As part of this year’s Beyond the Love polyamory conference, I gave a presentation on relationship anarchy. Most of the content has already appeared on the blog in my previous posts about relationship anarchy, and it drew heavily from my posts about rules and decision-making.
The presentation closed with a discussion of how anarchic relationships actually work in practice. The main idea is that anarchic relationships are completely consent-based, down to the smallest details. This is how I visualize it:
As you can see, the idea is that “a relationship” consists of the activities that both people genuinely want to engage in. Anything that I want to do that you don’t want to do, we don’t do. I either do that with someone else who consents, I do it alone, or I just don’t do it.
This can sound somewhat harsh, but in practice it isn’t that far from what most people believe. What I want to do is infinitely changeable. The fact that a partner wants to do something can easily move something into the “I want to do that” category. There are many things I do with my current partners that wouldn’t be enjoyable without them. Just knowing that something would help a partner to be happy is often all the motivation I need to do it. But sometimes it isn’t, and that’s ok too. And that’s the key difference in a consent-based relationship. When your relationship is based on consent, you will affirm and support a partner’s decision to say “no” to you.
I don’t actually know too many people who disagree with this outlook. But I know a LOT of people who will get angry at a partner for not doing what they want. My theory is that the anger is inspired by the fact that their happiness is not a sufficient motivating factor. I also think that people are very good at fooling themselves into believing that their partner is acting free of coercion, when really their partner is just doing what they want to avoid a fight or other negative consequences. It’s easy to say “I’m angry because you wouldn’t come with me to my cousin’s wedding.” It’s more complicated to say “I’m upset because my happiness wasn’t enough to motivate you to want to come to the wedding.” In the former, the solution is easy – just go to the wedding! With the latter, there is no clear solution, and you may just need to adjust your future expectations to reflect the reality of the situation.
Despite that, however, I think it’s a good idea to affirm the general idea that a consent-based relationship involves only activities that both parties genuinely want to do. If you find yourself doing things that you don’t actually want to do, it’s worth thinking about why you’re doing them. If fear of consequences imposed by your partner is motivating you, it may be a sign that there is a problem in your relationship.
It is my firm belief that all ethical relationships are consent-based. Coercing a partner into doing what you want is never an ethical thing to do. Just as consent is the foundation of sexual ethics, consent is also the foundation of relationship ethics. It forms the base on which all other relationship ethics are derived. Relationship anarchy is about ensuring the maximum freedom for everyone, and that starts with respecting everyone’s consent.