The Great Showdown
Why People Are Passionate About The Difference Between Two Models of Non-Monogamy
Editor's Note: At NewMo we have a strong interest in so-called “alternative” sexualities and relationship modes. (To be clear, not everyone in our community is LGBTQIA, kinky, non-monogamous, etc., but many of us check a few boxes.) We’d like to document the ins and outs of these worlds in a clear, non-judgmental way that’s helpful to people who explore them.
In my own non-monogamous perambulations, I’ve noticed that the phrase “relationship anarchy” (RA) is newly prevalent. In some places, it’s so prevalent that many people who recently came to the community conflate RA with polyamory itself.
This can lead to confusion, given that there are major differences between RA and other poly philosophies, such as “hierarchical polyamory.” And many longtime non-monogamists have specific preferences (and stereotypes) about the “best” way to do it. I asked Kat Jercich to write this article because I haven’t seen a good accounting of the differences, such as they are, between relationship anarchy and hierarchical polyamory (which are sometimes viewed as two ends of a spectrum).
Humans being humans, it’s perhaps inevitable that there be an ever-increasing number of poly philosophies. And of course, polyamory itself is just one school among the strata of “consensual non-monogamies” — there are others, like swinging. If you have thoughts or want to write articles about any of this, we’re always open to ideas.
— Lydia Laurenson, editor
In the early 2000s, Swedish writer and game design product leader Andie Nordgren developed the ideas behind a type of non-monogamy called “relationship anarchy.” Relationship anarchists focus on consent, openness, and honesty. Rather than prioritizing the needs of one relationship, they stress that all relationships — including platonic, romantic, or sexual ones — should be valued equally. They often view their approach to relationships as a way to subvert imbalances of power throughout broader society.
Relationship anarchy “tries to get around the mainstream idea that you will always pick your romantic partner over your friends, or that friends are less important,” says Hadar Aviram, a professor of law at University of California, Hastings College of the Law, who has done extensive research on non-monogamy.
“Polyamory often still presents romantic sexual bonds as the most important relations in society,” writes Dr. Eleanor Wilkinson, a professor in human geography at the University of Southampton, in a chapter she contributed to a 2010 textbook titled Understanding Non-Monogamies. She argues that focusing on romantic love may “work against or temporarily divert from other forms of love — familial love, love for friends, neighbors, community, or love of the planet.”
“I would like to propose that polyamory may be more fruitful if we redefine it to include not just many lovers, but many kinds of love,” she writes.
Like other non-monogamists, relationship anarchists tend to focus on building community along with one-on-one relationships, and they are often in multiple romantic or sexual relationships at a time. However, they don’t subscribe to what many call the “relationship escalator:” the expectation that casual sex will lead to more serious dating, which could in turn lead to marriage and possibly babies. (Sidenote: Relationship anarchy also isn’t the same as non-hierarchical polyamory, which can still involve rules and some level of prioritization of romantic partners over other relationships, yet is also not the same as hierarchical polyamory.)
“Where some poly folks and [relationship anarchists] may differ is that [relationship anarchists] reject creating rules and hierarchies,” says the founder of the Vancouver Sex Positive Society, Kale Gosen, on her YouTube channel Relationship Anarchy. Those rules can “limit expectations placed on other people about how things should develop.”
Rather than enacting hard-and-fast rules for their partners’ actions, such as when sleepovers take place or what safer sex practices should look like with metamours (their partners’ other partners), relationship anarchists say they enact boundaries for themselves — focusing on autonomy rather than control.
Of course, although people can choose not to have rules for their partners, that doesn’t mean they’re unaffected by their partners’ actions. “We can still have feelings; we’re allowed to talk about them,” says Gosen. “We can tell the people in our lives how we feel about things, we just don’t maintain power to make decisions for them.”
“When I first encountered the notion of hierarchy, I had a visceral negative reaction to the idea of one person's needs and wants automatically taking precedence over another's,” says Jame, 35, an Illinois resident whom I spoke to in a non-monogamy Facebook group. (Because non-monogamy is often professionally and socially stigmatized, many respondents from Facebook groups requested partial anonymity when speaking about their lifestyles.)
Some relationship anarchists say the model allows them to resist societal expectations. Others say it enables them to resist unhealthy relationship habits. Doug, 40, a Florida resident, says that in their immediate polycule (group of connected non-monogamous individuals), “We each encourage the other to focus on our individual boundaries, wants, and needs, and then present those honestly. We are thus enabled and encouraged in our relationships to keep ourselves healthy first, then care for others when we can.”
He adds, “I think of it like the airplane oxygen mask model: ‘Put your own mask on first before helping others.’”
Practically speaking, Doug says, relationship anarchy “helps us to avoid relationship prescription, and we are encouraged to ask others when we do not know something (as opposed to assuming something of the partners, like where they'll sleep).”
Some researchers suggest that relationship anarchy is more difficult to sustain when it comes to issues that demand enormous commitment and reliability, such as child-rearing.
Aviram says that among her interviewees, even those who self-identified as relationship anarchists “typically lived in a household that involved two people. Their public face and their paperwork face was that of a couple.” This could be because “everything is set up for couples in society,” Aviram continues — a cultural phenomenon that some non-monogamists refer to as “mono-normativity.”
Criticisms and Stereotypes of Relationship Anarchy
Some critics within the polyamory community accuse relationship anarchists of using their model as an excuse to be selfish. Nancy, 48, a Californian responded via Facebook, says: “The only thing difficult about relationship anarchy is the number of anarchocapitalists using RA as a methodology to practice not caring about anyone else or how they feel.”
Liz, a 33-year-old in Illinois who practices hierarchical polyamory, says, “I feel like I’ve witnessed a lot of ‘relationship anarchists’ who behave more like relationship libertarians.” She also suggests that relationship anarchists will act like “a partner’s utterly foreseeable response to an action or boundary that they butted up against, or crossed, isn’t their responsibility, but the responsibility of their partner for how they react to it. I’ve seen it wielded as a weapon in relationships when someone didn’t get their way.”
In response to such criticisms, Cara, a 22-year-old in Michigan, suggested over Facebook that relationship anarchy “is the application of anarchist principles (anti-hierarchy, anti-authoritarianism, pro-liberation, pro-autonomy) to interpersonal relating, not a way to make your relationships endlessly customizable in whatever way you ‘choose.’”
Those who practice “hierarchical polyamory” generally refer to one relationship as a “primary” relationship. The term polyamory itself is relatively new in widespread usage — the Oxford English Dictionary dates it to the early 1990s (though there are earlier instances). Many community historians credit it to Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, who used it in a 1990 essay published in a neo-pagan magazine called Green Egg. But the concept of having a “primary partner” along with other partners is much older.
“The notion of monogamous marriage that is based on love is a relatively new one in our culture,” says Aviram; she estimates it began around the 19th century. “For many centuries, marriage was regarded as an economic proposition. [In those historic periods], people would marry to forge an economic alliance, but would have lovers on the side occupying a variety of official and non-official designations.”
These days, hierarchical polyamory can take many forms. One of the most common is a situation where a “primary” couple — sometimes linked through marriage or cohabitation — develops relationships with other people. These “secondary” relationships aren’t necessarily more casual than primary ones; they can be deep, loving, and committed. Those in the primary relationship frequently operate under a set of rules: many couples have a rule about no barrier-free sex with anyone else, for example, and/or provide “veto power” for either partner if their partner pursues someone with whom they’re uncomfortable.
Hierarchical polyamory may also involve more than a couple — triads, quads, or even larger groups. These arrangements can have a variety of rules, but they often function with the group acting as a “primary” and agreeing upon a set of rules.
Liz says hierarchical polyamory appeals to her because it makes expectations clear.
“As an anxious person, I dislike ambiguity, and appreciate when there’s more clarity in dating. For example, when my boyfriend asked me to be his girlfriend, we had a short conversation about what that entailed for each of us,” she says.
Interestingly, although many relationship anarchists say that RA is different from hierarchical poly because it frees them from the “relationship escalator,” Liz says that hierarchical polyamory allows her to feel free from it too: “I don’t expect someone to come into a relationship and immediately commit to cohabitating, marriage, and the like.”
Amanda from Indiana, 33, who spoke to me over Facebook, says transitioning to hierarchical polyamory after being in an unfaithful monogamous relationship helps her to feel more trusting.
“I like having the freedom to get attention when I feel like I want or need it,” she says, although she struggles when “my primary’s other [partner] either doesn’t know how, or just doesn’t respect, that I am her primary — and that in exponentially difficult situations, I do come first.”
She also enjoys the flexibility to “pass” as a monogamous couple when she needs to. “The aspect that I can have a traditional stance in front of my young children has been incredibly helpful,” she says. “They only know my primary and won’t meet any of the men she and I see.”
Liz does see the reasons some relationship anarchists object to hierarchy: she says that “it was an adjustment to come to terms with being a secondary to my partner’s other relationship. Decisions in their relationship, such as cohabitation, would affect me, but I have less of a say in those decisions.”
Criticisms and Stereotypes of Hierarchical Polyamory
Critics of hierarchical polyamory say that it can be unfair to subject others to rules they themselves haven’t agreed upon, or that hierarchical polyamorous couples enjoy privileges that others don’t.
“I think hierarchical polyamory is inherently unethical, as it takes time and attention away from other partners based purely on a constructed system. I think the only way to be ethically non-monogamous is to have each partner have a fair amount of time, attention, and activities together,” says Tyler Rohm, a 26-year-old relationship anarchist in Illinois.
Others even suggest that hierarchical polyamorists are clinging to aspects of monogamy.
“I tried to open up two formerly monogamous relationships using hierarchical polyamorous ‘rules,’” says Nancy, one of the aforementioned relationship anarchists. “Both were unmitigated disasters. I prefer not to relate with anyone who is practicing hierarchy, unless they have an explicit commitment to non-coercion in their relationships. I think it's natural for people to try to keep the parts of monogamy that make them feel comfortable, and that these are the parts of monogamy that will hurt third parties.”
Jen Arter, a researcher associated with San Francisco State University who has interviewed polyamorous people about metamours, says there’s also a stereotype among relationship anarchists that “hierarchical people impose order for a false sense of security, and leave no room for flexibility.”
How Different Are These Two Models In Reality?
“One thing I found really fascinating [in my research] is that there are contingents on both sides that judge each other pretty harshly, but in fact what they’re doing in practice is not that different,” says Arter. “People have priorities, and they make decisions based on their priorities, and sometimes priorities change. And that’s just part of being human.”
“One thing I found really fascinating [in my research] is that there are contingents on both sides that judge each other pretty harshly, but in fact what they’re doing in practice is not that different.”
— Jen Arter, researcher at SF State University
Ultimately, Aviram, the law professor, says that although hierarchical polyamory, relationship anarchy, and other models are good guidelines to draw from, it’s important to remember that people and circumstances change.
“People’s hearts will do things that people’s hearts do. All the talking about possible hurdles when everything is fine is not going to get you around the hoops that your lizard brain is going to jump through when things actually hit an obstacle,” she says. “Even though you agreed about a particular set of expectations, maybe the person since then has formed a different set of expectations. Then what are you going to do? [Take them to court and] find them in breach of contract?”
“The most important thing is not what the person calls the relationship, but how they treat other people,” she says.
This was written by Kat Jercich, a queer, non-binary writer, and editor living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Tenderly, The Advocate, Rewire.News, and Cosmo, among others. Find her on Twitter at @KJercich.
This article was edited by Lydia Laurenson. It was not fact-checked. There's more about our transparency process at our page about truth and transparency at The New Modality.