In identifying as a relationship anarchist, my most commonly asked question is how I can even try to identify as a relationship anarchist if I’m married.
First things first, I’m not perfect in practicing relationship anarchy. In fact I don’t always follow what I’m going to be talking about here. I’m talking about best practices that take reality into consideration. I actually think that in purely philosophical relationship anarchy, marriage probably doesn’t have a place. But in the world we live in, there are practical reasons for marriage to not instantly disqualify someone from identifying as a relationship anarchist.
For one thing, let’s take a basic example – a person may already be married before they come across the idea of relationship anarchy, and it may describe their relationship(s) rather well. But would they have to get divorced to practice relationship anarchy? Personally, I don’t think so. Perhaps on a philosophical level, but in the practical world that’s quite often unreasonable.
Another situation where marriage could have its place in relationship anarchy is people getting married for practical reasons, such as for tax breaks, insurance, power of attorney, or any of the other hundreds of benefits that people legally receive simply by signing a marriage certificate. There are often legal pathways to getting some of the benefits, such as power of attorney, but those are often out of reach for those who can’t afford the legal fees or who don’t have access to resources such as the lawyers or paperwork involved in such things. Further, things like tax advantages and insurance don’t have other paths.
So, how does one reconcile the ideas of marriage and relationship anarchy? There are a few things that can be done in order to facilitate relationship anarchy when there’s a legal marriage involved.
1) Understand The Possible Harm
Remember how I mentioned that, philosophically, marriage probably doesn’t have a place in relationship anarchy? There are a few good reasons for that. For one thing, there’s a lot of troubling history around marriage, including the fact that it was originally about transferring women as property between father and husband. There are many written critiques of marriage that go much further in depth than I can go into here, but there’s a long history of criticism for the institution of marriage. Even in the present, there are some troubling habits in marriage, some of which I will go into below.
In fact, many of them are problematic elements of cohabiting in general. Many relationship anarchists are opposed to ever cohabiting or nesting with a partner for that reason. Couple privilege is a huge aspect of this, as well, and we’ll get into that further.
Because of this, it’s important to remember that to participate in an institution like marriage, it may strengthen it, to the detriment of society as a whole. So, if you’re married and wanting to practice relationship anarchy, what can you do?
Start thinking about opposing from the inside. Be an example of how the institution can be turned on its head. Be vocal about being a relationship anarchist, and shed many of the assumptions around marriage. And lastly, keep these best practices in mind:
2) Know the Difference Between Descriptive and Prescriptive Hierarchies
I already have an article on descriptive and prescriptive hierarchies, but I’ll go over the basics again. Prescriptive hierarchies, the type that include Primary and Secondary relationships, and rules around what level a relationship can get to, are in complete opposition to the concept of relationship anarchy. Relationship anarchy is about letting relationships grow and evolve in the way that best fits the people involved, not putting people in boxes.
That said, there are descriptive hierarchies that emerge when there are any two relationships that are not completely even. It’s only natural that some relationships are closer than others, for various reasons. Length of relationship, intensity of connection, even physical proximity are all factors at play. Descriptive hierarchies aren’t real hierarchies, but rather a description of what happens naturally when some relationships are closer than others. If you live with your legal spouse (or anyone else!) you’re more likely to share more information with them, and include them in more of your decisions. Being “higher” on the descriptive hierarchy does not require living together or being married, however. You may be more emotionally intimate with one partner, for example, or be sexually intimate with a partner you don’t live with but not with your nesting partner.
It is important to make sure that a descriptive hierarchy does not evolve into a prescriptive one. Don’t allow one relationship to dictate how other relationships grow and develop, and don’t give one partner power over others. At the same time, relationships should be allowed to take whatever form is healthiest for those involved, and not forced into something “equal.”
3) Understand Couple Privilege
When talking about marriage, it’s always important to keep couple privilege in mind. No matter what kind of hierarchy is or isn’t evident, couple privilege will always be a factor. The privilege that comes along with an established relationship is not always a bad thing, however it becomes negative when it is used to pressure or restrict a third person.
Married couples have to be especially aware of couple privilege and how you can balance against it. Even small elements of this privilege can sneak in. How often do you say a sentence like “We went to the park,” assuming that everyone would know that “we” means “My spouse and I” without taking into account your other partners? Do you assume that your spouse will be the only one to go to holidays or family events with you? Do you want to have children, and only plan to do that with your spouse? These are not bad decisions in and of themselves, but the assumptions can be dangerous, and go against the principle of relationship anarchy that you allow each relationship to grow and become what is best for each person.
A more blatant example of couple privilege is marriage itself. It is not legally possible to marry more than one person; you can’t have marriage with more than one of your partners, leaving any other partners out of the social and economical benefits that you can share with a spouse. This brings us to the next step.
4) Separate the Legal and Emotional Entanglements
The entity of marriage comes with a lot of baggage and entanglements. Not that these are necessarily bad things, but they’re important things to consider, especially if you’re looking at it in the context of relationship anarchy. It’s important to remember that there are emotional assumptions that come along with marriage, and if you’re going to practice relationship anarchy, you need to detach that from the legal aspects of marriage.
This can be very difficult to do, especially when other people know you’re married, as they’ll impose those assumptions on you. The concept that you put your spouse ahead of anyone else – except, perhaps, children if you have them – is strongly ingrained in our culture. There’s also the idea that you should fight harder for a marriage than for other types of relationships, that divorce should be avoided at all costs, sometimes to the detriment of the people involved.
Another thing to keep in mind is another form of emotional entanglements: Religious baggage. There are a lot of assumptions and beliefs about marriage when it comes to virtually every religion, and if you’re religious or have come from a religious background, you should keep these in mind and fight against these assumptions. You’ll also need to take into consideration the religious views of those close to you and how that can affect how you view marriage.
Practically speaking, you also still need to keep in mind all the legal entanglements, especially those that surround finances and health. No matter how you feel about the emotional aspects of marriage, the legal aspects will be there. Those are an all-or-nothing deal.
So what are some ways that you can influence this separation between legal and emotional entanglements? You can start with the next step.
5) Don’t Use Labels, and be Mindful of Symbolism
Words like husband, wife, or spouse all signify a primary relationship, even more so than labels like boyfriend, girlfriend, or significant other. One of the principles of relationship anarchy is to shed labels, and thus the expectations that come with the labels. If you can keep from using labels like wife, husband, or spouse, it leaves you free to redefine your relationship much more easily into something that works for you two.
It can be virtually impossible to get away from labels entirely, but there’s a certain level at which you can remove some of the ties between labels and assumptions. For example, you could refer to them as your partner, your friend, or your person (I know someone who introduces their partners as “One of my people”). Some relationship anarchists argue that even the word “partner” is too loaded with expectations and assumptions, so use your own judgement.
Another thing that you may not have considered is the symbolism of wedding rings. These are a universally recognized symbol of ownership and of being “taken.” You have to seriously consider whether that’s the image you want to project if you identify as a relationship anarchist.
6) Don’t Make Rules
This is one of the basics of relationship anarchy, but it bears repeating, as this is something that can be especially hard for married couples. Rules made by one couple place restrictions on other people, which is the complete opposite of the philosophy of relationship anarchy. It’s especially important not to establish a veto. Once you do that, you’ve jumped all the way back to hierarchical polyamory.
One of the most important things to do in relationship anarchy is to set your own personal boundaries, and stick to them. Just because you aren’t setting rules doesn’t mean you don’t have boundaries or preferences, it just means that you can’t depend on other people to uphold your boundaries. I recommend writing down your list of boundaries, even if you don’t share it with anyone, just so that you have a reminder of what’s important to you.
7) Accept that Marriage Doesn’t Protect a Relationship
Lastly, it’s important to remember that marriage doesn’t protect or fix a relationship. Some people get married because they think it can fix their relationship, but all it does is add more legal layers. If this is the reason you got married in the first place, it may be worth reconsidering whether this is the direction you want your relationship to keep going in.
If all of this sounds like a lot of work, well, it is. Relationship anarchy isn’t easy, and it’s doubly difficult to make sure that if you’re married, it doesn’t interfere with how your other relationships work.