Tag Archives: Relationship Anarchy

Consent-Based Relationships

As part of this year’s Beyond the Love polyamory conference, I gave a presentation on relationship anarchy. Most of the content has already appeared on the blog in my previous posts about relationship anarchy, and it drew heavily from my posts about rules and decision-making.

The presentation closed with a discussion of how anarchic relationships actually work in practice. The main idea is that anarchic relationships are completely consent-based, down to the smallest details. This is how I visualize it:
anarchic relationships

As you can see, the idea is that “a relationship” consists of the activities that both people genuinely want to engage in. Anything that I want to do that you don’t want to do, we don’t do. I either do that with someone else who consents, I do it alone, or I just don’t do it.

This can sound somewhat harsh, but in practice it isn’t that far from what most people believe. What I want to do is infinitely changeable. The fact that a partner wants to do something can easily move something into the “I want to do that” category. There are many things I do with my current partners that wouldn’t be enjoyable without them. Just knowing that something would help a partner to be happy is often all the motivation I need to do it. But sometimes it isn’t, and that’s ok too. And that’s the key difference in a consent-based relationship. When your relationship is based on consent, you will affirm and support a partner’s decision to say “no” to you.

I don’t actually know too many people who disagree with this outlook. But I know a LOT of people who will get angry at a partner for not doing what they want. My theory is that the anger is inspired by the fact that their happiness is not a sufficient motivating factor. I also think that people are very good at fooling themselves into believing that their partner is acting free of coercion, when really their partner is just doing what they want to avoid a fight or other negative consequences. It’s easy to say “I’m angry because you wouldn’t come with me to my cousin’s wedding.” It’s more complicated to say “I’m upset because my happiness wasn’t enough to motivate you to want to come to the wedding.” In the former, the solution is easy – just go to the wedding! With the latter, there is no clear solution, and you may just need to adjust your future expectations to reflect the reality of the situation.

Despite that, however, I think it’s a good idea to affirm the general idea that a consent-based relationship involves only activities that both parties genuinely want to do. If you find yourself doing things that you don’t actually want to do, it’s worth thinking about why you’re doing them. If fear of consequences imposed by your partner is motivating you, it may be a sign that there is a problem in your relationship.

It is my firm belief that all ethical relationships are consent-based. Coercing a partner into doing what you want is never an ethical thing to do. Just as consent is the foundation of sexual ethics, consent is also the foundation of relationship ethics. It forms the base on which all other relationship ethics are derived. Relationship anarchy is about ensuring the maximum freedom for everyone, and that starts with respecting everyone’s consent.


Should We Make Rules?

Last week, I posted about Why We Make Rules, the gist of which was that making formal commitments (in the form of agreeing to rules) adds a layer of psychological pressure to stick to the commitment. Doing so is useful only when we don’t trust the in-the-moment judgment of either ourselves or our partner(s).

To my surprise, a number of people (online and off) took this as an endorsement of rules. I was cited in a post by Rose at 50love.org entitled “In Defense of Rules.” Franklin Veaux, in response to my post, saw the value in making self-imposed rules, but talked about the danger of partners making and/or enforcing rules for each other:

One of the things that came up on that hashtag again and again, though, was the idea that abusers can gain power over their victims by making their victims doubt their own judgment. “You can’t be trusted.” “You don’t make good decisions.” “You mess things up.” “You have poor judgment.” “I have to make decisions for you or you’ll screw up.” “You’ll hurt me if I give you a chance.” I saw dozens of variations on this theme all through the hashtag. And it got me to thinking.

“I will limit my behavior in this way because I know my in-the-moment decision skills are a bit crap” can be a reasonable approach to healthy boundary-setting. But I see the potential for abuse when it becomes “I want this rule because your decision-making skills are crap; you can’t be trusted to keep your commitments.”

I completely agree, and, in fact, thought this was implicit in my original post. I can’t imagine going to a partner and saying “we need this rule because your judgment sucks.” Or rather, I can imagine someone saying that privately, but not really admitting it publicly. So I was very surprised to see people using this idea as some sort of justification for partners making rules in relationships. To me, if it becomes necessary for me to say to a partner “I can’t trust you to make good decisions,” it’s time to end the relationship.

Franklin’s commenter Shelly made an important point about the difference between making rules and setting expectations:

In my experience, there isn’t much of a difference until someone actually breaks or challenges the rule. Then the difference is kind of huge. When you break a rule, you betray the other person or the relationship. In the aftermath, there is a clear moral victor, and there is a clear power differential. The “thumb on the scale,” the “just in case,” I believe speaks to this power differential. In case of emergency, let’s be really really clear who is wrong. In other words when you do something hurtful or disruptive, I need shame on my side in order to bring you back.

I believe that people who fight for rules instinctively feel a need to have this this power differential in place, and I expect it comes from a sense of personal powerlessness in most cases. Unfortunately, I agree that this kind of power differential, combined with shame, creates a fertile ground for abuse. However, in a “consequence”-based relationship, there is still a fundamental respect for the other person’s right and ability to make their own decisions. Even if those decisions are shitty or hurtful.

This really gets to the heart of the matter to me. Informing someone of the consequences for their behavior assumes that they are going to make their own decisions, using their own judgment. Informing them of the consequences just means that you’re giving them relevant information to make their decision. There is no moral judgment or condemnation, no matter what they choose, so long as they are willing to accept the consequences.

Rules are different. Rules set a required course of behavior, and any deviation from that behavior is considered “wrong.” As Shelly said, a rule-breaker has committed a betrayal, and there is a clear moral high ground.

Rose submits that rules are useful for two reasons:

  • “they give each party an opportunity to communicate honestly about fears, expectations, past experiences, and other factors of real life that affect the functioning of relationships”
  • “negotiating agreements with new and existing partners allows us to establish trust in one another.”

Certainly, if the alternative to making rules is to remain silent, then those are important functions of rules. Thankfully, though, that is not the case. The alternative to rules that I (and, to my understanding, Franklin) advocate is the process of expectation-setting, which accomplishes both goals without the attendant issues inherent in making rules.

Setting expectation involves simply communicating your needs, what you expect to do, and what you expect your partner to do in any given situation. This can also include things that you expect to do if your expectations are not met. This way, each party has an opportunity to talk about “fears, expectations, past experiences, and other factors of real life,” but doesn’t need to put any pressure on the other party.

It also gives partners an opportunity to develop trust. When there are no rules, partners are free to behave however they like. It gives partners a real chance to see how each will behave in the absence of any control measures (but still aware of how their actions will likely affect each other). Trust is then build when partners gradually learn that they genuinely want to treat each other well (or they learn the opposite and break up).

Rules can be useful if we make the decision to create them for our own behavior. As Franklin put it, “having my rational self place a restriction on my future, irrational self is a sensible, prudent thing to do.” But rules can be harmful when we try to control our partners’ behavior for our own benefit. Expectation-setting can create all of the benefits of rules without the attendant problems, and is a much better alternative.

Empowering Love

When you love someone, what does that mean to you? When I previously wrote about this topic, I defined it this way:

I define love as the mental state by which another person’s happiness becomes linked to your own such that changes in their happiness cause corresponding changes in your happiness. I make no distinction between romantic love and any other type of love. A person can love a romantic partner, a family member, a dog, or all of humanity (though I wouldn’t recommend it). When you love someone, their happiness makes you happy. It’s in your self-interest to help them be happy in any way that you can.

DO-YOU-LIKE-MELimerence (otherwise known as infatuation) is defined as “an involuntary potentially inspiring state of adoration and attachment to a limerent object involving intrusive and obsessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors from euphoria to despair, contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation.” Limerence is inherently selfish, being all about what you want, regardless of what the object of your limerence wants.

It’s easy to see how love and limerence can come into conflict. Conflict is only avoidable if all parties experience the exact same amount of limerence. In that situation, all parties will obsess over each other in a mutually reinforcing cycle of euphoria. This is pretty much the textbook definition of New Relationship Energy. Ideally, all parties in a relationship start out at equal levels of love and limerence, then over time, love grows and limerence fades.

But what happens when parties experience substantially differing amounts of limerence? If this happens early on in a relationship, the less limerent party(-ies) can get creeped out, and in extreme cases, this sort of thing can lead to boundary pushing or even stalking. In less extreme circumstances, the situation can be handled by clear boundary-setting by the less limerent partner(s), and respecting of those boundaries by the more limerent partner(s).

This can also happen in more established relationships, where both parties love one another, but one experiences more limerence than the other. It can often lead to intense feelings on the part of the more limerent partner of jealousy, possessiveness, and desperation for a partner’s affections, time, or attention. The less limerent partner can often feel intense pressure to give reluctant attention, to hide their feelings, and act as though their feelings match their partner’s. The situation is also exacerbated by societal narratives that tell us that if something is “true love,” the intense limerent feelings should last forever, and if they fade, that means there is something wrong with us or our relationships.

The solution generally starts with developing an appreciation for Old Relationship Energy (ORE). While NRE is flashy and fun, ORE is safe, comfortable, and for a lot of people, more rewarding. Strong limerence is often accompanied by intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and feelings of despair. It can be intoxicating for a while, but if sustained, it can cause all sorts of problems. In healthy relationships, limerence will fade with time. This is a good thing. Learn to appreciate it.

Love as Empowerment

"If you love someone, set them free. If they fly away, they were never yours to begin with. If they come back, be grateful and sweet and happy they are near you, and recognize that they can fly away any time, so just don't be an asshole, okay?" — Edward Martin (quoted in More Than Two)

“If you love someone, set them free. If they fly away, they were never yours to begin with. If they come back, be grateful and sweet and happy they are near you, and recognize that they can fly away any time, so just don’t be an asshole, okay?” — Edward Martin (as quoted in More Than Two)

The other way that I’ve found to managing mismatched limerence is to develop what I call empowering love. Empowering love is a way of loving another person such that we stop wanting to limit them, even if it means we don’t get what we want. Empowering love means that we want our loved one to pursue their happiness wherever it leads them, even if it leads them away from ourselves. Empowering love turns our limerence on its head, causing us to only value the enthusiastic attention of our partners. Empowering love is key component of consent culture, and is one of the driving forces behind relationship anarchy.

Empowering love changes the focus of our feelings. When we love someone in an empowering way, our love stops being about what we want, and it becomes about what our partners want. It’s also scary, because it requires an acknowledgment that our partners might leave us, and there is nothing we can do about that. But that’s always true, whether we want to believe it or not.

Empowering love is the opposite of possessiveness. Where possessive feelings encourage us to hold tight to our partners and nurture a sense of ownership, empowering love encourages us to free our partners and trust in their decisions. Better to lose an empowered partner than to keep a partner as a possession.

Love doesn’t have to mean limits. Love can mean empowerment.

Atlanta Poly Weekend was Awesome, and you Should All Go Next Year


[UPDATE: I am no longer supporting Atlanta Poly Weekend because they support abusers and scapegoat their victims]

Atlanta Poly Weekend was this past weekend (June 6-8, 2014), and it was an awesome experience for the Living Within Reason crew. It was a 28-hour round trip drive, but totally worth it, and we’re definitely planning on going again next year.

We left from South Jersey on Thursday evening. Jessie, Gina, and I picked up our friend Miri (the amazing author of Brute Reason) after a few Bolt Bus-related difficulties, and started the 14-hour drive to Atlanta. Gina & I switched off driving, and managed to get there by 10am. Thankfully, our room was ready (check-in was supposed to be at 3pm) and we all went upstairs to take a nap.

Click to Preorder!

Click to Preorder!

I made sure to be up by 12:30pm for Franklin Veaux’s and Eve Rickert’s workshop on creating a culture of consent. It was a great workshop, mostly consisting of a guided discussion about what a culture of consent would look like, and how to create a culture of consent in our spaces. Franklin and Eve have a lot of credibility on this issue due to their well-established public advocacy, as well as their new book More Than Two, which was available at the conference. I picked up a copy, and I’m excited to see what’s in it. Highlights from the consent culture discussion:

ConsentCultre Storify

Next up was my workshop on skeptical monogamy: good reasons to be monogamous. The workshop was based on my linked blog post, but included a much more in-depth discussion on how to apply skepticism in our relationships, and how that fits with concepts like love, trust, and rational decision-making. I had a lively and enthusiastic audience, and I really enjoyed hosting the discussion. Miri tweeted a few highlights:


After my workshop, we decided it was dinner time, and had some delicious cheeseburgers at a place called Farm Burger. Good stuff. Then we came back, and got ready for our burlesque performance. Our troupe, Bust & Trunks Burlesque (joined by local performer Candi LeCouer) put on a 45-minute show doing a few of our Doctor Who numbers, as well as some Stepford Wives and Labyrinth. Candi did an amazing Maleficent number. The crowd was great. People were enthusiastic, but respectful, and everyone had a good time. The rest of the evening was spent socializing, playing Cards Against Humanity, and getting to know the other attendees.

Saturday morning, Gina led a burlesque 101 workshop. I caught the latter half, which was a fun time for everyone. People learned a few moves, and we discussed our philosophy about how to do burlesque in an empowering way, consistent with the idea of consent culture and sexpositivity. Sadly, it meant we had to miss a workshop by the always-excellent Sterling Bates on personality types and relationships, but we’d attended it last year and was able to interrogate him about it later.

The next workshop we attended was The Five Love Languages for Poly by Joreth Innkeeper. I absolutely loved this workshop. Joreth has clearly done this before, as her presentation was professional, well-organized, and informative. The Five Love Languages are usually a mixed bag. While the concept is great, the original author is coming from a conservative, Christian, monogamous perspective, and it shows in her work. Joreth was able to extract the key concepts and present them in a more skeptic-friendly and poly-friendly way. She also went a little deeper, and broke each love language down into separate dialects. I’m extremely glad I caught her presentation. Small sample of Twitter highlights below. See the full list on Storify:

Five Love Languages

Next up (after a quick Starbucks run with some excellent new friends) was the charity auction for Lost N Found Youth. Gina donated a number of her drawings, which all sold! One even went for $45! She’s officially an artist! She also bought a cool 3D abstract art piece which will be hanging on one of our walls soon.

Following the auction, I attended the Breaking Up Poly panel, hosted by Joreth Innkeeper and Sterling Bates. Joreth and Sterling are two of my favorite people (they’re going to hang out with us when we go to Disney! Woo!), so I knew I had to attend this one. The presentation was Joreth’s usual excellent quality, and it gave a lot of helpful suggestions. The idea was that bad breakups are bad for the community, and often people break up just because they aren’t compatible as lovers, not because either party is toxic or abusive (though they gave the caveat that their advice was not meant to be followed in abusive situations). They gave a lot of useful suggestions regarding how to break up with someone in a compassionate and respectful way, which lays the groundwork for continuing a relationship as friend, or at the very least, not enemies. Highlights (see Storify for more):

Breaking up Poly Tweets

After dinner at the local Mexican restaurant, it was time for my presentation on Relationship Anarchy and the Spectrum of Relationship Control. I was nervous about this one, because relationship anarchy can be a controversial position, and it’s sometimes difficult to talk about the negative implications of relationship rules without offending people. Also, my visual aides didn’t really work, so I’ll be preparing something else next time I do this workshop. The reactions was largely positive, however, and I think people got a lot out of it, especially for a concept that many people probably hadn’t encountered previously. Twitter highlights:

Relationship Anarchy Tweets

Afterward, Gina taught a workshop on Costuming for Burlesque (mostly pastie-making), then there was a dance party in the main panel room. Good stuff! Unfortunately, there was an incident where the same creepy male attendee approached both Jessie and Gina with crude, objectifying, sexual propositions (in Jessie’s case, it was before he even introduced himself). Jessie reported him to the conference organizers, who took appropriate action. While a warning probably would have been enough, unfortunately, the offender (and his partner), rather than express understanding and contrition, attempted to escalate the situation, resulting in a future attendance ban. Situations like this are always regrettable, but the APW staff handled it beautifully, and we all feel safe attending in the future. Aside from that incident, the dance party was a great time. I didn’t get to bed until after 3am!

Sunday morning, given the 14-hour drive ahead of us, we were anxious to get on the road. However, we couldn’t leave before Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert’s discussion on putting the ethics in ethical non-monogamy. The polyamory community lays claim to the title “ethical non monogamy.” If we’re going to do so, argue Franklin and Eve, we have a responsibility to create a community where ethics are defined an enforced. More Than Two (available in September) is primarily about ethics in the polyamory community, and Franklin and Eve led a discussion on how to create ethical communities, and what kind of ethics we need in our spaces. Twitter highlights:

Relationship Ethics tweets

Afterward, we said our goodbyes to all the new friends we made, and the old friends that we got to see for the second time, and made the brutal 14-hour drive home (complete with horrible traffic jam)! However, despite the drive, the experience was definitely worth it, and we are definitely planning to attend next year.

Relationship Anarchy and a Culture of Consent

Over the past few months, I’ve become much more comfortable identifying as a relationship anarchist. For those who missed my last post on the topic, relationship anarchy is a relationship style that abandons the concepts of having rules or obligations. Basically, my relationship philosophy is that everyone should do whatever they want as much of the time as possible.

When I tell this to people, the most common response is something along the lines of “that sounds awful!” Not necessarily that it *is* awful, but just the phrasing tends to jar people. The idea that people should do whatever they want seems completely foreign and borderline abhorrent to a very large number of people.

I got into an argument on Facebook the other day about whether it’s rude to be using your smartphone while you’re out with someone socially. My policy is that social interactions should be entirely consensual, so if Person A longer wants to engage with Person B, they should stop engaging and do what they want (my friend Miri has a similar view). This is apparently a hugely controversial position. People seemed to view a social invitation as a form of contract, whereby if Person A agrees to spend time with Person B socially, they’ve promised to pay attention to Person B for the duration of the event. If Person A stops being interested in paying attention to Person B, then (the argument goes) Person A should suggest a conversation topic or activity that will allow them to continue paying attention to Person B. The other seemingly acceptable solution was for Person A to tell Person B that they are no longer interested in the conversation, giving Person B an opportunity to suggest a more interesting conversation topic or activity.

The problem with both of those solutions is that it creates an obligation on the part of Person A to continue paying attention to Person B, even though Person A doesn’t want to do so. These solutions only make sense if the goal is to continue the social interaction. People were completely opposed to the idea that simply ending the social interaction (without additional steps), either temporarily or completely, was an acceptable option.

One of the reasons why people are so threatened by the idea of other people doing what they want is that we don’t live in a culture of consent:

A consent culture is one in which the prevailing narrative of sex–in fact, of human interaction–is centered around mutual consent. It is a culture with an abhorrence of forcing anyone into anything, a respect for the absolute necessity of bodily autonomy, a culture that believes that a person is always the best judge of their own wants and needs.

Consent culture is meant as a rejection of rape culture, but it covers so much more than rape prevention. Cliff Pervocracy advocates:

I don’t want to limit it to sex. A consent culture is one in which mutual consent is part of social life as well. Don’t want to talk to someone? You don’t have to. Don’t want a hug? That’s okay, no hug then. Don’t want to try the fish? That’s fine. (As someone with weird food aversions, I have a special hatred for “just taste a little!”) Don’t want to be tickled or noogied? Then it’s not funny to chase you down and do it anyway.

This is the part that tends to give people the most trouble. Boundary-pushing is shockingly acceptable in our culture, as are “etiquette rules,” (cell phone use being just one example) that encourage people to do things that they don’t want to do for the sake of meeting other people’s expectations.

Relationship anarchy, at least in theory, does away with all of that. When there are no rules or preexisting structures, and everyone is encouraged to do what they want, then nobody is pressured into doing anything. RA is, of course, not a panacea. Communicating desires and/or expectations (hugely important things to do!) can still often be interpreted as the application of social pressure to meet such desires or expectations,* so even people who claim to have no rules should take special care that they aren’t created de facto relationship rules, and that all parties understand that there’s a difference between communicating a desire and insisting (or even asking) a partner to meet that desire.

The poly community likes to endlessly debate about the appropriateness of partners having rules and making agreements. My view is that having any sort of control over one another’s choices is contrary to the goal of building a culture of consent (important: that doesn’t mean that there’s no good reason to do it). In a culture of consent, people would be encourage to do whatever they want in relationships. That doesn’t mean that there would be no consequences for their behavior, but it does mean that situations would not be intentionally constructed to discourage people from doing what they want.

As I seemingly repeat ad nauseum, rules and agreements only matter if one or both parties wants to break them. If nobody ever wants to break the agreement, the agreement is not necessary. By making the agreement, you’re planning for what happens in the event that at least one partner wants to break the agreement,** and you’re deciding that, in that case, that partner should stick to what you’ve agreed. In the culture I wish we had, such things would be viewed with great suspicion, if not outright hostility.

The scary part about consent culture is the same thing as the scary part about atheism. Namely – if there are no rules and nobody is pressuring people to behave a certain way, people will do awful things! Atheists generally have no trouble shrugging off this criticism, most often pointing out that they have no desire to do awful things, and if fear of god is the only thing preventing people from committing atrocities, then we are truly in trouble. I would make the same argument with respect to relationships. If people are permitted to do whatever they want, free from pressure or coercion, what would truly be different? If you’re in a relationship, consider this question: what is it that your partner wants to do that would be so awful if they did it? For those who are not, do you really want to be in a relationship with a person who would mistreat you if not for the social pressure put on them? I certainly don’t.

In a culture truly based on consent, wouldn’t all relationships be anarchic?***

*Franklin Veaux has some very good examples regarding the difference between communicating expectations/desires and making rules.

** Seemingly, some people make the puzzling decision to use agreements and rules as a way of communicating mutual expectations/desires. I advocate against doing so, as I think it’s important to maintain a distinction between the two ideas. However, if your rules are simply meant as a way to communicate, and not to actually encourage/pressure anyone to do (or refrain from doing) anything, this paragraph does not apply to your rules.

*** Other than those explicitly and consensually based on BDSM or other forms of control which, if done ethically, are completely at-will and can be changed at any time with no penalty.

Relationship Anarchy and The Spectrum of Relationship Control

For most people, having a sexual/romantic relationship with a person means exercising some kind of control over that person. Traditional couples vary in the amount and types of control they exercise over one another, but part of traditional monogamy is a substantial amount of control over a partner’s sexuality and “outside” relationships.

Part of polyamory’s primary appeal to me was the breaking down of this power structure. For me, the biggest appeal of opening my relationship was that my partner was allowed to do what she wanted, without worrying that she was infringing on my rights as her partner. Several forms of the types of monogamy that I endorse involve partners exercising less power over one another (or explicitly recognizing and formalizing their power structure).


Relationship AnarchyRecently, I’ve been reading about a relationship style that radically breaks down the relationship power structure: relationship anarchy. As the name suggests, it involves the rejection of the traditional power structure that is the norm in our society. Like polyamory, RA doesn’t have one clear definition or philosophy, but I’ve found several sources which give consistent descriptions.

As will all research projects, we start with Wikipedia:

Relationship anarchy (abbreviated RA) is the practice of forming relationships that are not bound by set rules. It goes beyond polyamory by postulating that there need not be a formal distinction between different types of relationships. Relationship anarchists look at each relationship (romantic or otherwise) individually, as opposed to categorizing them according to societal norms such as ‘just friends’, ‘in a relationship’, ‘in an open relationship’, etc.

The Thinking Asexual has a primer on RA basics. A short excerpt:

A relationship anarchist does not assign special value to a relationship because it includes sex. A relationship anarchist does not assign special value to a relationship because it includes romance, if they even acknowledge romance as a distinct emotion or set of behaviors in the first place. A relationship anarchist begins from a place of assuming total freedom and flexibility as the one in charge of their personal relationships and decides on a case by case basis what they want each relationship to look like. They may have sex with more than one person, they may be celibate their whole lives, they may live with someone they aren’t having sex with, they may live alone no matter what, they may raise a child with one sexual partner or multiple sexual partners, they may raise a child with a nonsexual partner, they may have highly physical/sensual relationships with multiple people simultaneously (some or all of whom are not sexually and/or romantically involved with them), etc.

I encourage you to read the whole thing, and specifically about how RA applies to asexuality and other nontraditional orientations. There is also a good introduction tot the concept at The Anarchist Library. My favorite part:

Life would not have much structure or meaning without joining together with other people to achieve things — constructing a life together, raising children, owning a house or growing together through thick and thin. Such endeavors usually need lots of trust and commitment between people to work. Relationship anarchy is not about never committing to anything — it’s about designing your own commitments with the people around you, and freeing them from norms dictating that certain types of commitments are a requirement for love to be real, or that some commitments like raising children or moving in together have to be driven by certain kinds of feelings. Start from scratch and be explicit about what kind of commitments you want to make with other people!

As you can probably tell, I find RA very appealing, not as something i want to do, but more as a name for something I am already doing. These concepts echo concepts that I have been advocating since I began practicing nonmonogamy, and they resonate with a lot of other ideas that I’ve encountered in the poly community.


The term “polyamory” is broad. It covers a lot of different relationship styles, some more controlling than others. If you’re a member of any polyamory groups on FacebookReddit, or other online communities, you’ll often see disagreements regarding the amount of control that’s ideal to exercise in a relationship. Some community leaders such as Franklin Veaux explicitly argue in favor of a less controlling dynamic. Often, this idea offends people (particularly unicorn hunters) who feel that they need to maintain a substantial degree of control in their relationships. Media coverage of polyamory tends to exacerbate this issue.

These disagreements arise often, and my theory is these disagreement are inevitable until we come up with a more robust vocabulary. The problem is that people hear different things when you use a term like “polyamory,” specifically in regards to how much control partners exercise over one another. Relationships exist on a spectrum of control, ranging from total master/slave relationships on one end (where one partner makes all major decisions for the other) to completely independent relationship anarchy on the other. In the middle are all other relationships. The archetypical spectrum looks something like this:

Relationship control continuum
^Click to embiggen. There are many other archetypes that carry assumptions about the level of control in the relationship. The problem is that many relationships don’t fit into the archetypes on the spectrum. Some polyamorous relationships can be just as controlling, if not moreso, than traditionally monogamous relationships. Some polyamorous relationships have all of the same rules as traditional monogamy, just with additional people. Some skeptically monogamous relationships can be just as free and egalitarian as relationship anarchists.

I think that, when most of us get involved in the poly community, we’re looking for like-minded people who share our philosophy on relationships. The problem is that those of us on the right of the spectrum have very little in common with polyamorous people on the left of the spectrum (and actually much more in common with skeptically monogamous people on the right of the spectrum). So long as we have no way of communicating our level of control in our relationships, these disagreements are going to continue.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s important for people to be exposed to other perspectives. Particularly, I think newer poly people (who tend to be further on the left of the spectrum) benefit enormously from the perspectives of more experienced poly people (who tend to be further to the right on the spectrum). It’s important for people to see examples of sustainable relationships and how they operate. I’m also not a fan of exclusion, so I’m not advocating forming communities that keep anyone out.

I do think, however, that as polyamory grows in popularity, it will be necessary to come up with a more robust vocabulary to describe our relationships. Any ideas?