[What follows is an approach to polyamory that isn’t possible or appealing to everyone, which is why this isn’t a “you should do poly my way” article. It’s a “my way of doing poly exists and can work so please stop acting otherwise” article. I am not telling you what to do. I am telling you that I exist.]
There are two competing narratives about polyamory in the mainstream world: that polyamory is about indiscriminately having casual sex with a lot of random people, and that polyamory is about True Love and Soul Mates and raising children together and wedded (legally or otherwise) bliss.
Neither of these feels like it has any relevance to my life, though it might be great for other people.
Along with the latter usually comes the myth–often perpetuated by poly folks themselves–that polyamory means rules. Rules are necessary, I am told, to prevent jealousy, keep relationships stable, restrict them to certain bounds, and make sure that everything is “fair,” for that couple’s/polycule’s definition of fair.
I have watched as professors and therapists and writers who are not polyamorous themselves insisted to me that poly relationships cannot work without rules, in direct contradiction to my experience and that of many of my friends and most of my partners.
For instance, Dr. NerdLove, an advice columnist I otherwise respect, had this to say about the basics of nonmonogamy:
Rule #3: Establish Ground Rules
You want to establish certain rules regarding your relationship in order to ensure the comfort and safety of everybody involved. For some this means no sex in your marriage bed. For others it means that partners are only allowed off the leash once per year or on months that end in “Y’. You may both agree not to bring someone home with you, to only allow for outside partners while you are out of town or to not see the same person more than a limited number of times. If you have threesomes, you may forbid sex with your third except when everybody is present. These rules apply to both of you unless you agree in advance to a lopsided agreement. What’s good for the goose, etc.
[…]Rule #6: Both Partners Have Veto Power
If your partner is going to trust you with non-monogamy, you have to show that you’re worthy of that trust by giving him or her a certain degree of control. Even the most open of relationships will set boundaries as to who everybody can and can’t play with, whether it’s close friends, co-workers or people that either partner might think are a legitimate threat to the relationship. Both partners can veto a potential playmate, no questions asked or answered. If your partner drops the hammer on someone then they’re off limits. Sorry. You have to show that you’re willing to abide by your partner’s comfort level. That’s part of what this trust business is all about.
My own approach to rules is that I’m skeptical of them and will not get involved with someone who prefers them or who has them in their other relationships, but I won’t insist that they are always bad or never work. (Only a Sith deals in absolutes.)
My purpose here is mainly to provide an alternate voice to the chorus of “you must have rules to be poly.” No, “the most open of relationships” do not “set boundaries as to who everybody can and can’t play with.” Rules are not necessary for polyamory. I find them pointless and stifling. Not only do I not want to follow rules set by others, but I also don’t find it useful to try to restrict others with rules. It does not reduce my jealousy and insecurity; it makes them worse. It prevents me from taking responsibility for my own needs, boundaries, and feelings. It encourages me to artificially restrict the growth of new relationships out of fear that they might impact my other relationships. It prevents flexibility in relationships. And I am especially offended at the idea that I should practice “veto power” or allow anyone such control over me.
Everyone always asks–if I don’t use rules, how do I make sure my relationships are stable?
The answer is, I don’t. I let them develop (or not) as they will. But rules don’t ensure stability, either. Even monogamous couples break up all the time, often prompted by new interests. I find that if someone is really determined to do something, rules won’t stop them. And if they don’t, rules are unnecessary. And if my partner wants to do something that I don’t want them to do so badly, I should probably reevaluate either my preferences or the relationship.
What this looks like in practice is that, for instance, I might tell a partner that I prefer to know when they’re getting involved with someone new, because it’s really hard for me to manage the negative emotions that result when I don’t know what’s going on. They might then decide to always let me know when they’re getting involved with someone new–not because we made A Rule, but because they care about me and don’t want me to be sad. Or they might say they’re unwilling to do this and explain why. I might then decide not to be involved with them anymore, or to keep things casual. I might talk to them and see if there’s any other way we can make things easier on me. Or I might decide, with full knowledge of the situation, to proceed anyway and accept the negative emotions I may have.
So far it may be difficult to see how this is any different from using rules, but the difference becomes apparent if, for instance, my partner gets involved with someone but doesn’t tell me until later.
In a rules-based poly relationship, my partner has now Broken A Rule. The pain I feel at being blindsided by this new relationship suddenly becomes their fault, not my responsibility. Where before I may have acknowledged that this need to know comes from my own insecurities (which are perfectly normal and shared by many people, but still mine to deal with), now I would say that the pain is being caused by my partner’s failure to Follow The Rules. In this scenario, some poly people would even say that my partner has cheated. Even if they simply forgot to tell me. In this framework, it’s possible to cheat by accident. Not by losing your inhibitions, not by neglect, but by mistake.
In a relationship not based on rules, such as solo polyamory or relationship anarchy, this situation would be interpreted quite differently. If my partner previously indicated that they would try to tell me about things as they happen, I might remind my partner of those preferences and ask (non-judgmentally, non-confrontationally) what led them not to tell me about the new relationship until now. Maybe they forgot. Maybe they were feeling anxious about their own position in this new relationship and couldn’t bring themselves to share it with anyone yet. Maybe we just have different understandings of when a sexual/romantic relationship begins, and they didn’t realize I’d already want to know.
My main objective for this discussion isn’t necessarily to get my needs met, but just to understand my partner’s motivations and reasoning. I don’t automatically assume that my partner has done something wrong. Only when I feel that I understand their actions will I decide whether or not I need to ask for something from them.
The difference between treating my partners like potential cheaters and rulebreakers and treating them like people who have their own needs and desires that may not always be compatible with mine has made a world of difference in my relationships.
The lack of rules doesn’t mean that everyone does what they want without even considering a partner’s needs and preferences. For instance, even in relationships that lack the (in my opinion) horrendous “veto power,” there are plenty of instances in which someone might not get involved with someone after their partner expresses a preference against that. In a veto-based relationship, it works like this:
Sam: I want to hook up with Alex. Is that okay?
Glenn: No, I’m not okay with that.
Sam: Okay, then I won’t.
(Or, Sam decides they want to do it anyway, and their relationship with Glenn either ends or enters a very difficult period.)
In a non-veto relationship, it might work like this:
Sam: I think I’m going to hook up with Alex. What do you think about that?
Glenn: I don’t really feel good about that. I want you to do what makes you happy, but I’ve been having a hard time feeling secure and comfortable and it would be hard on me if you hooked up.
Sam: Okay, it’s more important to me that you’re happy right now than that I hook up with this particular person, so I won’t.
Sam: I think I’m going to hook up with Alex. What do you think about that?
Glenn: I don’t really feel good about that. I want you to do what makes you happy, but I’ve been having a hard time feeling secure and comfortable and it would be hard on me if you hooked up with them.
Sam: Hmm. I’ve really been wanting to do this for a while now. Do you think there’s a way I could help you feel better about it if I were to hook up with them?
Glenn: Maybe it would help if you tell me about the hook-up so that I don’t have to just imagine it and feel like they’re way better than me and stuff like that.
Sam: Okay, I’ll ask Alex to make sure they’re comfortable with me sharing those details with you. But also, I don’t really think of my partners in terms of who’s “better” at sex.
Glenn: That’s good to hear. I would also appreciate it if at least after the first time, you still came home and spent the night with me.
Sam: I can definitely do that!
While partners using a veto can still discuss these nuances, it’s much less likely to happen, because Glenn can just nix the whole idea and never have to actually address the reasons they’re feeling so bad about this possibility. This makes personal growth (and relationship growth) less likely to happen.
Furthermore, Dr. NerdLove doesn’t merely advocate always including veto power in poly relationships; he also states that the veto should be used “no questions asked or answered.” This seems extremely controlling and makes abuse much more likely to happen. If my partner can control my behavior without even having to explain or justify themselves in any way, then they are now free to “veto” my other potential partners for all sorts of horrible reasons, knowing that they will never have to tell me those reasons. They can veto a person for not being white. They can veto someone because they don’t want me dating someone of that gender because of sexist beliefs that they have. They can veto someone because they think I like them “too much.” They can veto someone because they’re having a bad day.
If you’re going to use veto power in your relationships–and this is the only piece of advice I’m going to give here–please be fully communicative about your reasoning.
(Or, you know, don’t use veto at all.)
At this point, someone also usually brings up STIs. If you’re poly, shouldn’t you have rules about using barriers with all/other partners, getting tested at regular intervals, and so on?
Not necessarily. This is where the difference between rules and boundaries becomes very clear. You are the supreme dictator of your body. You have complete authority over who or what touches your body, in what way, under which circumstances. If you say to your partner, “I can only have unprotected intercourse with you if you use barriers with your other partners,” that’s you setting a boundary for yourself, not setting a rule for someone else. If that person then neglects to use barriers with someone else and lies by omission to you about it, they are violating your consent. (And you are 100% allowed to make your consent contingent on certain safer sex practices.)
As unpleasant as it can be to acknowledge, rules will not stop someone who’s okay with violating your consent from doing so.
One more situation in which people typically try to justify rules and vetos is abusive partners. It can be extremely stressful and difficult–even vicariously traumatizing–to watch your partner be in an abusive relationship with someone else. It can be tempting, then, to use something like a veto to prevent them from seeing that person.
However, I think this is misguided for several reasons. First of all, the whole thing with abusive relationships is that they are extremely difficult to leave. (Otherwise you wouldn’t feel like you need to veto them.) If you force a person to choose between you and their abuser, they will likely choose the abuser. (In fact, friends of people in abusive relationships sometimes try these sorts of ultimatums and end up accidentally depriving their friend of a source of support.) Their abuser is also likely to try to turn them against you using familiar narratives like “Nobody Understands Our Love” and “They’re The Real Abuser” and “They Just Don’t Want You To Be Happy.”
Second, one of the most important things you can do for someone in an abusive situation is to help them feel empowered. Power is something that abusers take away from their victims. To empower someone, you have to help them see that they are strong and capable and can make their own decisions. Forcing them to break up with an abuser is a controlling move, even if it’s “for their own good.” Even if that move succeeds in ending this particular abusive relationship, it does not help the person avoid future ones, and may even make them feel even more disempowered.
Finally, while actual abusive situations are sadly common, including within the poly community, it is also true that people who want to end a relationship can confirmation-bias themselves into seeing it as abusive when it really isn’t. Maybe seeing your partner with someone else hurts so much that you find yourself grasping for “legitimate” reasons to wish it were over–after all, it might feel shameful to admit that you want it to end because you are jealous. If all you have to say to force your partner to end a relationship is that it’s abusive, you may be motivated to see it as abusive.
Someone should probably write an article about what to do when your partner is being abused by one of their other partners, and that someone should probably not be me. So I’ll move on to a few other really disturbing things in the Dr. NerdLove article that I’d like to address. For instance:
Like I said earlier: couples will frequently transition between different levels of openness over the course of a relationship, in both directions….This renegotiation can be initiated at any time and isn’t finished until both partners agree (as subject to Rule #2a.) The only exception is that either partner can close the relationship unilaterally for any reason. If, for example, only one of you is able to find an outside partner (as is often the case with hetero couples; the woman frequently has an easier time finding sex than the man does) and the other resents the one-sidedness of the arrangement, it is well within his or her rights to shut things down until a later date.
This strikes me as incredibly controlling to the point of being potentially abusive. Leaving aside for now the fact that people in an open relationship will have other partners–maybe even long-term, beloved partners–who will find themselves unceremoniously dumped once the relationship is “unilaterally” closed, why should someone have the right to control me just because they are sad that they are not having as much sex? How horrifying. If someone tried to “close the relationship unilaterally for any reason,” personally, I would break up with them.
If your relationship is open to any degree beyond oral (and possibly even before), condoms aren’t just a requirement, they’re a sacrement….By the by: this means you’re using condoms when you’re with your primary partner as well. Sorry. Once you step out of a mutually monogamous relationship, doing it raw is officially off the table.
This is also not true, and is not the experience of almost anyone I’ve been involved with. It is quite possible to safely practice sex without barriers as a poly person. It involves communication, trust, and plenty of STI screenings. Poly people sometimes use the term “fluid bonding” to refer to the step of agreeing not to use barriers with a particular partner.
Overall, Dr. NerdLove’s article sounds like it was written by someone either without much experience with nonmonogamy, or a very unnecessarily rigid view of how it “ought” to work. Many people view polyamory as something they are “allowing” their partner(s) to do, and therefore they are under no obligation to “allow” aspects of it that they do not like. I don’t view it as something I “allow” my partners to do. I never really view anything to do with relationships between adults in terms of “allowing” or “letting.” My perspective comes from my deep and strong belief that I do not have the right to control other people and their bodies, and am not obligated to allow them control over me and my body. That is why I’m polyamorous. It’s not just about fucking or dating more than one person at a time.
- Polyamory without rules? Isn’t that anarchy and chaos?
- Why We Make Rules
- Rules: Why we make them, where they can go wrong
- Should We Make Rules?
- Relationship rights: Can you negotiate them away?
- On training wheels and Utopian polyamory
- Emotional outsourcing: Why structural approaches to jealousy management fail
- On consent in romantic relationships
- On zero-sum, “family” and consent
- Polyamorous Relationships Are About More Than Just Couples
Extra moderation note: I am not interested in debating whether or not polyamory is healthy/natural/”moral”/feasible. If you want to argue about that, you can do it elsewhere. Because if you tell me that polyamory is unhealthy or never works, you are literally denying my lived experience and that of many friends and partners. Not cool. For some people, polyamory is unhealthy and doesn’t work; for others, monogamy is unhealthy and doesn’t work.
I think that polyamory triggers (for lack of a better word) a lot of people because it causes them to think about very upsetting things, such as their partner having sex with someone else. Those bad feelings cause them to lash out and condemn polyamory as wrong and selfish etc and do not generally contribute to a productive discussion. If this describes you, please take care of yourself and step out.