Relationship Anarchy and The Spectrum of Relationship Control

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



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?

9 thoughts on “Relationship Anarchy and The Spectrum of Relationship Control

  1. I have just found this blog and I’m looking forward to reading through all the other posts. I really like what I have read so far.

    I’ve long been trying find a compact way to describe the spectrum that you pictured above, but I see the same difficulties.

    Apart from the not-so-serious-but-still-true fact that I would prefer to see it mirrored so that RA is on the left side (as an analogy to politics – political right tends to put a lot more value on control), I also see the problem that you already stated: the style of relationship alone is not a reliable indicator for the amount of control, as there are so may exceptions.

    At least it is easy for me to find my own place on this spectrum, because it is clear that as RA I’m always very close to one end, regardless of how the rest of the spectrum ist sorted. I’m really happy to have freed myself from the controlling structure of my past (monogamous) relationships, and I can’t imagine letting someone control me in that way ever again.

  2. I love the concept of spectrum of control. I’ve often wished that I could more clearly express why the polyamorous and monogamous communities are much more diverse than these two labels, and I too long for more concise vocabulary. “Polyamorous” is such a broad term that it is barely concise enough to distinguish itself from “monogamy”.

    Fantastic article.

  3. I agree with most of the ideas here, but I have an issue with calling it “relationship anarchy.” This terminology implies the idea either of “no set boundaries” or of “no relative value judgements” which can both be really destructive to the ability of someone to work through relationship issues.

    I don’t think these are intended connotations, but there are some de-facto, hardline rules people often have going into relationships, and it is possible for people to enter into relationship structures that contain an inherent power imbalance which become easier to navigate in a non-abusive manner for everyone when those power imbalances are explicitly acknowledged and candidly discussed.

    I think most people attempting to apply relationship anarchy will either know that or discover that themselves, but as anarchism in general connotes a set of ideals about radical personal freedom, I worry that people will end up freely replicating controlling power structures under the guise of “free association” that simply become informal and implicit rather than formal and explicit, and now cannot be easily criticized because they have never been explicitly defined.

    I want to make this clear that this is a half disagreement, one more about implementation than goals. The goal of non-exploitative, non-normative relationship structures which are mutually defined within the community rather than externally imposed is a worthy one. But I wonder whether simply applying anarchist organizational principles to relationships can accomplish that without modification.

  4. The image that show the various relationships is seriously off when it comes to “egalitarian polyamory”…..WAY off. The defining characteristic of egalitarian polyamory is that every one has equal rights, and thus it is void of poly-hierarchy and rules. That in fact is what differentiates it from hierarchical polyamory. This has been true for decades!

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