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This primer is an introduction to one perspective on having healthy, ethical relationships. All opinions are my own and do not reflect a supremacy or One True Way position. Questions are given for self reflection as a courtesy for those who want to go deeper.

Relationships are complex strategies for satisfying a variety of human needs. This includes needs like helping others, feeling appreciated, and demonstrating kindness as well as often assumed needs like sexual satisfaction, domestic companionship, and emotional connection.

A. Compassionate Communication (NVC) and the Language of Needs

Humans have a limited set of needs which include: Connection, Sustenance, Honesty, Play, Peace, Autonomy, and Meaning. For more, consider reading Non Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg or exploring his site at the link above.

Q1) Which of your needs from the needs inventory above are you interested in pursuing?
Q2) Do you have needs not mentioned in the list?

B. Relationship Philosophies

People relate to each other based on relationship philosophies they’ve learned (like monogamy) often implicitly adopted instead of discussed and designed. Each have pros and cons and none are universally better than any others.

In open, ethical, Honest Non-Monogamy, all of your intimate needs do not need to be met by the same person. Therefore, needs can be viewed as separable from each other. Thus sexual, romantic, or other intimate connections; community, emotional, or financial security – these can be met by different people. This is an umbrella term holding literally every relationship philosophy except monogamy or cheating (see “open, ethical, honest” above).

Non-monogamy often means getting one’s needs met is one’s personal responsibility. This frees partners from feeling obligated to provide for needs as they are no longer the only source. One relationship may not provide all things. Rather than accept a fraction of what one wants, one can explore multiple honest, ethical intimate relationships.

C. Forms of Non Monogamy

I’m not a swinger, but will attempt to share some information for completeness only, but you would be best served by googling resources from that community if you want to learn (i.e.: Swinger lifestyle community events, etc).

Traditional Swingers often identify as romantically or socially monogamous but may meet sexual needs both in and out of their socially monogamous, “open” relationship. They may interact with singles or couples. They might soft swing (exhibitionistic sexual monogamy). If they do have sex outside of their relationship, often (but not always) the relationship/romantic partner has veto (a power dynamic) to end other relationships (often with no discussion). As with all ethical power dynamics, this must be negotiated in advance with any “thirds” or “other partners.” My opinion is for this to be ethical, informed consent is required, meaning everyone understands what it looks like when that veto power is exercised and what happens with the third – are they discarded? Given the silent treatment? Kept on as a friend? Are they even allowed to say goodbye?

In relationships without veto, a range of oppressive rules can be used to intentionally prevent intimacy or kill connection forming outside the prioritized, socially monogamous relationship.

From my understanding, at least historically, homophobia used to be quite commonplace for men while female acts of homoflexibility were/are highly encouraged. While this may not be so in progressive circles, it’s important to be aware this used to and may still be part of some swinger cultures.

Hierarchical Polyamory involves one “primary” partner who may have veto or the ability to define their partner’s other relationships often termed “secondary.” The key feature with polyamory is having multiple “loves” or romantic relationships. Polyamorists may engage in swinging or casual sex; swingers may find themselves forming romantic attachments and therefore wandering into polyamory. Both of those situations may be desirable or undesirable, permitted or forbidden.

Clear expectation setting is key to getting informed consent. Asking what makes someone “secondary” to the open “primary” relationship is important. Is it a range of interactions? A prioritization? A prohibition of activities? What makes any relationship special?

It’s important in my opinion to watch out for potentially harmful rules used instead of good expectation setting. Rules designed to deliberately prevent “secondary” relationships from usurping “primary” roles can end up causing pain and objectification where “secondaries” get treated as need fulfillment machines, not whole people.

While hierarchy can be very fun when negotiated and informed, it can also be a way of substituting control and power for trust.

Polyamory often requires emotional work and self growth, leading to moments of stress, jealousy, anger, frustration, and fear. Without working on oneself or seeking therapy, one can get stuck in those moments until one is unstuck. Using power and control as a substitute for trust is in my opinion a short term solution to a long term problem, but perhaps that’s my bias.

Non-Hierarchical Polyamory is any ethical form of polyamory without partner hierarchy or control (no veto). There may still be a hierarchy of obligation (children, shared finances, marriage), but not one of power. It’s not one open relationship. There are no “other” relationships, just each person open to multiple relationships.

One method is to focus on needs-based requests for resources instead of entitlement based on seniority or “specialness.” Needs to feel special, valued, loved, etc or to share time, get attention, etc are all valid while a need for hierarchy (“being first”) isn’t compatible in my opinion.

There are many ways to make a relationship special other than exclusivity. Intimacy, trust, and love do not require dependence.

Relationship Anarchy (RA)(original manifesto is here/here) makes the radical assertion that intimate relationships can be those that satisfy any needs, not just sexual or romantic as with other relationship philosophies (monogamy and polyamory).

It also focuses on autonomy and consent. (For example, a best friend and roommate can be a stakeholder in house purchases, children, or other life decisions in RA while in polyamory they would usually be considered “less than” intimate partners.)

Rooted in anarchism, it stresses creating the rules we follow instead of following social norms, rules, or scripting created for us. As such RA reduces entitlement and stresses negotiating interactions. (Ex: invitation for drinks at their place is starting a script that usually ends in sex – or following RA, it just means an invitation for drinks.)

Polysaturation (being polysaturated) is the state of having all of the partners you care to have. Often this is linked to one’s needs. Often satisfying needs involves an exchange of cups – giving some of one thing to receive some of another. When your need for cuddles or sex etc is full, spending energy to get more is unproductive.

Having a Monogamy Hangover is painful or harmful behaviour to oneself or others caused by a lifetime of monogamous conditioning through stories, misconceptions, and indoctrination. Myths like “you can only really love one person at a time” or “if I’m not enough for them by myself, something is wrong with me (or them)” or “if they find someone better they’ll leave me.”

Love isn’t limited, and typically if someone is invested in your happiness and wants you to get all your needs met with various partners, why would you leave someone that supportive and flexible? Ultimately relationships fail or succeed on their own merits or issues, not because of other relationships. Again, if your partner isn’t looking for just one relationship, there’s no motivation to leave one person for another.

Q3) Which if any relationship styles interest you? Are they (is it) compatible with RA?

There is a second part to this series on relationships.