Alternative Relationship Philosophies: On Relationship Anarchy and Solo Polyamory

Relationship Anarchy symbol

Relationship anarchy symbol, from Wikipedia

Last week, I mentioned that it seems a quite silly belief to think that, just because one is not in a committed, monogamous relationship, one is completely alone in the world. Indeed, some brilliant minds today are busy formulating alternative visions of what it means to be in a relationship, visions that do not require some sort of marriage commitment. These alternative ways of being with people offer new possibilities in a world that often sees relationships in black and white.

I first encountered these structures through the asexual and aromantic communities. By necessity, people who are asexual or aromantic have had to redefine what it is to have a relationship since most of what we think of are sexual and romantic relationships. What they have come up with is a beautiful array of possibilities for relationships that don’t depend on cultural definitions of how we should be or what we should seek.

I want to examine two alternative relationship structures today. The first of these is solo polyamory. The short definition of polyamory is the state of being romantically involved with more than one person at the same time. Often, poly relationships have been modeled around monogamous relationships, just with more than one person as the partner. Thus, a triad relationship would be a relationship of three people. Poly people also sometimes have a primary relationship, one that takes precedence over any other relationships in a hierarchical structure.

Solo polyamory turns these assumptions on their head. Basically, a person who practices solo polyamory may be in more than one romantic and/or sexual relationship at the same time with no intention of ever “settling down” into a monogamous or traditional polyamorous relationship.

Now what’s often assumed is that solo poly people are promiscuous or want to play the field. More often than not, they want to maintain autonomy which falling into traditional relationship patterns would not permit. Solo poly relationships are often just as passionate and loving as more traditional structures. The difference is that solo poly people often see their relationship with themselves as their primary relationship. Thus, their primary goal is taking care of themselves.

Even more radical than this is the philosophy of relationship anarchy. Originally formulated by Icelandic queer activist Andie Nordgren, relationship anarchy rejects all hierarchical relationship structures in favor of a philosophy of love and mutual respect, building relationships through mutual trust. The core idea of relationship anarchy is that love is abundant; it is not a finite resource we can only expend on one or a few people.

One of the consequences of relationship anarchy you may have picked up on is that it sees no hierarchical difference between romantic relationships, friendships, and familial relationships. All relationships are equally important, but may not have the same rules attached to them. We love different people for different reasons, and relationship anarchy declares we should not prioritize a relationship simply because we are sexually involved with them. We take people as they are, not as the relationship they could provide us.

Now I don’t necessarily believe these two philosophies are mutually exclusive, and I like both of them for different reasons. I love the emphasis on autonomy within solo polyamory, and relationship anarchy frees me from the confines of what I see as cookie cutter relationships and friendships. If I had to sum up the difference, I’d say solo polyamory is more of a functional description while relationship anarchy is an overarching philosophy. Taking the two together provides me some guidance in some feelings I’ve had regarding the bewildering world of relationships over the years.

See, every relationship I’ve been in, I always feel overwhelmed within a matter of weeks. I wonder if this is from the amount of energy I’ve felt I needed to put in to keep the relationship alive. I’ve been so exhausted that it’s probably been self-apparent I’m losing interest in the relationship in a relatively short period of time. The autonomy afforded by a soly poly structure seems appealing in allowing me to recharge rather than constantly feeling like I have to put in more energy.

With relationship anarchy, I’ve always valued friendships, and am bewildered when a friend drifts away after they get into a relationship. I’ve had friendships that have been closer and meant more to me than any traditional romantic relationship. Relationship anarchy helps explain the pain I’ve felt at realizing I’m not as important to the friend as they are to me and explain the way I see the people in my life: as individuals, each with a unique relationship to me that can’t be summed up in a simple formula.

Here’s the wonderful realization: under relationship anarchy, we’re not alone when we’re single! Indeed, there are so many relationships around us, we’re bursting at the seams with the number of people who love and care for us. Relationship anarchy casts a big tent picture of the people around us and, best of all, they are all equally important. We need them all in our lives because they are so important.

This is not to say that monogamous and non-solo polyamorous relationships aren’t right for some people. What I see as the core of relationship anarchy is self-determination, the right to build relationships that work for each individual person without coercion from state or culture. Included in that is the right to strictly monogamous relationships. Relationship anarchy opens the door to so much richness that is possible within relationships, though, and it’s beautiful to behold the possibilities that are open to us when we drop the idea that only one possible relationship structure is right for every person on Earth.

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On Not Being Lonely When You’re Alone

Apologies for no entry last week. I was out of town and extremely exhausted. I will be making a more concerted effort to be weekly from here out.

Image Source: Pixaboy

Image Source: Pixaboy

One of the common fears I’ve heard around being single is the fear that one will be perpetually alone. Indeed, this is an insecurity I have often harbored, motivating me to try to seek any sort of relationship, no matter how toxic. Bella DePaulo even identifies this as her ninth myth about being single in her book Singled Out: “Poor Soul: You Will Grow Old Alone and You Will Die in a Room by Yourself Where No One Will Find You for Weeks.”

This has motivated me to examine the literature of those who have chosen to be alone: so-called loners who shun as much human contact as possible. Specifically, I’m reading Sara Maitland’s How to Be Alone and Anneli Rufus’s Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto. The message of both authors is clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with being alone, and some of the most creative and spiritual people who ever lived were loners, shunning human contact much of the time. Rufus examines a litany of famous, and not so famous, people who have chosen to be alone, from the Buddha to Kurt Cobain, to show that, throughout history, there have always been people who have chosen to withdraw from the world.

For Maitland’s part, she definitely lives out the role of the loner, living in an isolated house in the middle of Galloway, an isolated region in Southwestern Scotland, with the most social activity of her week often being a trip to her Quaker meeting house. Yet she is happy and content with her life, having learned to enjoy her own company.

Both books are clear that there is a definite prejudice about being alone. I wonder if this is a condition of the existential situation we currently find ourselves, in which a person can have all the friends they want via social media and never actually have to see them face to face. We have so many “friends” but still feel as if we are lacking something in our lives, unable to grasp what it is we are looking for.

We fear those who actually enjoy being alone and project our own insecurities onto them about how unhappy we think they are based on our own deep-seated malaise. There’s a word for this: monophobia, the fear of being alone, and it can lead not only to depression, anxiety, and insecurity, but can lead to us being overly needy in the relationships we do have, pushing those people further and further away.

Living in a rural part of the country, far from my family and most of my friends, I’ve learned to be better with being alone than I once was. There was a time, though, that I would sit alone in public places for hours, hoping someone, anyone, would make contact with me. What I was craving wasn’t an end to my aloneness; it was connection, and I’m learning I have to find that connection within, first of all. Rufus makes the point that there’s a little desire to be a loner within each of us and, though I don’t think I’m ready to go to the extremes she and Maitland have, I do quite enjoy having some alone time, especially given that I’m an introvert and definitely need time to myself to recharge my spirit.

This begs a question, though: am I truly alone? Are any of us? Maitland believes she’s a loner, but I wonder if her fellow Quakers would notice if she suddenly stopped attending service. Indeed, I suspect I would only need to miss one meeting before my own parishioners started a welfare search for me, and I certainly have friends and family who care about my well-being.

DePaulo says it’s a ridiculous myth to believe that a relationship can guarantee you won’t die alone. “How could marriage possibly provide insurance against dying alone?” she asks. “Unless both partners to the marriage die at the same instant, one is guaranteed to die without the other.” Indeed, I will not die alone as long as there are people in this world who care about me. It’s just that the prejudice of seeing relationships as inherently more valuable than friendships keeps us from recognizing how surrounded with human connections we really are.

So I won’t be moving to Galloway, Scotland anytime soon, but I will be learning to cultivate the inner relationship with myself that is to be found in moments of aloneness and silence. It is in these moments that I am able to truly understand who I am and learn to love and appreciate myself so that awesome soul can be shared with others in a healthy and respectful way.

Eight Days In and Hitting Internal Singlism

Via Pixabay

Via Pixabay

Eight days into the project and, I must confess, I’m feeling a lot more angst than I anticipated after such a short period of time. There’s not even been a short period where  felt relief for the action I’ve taken. Instead, inside, I just feel lonely and want to continue sizing people up as potential dating material.

At the same time, I’ve discovered a sociologist by the name of Bella DePaulo, who’s been single for her entire six decades of life (by choice!) and has devoted much of her work to studying prejudice against single people. She’s decided to dub this form of oppression “singlism.” Through her work, she’s chronicled ways in which singles face discrimination, from snide remarks by family and friends to disparities in income taxes and health benefits and even discrimination in housing, DePaulo’s work is an important step in exposing the pervasive believe that being single is inferior to being coupled.

I hope to examine singlism in depth in some future posts, especially through a queer lens. For now, I want to focus on a concept found in a 2011 book DePaulo edited, Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It. See, like other forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia, DePaulo believes singlism can be internalized when the single person comes to believe the singlistic prejudices they hear about themselves. This internalized singlism strengthens the prejudice and leaves it unchecked, contributing to a feeling that the world is right: we should not be single and there is something wrong with us if we are.

Think about old Disney movies: how many of them were about a strong, single person living their life and fulfilled? This is especially true of those that have female protagonists, who always need to be rescued by their Prince Charming and living happily ever after. Dating sites advertise they’ll alleviate me of the curse of singlehood. I’ve seen others treated like immoral aliens in both the straight and the queer world because they dare to declare they have no interest in a relationship. I’m bombarded constantly with the message that I need one other person in my life, and I’m just not normal if I don’t find that person. It can feel like a demoralizing, constantly repeating message that I just can’t get around, so I think it’s only natural that my brain, after being raised in such a society, believes that the way forward is to find someone else to fulfill me.

The funny thing about internalized singlism is we’re never happy being single, even if we don’t particularly want the trappings that come with being in a relationship. So, we make ourselves miserable trying to live up to a standard that won’t make us any happier than we started. In fact, one interesting thing that DePaulo says is that, after a few months, those who get into a relationship are unlikely to be any happier than they were when they were when they were single.

So, as I’m taking this information to heart, I realize how much cognitive dissonance I have around the subject of relationships. When it comes down to it, I like my space and I prefer to live alone. The times in my life when I’ve had roommates have often been some of the most miserable. Yet, there’s a feeling within me that I’m incomplete, and the only solution is to date someone.

Like all forms of internalized oppression, I think one of the first steps towards overcoming it is realizing it’s there. Even if being in a relationship is what I truly want out of life, there’s no reason to believe I’m less than because I’m living as a single person in a world that privileges coupling above all else. What is truly wrong with a single life if one is predisposed to it?

When I think back to all the media I’ve been exposed to in my life that presented coupling as the norm, it’s no wonder I have so much baggage. Reflecting on it, I started dating in middle school not because I particularly wanted to, but because it was something I felt like I was supposed to do. Relationships became a way for me to try to feel normal, and, as I now can see, they’ve failed miserably at this goal. If anything, the pursuit of a relationship has left me feeling more hollow and empty than I did before, and I’m left to conclude that something has gone terribly wrong.

So one of my early tasks in this project seems to be to root out these instances of internalized singlism and, in their aftermath, find out if a relationship is what I truly desire, or if I’ve really been searching for the elusive sense of being normal. DePaulo’s book offers very little guidance in this area other than to say it’s been done. She is a sociologist, after all, not a self-help guru, so I don’t know that it’s reasonable to expect her to have all the answers for me. There’s work for me to do as well.

After only a short time of doing this work, though, I’m finding myself feeling lighter on the inside. I’m realizing that the masks I wear didn’t all fall off when I came out as a queer person. To be queer is to see what one us underneath once the masks fall off. I want to keep letting these assumptions about my life drop away and see what, if anything, is still there in the aftermath. I want to life the life that will leave me fulfilled, not the one that society expects of me.

Single and Queer in a Coupled and Straight World

Photo Source: Pixabay

Photo Source: Pixabay

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been exposed to images and media whose message has been resounding and clear: in order to be normal in this world, I have to meet someone and do the whole falling in love thing. Everyone does it, or so I thought, and all of the shows and stories I watched and read as a kid pushed this idea that, if you weren’t in a relationship, you needed to be on the lookout for one.

And so, starting in middle school, I was on the lookout for someone to spend the rest of my life with. It sounds funny now that, at thirteen, I thought I knew what I wanted out of a mate, but I was dead serious about it. It’s not that I particularly wanted to be in a relationship; it’s just that I thought it was something I was supposed to do.

I’ve never exactly been someone who does what they’re supposed to do. In my late teens, I came out of the closet and now identify as bisexual. More recently, I’ve come to terms with having a non-binary gender. I’m an able-bodied white person who’s involved in anti-racist and anti-ableist work as well, so I’m no stranger to bucking what I feel like society wants me to do.

Yet I’ve always had a nagging feeling that something was wrong with me because I’m not terribly good at relationships.

If I’m honest, I’ve only been in a handful of what I would consider today to be true relationships. Only one, with a girl when I was in middle school, lasted more than a month. I’ve told more than a few people that one of my greatest regrets in life so far has been that I’ve never found someone to be with.

It’s even worse in the queer world. Loving, nuclear family relationships among same-sex couples is often touted as one reason people should be tolerant of queer people: look, they’re just like “us,” with the same hopes and dreams as anyone else. The legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States before the banning of discrimination in housing and hiring of queer and trans folks could be read as an ultimatum: we’ll accept you as long as you get into a monogamous relationship just like straight people.

Indeed, this was part of the reason some left leaning queer groups such as Against Equality were so critical of the push for same-sex marriage over other protections: it actually does very little to help the vast majority of queer and trans people, many of whom still face active discrimination, prejudice, and even violence, nor does it do anything for those in non-traditional and polyamorous relationships, or those who, either through circumstance or choice, are single. (I plan on addressing the marriage question in a future post; for now, I’ll just say I think there is merit to the argument.)

In addition, being single is scary in our society, and adding in a queer identity just places so many additional assumptions on a person. There are so many stereotypes about queer people that, outside of marriage, we’re either promiscuous, wild, and disease spreaders or celibate. If you are single in today’s society, there must be something wrong with you.

So, many queer people, myself included, have absorbed and internalized these prejudices. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a dating profile where someone proudly proclaims they have “old-fashioned values” or that hook-ups are dirty. I know because I was once one of them. Yet many of them, like me, are either perpetually single or else serial monogamists.

Being queer and single is a taboo subject, one not often discussed in polite queer society. There’s plenty of literature for straight women on being happy and single, but, outside that demographic, you will find very little. Even Brad Gooch’s now-classic Finding the Boyfriend Within, a book that claims to be “a remarkably practical and helpful guide in the quest for self-discovery for the thousands of gay men who despair of ever being in a committed relationship,” has the ultimate goal of helping you love yourself so others will, in turn, love you back.

Yet nowhere in there is the option of being intentionally single.

I started entertaining a radical thought at the end of last year: maybe there’s nothing wrong with me at all. After all, I have plenty of people who love me, I’m a well-respected leader in my community, and, at the age of 36, I’ve already fulfilled so many dreams I’ve had for my life. If no one thus far has recognized this or if they’re so shallow that I don’t fulfill their checklist of requirements, is that really my fault? Yet, because I’ve absorbed this idea that I’m supposed to be coupled, I often feel very alone, and I wonder where this has come from.

With that wonderment in mind, I decided to embark on a radical experiment in 2017: I am going to be intentionally single. In other words, I’m going to choose not to be in or search for a relationship. I will be posting the results to this blog at least weekly on Monday.

In some ways, this will not tremendously impact my life. I am, after all, already single. It does mean that I will not be expanding my mental and physical energy in pursuit of fleeting notions of coupling. I’ll also be doing a lot of internal self-evaluation this year as well as reading books, articles, and blogs about being single, and reporting back on what I’ve learned.

I have no idea what’s going to happen with this experiment. I hope, by the end, to have learned at least some about both myself and the way singles function in our western society. Whatever comes, it will be a different way of functioning in the world, and that, to me, is an adventure.

So, come, and join me on this experiment.