Anarchy! (Um . . . Relationship Anarchy, that is.)

hyperskeptic

New member
I'm intrigued by the idea of 'relationship anarchy' and the ways in which it seems to converge with and diverge from 'polyamory'.

In searching the forum, I have not found a focused discussion of the idea, so I thought I'd try to get one started.

Is anyone else familiar with the idea of 'relationship anarchy', or have any experience of it? To what degree is the idea compatible with your understanding of 'polyamory'?

It strikes me as consistent with polyamory, in some respects, but at the same time more radical.

(What follows is a long-ish introduction, outlining how I got to this point. If you don't have time to read the whole thing, scroll down to the end for the upshot.)

I notice that my recent posts to this forum have been converging on a particular idea, one for which I did not have a name.

Here's one example of the idea starting to take form, from this thread, as part of discussion of how relationships "end" (emphasis added):

In conventional terms, there are two, off-the-shelf varieties of relationship: romance and friendship, and each is carefully defined in terms of roles and expectations, particular degrees and kinds (and limits) of intimacy and commitment.

A life-long, committed, monogamous romantic relationship is widely supposed to be like the rarest and most precious of gems that two people might have. (I suppose they should keep in a safe-deposit box along with a copy of the deed to their house.)

Doesn't that idea seem just a little bizarre and, when you look closely, kind of offensive? What seems to get lost is that the parties to any given relationships are persons and that, while the ways in which they relate to one another - the scope of what they share and the boundaries they set - may change, sometimes quite drastically and abruptly, they remain two persons who connect to one another in their own way.

For me, part of the delight of becoming poly is the opportunity to examine all my expectations and habits of thought about relationships, and especially [to] unbundle the two, off-the-shelf models of relationship and, above all, to de-thingify them.

It has been helpful to me to think of the possible ways of relating to another person as a wide field of possibilities - or, if you want to get all math geeky about it, an n-dimensional space of possibilities. Off-the-shelf conventional friendship and off-the-shelf conventional romance are tiny little corners of that space.

Any two people can negotiate their own ways of navigating those possibilities together[/U] . . . and may renegotiate and renegotiate as they go.


I later added this postscript:

I would add that two people may work out their own trajectory through the n-dimensional relation-space as well. How much misery has been occasioned by the assumption that a relationship, to become a thing worth having, must follow a single clear trajectory toward the tiny little corner labeled "romance"? And how many guys have gotten bent out of shape by finding themselves suddenly diverted over to that other tiny little corner, "the friend zone"? Much of that misery and being-bent-out-of-shape could be avoided by just accepting that two people can carve out their own particular place anywhere in that field of possibilities and take any path to get there . . . and it doesn't even have to be a straight line!

I also provided this handy executive summary:

Too long? Didn't read? Well, here's the upshot: Stop thinking of a relationship as a thing that may blink out of existence; stop pursuing any particular, off-the-shelf model of relationship. Instead, invest in relating to other people, and find with each of them your very own way of being open to one another.

I was trying to articulate the same idea on another thread when Eponine (thanks, Eponine!) introduced the term 'relationship anarchy'.

The Wikipedia entry on 'relationship anarchy' is brief and seems underdeveloped, but here's the central idea:

Relationship anarchy (abbreviated RA) is the practice of forming relationships that are not bound by set rules. It goes beyond polyamory by postulating that there need not be a formal distinction between different types of relationships.

As always, the references in the Wikipedia entry are more useful than the entry itself. One of the links leads to a short manifesto by Andie Nordgren, who is credited with coining the term. Here's an excerpt, with emphasis added:

Life would not have much structure or meaning without joining together with other people to achieve things - constructing a life together, raising children, owning a house or growing together through thick and thin. Such endeavors usually need lots of trust and commitment between people to work. Relationship anarchy is not about never committing to anything - it’s about designing your own commitments with the people around you, and freeing them from norms dictating that certain types of commitments are a requirement for love to be real, or that some commitments like raising children or moving in together have to be driven by certain kinds of feelings. Start from scratch and be explicit about what kind of commitments you want to make with other people!

So, here is THE UPSHOT:

What do you think of the idea of 'relationship anarchy'? Does it make sense? Is it tenable? Do you want to start storming the barricades of off-the-shelf thinking in relationships? Or do you want to resist, to hold on to something you see as good in more conventional categories of relationship?

Do 'polyamory' and 'relationship anarchy' really come to the same thing? Or is 'relationship anarchy' - as I suspect it might be - more radical than 'polyamory' is generally conceived to be, questioning assumptions even those committed to polyamory often still make?

And is 'anarchy' really the best term? In the United States, the term conjures up dim collective memories of the Haymarket Riot, the very source of the paradigm "bomb-throwing radical" . . . In short, 'anarchy' has overtones of violence hereabouts that might not apply in a European context or in the more airy realms of academic social and political theory, where 'anarchy' has a drier and more precise meaning.

In another thread, I suggested 'relationship-queer' as a possible term for what I take to be the more radical approach to relationships, a term that has quite different connotations.
 
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london

Banned
It all depends on the person and I know plenty of people who subscribe to relationship anarchy have thriving, successful relationships. The risk, from what I've seen and experienced from people who subscribe to this model, is that the person lets a partner down and then uses this relationship anarchy theory to tell them why they didn't let them down and also why they were pretty stupid/naive/controlling to have that expectation of them in the first place.

It does ultimately come back down to partner selection, that is true, but it makes me uneasy to let go of the idea that people have any obligations to those they have relationships with.
 
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wildflowers

New member
You should take a look for Marcus' posts, since he definitely believes in the anarchy model.

I don't have strong feelings about it myself. I think both RA and poly provide a strong impetus to examine what your assumptions are about relationships, and evaluate how valid or useful they are. I like your overall approach of allowing relationships freedom to develop in whatever direction seems to work (and BTW I love your descriptions of how that's worked out with Metis). I can be a bit irked by RA when it seems rather dogmatically anti-dogmatic, but see the appeal as long as it stays mellow and flexible.

I agree that anarchy is a bit of a loaded term, but I think queer is moreso, so I prefer the former. Still, I wouldn't take a "storm the barricades" approach. The key is that you have freedom in your relationships, but you also allow it to others, so you can't throw bombs into their traditional structures just because you don't want one.
 

nycindie

Active member
Oh I do hope Marcus adds to this thread, as I believe he considers himself a relationship anarchist (though I am not speaking for him and he might actually object to being labeled in any way). I am certain Marcus would be able to add a very thought-provoking perspective to what you are saying.

As for me, I will have to add my thoughts later... gotta go now!
 

hyperskeptic

New member
The risk, from what I've seen and experienced from people who subscribe to this model, is that the person lets a partner down and then uses this relationship anarchy theory to tell them why they didn't let them down and also why they were pretty stupid/naive/controlling to have that expectation of them in the first place.

It seems to me this is a risk with any idea or principle or outlook. In fact, I'm hard pressed to think of a single human idea that could not be or has not been used by someone, at some point, as a pretext or an excuse for acting like a jerk. That includes 'polyamory', as we see demonstrated, now and again, in stories on this forum.

I guess I'm more interested in the merits of the idea itself: assuming a reasonable person of good will makes a principled commitment to living by the idea of relationship anarchy, how viable might that idea turn out to be?

For the sake of argument, I'm taking at face value Nordgren's statement that RA is about commitments to other people based on principles or, as the Manifesto would have it, "core values".

I can be a bit irked by RA when it seems rather dogmatically anti-dogmatic, but see the appeal as long as it stays mellow and flexible.

I agree that anarchy is a bit of a loaded term, but I think queer is moreso, so I prefer the former. Still, I wouldn't take a "storm the barricades" approach. The key is that you have freedom in your relationships, but you also allow it to others, so you can't throw bombs into their traditional structures just because you don't want one.

Speaking for myself, I'm a pragmatist about such things: I'm not much swayed by dogma, not even anti-dogmatic dogma.* When I try out a new idea, like RA, I'm mainly asking: Does this idea help me to make sense of part of my experience? Does this idea help me to figure out what to do - and what not to do - as I make my way in the world?

So, yeah. Mellow and flexible.

Don't expect to find me marching down the street with my fist in the air and this on my t-shirt:

252px-RadicalRelationsHeart.svg.png


(It's pretty cool, though, as symbols go.)
____________
*That's where my user name came from: I'm irked by self-described skeptics who become dogmatic in their attacks on dogma, so I go a step further . . . if only to point out that "dogmatic skepticism" is a contradiction in terms.
 
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london

Banned
I'm not sure how it differs from people who simply practice a very open and liberal style of polyamory. Or to be more honest, I'm not sure how it differs from someone like me and how I do and plan to continue structuring my relationships except the bits of it that I feel dismiss the idea of obligation to the people you form relationships with. Yeah, it all comes down to partner selection but my question would be why someone would subscribe to this label, when it doesn't really cover anything different than a liberal style of poly? What is it that is attractive?
 

hyperskeptic

New member
I'm not sure how it differs from people who simply practice a very open and liberal style of polyamory. Or to be more honest, I'm not sure how it differs from someone like me and how I do and plan to continue structuring my relationships except the bits of it that I feel dismiss the idea of obligation to the people you form relationships with. Yeah, it all comes down to partner selection but my question would be why someone would subscribe to this label, when it doesn't really cover anything different than a liberal style of poly? What is it that is attractive?

If the concept is useful at all - and, for me, the jury is still out - it may be most useful when used in a way that is somewhat independent of 'polyamory': it's not a substitute but a supplement.

There are various approaches to polyamory, and it may be useful to have a more precise language for characterizing some of those differences. Characterizing some approaches as "more liberal," for example, is pretty vague, really.

What 'relationship anarchy' might allow us to do is very precisely to distinguish ways of being poly along one particular dimension, from those that include fairly rigid, fairly conventional categories of relationship, and perhaps a few well defined variants (e.g., romantic involvement, friendship, primary, secondary, etc.) from those that reject rigid categories in favor of a much more open approach.

As for the idea of 'relationship anarchy' itself, I don't see how it entails a rejection of responsibility or obligations toward other people. The idea, if I'm understanding it correctly, is that the terms of those obligations are to be worked out one relationship at a time, rather than simply buying the off-the-shelf packages of obligation and responsibility provided by mainstream culture (e.g., monogamous marriage, with all the rights, privileges and obligations appertaining thereunto).

The enforcement of those obligations should come from within the relationship itself, by direct accountability to each of the others with whom we have relationships, rather than from social norms and institutions.

In fact, the whole idea seems to be founded on a deeply ethical idea of respecting other individuals as individuals, working things out on the basis of freedom and reciprocity.

To that extent it's a beautiful idea, really, whatever its other merits.
 
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Eponine

New member
I'm glad that you're interested in RA and made a separate thread for it. :)

I think RA is more radical than poly. Someone who is RA is probably poly, but I don't think many polys are RA. First, hierarchical poly is incompatible with the RA philosophy, which is against entitlement and arbitrary rules. Second, even many non-hierarchical poly people draw a clear line between "just friends" and "romantic partners", whereas RA aims at dissolving the rigid relationship categories. This blog post did a pretty good job of explaining the differences between poly and RA.

The enforcement of those obligations should come from within the relationship itself, by direct accountability to each of the others with whom we have relationships, rather than from social norms and institutions.

In fact, the whole idea seems to be founded on a deeply ethical idea of respecting other individuals as individuals, working things out on the basis of freedom and reciprocity.
I agree. One of my SOs has said that RA means a "bottom-up" approach to do relationships: Forget about all the pre-set categories and what a relationship is "supposed" to look like; instead, just work out the terms and conditions of each individual relationship based on the participants' unique needs. Hence the "customized commitment" idea in the RA manifesto.
 

InsaneMystic

New member
I think RA is more radical than poly. Someone who is RA is probably poly, but I don't think many polys are RA. First, hierarchical poly is incompatible with the RA philosophy, which is against entitlement and arbitrary rules. Second, even many non-hierarchical poly people draw a clear line between "just friends" and "romantic partners", whereas RA aims at dissolving the rigid relationship categories. This blog post did a pretty good job of explaining the differences between poly and RA.
[...]
One of my SOs has said that RA means a "bottom-up" approach to do relationships: Forget about all the pre-set categories and what a relationship is "supposed" to look like; instead, just work out the terms and conditions of each individual relationship based on the participants' unique needs. Hence the "customized commitment" idea in the RA manifesto.
This, basically. :)

While I kinda do agree with how london put it - "a very open and liberal style of polyamory" - there's only so far you can go in that 'liberalism' before lots of poly folks will start telling you how "you got it all wrong, that's not poly, it's XYZ". One of the things I keep saying a lot is "all healthy relationships are some form of friendship, some of these with (some kind of) benefits".

Basically, I'd say a "relationship" is when two or more people call whatever contact they have by the label "relationship". Beyond that, there aren't any universal commonalities anymore; you don't need sex, or romance, or shared living arrangements, or long-term commitment, or whatevs, to be 'shipping partners. You're free to pick-and-choose these as parts of your personal package however way everyone involved wants.

...and I've found that folks who aren't into RA to some degree tend to rather strongly disagree with that view, no matter if they are poly or mono, because unlike me, they perceive some kind of absolute universal difference between "partner" and "close friend", where I just go "potayto, potahto?". ;)
 

hyperskeptic

New member
One of the things I keep saying a lot is "all healthy relationships are some form of friendship, some of these with (some kind of) benefits".

Yeah, this pretty much sums it up. The label - relationship anarchy, relationship-queer, or whatever - doesn't add a lot to that.

(I suddenly find myself thinking it all comes back around to Aristotle's idea of philia - friendship and/or affection.)
 

LovingRadiance

Active member
I tend to think it's different. Compatible for some. Not compatible for others.

My current configuration is definitely NOT RA. Primarily because Maca would lose his marbles with RA.

But-my prior relationships were very much so. All of my lovers are friends and always have been. Also-many of my friends have been lovers. All of my ex-lovers are friends.
The only distinguishing feature is that sometimes we decide we aren't compatible for some specific activity or another. I can't even say sexually-because in some cases, it was only SPECIFIC sexual activities we weren't compatible in-and therefor stopped.
But there were no 'lines in the sand'.

However-part of having romantic entanglements, is respecting the needs of both parties.
I didn't NEED that lifestyle.
Maca does need a more defined lifestyle. So I gave it up in sexual arenas and I am comfortable with that.

But-it exists in "friend or family" dynamics all through my life. My in-laws were here this week, and my mother in law is a newer wife. She doesn't know me very well and they live far away. She was a bit startled at the number of people identified as "just part of the family" with no legal or biological ties. Not offended, just startled.
My social group is very fluid in terms of how we operate our relationships. We say I love you to each other and it's not pertinent to who is sexually or romantically involved.
Yesterday we did Thanksgiving and a "friend" by most people's definitions was over. I was curled up in her lap as we talked. We were both comfortable. We aren't sexually involved. Never have been, she's mono and married and unlikely we ever will be. But we are comfortable with each other and we hug or cuddle as we wish without regards to other people's "social norms".
This behavior is the "normal" of my social group. I think it is related to RA. Whilst I no longer cross the boundaries of physical sex with anyone outside of Maca and I's agreement; I do flirt, talk about sex, cuddle, hug, hold hands etc with whoever, whenever. These "friends" are family and we operate as we feel comfortable.
 

Marcus

Well-known member
Anarchy is for Lovers

Anarchy is a tricky subject to discuss. As you can imagine, most people who identify with the concept of anarchy are hesitant to be the first jack-ass to assign any firm guidelines to the idea. So what we are left with is the vague waxing of 18th century philosophers, late 19th and early 20th century radical anti-government "direct action" anarchists, and modern day pissed off 14 year olds who are just flailing to be accepted. I expect they are all a little correct, and a little incorrect.

The core concept which most people agree on is to exist without the burden of external rule; all other discussions usually build from that foundation. The hope is to live a genuine existence, to develop ones own values and traditions based on how they see the world. Relationship anarchy, as with anarchy as a "political stance", should be approached as a guiding principle more than something to actually attain. Many anarchists dream to have a community in which the members (regardless of the size) reach a natural equilibrium; agreement by non-coercive consensus. They can theoretically live out their lives without putting much thought into it, yet from the outside looking in they seem to be acting out a well choreographed dance where the needs and abilities of each dancer supports and encourages the other without ever applying any pressure or correcting their natural rhythm.

In more direct terms, my view of relationship anarchy is much like the manifesto linked in my sig and in this thread. As long as I strive to let people be who they are, live by my own values, do no harm, and respect the fact that my fellows should be enjoyed - not controlled, I think I'm doing alright. I tirelessly question the values I follow and allow them to either stand or fall, according to their validity, all in an effort to be who I am and find a place of peace within the world.

In practice, I am still a new player in relating this way. I have very recently come into some difficulty and realized, again, that I have quite some growing to do before I will be able to smoothly and effortlessly relate the way I want to. Who knows if I'll ever get there, I've got quite a bit of baggage to unload, but we'll see.
 

Marcus

Well-known member
Removing Barriers to Exit

Do 'polyamory' and 'relationship anarchy' really come to the same thing? Or is 'relationship anarchy' - as I suspect it might be - more radical than 'polyamory' is generally conceived to be, questioning assumptions even those committed to polyamory often still make?

One glaring difference between someone who strives to have relationships styled to foster independence, and the more traditional model of committing to a partner, setting up rules, and having varying degrees of control over one another is the expectation of longevity.

Marriage, as the most extreme example, is a contract which (among other things) makes abolishing the association a legal issue.

A person who identifies the reality that people change over time, in various directions, and at different speeds, necessarily must agree that relationships between these ever changing people must be allowed to be equally fluid. This is not to say that a relationship anarchist would not value long term relationships, of course they would, but to allow an association to change in the way it needs to precludes the members from setting arbitrary guarantees or making altering the association a painful legal action or emotional explosion.

Of course one doesn't need to be married to assume that a relationship must last a certain period of time. That much is obvious when we look at how strongly most people seem to react to ending a relationship. Instead of being disappointed and needing some time to "mourn" the change in their association, people become vindictive and irrationally destructive to one another. The "how dare you break up with me" and "I can't believe I wasted 2 years of my life with you" fights come bursting onto the scene. Suddenly all of the good will built over the life of the relationship counts for nothing and it is a race to see who can be a bigger asshole.

Why? Isn't it obvious that the relationship should change or be dissolved entirely? I am of the opinion that at least part of this visceral reaction is due to the expectation of longevity. Most folks have an arbitrary timeline associated with a relationship and feel dejected and betrayed if their partner decides they need to go a different direction before the appointed time (usually the time frame involves one of them dying).

One of my hopes is to be able to relate to people without the assumption of longevity and to enjoy people when I have access to them and not allow myself to dwell on the loss when our association changes.
 
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london

Banned
I can't see that it is any different from a more liberal form of poly. More liberal meaning polyamory without rules and restrictions about who and how one can love outside of their primary relationship. To me, some of the ideas listed as being central to RA are ideas that have to be present in an ethically non monogamous relationship for it to be polyamorous. I don't believe that understanding you do not need to be desperately in love with one another or reach a certain level of romantic commitment before you decide to co parent or co habit is unique to RA. Many poly people live and co parent together because it was a logical step given everyone's circumstances and desires.

As I said, the only time I see a clear difference is when it goes wrong and you have situations where RA is used as an excuse to be a shitty partner or friend. Otherwise, I don't see how it's any different to an egalitarian, liberal form of polyamory.
 
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hyperskeptic

New member
The Uses of Concepts

I can't see . . . I don't see . . .

Okay.

It wasn't my aim in starting this thread to push the idea of RA on anyone, even on myself. I'm really only trying to see if the idea does any useful work for me as I continue to develop an unconventional way of relating to other people.

If it doesn't do useful work for you, well, that's all right.

Last night, I was starting to think of 'polyamory' and 'relationship anarchy' as defining an overlapping conceptual space, the kind of thing you could represent with a Venn diagram.

After reading Marcus' posts - for which thank you very much, Marcus - I'm not so sure. The concepts themselves don't really overlap, though someone might make use of one or the other in making sense of their own relationships in practice.

I've written in this thread that I'm basically a pragmatist, and I mean that in a fairly technical, philosophical sense. One aspect of pragmatism is a kind of theoretical or conceptual pluralism: rather than insisting on a single correct theory or concept or outlook or whatever, pragmatism leaves room to experiment, to try on various conceptual frameworks in order to see which ones are useful in particular contexts.

It seems to me, then, that 'polyamory' is one conceptual framework that includes a number of assumptions about what human beings are and how the world works and what our aims should be; 'relationship anarchy' is a very different conceptual framework that includes some different assumptions about what human beings are and how the world works and what our aims should be.

To use one framework is to pick out certain features of the world as important, while other features recede from awareness; the framework connects and makes sense of those features in a particular way.

So, for example, polyamory frames the world of intimate relationships along a one-many axis.

Switch to the other framework, and what was in the foreground may slip to the background, and vice versa; the other framework identifies different aspects of the world as significant, and connects them together in different ways.

So, for example, relationship anarchy - if I'm understanding it - frames the world of intimate relationships along an external-internal axis, in terms of the locus of control over the form and expectations of relationships.

In practice, one is a hammer, the other is a spanner: they serve different functions and you should reach for the one that will be useful for the purpose at hand.

I mean, you can drive nails with a spanner, but why would you?

And, yes, you can get up to all kinds of mischief with a spanner, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't use when you really need to fix the plumbing.

Besides, you can get up to all sorts of mischief with a hammer, too.
 
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london

Banned
I know you're not trying to push RA on me or anyone else. I'm answering the way I am because I actually looked into this a little while ago for some of the same reasons you seem to be. You see, for me, once one agrees to a polyamorous relationship, they are also agreeing to let go of some mono normative ideas about sex and relationships. They have to. If they dont, neither they or their partner will be able to have healthy relationships with other people. Lots of people who identify as poly don't seem to let go of these ideals though, not entirely, and although they aren't monogamous they construct their relationships and have expectations that are in line with mono normative thinking. I see a big correlation in how much they let go of these ideals and the achievement rate of all people (who want to) in their network having successful relationships with other people.

Losing mono normative thinking means understanding that someone might have a friend who is just a friend that they have sex with and will probably be the only person they'd co parent with. It means understanding that someone's most "serious" relationship might be a person that lives far away and they only see twice a year although they live with two other romantic partners who they describe as "casual". It's understanding that someone you was once married to, might end up as a person you fuck when you're going through a dry spell. It's understanding that a person you meet and fuck in a club might end up your wife, or they might never see you again. Anything is possible and nothing that is harmless is wrong.

So basically, I think the people that have the most successful polyamorous relationships in my view, have the qualities and general ethos that RA promotes. If you like, that's twue poly.
 
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hyperskeptic

New member
I see. Thanks for clarifying.

I'm not sure I'd go the direction of labeling poly+RA as "true poly" . . . that seems a little heavy-handed to me, a little too much about ideological purity for my taste.

But it seems we're just using the concepts differently. Again, that's all right.

I would quibble with one point, though it would be a topic for a different thread:

. . . nothing that is harmless is wrong.

It's a related point about concepts and frameworks as tools, but there's more to responsible conduct than avoiding harm: there are also matters of consent to be considered, which draw on a very different conception of value.

But, as I say, that's a topic for another thread.
 
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london

Banned
I'm glad that you're interested in RA and made a separate thread for it. :)

I think RA is more radical than poly. Someone who is RA is probably poly, but I don't think many polys are RA. First, hierarchical poly is incompatible with the RA philosophy, which is against entitlement and arbitrary rules. Second, even many non-hierarchical poly people draw a clear line between "just friends" and "romantic partners", whereas RA aims at dissolving the rigid relationship categories. This blog post did a pretty good job of explaining the differences between poly and RA.


I agree. One of my SOs has said that RA means a "bottom-up" approach to do relationships: Forget about all the pre-set categories and what a relationship is "supposed" to look like; instead, just work out the terms and conditions of each individual relationship based on the participants' unique needs. Hence the "customized commitment" idea in the RA manifesto.
I liked that blog post. It didn't make me feel differently about RA just being how poly "should be done" but it gave me a clearer indication of why someone would prefer that label. However, this confused me:

Joe has a romantic friendship with another man named Paul who he loves just as much as Taylor. Joe and Paul’s relationship looks very similar to Joe and Taylor’s relationship, but it’s a little different simply because Paul isn’t interested in dating or having sex with Joe in the first place. Paul’s straight.

It might be "my literal" but if Paul is straight, isn't interested in dating or having sex with Joe, how can they have a "romantic friendship"? I mean, if Paul describes it as that too, sure, but if not, surely it's a friendship. Even if Paul did call it that I would wonder what aspects they consider "romantic". I think non sexual affection is within the realms of friendship if the people want it to be. Affection doesn't necessarily constitute romance, nor does sex. It's friendship which is absolutely as important as a relationship.
 
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