posttitle = Relationship Panarchy titleClass =short len =21

Relationship Panarchy

“Relationship Panarchy” is a term that I coined to talk about a model of relationships, that can function both as a lens through which any relationship dynamic can be viewed (including retrospectively) or can function as an explicit intentional way-of-operating. Actually operating in accordance with this view is something that no humans I know are yet masters of, but there are an increasing number of us trying. So to some extent, at this phase it can function as a kind of placeholder, similar to how “Game B” is a placeholder for “whatever transcends and outcompetes the Game A cultural operating system that has been running the show for 10,000 years”. And, like Game B, we can say a few things about it even while it’s in the process of coming into view.

The one-sentence summary is “Relationship Panarchy is a model of relationships that’s like Relationship Anarchy, but instead of being individualist, it’s oriented to caring for the whole systems that support the relationships and people in them.”


So: there’s this concept “polyamory”. For some people, it tends to come with a bunch of structure implied, such as “primary partners” and terms like “metamour”. For others, it’s basically a synonym for “non-monogamy”.

“Non-monogamy” is able, by being a negation, to imply less structure, but it isn’t sufficiently general because:

  1. it doesn’t allow for Game B operating-system relationship configurations that read as monogamy on the old map because they involve two people being sexually exclusive
  2. it still over-emphasizes romantic relationships as primary, by negating them

One model that seems to be more open-ended is known as “Relationship Anarchy”. From Wikipedia:

Relationship anarchy (sometimes abbreviated RA) is the belief that relationships should not be bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree upon. If a relationship anarchist has multiple intimate partners, it might be considered as a form of non-monogamy, but distinguishes itself by postulating that there need not be a formal distinction between sexual, romantic, or platonic relationships.

Relationship anarchists look at each relationship (romantic, platonic or otherwise) individually, as opposed to categorizing them according to societal norms such as ‘just friends’, ‘in a relationship’, or ‘in an open relationship’.

I really liked this idea for awhile, but eventually I realized that the imagery of anarchy as such evokes a rather individualist orientation to relationships, to a degree that from my perspective is not only undesirable but technically not even possible. Autonomy is important, and so is connectedness, and the two are not at odds but fundamentally made of each other. Each limit creates new freedoms and each freedom creates new limits.

So, in 2018, I playfully coined a new term: Relationship Panarchy. I’ve been developing the concept since then and the term seems to be a better fit for what I’m looking for than I could have imagined.

Integrated wholes and parts

Pan-archy means governance-by-all.

Not governance-by-every-part, which in the context of people is usually called “democracy”. Governance-by-the-emergent-whole.

This addition of a single letter flips “Relationship Anarchy” on its head, eloquently saying “it’s like Relationship Anarchy, but instead of being individualist, it’s oriented to caring for the whole systems that support the relationships and people in them”. It shares Relationship Anarchy’s lack of formal distinction between romantic relationships, friendships, or business partnerships, while emphasizing the deep intertwinglement of all relationships and partnerships.

One of the main concepts that is already closest to this is “family”, but it has layers and layers of its own baggage—both deep historical traditional meanings plus some quite recent notions that wouldn’t have been part of the concept of family 100 or 200 years ago but were invented in eg the 1950s. Plus it doesn’t make sense to extend family to all domains.

Relationship Panarchy is emergent and bottom-up, but because it’s made of humans, it also includes the capacity for conscious design and dialogue. It is not fundamentally based on sets of rules, though it may include rules. It’s based on perspective-taking and sense-making. It recognizes and embraces the reality that our impacts on one another’s lives (including indirectly) cannot be adequately described or planned, and supports a view that we care about these impacts and want to care for them even when we don’t know how.

Some relationship anarchists might say they don’t use “rules”, so I want to distinguish between a terminological concern and the territory I’m trying to point at. [[McGilchrist’s brain hemisphere model]] makes a strong case that there are two basic ways that the brain thinks in. The left hemisphere considers the world in terms of parts & categories & static symbols; the right hemisphere, in terms of wholes & ever-changing unique gestalts.

I think Relationship Anarchy, with its emphasis on the uniqueness of each relationship, is one of the best attempted orientations towards the right hemisphere that I’ve seen, within the “let’s make an explicit relationship framework” space. However, inasmuch as people are unable to consistently attune to the needs of whole systems as well (which almost nobody is—our entire civilization is based on this) they will tend to need something more graspable that the left hemisphere can use to manage relationships, which is structurally analogous to rules whether you call them that or not.

Rules inevitably produce goodharting. The left hemisphere is not made for dealing with people, at all. It has an intrinsically objectifying orientation—which is not a judgment: it’s made for dealing with objects.

In practice, each of my relationships affects my other relationships, and caring for the impacts of these relationships cannot be achieved through having a set of rules. Having a set of rules for relationship navigation implies that it’s my fault if I’m upset that my partner/friend did something that upset me but was still in accordance with our rules. Even if the rules evolve to handle such scenarios (which itself can lead to rule bloat) the underlying framework is still one that is oriented to following rules rather than to caring for the relationships and the systems that support those relationships.

Inasmuch as something similar might be needed in a Relationship Panarchy context, orienting to “agreements” can help emphasize the co-created participatory nature of them. See [[rules & agreements: the difference]], though as of this writing it’s just a placeholder. Agreements are the basis of the third kind of expectation.

Change: Ecology & the Panarchy Loop

The other thing that “Relationship Panarchy” may evoke, for people familiar with systems theory, is the image of the panarchy loop. I wasn’t that familiar with it myself when I first coined the term but it applies better than I could have imagined. (Here’s my main source for the next few paragraphs.)

“Panarchy” as a concept was coined by systems thinkers as an alternative to hierarchy that isn’t simply anarchy. It recognizes the natural flows of growth and dissolution, as part of one larger whole. This graphic below was created to talk about physical ecosystems, eg:

  • r – exploitation: A forest grows up, rapidly using nutrients & light
  • K – conservation. The forest continues in what appears to be steady state, though gradually
  • Ω – release: A wildfire burns up many species, releasing nutrients into soil and allowing light to hit the ground again
  • α – reorganization: New species that thrive in post-fire conditions grow, though they will later yield to the trees again, returning to r.

The model can also be used to talk about ideas:

  • Ω – release: A startup notices that an established industry leader isn’t capitalizing on some new technology or market.
  • α – reorganization. They develop an idea of a competing product, incubating it.
  • r – exploitation. They launch the product and take over market share from the older, slower, company.
  • K – conservation. They become the new slow incumbent, to be later overtaken by yet another startup.

Applying this to relationships, we see that most models of relationship miss the reorganization phase completely and treat the release phase as the end of relationships. Attempting to avoid the release phase is characteristic of panarchy-unaware forest service and business, as well, who try to avoid fires and competitors respectively. The panarchy loop model suggests this is nearly as absurd as trying to only breathe in, without ever breathing out.

A wildfire may “end” a forest in the sense of “a forest is shady trees, and there aren’t shady trees anymore”, but it doesn’t end the forest in the sense of killing it altogether so that it can’t grow back. The forest’s lifecycle includes these other phases. Likewise, when a “break up” occurs, ie the end of some particular form of relationship, this isn’t necessarily the end of “the relationship”,

  • first of all because continuing to be in close contact or friendship may be possible & desired (perhaps with some space to reorganize, first)
  • secondly because even if close contact doesn’t happen, the two people have forever affected each others’ lives and the lives of those around them, and those impacts continue to be real

To take a case study on the family dimension: about 5 years ago, my parents separated. Sometime afterwards, my dad was visiting the small town where my mum and I both grew up, and he went into an event that my grandfather was at, and my grandfather introduced my dad to someone as “my son-in-law”. The need for my parents to take space from each other didn’t really have anything to do with the relationship between my dad & grandfather, who had themselves been in a son-in-law↔father-in-law relationship for 25+ years by that point! Plus they’re certainly both still my parents.

But often those meta-relationships just get thrown out when a romantic relationship ends. It’s terribly common for the need to take space to produce a positive feedback loop based on side-taking & justifying. A friend of mine has a story about some people she knows who were engaged to be married, and when they broke up, one partner’s family turned against the fellow and started talking shit about him all the time, even though they’d been all set to welcome him into the family before. (I don’t have enough info about the situation to know whether that was a sudden change of heart based on a sense of him having betrayed her, or whether it was the release of judgments they’d repressed before, or more like they now needed to see him as an asshole in order to feel like the world was a just place.)

I have some friends who got married a few years ago, and are now ending their marriage partnership but are still considering themselves family, and are taking care to continue to nurture the relationships with both extended families as part of that process.

Since first naming the idea of Relationship Panarchy, I’ve come to appreciate more deeply the relevance of the panarchy loop to relationship [sic; using the word in the general singular as with “friendship”], as a phenomenon in my own relationships. I may not have seen it at the time, but looking back I can identify when my relationships went through phases of increasing & deepening, holding on, and phases of release and reorganization, then back into further depth. Breathe in, breathe out.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that a romantic or sexual relationship will become one again, though I have experienced that happening a couple years later, without my having predicted it in either case. But also some of my closest friends have been people I used to be in relationship with. A teacher-student relationship might take some space then re-emerge as more of a peership. I wanted a lot of space from my parents when I became an adult, and now, having got that space, I want more closeness.

Traps & exits

The panarchy loop model includes 2 traps and an exit; I want to briefly consider how they apply to relationships.

Exit: this is the x in the diagram above, when a relationship releases then reorganizes into, well, nothing. Typical break-ups fall into this category, but so does “conscious uncoupling”, where there’s a mutual recognition that things aren’t working and that it makes sense to stop trying to make them work.

Poverty trap: stuck in α – reorganization. This is a relationship that’s miserable but is unable to exit. This could be due to literal poverty necessitating staying together for economic reasons. This could be due to being unwilling or unable to look at issues enough to solve them or even enough to really acknowledge that they’re not going to be solved. It could be doing to not having an adequate support network to hold the reorganization phase long enough for a new opportunity to emerge.

Rigidity trap: stuck in K – conservation. I posit that this one is a relationship that appears to be doing great from the inside, in fact… almost too great. A boyfriend & girlfriend spend all of their time together, leading to negative externalities, such as alienating friends. The business is doing so well (or seems so promising!) that the spouse & kids are forgotten. Desperately clinging to honeymoon energy is another example. The longer this phase persists, the bigger the wildfire once the spark finally catches, and without an adequate container, the alienated friends or family are going to have a harder time supporting the reorganization process, assuming they even still want to.

What does an adequate container look like?

Systems: Crews, Congregations, & containers

In order for relationships to function in a dynamically stable panarchic mode, it requires more than just individual relationships. There needs to be a functional whole: remember, panarchy means governance by the emergent whole, not just by each part individually. Most wholes, inasmuch as they exist coherently at all, are only capable of partial governance, if any. In case it’s not clear, I’m not suggesting with this writing that anyone surrender (as an individual or as a couple) to a larger whole any further than makes deep sense to them.

The capability of the whole to hold relationships through all phases is different for each phase:

  • fueling the r – exploitation phase to build trust and explore the possibility field
  • managing the K – conservation phase, and its blindspots, externalities and strain
  • encouraging the Ω – release phase to happen when it needs to, without taking sides and schisming
  • nurturing the α – reorganization phase, allowing the process to take the time it takes to emerge a new dialogue and whatever comes of that dialogue

These are all roles played by the same proverbial village it takes to raise a child. And being held in the breathing process is something that a monogamous couple needs just as much as a complex polycule, a cofounder relationship, or a parent-child relationship.

The question of what scale to have this community on is a complex one. In Richard Bartlett’s theory of groups & groups of groups, I would say that a Crew (3-8 people) can hold minor challenges within a Partnership (any pair—romantic, business,.) but challenges that require a Partnership or an entire Crew to take some serious space for weeks or months benefit hugely from a larger Congregation (30-200 people) to create a large enough container for them to take that space without completely separating and never returning.

I’m going to highlight a few examples of partial systems on this front, old, new, and fictional. None of these examples are adequate for the kind of thing I’m talking about, but most people in the current atomized era of human society don’t even have something this adequate.

Church congregation. If you have a falling out in a relationship, but you’re both still going to the same church every Sunday and connecting with not just the people there but the larger sense of shared meaning, that creates contexts for reconnection. However, this is limited to people already personally engaged with the church—even if you bring your partner in, odds are decent they’ll leave with a break-up.

Summer camp. I learned about the possibility of reconnecting with former partners early, because my first two girlfriends both (one after another) emerged out of an intergenerational summer camp I’d gone to since age 1 () so after the break-ups I saw them again casually a year or two or three later, which was something we wouldn’t have directly initiated just as ex-partners. Nothing serious happened, but we were friends and in one case we had a period where we gave each other relationship advice from a very unique perspective.

Rationality community. The extended rationality / CFAR / LessWrong diaspora, which is not exactly one community but a cluster of overlapping ones, particularly in the Bay Area, has some aspects. It’s a rare urban group of a couple hundred people who each know half or most of the other people, and many live together, work together, or raise kids together. Relationships ebb and flow and people stay friends. Even a few partial schisms are held with remarkable maturity most of the time.

Fiction: Huxley’s Island. This insightful novel features a remarkable island community where when kids are having conflict with their parents, they have a culture that encourages them to go stay awhile with other families they know well, to get space & perspective and not be trapped in a feeling of powerlessness in relation to their parents. This allows them to have a kind of autonomy without losing the role of being a child. This is one of the most realistic eutopias I’ve seen, and I’m impressed that Huxley included this feature rather than just implying that such conflict didn’t arise.

All of these examples have in common that they are necessarily a container that the people consider themselves part of independent of the relationship. That’s a necessary condition for Relationship Panarchy. Otherwise the forest burns down and there are no seeds for pioneer species to grow, so the soil remains dead.

Another necessary condition, which the above contexts mostly have either implicitly (church) or awkwardly-formally-haphazardly (rationality) is for there to be a coherent whole—a distributed collective intelligence that is integrating information from the whole system in order to make real the flow of resources from whole to parts. Most human systems that exist today, from corporations & governments to families, tend to systematically ignore lots of their parts, so understandably people don’t wholeheartedly support the systems! But if you knew of a whole that would proactively support you and care for what you care about better than you can yourself, you would naturally want to support it to do so. It’s an obvious upward spiral.

Bootstrapping towards wholes that are able to support their constituent parts, and vice versa, appears to be humanity’s greatest challenge at the moment. Encouragingly, there appears to be an increasing quantity and quality of work being done on this front, on all fractal scales from personal partswork & integration (eg Internal Family Systems), to communities & teams, to global coordination & governance. Tomorrow there’ll be more of us.


If you dig this 🠕 check out these 🠗

The Possible Relationship, an article by a group of four called The UV Family, who are exploring something that resonates powerfully with me and with my description of Relationship Panarchy.

“Maybe attachment bonds were never meant for just your parents and your romantic partners. Maybe they were meant for your tribe.” Beautiful essay by my friend Qiaochu, who wrote the tweet quoted above.

This tweet, which seems to be tapping the same energy:

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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