Relationship Anarchy, Polyaffectivity, and Chosen Families
What are they, and how do they stay together without recognizable commitment?
Posted Sep 10, 2018
Along with the spread of Internet communications has come a drastic increase in the number of sex and gender identities and relationship formations. The Internet allowed formerly isolated gender and sex-variant folks to find each other and band together, which required developing a new language to explain their interactions and family groupings. For a segment of these folks, the terms "polyaffective" and "relationship anarchy" are useful in describing their chosen family relationships. The primary thing that links these two chosen family styles is the reliance on something else besides a sexual connection as an organizing principle, as well as their creation of commitments outside of conventional norms.
Polyaffective relationships are the (mostly) nonsexual relationships among members of a polycule — a web of interconnected relationships that forms around a polyamorous relationship. Polyaffectivity can be expressed between two or more people who used to be in a polyamorous relationship, but it can also be expressed between two metamours who have never had sex, an adult and a child who are not biologically related, but create a social bond, and members of the families of origin who become quite attached to their family member's polyculers. Chosen grandparents can have polyaffective connections with kids they know through their polyamorous children, but with whom they have no bio-legal (biological or legal) connection. Children also create independent polyaffective bonds when they choose siblings or friends from the kids they meet at poly events, aunts/uncles/auntcles from the adults they meet in social spaces, parents' partners, and others. For more information, see my blogs about the various types of polyaffective relationships and resilience in polyaffective relationships.
Most importantly for this discussion, my 20-plus year study of polyamorous families has found that polyaffective relationships are the crucial glue that keeps a polyamorous family together over the long term. Specifically, if metamours (people who share the same partner, but are not lovers themselves) have a positive and bonded polyaffective relationship, then they can help the polyamorous relationship between their partner and their metamour thrive. Metamours have, in fact, been instrumental in keeping some polyamorous relationships alive through difficulties that otherwise would have devastated the relationship and caused it to end. Instead, the support from the metamour allowed the polyamorous lovers to weather the difficulty and come out the other side even stronger — the basis of family resilience. The converse is true as well — if metamours do not like each other, then it will be more difficult for that polyamorous relationship to be sustained over time. When metamours have active animosity and simply can’t stand each other, the polyamorous relationship is almost certainly doomed.
Relationship Anarchy (RA) is a style of inter-reliance built on choice, rather than social expectations and externally imposed obligations. For Kale, a queer, sex-positive feminist who vlogs on RA, it is the way she relates to everyone in her life:
“When I meet a new person, I don't have predetermined slots of how they could fit into my life. It can evolve on its own, not necessarily influenced by the relationships I already have. It's not just about my closest relationships, but about how I interact with all humans.”
In RA, people negotiate intimate relationships that meet various needs as they present themselves, rather than adhering to the “relationship escalator,” where people follow social convention along a predetermined path towards matrimonial monogamy. Folks who engage in RA generally emphasize personal autonomy, self-responsibility, and consent, and de-emphasize hierarchy and biological or sexual connections. Because RA is about negotiating each relationship individually, the relationships can look all sorts of different ways.
Rather than promising to stay together until death do they part, relationship anarchists usually agree to be together while it is a happy and healthy relationship for everyone involved. Rejecting externally imposed obligations as the basis of their connection, RA practitioners tend to build connections on love and respect grounded in choice. Some RA relationships last for decades with a commitment to treat each other so well that they want to stay together out of joy, rather than being obligated by some external force binding them together. While the commitment to stay together only as long as they are happy with each other may seem too unstable or likely to come apart at the first sign of trouble, folks proficient in RA also tend to put a lot of time and effort in to building their communication skills, so that they can work through problems and remain happy with each other. Kale explains that RA can allow folks to build families and relationships they can count on:
“Obligations are fluid and open to change. Once you agree to something, the person can expect it will happen, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen always and forever. Everything can be discussed and renewed on an ongoing basis.”
In her foundational study of gay people’s families, Dr. Kath Weston concluded that they often came to rely on relationships with friends, lovers, and ex-lovers instead of or in addition to their bio-legal families. Weston called these supportive and steadfast relationships chosen families, a term that other scholars have embraced.
Relationship anarchists, polyamorists, and other sex and gender minorities frequently invest a great deal of time, energy, and effort into chosen families, in part because their bio-legal families have too often proven unreliable, judgmental, and rejecting. This is not to say that all sex and gender minorities are rejected by their families of origin — some have rich, supportive, and resilient relationships with parents, siblings, and extended family members. Even those polyamorous and RA folks who have positive relationships with families of origin generally value chosen family members as much* as or more than bio-legal family members.
In addition to choosing each other, both RA and polyaffective folks have flexible ideas of what it means to “stay together.” These folks can stop having sex or never have had sex, no longer live together (or even in the same part of the world), remain childfree, or have children with someone else or alone, and still be “together,” because they value each other and feel connected. This flexibility provides resilience for change over time. Kale points out that RA folks “are committed to a person, and not necessarily the relationship structure. If we restructure things to look completely different, it's not a failure. This shows an extremely deep level of commitment. We throw out the rule book and re-write our own, and in some ways that actually allows us to commit to someone in totally new and unexpected ways.”
Ultimately, the source of real commitment in these relationships and families is choosing each other, and treating each other in a way so that they will continue to actively choose each other over time, even when they have many other options. If things stop working for the relationship, then they usually seek to address the problems and/or renegotiate as needed.
* Because many RAs reject hierarchy and seek to establish relationships based on their individual circumstances, they might not subscribe to the idea of loving their chosen family “as much” or “more than” their families of origin. However, their actions — who they trust enough to rely on and support, or how they spend their time, effort, and money — show that they value chosen family members as real family.
Facebook image: Pressmaster/Shutterstock
Weston, K. (1997). Families we choose: Lesbians, gays, kinship. Columbia University Press.