From Monogamish to Relationship Anarchy: a Widening Poly Spectrum
Many things are contributing to this, from the slow disintegration of traditional marriage to the appearance of books like The Myth of Monogamy (2002) and Sex at Dawn (2010). The latter in particular makes a compelling case from anthropology and other sciences that we have evolved by nature for a life of easy nonmonogamy, a fact that we ignore at our misery and peril.
Getting the most public interest are, naturally, the multi-relationship styles on the least radical end of the poly spectrum: those that challenge the fewest other cultural assumptions.
"Open marriage," for instance, usually implies a very primary couple, secondary relationships that are presumed to be disposable in a pinch, and little or none of the deeper poly ethos that "we're all in this together" even if just tangentially. The standards of communication within the couple, and toward outsiders, are likely to be much more ordinary (and unexamined) than the radical transparency, self-analysis, and fearless honesty that many polys consider to be their guiding ideal, even when they fall short of reaching it.
The new terms "monogamish" (popularized by Dan Savage), "flexogamy" (from Cosmopolitan), and "The New Monogamy" (the title of a book by Tammy Nelson coming out next January) refer to even more tentative dabblings with outside liaisons. For instance, here's a local TV news report on "monogamish" couples that aired last Monday on ABC-2 News in Baltimore.
A different sign of ferment on the mainstream end of the poly spectrum is the growing rapprochement between poly and swinging. Since its origins in the 1940s, swinging has mostly been about couples swapping with other couples at prescribed venues: sex parties where what happens at the party stays at the party, with cultural taboos against falling in love or seeking to build too many real-life connections. That's changing; there's always been crossover, but the current generation of swingers is taking new interest in poly philosophy and practice. At Atlanta Poly Weekend in March, swing-community lawyer and entrepreneur Stephen G. Cobb predicted to the crowd that this trend is reaching a "tipping point" and that the poly movement is about to be inundated by a "flood" of people from the vastly larger Lifestyle. Other signs suggest this may be so.
The biggest difference between polys and swingers is cultural. Swingers tend, on average, to be more conservative, mainstream, Christian, happy to stay closeted, satisfied with standard American life in other ways, and unpracticed in questioning dominant paradigms. As a result, despite its large size (estimated at 4 or 5 million people in the U.S.) and the radical nature of what it's actually doing, "the Lifestyle" has left remarkably little imprint on American life and culture in the last 60 years. If lifestylers really do flood the poly world in the next few years, poly on average is going to look less geeky, alternative, intellectual, queer, and Seattleish than it does now.
However, there is also new activity brewing on the opposite end of the poly spectrum.
"Relationship Anarchy," or RA, is the term being used by really alternative people who disdain "polyamory" as meaning something too limited and ordinary. Or perhaps too much like the older generation. This is the term of choice in some anarchist and Occupy cultures in particular, especially in Europe, and it's spreading.
Deborah Anapol, a spiritual founder of the modern poly movement and author of Polyamory: the New Love Without Limits (1992, 1997), commented a couple of weeks ago,
Most people in open marriages are very deliberately and intentionally committed to the couple paradigm. This has led some younger, more radical people to reject polyamory as old paradigm and advocate what they call relationship anarchy but is pretty much what I called polyamory over 20 years ago....
My feeling is that we are still at least one, if not two or more generations away from evolving beyond the couple paradigm, but that the standard couple is rapidly evolving into an open couple and an open couple who does not resonate with the word, community, or concept of polyamory. Furthermore, among the people I meet in conscious environments all over the world, most of those who really "get" polyamory — not so much as an identity, but as a way of life — don't want to apply the label to themselves or their behavior.
Longtime poly researcher Meg Barker in England notes,
Three phrases that I have heard for a potential 'third wave' of polyamory are 'relationship anarchy', 'relationshipqueer' and 'polytical' (the UK website). All are more explictly politically engaged, tend to come from a queer and/or anarchist perspective, and question things like the privileging of romantic over other kinds of relationships and the ideas of rigid rules and contracts.
(Barker and Daniel Cardoso in Portugal were recently on an academic panel exploring these topics. Elsewhere, Cardoso and Pepper Mint go deeper into theory.)
From the leading RA activist Andie Nordgren in Sweden:
8 Points on Relationship Anarchy
By Andie Nordgren (2006 translation by Leo Nordwall and Elli Åhlvik)
You can love a lot of people each relationship is unique
Relationship Anarchy (RA) questions the idea that love is a special, limited feeling which is real only when kept between two people at any given moment.... Every relationship stands on its own, a meeting between independent equals.
Love and Respect is to have no demands
Refraining from demands, as a basis of a relationship, is to show respect towards other people's independence and capability of making decisions on their own. You having feelings for others or a history together doesn't give you the right to set rules or make demands. Try instead to explore how you can develop a relationship without disregarding each others essential values and opinions.... Demandlessness is the only way to be completely sure that everyone in a relationship is there of their own free will. It's not “real love” to adjust to each other according to an existing template.
Give yourself a solid point of view
How do you want others to treat you? And I mean everyone. What are your premises and how do you define your boundaries? What kind of people do you want to have around and how do you want your relationships to be? Find such a core point of view and work with all your relationships according to it....
Remember the heterosexual norm but don't be afraid
Remember that there is an incredibly powerful set of normative beliefs telling you how life and real love should be. People will wonder and question your relationships.... Don't allow your relationships to be driven by fear of societal norms.
Spontaneity instead of duty
To be able to be spontaneous – to act without the fear of being punished and without obligations – is what makes radical relationships come to life....
Fake it 'til you make it
Sometimes it might sound like you have to be some kind of übermensch to "stand life" as a relationship anarchist. It's not true. Try using the trick “fake it 'til you make it”, which means that you imagine how you would have done in various difficult situations if you were as strong and cool as you'd like....
Trust is better than being suspicious
Assume that everyone near you wants you to be happy....
Change through communication
Whenever people do something together, there is a norm on how to act and what to do – a norm on how a the situation should turn out. If you and people around you won't talk about the whats, hows and whys, everything will turn out as the norm dictates. Communication, common action and a will to change is the only way to break free from the norms. Radical relationships must have open discussions as their main component.... Talk to each other!
That's a condensation; read and save the whole article [updated new translation by Andie, July 2012]. "Andie Nordgren is a genderqueer relationship hacker and a key voice behind the Relationship Anarchy movement, which originated in Sweden but is now gaining international interest."
Similarly, the radical web magazine The Scavenger presents a long article that's worth saving to show anyone who wonders why a person with the author's philosophy takes such utter joy in this life:
Revolutionary romance: A primer for polyamory
By Sadie Ryanne
...I guess because I’ve been talking a lot about new dates (*cough* like a giddy teenage queen *cough*) and my upcoming wedding, I’ve been having to answer lots of questions about polyamory. Monogamous people just seem to be utterly fascinated (or horrified) by it, and they want to talk to me about it all the time.
One friend recently called me “the most amorous-seeking person” they’ve ever met. I’m a flirty gal, it’s true… But when asked how many relationships I’m in (which happens often), I honestly don’t know how to answer. Three? Five? A dozen?
According to dominant monogamous narratives, “a relationship” is a special kind of dynamic that is easily distinguishable (because it is the only dynamic that is supposed to involve both romance and sex), and it needs to be fiercely defined and defended....
I find that when most monogamous people try to understand polyamory, they still generalize this basic idea. They understand that I’m not sexually or romantically exclusive, but they still assume that I have multiple “relationships” the way they understand what a relationship is. Thus, when monogamous people ask me “how many relationships are you in?” they expect the answer to be easy.
Well, that just doesn’t apply to my life....
...And of course, it’s all very flexible: Someone who begins as a sexual partner often ends up as a platonic best friend.
...I still get joyously anxious about new crushes when I’m not sure where they will go, I still squeal when someone asks me to be their girlfriend, and I still cry when one of my partners decides that we shouldn’t call each other lovers anymore. It’s not that the labels have no meaning for me.
But instead of assuming that there is only one, monolithic way to define a relationship, I see it much differently: There are just many different dynamics between two or more people (I’m in at least one triad, by the way), and many different words that they might use to describe their relationship to one another.
...I can still be heartbroken by the breakup of one relationship while being ecstatically in love with another and brimming with excitement about the possibility of another new one starting.
The radical politics of blooming flowers
But there’s also more to my poly identity than that. Polyamory is more than a descriptive term for a certain type of relationship structure. It is also, at least for me, a political identity marking my opposition to compulsory monogamy.
...Polyamory has the potential to challenge many of the entrenched sexist and trans/homophobic social structures — notably, the nuclear family.... Polyamory opens the door to a variety of messy, self-determined, tangled networks as alternatives for creating families, providing for mutual support, raising children and so on.
Not to mention, the more we pursue pleasure and love for ourselves and the people around us, the more we eschew the neoliberal imperative to be productive (where productivity is narrowly defined within a capitalist framework).
...On the whole, I find that poly relationships are usually much stronger because we do openly talk about things like jealousy. I’ve found that many monogamous people (at least the vanilla ones) have no idea how to negotiate things like safer sex, boundaries, desires, and so on. Hell, most monogamous people don’t even know how to talk about sex or romance at all without getting super uncomfortable!
If I need some space from my fiancee or just want to stay in for the weekend, I might ask her, “Hey, I was really hoping to sleep in my own bed this weekend. Do you think you can either not hang out with your other partner, or maybe spend the night at her house so I can have the house to myself?” A lot of monogamous people I know are terrified to ask for space like that, and obsessively worry that they’re going to hurt their partner’s feelings or something. In my case, my lovers just try to accommodate my needs and everyone ends up better off for it.
Poly people basically have to talk about this stuff. With my poly partners, it’s totally considered normal to have regular check-ins about our boundaries to see how they’ve changed and how we’re feeling. Acknowledging things like jealousy and talking about what we’re okay with and what we’d rather not hear about and so on means that we have better communication skills, and thus are healthier partners.
And there’s another emotion that needs to be acknowledged. Jealousy exists, but so does compersion. This is a word that poly people invented to describe the feeling of happiness, satisfaction or fulfillment that is derived from knowing that your partner is happy, satisfied and fulfilled.
It’s real! Whenever one of my partners starts seeing someone new, I get excited and giddy with them. And when they get back from a fun date, I love to hear about it because knowing they had a good time cheers me up, too....
Read the whole long article (June 11, 2011).
We have an interesting and diverse future opening up.