A rose is a rose is a rose. And a partner is a partner, a [gender]friend, a paramour, a fiancé/e, a spouse, a lover – but what do these terms even entail? If you repeat a word enough times it starts to lose its meaning. Then you’ll have to find other words to describe it.
When I first got into relationship anarchy, I had nothing against labels. As I have mentioned previously, relationship anarchy is for me more of a philosophical framework than a practical way to structure my relationships. Hence I don’t really see a contradiction in being a relationship anarchist and monogamous, for instance. The realisation that relationships are fluid and difficult to define, and that there is no fundamental difference between different kinds of relationships – that the labels we use only imply that certain components are present or missing in a specific relationship – doesn’t stop you from preferring to focus emotional and sexual interest on one person. And it certainly doesn’t stop you from attaching labels to your relationships.
You know what time it is? That’s right, it’s business time. And by that, I mean the business of talking about relationships.
I’m a relationship geek. It’s taken me a good long while to realise this, because “relationships” aren’t really seen as a legitimate interest to geek out on (which may well be one of the reasons autism is underdiagnosed in women!). But I love thinking about relationships every bit as much as carrying them out in practise – sometimes probably more.
Despite this, I was stuck in what I like to call The Narrative for most of my life. Abandoning culturally ingrained ideas of what kind of relationships there are and how to pursue them took meeting the right people in the right context, plus a lot of reading and thinking. These days, relationships is one area of my life that I feel requires almost no improvement. And a huge part of this has been adopting the idea of relationship anarchy and learning to handle jealousy.
The Obligatory Scars
It wasn’t always this way, of course. I used to joke that my first encounter with non-monogamy was “non-consensual polyamory”. It’s really not that funny – my then partner broke my heart over and over again, and gave me scars that would come to haunt me in every intimate relationship I’ve been in since.
However, even then, I recognised one interesting fact: I really didn’t think him being with others was much of a problem in itself. The problem was that he lied about it, and that he wasn’t treating me well outside of that aspect of our relationship either. In short, dealing with jealousy wasn’t much of an issue for me – what ruined our relationship was breach of contract, ruined trust, neglect and psychological abuse. (The last part, I didn’t quite see for what it was until after our relationship ended.)
The mental scars this person left me with had me convinced that polyamory wasn’t for me. I liked the idea in theory, but I thought that there was no way I could ever find the level of trust and safety I would need for it to work.
Then I fell for a person who identified as a relationship anarchist.
Abandoning the Narrative
Relationship anarchy is an ironically self-contradictory label, given that for many, eschewing labels is one of the central ideas of RA. For me, RA supplied a new philosophical framework for how I thought about relationships.
In retrospect, the conclusions reached seem obvious: Relationships are fluid. Each one is unique, because the people in it are unique. Labels and definitions may be useful for communication, but are treacherous when they lead to lack thereof, replacing communication with assumption.
Though some see RA as belonging under the umbrealla of polyamory, I see RA purely as a philosophical standpoint. In my mind, it is entirely possible to be RA and still prefer monogamous intimacy. In fact, it seems that I’m pretty mono myself when I’m in love. Though I’m open to sexual encounters with others than my romantic partner, the prospect doesn’t really interest me much and it’s not something I pursue actively. (I am however quite happy for my partner to be involved with others, and have found a wonderful friend in my metamour.)
The point of RA, rather, is to abandon the notions our cultural narrative indoctrinates us with, when it comes to relationships – all relationships, not just romantically and/or sexually intimate ones. RA makes you ask questions such as what it is, exactly, that differentiates “friendship”-type relationships from “partners”, and if it’s really necessary to follow the standard relationship escalation programme of dating-[insert gender]friend-house-babies (or whatever is appropriate in your culture), or if perhaps you would prefer to let your life take another path.
Once you start thinking along those lines, you’ll discover what a ridiculous number of ideas and assumptions go completely unexamined. Both huge life decisions such as whether you want kids or not (of course you do! especially if you’re AFAB, this is obligatory!), but also small, everyday things. For me, one of the big eye-openers was challenging the notion that you always want to share a bed with your lover!
A Normalized Evil
And, of course, jealousy as a natural part of life is one of those notions that can be challenged. Jealousy is so deeply entrenched in the narrative that I think most people don’t ever consider the idea that it’s something that can be managed. But it can be, and I will be writing more about how I do it.
Jealousy is a complicated topic because it’s not one easily definable and identifiable feeling, but rather one or several emotions that arise because of one or several different reasons. It’s also complicated because to a large extent it is socially sanctioned. The mono- and heteronormative society we live in teaches us that jealousy is a sign, sometimes even the sign of deep affection.
Thus, instead of being encouraged to work on it and try to lessen its prevalence and ill effects, couples are actually often encouraged to feel and express jealousy, even to the extent where they start imposing limits on each other’s behaviour. Conversely it’s not uncommon for people to actively try to elicit feelings of jealousy in their partner, either as a tit-for-tat revenge strategy or simply because they feel that expressions of jealousy prove that their partner really cares for them.
Jealousy in Monogamous Relationships
Skipping the part where I argue why jealousy is a problem at all (because I hope it’s self-evident why negative emotions are bad), jealousy is as much a problem for monogamous couples as for less traditional relationships. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that it’s actually a bigger problem, at least if you’re looking at sheer numbers.
Regardless of how one feels about polyamory personally, one thing polyamorous people often do incedibly well is handling jealousy. Or, if not well, they are at least trying, because their lifestyle often forces them to. Thus, it strikes me as profoundly strange that monogamous people often ask non-monogamous people, “But how do you deal with jealousy?!” It seems to me that it is far more common for those who follow the narrative to do everything to avoid dealing with jealousy in any meaningful fashion.
So How Do I Deal, Anyway?
Basically, proclaiming that “we are in a monogamous relationship” does not mean you have dealt with any jealousy that may and probably will occur. In this light, I think it would do individuals as well as society at large a favour to spread the word of jealousy management beyond poly circles.
It would be nice to say I don’t have to deal with jealousy anymore, but I find ideology shifted rather more easily than emotions. I still get jealous, and I doubt I will ever be entirely free of those feelings. But as I was to discover when I set out to date a relationship anarchist, the poly community has produced lots of fantastic resources. These resources and a lot of introspection as well as discussions with my friends produced a mental framework I use for handling my emotions. And that will be my next post on the subject!
As for the person who introduced me to RA, we lived together for a while but ended up renegotiating our relationship. They are still one of the people closest to my heart, even if we have both moved on to new adventures, romance-wise.