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From A Married Anarchist

The essay I would write today would be very different. Since 2008 I have been living on my own, adapting once again to the polyamory world, a more-organized, jargon-filled community than in the past of people practicing ethical nonmonogamy. I think about history recurrent and about the irony that some anarchists considering marriage find this essay comforting while I've moved in a different direction.

More on sexuality psychology and politics

Dennis Fox

Social Anarchism #31, 2001
Reprinted: The Hornacle, March/April 2002


Anarchists aren't supposed to get married. Legal marriage, sanctioned by state or church, violates anarchism's anti-state, anti-authoritarian principles. Wedded to spontaneity, openness, and the complete transformation of intimate relationships within new forms of community, card-carrying anarchists reject not only marriage's legal framework but its traditional link to monogamy and nuclear family primacy. We live what we preach. Principles are principles.

So why do so many of us eventually get married?

It seems to me that, although marriage is problematic, it's not necessarily cause for turning in one's anarchist ID, or even one's anarchist id. I say this somewhat defensively, having been married now for almost seven years to a woman I became lovers with nine years earlier. But defensive or not, the issue raises questions about what in anarchism is essential and what merely stylistic or symbolic.

According to Social Anarchism's masthead, "As both political philosophy and personal lifestyle, social anarchism promotes community self-reliance, direct participation in political decision-making, respect for nature, and nonviolent paths to peace and justice." It's hard to find in that general statement an anti-marriage stance, though we could probably stretch "respect for nature" pretty far in that direction, and "personal lifestyle" leaves plenty of room for discussion.

An ad for the anarchist newspaper Onward lists principles or goals: "Revolution. Liberation. Direct Democracy. Ecology. Anti-Capitalism. Non-Hierarchy. Freedom. Participation. Solidarity. Mutual Aid. Justice. Community. Anti-Statism. Peace. Anti-Oppression. Equality. Cooperation. Classless Society. Anarchism." Some of these do have implications for marriage, from anti-statism to freedom, anti-oppression to equality, non-hierarchy to liberation. So it's legitimate to ask whether marriage inherently violates these principles.

Maybe it does, in both theory and practice. But I don't think that's the end of the discussion. More precisely, the question should be reframed: To what degree does the act of getting married violate these principles more than do other activities in which anarchists routinely engage? Over the years I've occasionally worked for state and federal bureaucracies and been a professor at a state university. Not once have I sent back my paycheck on the grounds that a capitalist money economy is oppressive or that I shouldn't be working for the enemy. I have a state-issued driver's license. I pay taxes. I make compromises and try to do as little damage as possible. So do most anarchists.

Marriage, too, is a compromise.

It's a compromise I rejected for many years after my first, pre-anarchist, marriage ended during the Seventies anti-marriage boom. My introduction to anarchism and to Boston's direct action community accompanied a commitment to exploring new forms of relationships, working to create a world where nonmonogamy, spontaneity, and communalism could thrive. I had already lived on Israeli kibbutzim and been attracted not just by the focus on economic collectivism but by the kibbutz's original opposition to marriage and traditional sex roles and its commitment to communal living and child-rearing. It was easier a couple of decades ago to overlook the failure to sustain those principles over time.

Marriage doesn't exist in the utopian community in my mind. There, relationships are fluid; freed from state and religious oversight, they vary from monogamous to serial to multiple in response to the ebb and flow of desire and commitment, love and need. Communal institutions support those engaged in nontraditional interactions. People have the time, motivation, and energy to work through jealousies and insensitivities. Life is communal in other ways, too, with the nuclear family itself outmoded. Friendships are intimate even when nonsexual. Work and resources are shared. Stability and security come from the community. So does love.

Back in the Seventies and Eighties, though, my experience with multiple relationships rarely matched my vision. I found excitement, yes, but often isolation. New experiences, but old hangups. Personal and interpersonal growth, but too often superficial interaction. It was sometimes hard to distinguish my convenient anti-monogamy principles from more traditional male privilege--easy to mistake for truth a woman's assurance that no-stings-attached was what she, too, really wanted, easy for me to make the same assurance when I didn't always know if I meant it.

The effort eventually wore me down. Lacking a functioning community to reinforce multiple sexual affiliations, the attractions of long-term commitment resurfaced. For a time I sought nonmonogamous coupledom, trying to have it both ways--a lover I could build the next portion of my life with, both of us unthreatened by (or, more realistically, willing to work through) other sexual interactions. Some couples accomplish this, talking more or less honestly about primary and secondary lovers and seeking more or less effectively to prevent and heal wounds. Polyamorous groups exist today, some of them long term, or at least as long-term as many marriages. Yet when I haphazardly looked for alternatives two decades ago, I never found them--in my experience, almost always, she or I wanted more than the other could provide.

In the end, I chose stability. If I couldn't have it both ways, I'd live with someone who at least understood my motivations, someone committed to not giving up at the first sign of trouble and--equally important--not giving in to monogamy-induced stagnation. Someone I loved, with whom I could envision remaining.

The decision to marry my lover nine years later was somewhat anticlimactic. Among other factors, for the good of our own nuclear family I wanted to adopt her daughter. Legal ties may be a poor substitute for well-functioning community, but even anarchists find it difficult to resist practical advantages ranging from health insurance to child support to immigration status. Sometimes we rise above principle. So I accepted the courthouse ceremony with a decent amount of humor. It felt like I had lost a part of myself, but I was no longer sure how important a part.

We had a party.

It hasn't always been easy. Like most couples, over the past 15 years we've had our strains, compounded by the disconnect between anti-marriage philosophy and our married-and-settled condition. When things are tense, and sometimes even when they aren't, temptations arise. But the truth is I can't always distinguish an anarchist longing for spontaneity and connection from more mundane middle-aged, married-man horniness. I do know that, as we work our way through difficult periods, we repeatedly determine to reinvent ourselves, resist stagnation, grow and explore together. And we do a decent-enough job, enough of the time.

More than lost opportunities for sexual adventurism I miss the intimacy and support of a broader community of comrades. Recalling communities of my past and that utopia in my mind, I remain convinced that the nuclear family's disadvantages outweigh its benefits. Friends can sometimes step in and share child care, diffuse tensions, offer other perspectives, but individuals alone don't make an ongoing community. To make matters worse, the dynamics and time pressures of nuclear-family coupledom complicate the effort to nourish other ties. Creating alternatives to monogamy now seems to me less urgent than creating communal alternatives to the nuclear family.

Am I still an anarchist, or at least as much of an anarchist as I was 20 years ago? I'm not sure, but I don't think being married has made the difference. Unmarried and uncoupled, I would have had other lovers and other experiences, have grown in different directions--but I would have missed the growth and comfort that came with a stable lover and life partner. Is one kind of growth more anarchistically correct than the other? As I look at it today, marriage and monogamy are symbols, not essence. The real challenge is how I deal with power, hierarchy, equality, concern. As I recall it, my between-marriage success rate wasn't perfect either.

I wonder if marriage and monogamy violate anarchist principles less at 52 than 22, or if my finding them less objectionable merely represents fatigue. Perhaps things would be different if I were starting over, or if more of us were trying more effectively to create something different. In any case, whether anarchists should marry is less important to me today than whether it's possible to sustain satisfying relationships. That question challenges anarchists and nonanarchists alike, both those who are married and those who are not.

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