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Relationship anarchy

Courtney Thompson asks why we prioritise romance over friendship

There is a scene in the fourth season of Sex and the City (stay with me) where the four women are at their usual jaunt (an ambiguous café in New York City that probably charges $5 for hot water with lemon) and Carrie (stay with me) is bemoaning the lack of a romantic partner in her life, or as she put it “no god- damn soulmate”. This elicits a surprising response from Charlotte (usually most preoccupied with finding her own romantic life-partner), who says, “well, maybe we can be each others’ soulmates and then we could let men be just these great, nice guys to have fun with.”

This suggestion, that perhaps the three women sitting in front of her are her soul mates (a proposition that is confirmed as the show progresses), is one that is particularly poignant to me at this stage of my life.

I’ve recently been plagued by the question of why we prioritise romantic relationships over platonic relationships. Born out of a frustration with friends who repeatedly seek validation through attention steeped in romantic attraction, I haven’t been able to shake the nagging question of really, why am I not good enough for my friends? And more to the point, why do their romantic interests always – by default – take priority?

Within mainstream western culture, romantic love has been taken and represented as inherently more valuable than platonic love. At almost every turn, romance is centred and in increasingly damaging ways at that.

Women in particular are socialised to believe that because it is our ‘duty’ to reproduce, our value is rooted in our reproductive capabilities and finding a mate to reproduce with. Obviously, this narrative is exceptionally heteronormative, and not applicable to, yet it helps partially explain why women in particular feel the compulsion to find a romantic partner, and fast. Despite the shift that has taken place in the way we think of platonic love today to how Plato originally intended, people still – subconsciously or otherwise – organise their relationships into a hierarchy, and more often than not, platonic relationships are lower in that hierarchy than romantic ones.

For people in their twenties, I find this presumption particularly problematic, as our romantic relationships tend to be more ephemeral. And who are the people you turn to when a romantic relationship comes to an end? More often than not, it will be your friends, or maybe even your family.

So why does this privileging persist? Most people I put this question to responded with the inevitable and most expected; extreme intimacy, by virtue of sex. You are not so intimate with your friends and because of this – apparently – an exceptional bond is forged.

When we are talking about the role of sex in differentiating platonic from romantic relationships, people suggest it comes down to the chemicals involved. A mix of dopamine, norepinephrine (adrenalin) and Serotonin, chemicals so strong they are often compared to the likes of cocaine and nicotine. Chemicals aside though, people have casual sexual relationships and some people in relationships don’t have sex, so why should we blindly accept romantic love as more worthy than platonic love?

Relationship anarchists agree with me. Relationship anarchy is the term used to describe a philosophy of love whereby all love is infinite and equal. It pos- its a world where relationships develop organically, but without being placed in any hierarchical structure. It radically reconceptualises how we understand relationships in our lives; just because you are romantic with one person, doesn’t necessarily mean that that relationship is more worthy of time and energy as one that is not romantic or sexual in the same way.

While relationship anarchy evolved out of polyamory dis- course, the philosophies are distinct. A polyamorous person still has the capacity to prioritise their romantic relationships (even if they are plural rather than singular) and thus can be a “romance supremacist”.

Relationship anarchy extends beyond the best friend versus the boyfriend. It means taking all relationships – such as the one you have with someone in a tutorial, with a co-worker, or even a sibling – and valuing them for what they are. Rather than trying to place them within a hierarchy, embracing the fact that they each give you something unique.

By reconceptualising our relationships in this way, it also allows space for the possibility that when any relation- ship ends, it’s not irrational to feel intensely upset, in the way that society only reserves for a “break-up”. Too often do we delegitimise our emotions because “it wasn’t that serious”, or “we only dated for a few months” and by extension, because the relationship was platonic and not romantic. These reactions are defined by the same intuition, that which gives every relationship a normative value, instead of a personally defined one.

Relationship anarchy, like any political theory, is a mode of adjusting our thinking. It does not mean a roman- tic relationship can’t be the most important one in someone’s life, it just means it isn’t by default. It doesn’t mean your tutorial friend has to be as important as your sister, but it means they can be. By challenging the assumptions that underlie relationships, we empower their potential. So next time you start to be a Carrie, maybe let Charlotte play devil’s advocate.