What is the difference between relationship anarchy and polyamory?
That’s a good question, but not an easy one, because there are many types of polyamory, and relationship anarchy is a newer term and the concepts it includes have been evolving over the past twelve(ish) years since Andie Nordgren wrote the relationship anarchy manifesto.
So first let’s define what each of these are. My definitions are a lovely chimera made of the commonly used definitions, what I found through research as a supposed standard, what I’ve most heard repeated in my experience with both communities, and what I feel fits from my own personal experiences with each.
Polyamory is the style of relationshipping that involves negotiated dynamics of having, or the possibility of having, multiple romantic and/or sexual relationships. Most people include “with the knowledge and consent of all involved”. I prefer my addition of “negotiated dynamics” at the beginning instead because the basis of polyamory is deciding with a partner, or deciding on your own and informing a partner, that you are going to potentially date multiple people at once. There is not always knowledge in that some polya folks do have DADT (don’t ask don’t tell) agreements. There is also not always consent, someone can be ethically polya with the consent of their partner in some of their dynamics and end up cheating in another dynamic due to an agreement or rule broken, but they are still practicing polyamory (although they probably aren’t doing a very good job of it). I think the point of the knowledge and consent portion is meant to rule out people who just decide one day they are polya, don’t care to inform their spouse, and run around sexing ALL the peoples behind their spouses back. FYI, that isn’t polyamory, but I think you knew that.
Relationship anarchy is the act of treating each relationship as it’s own individual dynamic, and the individuals engaged in it determining exactly how that dynamic will be shaped, while respecting their own autonomy and each others. Relationship anarchy is a more amorphous term once you get past that, likely because it is so new. Andie Nordgren wrote the original Relationship Anarchy Manifesto back around 2006, but since then as more people have adapted it, the definition has evolved and been expanded upon. It remains similar to the original though, in that most people use it to represent a few key ideas.
One key idea of relationship anarchy that varies from polyamory is that the focus of polyamory is on multiple romantic and/or sexual dynamics. While there are types of polyamory that have hierarchy between partnerships and types that do not, relationship anarchy forgoes hierarchy altogether between all sort of relationships. For a relationship anarchist, there is no strict hierarchy where friendships are less then lovers or romantic partners, which is often commonplace in polyamory. In that way, polyamory mimics the amatonormativity (“the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types,” – Elizabeth Brake) of society but simply extends it to multiple relationships. Relationship anarchy goes “fuck that noise” and either does not prioritize people at all, or does so on the basis of the dynamic in particular, and not the basis of it being a platonic, romantic, or sexual one.
Another key point in relationship anarchy is the focus on personal autonomy. Relationship anarchy highlights the individuals in the relationship deciding what the relationship will look like, and any agreements they have in it. Some relationship anarchists don’t even prescribe to the idea of agreements as a whole, and favor a way of relating that focuses on sharing what can and can’t be expected of them and if that changes, but not choosing to tie themselves down to any specific agreed upon commitment. For most though, agreements are about figuring out what they want to and can bring to the dynamic, and committing to share that until such a point as it is discussed and renegotiated if need be. This is something that is found in some polyamorous dynamics as well, but not all types of polyamory center this. In some types of polyamory, partners agree on not only what shape their relationship will take, but on the shape other relationships they each can have with other people. This idea of putting rules that may restrict the way a person can interact with and have other partners is antithetical with the practice of most relationship anarchists.
One other deviation between polyamory and relationship anarchy is the use of labels. Relationship anarchist tend to favor either not using relationship labels (titles like boyfriend/girlfriend/lovefriend, husband/wife/spouse, etc) or only using descriptive labels as opposed to prescriptive ones. Descriptive labels are ones used to describe in shorthand what the relationship is at that time. For example, nesting partner is a term that is used to mean a partner that you live with. Descriptive use of that would be to describe the partners you live with at that time as nesting partners. Prescriptive labels are ones that are meant to create structure that informs people of the place that relationship is allowed to fit in your life. For example, spouse is often a prescriptive label, because most people do not walk into marriage with an expected end date. Spouse confers a certain amount of societal privilege, implies certain things about the dynamic, and therefor is more used as a “I have given this person this specific role in my life, this is the role they have, yes” as opposed to a descriptive label of “right now this person means this to me and here is a shorthand way of conveying that.” Prescriptive labels don’t work with relationship anarchy, partly because they often effect relationships other then the one they are labeling, and partly because relationship anarchy is all about dismantling those relationship structures that prioritize people or create dynamics with implied privileges or structures. In polyamory it is not uncommon to see a hierarchy created with prescriptive titles such as primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on. Some polyamorous folk do favor descriptive over prescriptive labels though. Its more a venn diagram, with RA folks using either no labels or descriptive ones, and polya folks using prescriptive or descriptive ones, with descriptive labels being the potential overlap.
One final thing I think about when I’m considering the differences between relationship anarchy and polyamory, is something I see covered less in similar guides. Most comparisons focus on the ways relationship anarchists and polyamorists structure their relationships differently and interact within them, as I have above. There is one other core difference that I feel bears mentioning though. Polyamory is a different way of approaching romantic and/or sexual relationships. Relationship anarchy is a different way of approaching all relationships in life, but it is also a deeply political concept. Relationship anarchy is not, as many believe, just a spin off of polyamory for those who wanted even less restriction and more fluidity. RA overlaps with polyamory in many ways, but it has deep roots in political anarchism. As such, casting off relationship hierarchies and amatonormativity, and centering autonomy, are not just a product of seeking greater freedom to make tailored individual relationships. Relationship anarchy is also about rebellion against the societal institution that prioritizes certain types of connection and the traditional romantic dynamics that isolate people into nuclear families. It is about centering community and connection. It is about deconstructing to coercive relationships as a whole, and it makes no sense to hold those ideals specific to only romantic and platonic relationships and not apply them to the coercion workers, sex workers, children, marginalized communities, and others face in our society. While there are people who engage in relationship anarchy in their personal relationships and never question the overall societal structure that exploits workers, marginalizes minorities, focuses on small nuclear family units over community, glorifies capitalism, etc, it is important to remember that the roots of relationship anarchy are deeply political and it was born from anarchist concepts and still continues to embody those.
So in conclusion, there is overlap between the concepts of relationship anarchy and polyamory, and a person can in fact practice both in their life, or they could fall firmly into one category and not another. With the varying types of polyamory, some have more in common with relationship anarchy and some less. Relationship anarchy has roots in more then just a movement to have multiple romantic and/or sexual partners though, and is a structure that embraces ideals that have deep political ties to changing societal structure and bucking the current coercive systems. Polyamory also allows for hierarchy and rule based relationships in ways relationship anarchy does not. In the end it is up to the individual to decide what structures and ideologies they will adapt and explore in their own life. Hopefully this helps you in understanding each a little better and taking your next steps in that exploration.
Some resources to look into for further information: