Are You a Back-Seat Driver? – The Relationship Autonomy Index

“With all my favorite colors (yes, sir)

All my favorite colors (right on)

My sisters and my brothers

See ’em like no other

All my favorite colors”

–Black Pumas, “Colors”

Hey, my kinky, polyam peeps! Welcome back for what I hope is going to be another exciting blog entry! This article is scheduled to be posted the week after Thanksgiving, so I hope everyone had an enjoyable holiday, should you choose to celebrate it. I know this time of year isn’t always the happiest for some people, so all my best wishes as we plow through to 2023.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know I love two things: Numbers and lists. Well, today we’re gonna talk about both. While I often say that “The only labels that matter are the ones we give ourselves”, labels can provide a useful purpose in that they help identify who is part of our community and notifies others of our motives, desires, needs, and intentions.

Ethical Nonmonogamy is such a large umbrella, and if you’ve seen my TikTok on the subject, you’ll understand that it covers a wide range of relationship dynamics and behaviors. To say “I practice ENM” isn’t always helpful because your ENM may not be someone else’s ENM, which is perfectly acceptable, and it does cause confusion when trying to make connections in the community.

To help clear up some of this confusion, the good people at The Polyamory School blog devised the Relationship Autonomy Index, mirrored after the SAE Levels of Driving Automation, a scale to describe how much self-control a vehicle has over its operator. If all this sounds a bit technical, don’t worry. We’re gonna break it down into some straightforward language for you.

Like the SAE Levels of Driving Automation, the RAI has six degrees (Levels 0 through 5) and each level varies in how much control the participants in the relationship have over each other and the relationship itself as opposed to how free-flowing, or, “autonomous” they choose to let the relationship be. We’re gonna go through each of these six levels so you can better understand where you land and what you might be looking for in a potential partner.

Before we go any further, it’s time for the infodump

For this article, I only used two sources. First is the article from Polyamory School that lays out their theory. Second, while I have no problem stealing someone else’s ideas (It’s what good content creators do), I absolutely believe in giving credit where credit is due. The idea for this article came from a relatively new TikTok content creator named Project Phylum. They only have a handful of videos up so far, but I like what I’ve seen and I wish them all the best of luck.

RAI 0 (Monogamy: Highly structured and monitored rules-based monogamy, no outsiders):

“Relationship has a high level of negotiating all external relationships and may momentarily allow monitored sub-sexual (first base, maybe second, no third) interaction but has no sustained external relationships”

This is what most of us think of when we discuss monogamy. Also known as “serial monogamy”, it’s the typical “two-person coupling” that we’re all familiar with. Occasional outside sexual relations may be allowed, but are rare, and typically sexual or emotional intimacy with another party is considered “cheating”. Things as simple as a glance or a touch could be considered flirting and there’s the expectation of exclusivity.

While not all monogamy is toxic, RAI 0 is where toxic monogamy lives. The concept of “romantic ownership” persists and behaviors that others may interpret as controlling, such as monitoring your partners movements or checking their text messages when they’re asleep can be considered normal and expected, if not romantic. Jealousy is interpreted as a sign of love and devotion.

I’ve said enough about my thoughts on monogamy and this specific type of monogamy already, so I won’t belabor the point. All I will comment is that there’s nothing wrong with being exclusive, and there’s everything wrong with confusing exclusivity with ownership. You can love someone and ask for their dedication without demanding they hand over their autonomy.

A word on RAI 1, 2, and 3:

Before we move on to RAI 1, I want to pause here for a moment and discuss a few thoughts. First, if I was in charge of defining these categories, I would have done it way differently. The way the Medium article explains it, with the exception of swinging, RAI 1, 2, 3 sort of blur together with the only differentiating factor being not the rules in place or level of autonomy granted per se, but how often those rules are enforced. They all encompass what I like to call “The Big Three Red Flags” (One Penis Policy, Veto Power, and Prescriptive Hierarchy), but what separates them is how often they are utilized.

Second, while on the topic of Red Flags, if you find yourself identifying with RAI 1, 2, or 3, I urge you and your partners to have a conversation and perhaps dig deeper in to why your Dynamics are constructed the way they are.

While those who inhabit RAI 1, 2, and 3 (again, we’re going to put the swingers to the side for a moment), are certainly part of the ENM community, I would classify what they practice as “Insecure Polyamory”. It’s Polyamory that is propped up by rules and agreements that are designed to protect participants from facing those tough challenges we all must tackle as part of our journey. While there’s nothing wrong with passing through these three phases (nearly all of us in the ENM community do at some point), it’s not a place meant to stop and stay. If you find yourself in RAI 1, 2, or 3 and think “I’m done”, you’re not. There’s still more work for you to do.

RAI 1 (Closed Nonmonogamy: Highly Structured and Monitored Rules-Based Nonmonogamy, Outsiders as Sex Toys):

“The people involved all share control of external relationships, requiring preapproval and disclosure of all activities (no privacy exclusions). Emotional connections are refused without prior approval. Examples include all closed non-monogamous relationships, including structured swinging, closed triads, closed quads, and closed hierarchies such as One Penis/Pussy Policy (OPP), Polyandry, and Polygyny (traditional Polygamy). People involved retake full control at any time by using a Veto rule or democratic vote.”

I find the article’s definition of RAI 1 very interesting because, as I stated above, it encompasses what I consider to be two distinct parts of the community. On the one hand, we have the swingers who choose to engage in nonmonogamy from a purely physical and sexual standpoint, and on the other hand we have the Unicorn Hunters who claim the title of Polyamory while implementing a very strict (and unethical) rules-based policy around romantic entanglements. Under both scenarios, the primary relationship is seen as paramount and emotional entanglements are not entered into unless pre-agreed upon by both parties.

While the Swinger Community has its own issues, specifically around rules regarding emotional entanglements and certain consent practices, I want to reiterate that there is nothing wrong with the practice per se, so when I mention that RAI 1 is not an ideal place to habitate, swingers would be the exception to this rule. It’s one thing to say “A boundary of mine is having a partner become emotionally involved with someone else”. It’s another thing to say “My partner can become emotionally involved but only with my permission and under certain circumstances.” The former states what you are comfortable with. The latter is an attempt to control another persons’ feelings and autonomy.

RAI 2 (Strict Hierarchical Polyamory: Monitored, Rule-Based Nonmonogamy with Permanent Relationships, Primaries/Secondaries):

“Each person takes full control of all of their own relationships (dating, breakups, and sex). The primary partners (usually a couple) monitors all activity through disclosures, trusting the honesty of their partner over more active monitoring, and may intervene with a Veto at any time. Emotional connections are discouraged without a significant period of disclosure, possibly with all involved meeting the person first.”

The key difference we see with Polyamorous people who identify as RAI 2 as opposed to RAI 1 is the ability to have an open nonmonogamous relationship instead of a closed triad. Things like OPP and Veto Power still exist and there is a clear expectation of Prescriptive Hierarchy, but individuals are allowed to seek partners independently and there is not the requirement that any new partner date both people. New partners may need to be “vetted” by the existing partner and occasional monitoring of activities still exist.

While a marked improvement over RAI 1, RAI 2 still presents the problem of the “Big Three”. If anything, RAI 2 can be more insidious because the rules and restrictions don’t “kick-in” until the new person becomes romantically entangled in the relationship. At least with RAI 1 there’s a clear and upfront expectation that the new person must date both people and if certain expectations are not met, the relationship will be terminated. It can sometimes be more heartbreaking to have barriers thrown up once you begin to feel emotionally invested and those things that were once presumed to be acceptable no longer are.

RAI 3 (Open Hierachical Polyamory: Unmonitored Rule-Based Nonmonogamy with Permanent Partnerships, Primaries/Secondaries):

“Partners pre-negotiate rules of the road for outside relationships and disclosures but doesn’t have to have too many details about other partners. Partners are usually left to handle situations (drama) within their own relationships. Any partner may call for a limited pause in activity in certain circumstances that may negatively impact a primary relationship. Emotional development is expected and allowed but requires negotiation if the relationship approaches or disrupts the primary relationship. A veto is the last option, rarely used, but available.”

Excluding RAI 4, RAI 3 is where the bulk of the Polyam community tends to reside. The key marker for this classification is not rules for their own sake, but rather rules designed to specifically protect the primary relationship and maintain Prescriptive Hierarchy. Under RAI 1 and 2, a rule like OPP may be put in place to proactively to protect the insecurity of one partner. In RAI 3, this rule would only be enacted if two partners become “too close” and the new relationship threatens to supplant the primary one.

I consider Prescriptive Hierarchy to be “the last hurdle” that one must face before they truly embrace Polyamory. For the first three years of my journey, I identified strongly with RAI 3, and it wasn’t because I felt threatened by Panda’s partners, but rather, I felt allowing my other relationships to grow would be a disservice to her. I clearly remember stating when I worked on the podcast how Penguin and Foxy would NEVER have the same emotional connection with me than Panda did. I thought that putting a cap on feelings was perfectly reasonable. Perhaps the greatest gift my ex ever gave me was the ability to see beyond that and recognize that love isn’t a competition. Having my love for one person grow didn’t mean my love for another shrank. How we feel today is no guarantee how we will feel tomorrow, and when it comes to matters of the heart, we should “never say never”.

RAI 4 (Nonhierarchical Polyamory: Unmonitored Communication-Based Nonmonogamy with Permanent Relationships, no Secondaries):

“No partner disclosure is required as there are no rules, but is optional for all partners. Basic relationship boundaries are set in advance and may be renegotiated at any time. When new types of relationship styles come into contact with existing partners, they initiate communication over boundaries and issues that may arise. Partners are expected to avoid bringing in, or to leave, toxic relationships on their own without requiring another partner to intervene, e.g., understanding when a boundary is crossed and taking care of it themselves instead of just disclosing it, as is done in golf’s tradition of “calling fouls on yourself” and notifying anyone affected if need be.”

RAI 4, or Nonhierarchical Polyamory, is arguably the largest sect of the Polyam community and the one in which myself and all of my partners reside (Vixen was RAI 3 as recent as last year but has since communicated some things to me that make me believe she has moved into RAI 4). While the terms “Primary” and “Secondary” are still used, they are meant to discuss levels of life entanglement (Descriptive Hierarchy) and not romantic and emotional priority (Prescriptive Hierarchy). For instance, Penguin refers to Remy as her Primary because he is the partner that gets introduced to family. While Bunny doesn’t use the terms “primary” or “secondary”, she does refer to her nesting partner as her “significant other” and me as her “partner”.

The beauty of RAI 4 (and why I believe its something that every polyam person should strive for) is that it’s egalitarian: Each relationship is evaluated independently and not through the lens of a pre-existing relationship. It allows individuals to explore their natural feelings without fear of infringing upon the feelings of their other partners. While jealousy and insecurity still exist (they’re human emotions and aren’t going away), each person is expected to recognize, own, and manage those feelings with the support of their other partners.

The price that comes with all this “free love” is an inherent lack of security in your relationships, even if it’s an artificial one. When one practices Prescriptive Hierarchy, there’s an agreement that there will ALWAYS be someone to fall back on, someone to come home to, someone to make you feel safe. By loosening those ties, you’re practicing “love without a net”, and you have to have faith that if you fall, someone will be there to catch you, even if it’s not the person you would expect or hope for.

RAI 5 (Relationship Anarchy: Unmonitored Communication-based Nonmonogamy Without Any Permanent Relationships):

“There are no partner disclosures, vetos, negotiations, or interventions. All partners have a 100% independent agency.”

Relationship Anarchy (RA) has always seemed like an enigma to me. It seems to be the one form of ENM that few people understand and even fewer can practice successfully. I’ve met several polyam people (myself included) who have claimed to be Relationship Anarchists only to later drop the label once I explain the tenants and what it entails.

On the surface RAI 5, shares many features with RAI 4: Open relationships, lack of rules, autonomy amongst partners. I like to describe myself as “Borderline-Relationship Anarchist” because I embrace those concepts to the point where, even though I’m willing to entangle myself with my partners, I don’t keep an ongoing expectation of where our relationship will be going (The “Never Say Never” rule, also a feature of RAI 4). Where I personally fall short, (and the component of Relationship Anarchy that I don’t understand and most people seem to miss) is the elimination of a hierarchy and segregation of romantic and platonic relationships.

While RA practitioners recognize that some relationships can be romantic and others strictly platonic, they believe one should not automatically supersede the other. A Relationship Anarchist may choose to have a child or cohabitate with a platonic friend, while involving in romantic relationships with individuals they don’t live with. While I don’t necessarily believe platonic or romantic relationships vary in their level of importance, for me, they absolutely play different roles. Much like a solo-polyam person feels most comfortable without a nesting partner, I would feel incomplete if I didn’t cohabitate with at least one of my romantic partners. Does this mean I value a relationship with a friend less than a relationship with a partner? Honestly, I don’t know. What I do know is, much like not every monogamous person would be comfortable with polyamory, and much like not every polyamorous person is comfortable with a nesting partner, I’m not fully comfortable with Relationship Anarchy as a way to live with my dynamics, because it’s not something that meets my needs at this time.

That’ll do it for this week’s article. I hope this has given you some food for thought and helped with some introspection as you move along your personal journey. Remember, polyam can be difficult and, unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. However you decide you want to conduct your dynamic, make sure the consent of all parties is involved and you are honoring your partners and metas in way that treats them like the wonderful human beings that they are.

Until next time, stay kinky, my friends…

–The Bratty Cat

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