to Katie Heaney at The Cut“[T]here are several core values shared by most relationship anarchists.” They are:
- Relationships are non-hierarchical. The importance of a connection, and the value you hold for other people, aren’t ranked. The commonly accepted idea that a partner, for example, holds more priority than a friend doesn’t exist in relationship anarchy. All relationships hold equal value — or have the spaciousness — to be valued outside of norms.
- Relationships are descriptionist. Heaney explains, “[T]here are no built-in prescriptions about what a [relationship] must look like.” For instance, sex with friends isn’t off the table; similarly, sexless romantic relationships aren’t problematized. What’s important is that the people in a connection design their relationship as they see fit.
- Relationships are often, though not always, non-monogamous. While not all relationship anarchists practice sharing sexual and romantic connections with more than one person, many do. The common thread here is that there isn’t unique value placed on romantic relationships that might lead to them being singular. Platonic intimacy has space here!
Essentially, relationship anarchy asks us to question how we’re taught to think about relationships — and then to blow it apart and start again.
Rejecting cultural norms, particularly in service of stronger connections amongst marginalized people, makes relationship anarchy inherently political. While it’s been watered down in mainstream media to suggest “Marriage is fine! Just also remember to meet your girlfriends for brunch!” the actual purpose of relationship anarchy is to acknowledge that the way we build relationships is governed. And it seeks to break free of the ways in which oppressive systems infiltrate our intimacy.
Relationship anarchy asks us to get in touch with our authentic, intuitive sense of how we want to explore connections and to build relationships that meet those needs. Here are all the infinite ways your relationship could be put together.
It’s hard for most folks to get on board enough with relationship anarchy to commit to it, but to me relationship anarchy feels less like a destination and more like a practice of endeavoring toward.
I’ve made some changes in my life to prioritize the joy of investing in others, and I want to continue finding ways to live my relationship anarchist values more fully. But I also acknowledge that the purest form of relationship anarchy is hard to come by.
Besides, relationship anarchy in its full form isn’t for everyone. Some people are more comfortable in monogamy, for example. Some people appreciate a hierarchy to help them prioritize folks’ needs more systematically.
But some of the practices of relationship anarchy can be useful no matter how you structure relationships because it creates space for folks to express their needs in more authentic ways.
If you find your curiosity piqued and want to take the first steps toward relationship anarchy — or even if you just want to dip your toe in to see if how it feels — here are some places to start:
- Recognize who your people are. Relationship anarchy starts with understanding which of your connections are the most important to you — both in terms of how you’re currently showing up, and in terms of relationships you want to deepen.
Ask yourself, “Who do I want to invest in?” Think of people who nurture your growth, highlight your most authentic self, and make you feel at ease, while also holding you accountable to your values. Write their names down. Just remember that we all only have so much capacity for connection. Make sure your list honors that!
- Decide on what goes into your bucket together. The relationship anarchy smorgasbord is an awesome way to start a conversation with folks about what you want your relationships to look like. Explain to the people you listed above that you’re trying to rethink how relationships show up in your life and that you want to try exploring what would be meaningful to both of you in a more intentional way.
Imagine your relationship as a bucket — one that you can put things into (and take things out of). What do you want your bucket to contain? What do you want to relieve your bucket of?
- Reallocate your resources accordingly. Now that you have a sense of who you want to connect with and what those connections need to feel fulfilling, you can revisit what you have to offer and how to redistribute those resources based on the needs of each relationship.
Who needs daily text communication, as opposed to who needs monthly FaceTime check-ins? Who is helping you with acts of service, like taking care of your children, your companion animals, or your plants to free up your time to do caregiving elsewhere? Who needs more emotional support or physical touch? Now that everyone’s needs are laid out on the table, you can more intentionally meet them.
From here, you have the opportunity to regularly check in with your connections — to reassess the commitments, to revisit your buckets — and with shared language to do so.
Remember: Relationship anarchy is a daily practice, one that you can mold to fit the needs of you and your relationships. Get creative. Practice radical honesty. See what brilliance you can come up with when you’re in the right relationship with yourself, your intuition, and your community.
Right now, while sitting in the complicated offering to practice gratitude this year, I’m thinking about how excited I am to cross over into December and to start sending out these gifts that I tried so hard to cultivate from a place of deep love and commitment.
There is a stunning feeling that comes along with spreading joy and validation to others, one that I am most certainly thankful to have the opportunity for. And moreover, I’m grateful for having stumbled upon the idea of relationship anarchy, which invites me to invest in others in ways that are aligned with my values.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.