I remember it clearly: I was a high school junior staring at the blinking cursor on my college admissions application. “Tell us about a person who has had a profound impact on your life,” the essay prompt read. I assume the admissions committee expected me to write about my grandmother or, I don’t know, Mahatma Gandhi. However, I was compelled to write about my middle school best friend. By being authentically and bravely herself at such a young age, she helped me grow out of my paper-doll cut-out puberty and into a more brazen adolescence. And that laid the foundation for who I hoped to become in college and beyond.
“You want to write about Rachael?” my mother asked, worried this was a flippant way to answer a serious question. But when she read my essay for errors, she shed tears. My mother cried, not only because I was lucky to have someone so powerful in my life, but because she knew her childhood best friend—more than any public figure, family member, or romantic partner—had deeply impacted her, too. For both of us, the relationships we forged with our childhood besties would serve us well into adulthood: We would grow into who we were, partly because of the women we relied on while coming of age.
Almost 20 years later, I’m still thinking about Rachael. More specifically, I’m revisiting the idea that, when we prioritize friendships, our lives can change in substantial ways. Yes, most of us love our friends and enthusiastically show up for them. But cisheteronormativity, or the social conditioning that makes us think cisgender heterosexual relationship values are “the norm,” pushes us to value romantic partners—especially spouses—above all else.
It can be helpful to think of how cisheteronormativity feeds into our relationships as a relationship escalator, whereby societal messaging encourages you to date serially and monogamously until you meet “The One.” Friends support while you’re “on the hunt,” but then society expects you to hyper-focus on a singular, all-encompassing relationship. You move in, get married, have children—and as you ascend toward the creation of this prototypical family system, you might let other relationships (including deep friendships) fall away.
Pushing back against the relationship escalator takes a fair amount of introspection and intentional action. Enter: Relationship anarchy, a phrase created by queer feminist thinker Andie Nordgren, meant to capture the philosophical idea that social rules should not limit our relationships.
In 2006, Nordgren published a pamphlet called The Short Instructional Manifesto for Relationship Anarchy. It laid out several core tenets of the philosophy, including the idea that relationships—and their commitments—are customizable. They shouldn’t be based on any sense of entitlement (people don’t “owe” you anything), and you don’t need to rank romantic and platonic relationships. You can embrace non-monogamy if you’d like instead of hewing to the idea that you should only have one romantic partner!
Overall, relationship anarchists place less emphasis on titles—like partner, sibling, parent, or friend—and more on the relationship’s significance. You’re not expected to prioritize your mother just by virtue of her being so. You’re not expected to live with a romantic interest over a platonic connection. Instead, you organize your life around the relationships that are most meaningful to you. (In fact, even using words like friend and partner here arguably flies in the face of the entire philosophy.)
“Relationship anarchy can allow for the room to create our own internal markers of success,” Sonalee Rashatwar, L.C.S.W, tells SELF. And it can help us rely less on legitimizing our relationship choices through state-sanctioned approval (i.e., institutions like marriage), Rashatwar adds.
For Dan L., 29, relationship anarchy was not an intentional path. Despite meeting “The One” in college and getting married at 21, they felt unfulfilled. Dan, who identifies as a fat, queer, genderfluid, neurodivergent, Chicanx person, found traditional relationship structures limiting. “I always just assumed that my constant discontent within cisheternormative relationships was a reflection of my inherent incorrectness,” they tell SELF. It didn’t immediately occur to Dan that the problem might be with rigid norms society imposes.
Dan met other queer people who were reinventing relationship rules and embarked on internal work to discover what they truly wanted—and that was deep community connection. “We always hear ‘it takes a village’ when it comes to raising a child,” Dan says. “But I never see people celebrating the commitment and trust of a lifelong friendship.”
Relationship anarchy can look different for everyone, but it always involves reevaluating and restructuring relationships based on people’s individual (and collective) needs. For Dan, relationship anarchy centers self-determination. It involves “co-constructing and maintaining structures that support and empower each person in asserting their own autonomy at all times.” For example, Dan creates space in their friendships for people to ask for what they need—and space for people to say no “for any reason at any point in time.”
“It felt like unfolding an air mattress from the box,” Dan says of leaving traditional relationship models behind. “There’s no way we’re getting that thing back in there.”
In my own life, I have moved away from engaging in relationships in ways that center monogamy, cisheteronormativity, and nuclear family systems. Instead, I allow relationships to grow organically, and I prioritize them by how meaningful they are to my (and the other person’s) growth.
I practice polyamory, recognizing how unexamined monogamy can be harmful and limiting. By deprioritizing cis men in my life, I challenge the patriarchal notion that as a woman, my role is to cater to men. And I place friendships back where they belong for me—front and center—by giving mostly fellow queer, femme women the most gravitational pull in my orbit. I try to show up with the same fervor and dedication to everyone in my close circle, with radical honesty and celebrations of authenticity. Sometimes that looks like having intense late-night conversations about the state of our relationships, regardless of platonic or romantic intimacy. Sometimes it’s as simple as buying friends and partners equally awesome birthday gifts. The idea is: I allow the light in my life to be as vast as it is bright. I give myself permission to love without inhibitions.
A multifaceted system will always be more supportive than a singular focus for me. And emphasizing non-romantic relationships can only help us live more fully, especially because different people illuminate unique parts of ourselves. Rashatwar says that having deep, intimate friendships in adulthood can help us integrate our adult and child selves, leading us to soothe old psychological pains. Dan agrees, stating that their emphasis on friendship and community has “has allowed me to heal wounds of shame” that came with needing lots of different paths for deep connection.
In a world where we often joke about how hard it is to make and maintain friends in adulthood, we should question the systems that drive a wedge into those relationships in pursuit of one, narrow, sometimes fleeting structure. And if we find ourselves craving friendships that feel like middle school sleepovers, we should create the space to have them.
I’ve been lucky to love and be loved deeply—to have had relationships of all kinds that changed my trajectory. And with relationship anarchy, I can more fully engage in the most meaningful connections with boundless abundance.