No, You Don't Need Rules For Polyamory

[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.

Or:

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.

Also:

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.

~~~

Further reading:

~~~

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.

{advertisement}
No, You Don't Need Rules For Polyamory
{advertisement}
The Bolingbrook Babbler:  The unbelievable truth is now at freethoughtblogs.com/babbler

33 thoughts on “No, You Don't Need Rules For Polyamory

  1. 1

    (Semi-anonymous due to information that could be deleterious to my employment. Some employers are nosy and don’t like their employees not being stepford peoples)

    Lovely article, although I got a bit twitchy about the headline until I read further. 🙂

    To preface, I’ve been in a polyamorous relationship for 6 years now, and it has been rather pleasant, aside from some of the usual relationship hiccups, as well as a few issues that are unique to poly. Notably in my case was trying to plan a date night with 6 people, 2 of whom are metas who don’t really approve of each other but want to go out anyway. It’s like a family reunion except everybody is sleeping with each other. *boggle* (it worked out in the end!)

    While I agree with the sentiment that there is no “universal rule set” for polyamory (or any other relationship), I would say that the best thing to remember is that ALL relationships thrive on open communication and empathy for your partner(s). I would say that if a group decides and agrees that they need rules, guidelines, or some sort of SOP, that’s their prerogative. And as you mentioned, those desiring a lack of such things should openly communicate their feelings about such things.

    I suppose, semantics aside, that while not every relationship has, or needs, rules, there will be some sort or agreement or acknowledgement of mutual expectation. The negotiation and interpretation of these expectations/agreements is largely left to the individuals involved. My own experience with this was a case where my SO ran into an old flame at a con and fired off a text letting me know that she was headed to his room. A quick back and forth to get some safety information (location, gps on phone, etc) and a blessing of “have fun! be safe!” and they were off to the races. Our agreement, in this case, was more so that my SO felt safe wandering off and had a exit route incase something went wrong. This was less of a ‘rule’ and more of a precaution, but we’ve mutually acknowledged that it also helps assuage anxiety about safety and security.

    Thoughts?

  2. 2

    My ex-primary once vetoed one of my partners because he was bi. Actually, it was the last in a long string of excuses my ex gave me why I couldn’t have a sexual relationship with that partner. He tried to force me into a relationship structure that I wasn’t interested in, using tactics such as not talking about it, lying about not talking about it, guilt, slut-shaming, and blaming the other partners in the relationship. Then, when none of that worked, attempting to “compromise” by “allowing” outside relationships as part of a written relationship agreement with a “safe-sex agreement” for outside partners to sign.

    Now, the structure I follow more closely resembles relationship anarchy.

  3. 3

    This pretty much sums up my feelings about poly. I don’t feel that I have the right to tell another adult what they can or cannot do, but I can set boundaries for myself. It’s then up to the other person- they can chose to be with me, or we can say, “I guess we aren’t compatible, then.” My boyfriend and I really don’t have any particular rules per se; we just state preferences, and talk quite often about how we feel. If one of us feels jealous or lonely or sad, we talk about how the other can help them to manage those feelings. It’s worked well for us so far; we’re going on five years together.

    Rules seem so inflexible to me, and considering that feelings and circumstances can change very quickly, it seems as though they cause problems rather than prevent them.

  4. 4

    I wrote about something similar on PolyMomma a while back and I’ve been working on a separate article on veto power in particular. It seems like this stuff comes up a lot. My take is that the only real rule is to be honest and accept that your actions will have consequences.

  5. 6

    Thank you so much for writing this. This isn’t the first time hearing you inform the public about how you enact and feel about your polyamory that I’ve felt not only that you’ve pretty well described how I felt and thought (and way better than I could articulate), but that no one else had done so so well. This makes your writing articles like this exceptionally important.

    Like you (and it seems others who’ve commented here), I also won’t enter any relationship with “rules” again. I just expect honesty, caring, respect, and communication (and even that latter I only need as much as is reasonable to meet the other expectations). And I owe them those things myself. But those aren’t “rules” so much as values, by which I decide whether I want to continue being with a person (or ever be with them), and by which I expect my partners to decide the same for me.

    But you’ve really hit on why that makes so much more sense, in a way I hadn’t clearly thought about before, by pointing out the actual negative consequences of rules, which actually work against the very things I actually want and need from my relationships: honesty, caring, and respect. And on top of that, yet another thing I hadn’t considered, yet also quite agree with: how rules in certain ways can prevent or hinder personal growth and self-understanding, and mutual understanding of each other as persons. That is exactly what I see monogamy doing to so many people. Which I should perhaps no longer see as surprising. Since monogamy is, after all, the Mother of All Rules.

    Anyway, thank you. I appreciate your articulating thoughts like this and taking the time to do it well and for everyone to consider.

  6. 7

    From your description, the Dr. Nerdlove thing also sounds very couple-centric. (That’s something I’ve run into a lot in talking to people about poly, though.) I have agreements with all my partners, the most basic of which is “I want to know who else you’re involved with.” There are ways I prioritize the partner I live with—our lives and finances are more entangled than my life is with the partners I don’t live with—but it’s not “the two of us and casual outside involvements,” it’s a network of significant relationships (and some less significant at the partners-of-partners distances, but apparently I don’t do casual).

    Also, as a how-I-do-it, I value the relationships I’m in now enough that if one of those people were to ask me “please don’t get involved with her/him” or “please don’t start any new relationships now,” I would ask why, but I would also probably say yes, including for a reason that was basically “I’m feeling insecure right now.”

  7. 8

    I’m not poly, nor I’m planning to be. For this reason, a substantial part of the present topic (mainly, the issue of what solutions work in poly relationships) is clearly beyond my scope – an interesting read, sure, but without any practical significance in my life.

    On the other hand, questions about rules are universal and their importance is by no means restricted to poly relationships. Accordingly, this comment will be just about rules. A disclosure for a start: I’m one of those who wants rules. I need them. I couldn’t breathe without them. Yes, we exist as well.

    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.


    I don’t think I would ever want to get involved with someone who rejects rules, promises, and obligations. I won’t insist though that such a rejection is always bad or never works.

    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.


    I understand what you are saying but this way of thinking/feeling is alien to me. Imagine that someone asks me for a loan. I might be willing to oblige but the thing is that I will need the money back next week. However, the person doesn’t want to make any promises. “If I’m really determined to keep the money, rules and promises won’t stop me. And if I’m not, rules are unnecessary”, he says. Taken literally, this is true … nevertheless, I will probably refuse the loan. Look, I’m not that naïve as to treat the promise as a magical act, guaranteeing the desired outcome. The thing is rather that I see the refusal of giving the promise as a sign of the lack of commitment. By refusing, you signal to me that you seriously countenance the possibility of keeping the money for longer. And if this is so, then no, sorry, I do not want to give you the loan.

    I find them [the rules] 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.


    We are very different then. From my point of view, all this rule following, all these consciously, consensually accepted obligations, function both as gifts and as expressions of commitment. To me, they are not stifling; on the contrary, they often bring joy.

    I will give an example, which will perhaps help to better understand the way I feel about it. As you know, some people keep repeating that “you are never – never! – obliged to have sex”. Nevertheless, my example will concern exactly such an obligation.

    It happened years ago, when our daughter was still very small. Financial troubles, no time for anything except work and the baby, sleepless nights, little external help, nervousness, both of us dead tired almost all the time. One day my wife was on the verge of a breakdown. She looked exhausted and depressed; she said something about ‘life with no smile, no sex, no music’.
    Then I came to her and made some promises. I promised to arrange a baby care for a couple of next days. I promised her a good rest. I solemnly promised her a smile, sex and music.

    There is a rule that promises should be kept. Promises generate obligations, no matter what their topic is. In effect after giving the promise, I was indeed obliged to give her a smile, sex and music.

    After you promise something, you can be held accountable. Is it a burden? A restriction? Sure it is! But in this case, the promise – the very possibility to be held accountable – was also a gift, a freely given expression of commitment. An obligation, sure, but also a joy, something valuable to both of us.

    As I said, I’m certainly not planning to insist that rejecting rules is always bad. I guess that a lot depends on one’s needs – perhaps on the comparative value of independence in one’s life? (I’m not completely sure what it depends on.) Be that as it may, the practical issue is to recognize these needs and to communicate them to each other at the early stage. If Alice finds the rules stifling, while Bob suffocates in a rarified atmosphere of the relationship anarchy, it’s probably better to kiss each other on the cheek and say goodbye.

    1. 8.1

      Ariel, I quite agree with everything you say about promises. I suspect so would Miri. Promises aren’t rules, though. Perhaps that’s something Miri could have qualified.

      A rule is “I will always…” It disregards context, assumes omniscience of all possibilities, and makes unreasonable permanent demands on someone. It shuts down conversation or self-examination. It doesn’t get at reasons.

      A promise is “I’ll do this one thing.” Promises are negotiated and fulfilled all the time. They are particular, and then they completed. Someone who breaks them a lot, or for no good reason, is precisely the sort of person we would probably leave, or expect to leave us if we were the one doing that. Not because they broke a rule. But because we don’t think they are reliable or honest anymore.

      A promise is the sort of thing we can refuse if asked to make one, and we can explain why we can’t promise that one thing. But if we can, we will. Or we will offer them on our own without having to be asked (like in your example). But we expect to meet and clear that obligation eventually. It’s a burden we can take on, and then discharge. We pay back our loans. Whereas asking someone to promise to always and forever do something is kind of what polyamory exists to get rid of. It doesn’t really respect people’s autonomy, or even your own, it’s unrealistic, it’s excessively controlling and possessive, and kind of just enables our insecurities rather than helping us surmount them.

      At least I think that’s what Miri was getting at. (If she disagrees in any measure, I hope she will say.)

      Even broad stroke promises (“promise you will always be there for me”) are unrealistic to ask for.

      Even marriage vows: if they were actually taken as seriously as they sound, divorce would be illegal. It’s kind of disingenuous in a way to not end every line with “unless one of us decides to get a divorce.” Because literally that is the case. Which begs the question, why can’t we be honest about that? Marriage, like an open lease, is a dischargeable promise. If we don’t like the agreement anymore, we can leave.

      Hence the difference between explicitly asking for promises vs. just counting on people to care about you and leaving them when they don’t.

      I fully expect many of my partners will always be there for me when I need them…unless I change so much they don’t like me anymore, or they change so much I don’t like them anymore, or they’ve accumulated so many new and greater burdens I wouldn’t expect them to add me to the pile anymore, or my needs have become too great for them to fulfill and they need to take care of themselves or others first, and so on and so on and so on. There are countless reasons an expectation can not be met through no one’s fault, and rules create fault when there shouldn’t be any (hence Miri’s example of rules creating the bizarre scenario of someone cheating by accident).

      We can’t predict the future so reliably as to make demands of people that it is unreasonable of us to demand of them. We have to just evaluate how likely it is our relationship will continue and how much we can count on each other in future, and plan for all contingencies by a reasonable risk assessment same as anything else in life, and adjust as things change.

      That might be scary. But so is trusting people generally. Rules actually don’t fix that problem (marriage vows, for example, have no effect on the divorce rate). And they come with unhealthy side effects to boot.

    2. 8.2

      Ariel, as a poly person with a partner I’m married to, and another who I’m in a long-term committed relationship with, *thank you* for making this post! So much of what you wrote rings true for me. Particularly about seeing rules as expressions of commitment. My husband and I did make vows to one another, years before the possibility of poly ever came into the picture. The essence of those vows was, come what may, we would do our damnedest to be there for one another, always.

      When the topic of poly did come up, we explored it within the context and confines of those vows. At this point, I am also in a second committed relationship, though he and I aren’t to the point of exchanging vows. Based on the author’s response to your post, I get why that approach doesn’t work for him. But as he said in the header, there’s no one right way to approach poly, or any other type of relationship. I guess I just wanted to thank you for articulating some thoughts that have been floating around in my head more clearly than I’ve been able to thus far. And to let you know that, even in the poly world, there are some folks to whom rules make sense. 🙂

  8. 9

    SO MUCH AGREEMENT.

    I’ve particularly heard a lot of horrible stories from “secondaries” in veto-permitting situations (well, I say a lot of stories, but they’re mostly the same story over and over, really). I really think if anyone’s going to put a new partner in a position where they can be vetoed, they should be really direct about what it means up front. Because effectively, what it often means is:

    “Our relationship can be unilaterally ended at any time for any reason, whether that reason has anything to do with us or not, or for no reason at all. You can under no circumstances count on this relationship being likely to exist tomorrow just because it exists today. This is true now, and it will remain true forever, regardless of how closely connected we feel or how important this relationship becomes to us.”

  9. 10

    @Ariel:

    Very interesting! Thank you for sharing your side of things. Like Miri, I also find strict relationships rules unsettling, and I’d like to respond to some things you brought up–not to convert your way of thinking, by any means, but in the spirit of further explaining how I (at least) see things.

    The thing is rather that I see the refusal of giving the promise as a sign of the lack of commitment. By refusing, you signal to me that you seriously countenance the possibility of keeping the money for longer. And if this is so, then no, sorry, I do not want to give you the loan.

    If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying that you see voluntarily agreeing to rules as an indicator of commitment. And you’re hardly alone! That’s an incredibly common view. It’s the mindset I held when I began my foray into polyamory, when I had pages and pages of rules for my partner.

    Your choice of analogy stands out to me because I don’t see my relationships as anything like lending. When you lend money to someone, there’s an uneven flow of trust. The lender must trust that the lendee will not abscond with the money, but the lendee need not have any analogous trust in the lender. If the lendee runs off with the money, the harm is borne entirely by the lender.

    Under these circumstances, the lendee agrees to rules that curtail their freedom in order to redistribute the burden of harm. They voluntarily put “their skin in the game,” so to speak.

    I don’t see my relationships like this. If I’m in a relationship with someone, we both already have “skin in the game”–the fact that we’re both interested in one another and care for one another on some level. There’s no “running off with the money” here, because if my partner breaks up with me, that relationship is severed for them too. There might come a time when they decide the (presumable) discomfort of severing the relationship is worth it, which would probably suck for me, but that decision must always be their to make.

    Rules as indicators of commitment don’t work for me because I don’t want the type of commitment they represent. I don’t want someone who feels bound to me by sacrifice; I want someone who consciously chooses to be with me because to do so brings them joy. That’s because I personally don’t want to feel bound to them by sacrifice; I want to consciously choose to be with them because to do so brings me joy.

    And to be clear, I’m not trying to malign you with that paragraph; I expect you also seek relationships built on joy. 🙂

    The rest of your comment seems like a misunderstanding or miscommunication. I’m not Miri, nor do I speak for Miri, but I agree with what they said:

    I find them [the rules] 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.

    And as someone who agrees with that sentiment, I find your response completely misses the mark for me.

    I’m very rule-averse in my relationships. I dislike restricting others’ behavior; I dislike feeling restricted.

    But for me, that has nothing to do with voluntary obligations.

    A rule is external. It is another person saying, “You must do this” or “You must not do this,” and enforcing it with severe threats, such as damage to the relationship. A rule is unilateral. It’s a decree on the behavior of others. Rules hinge on the belief that someone can have license to unilaterally dictate others’ actions.

    That’s separate from agreements, including consensual obligations. In an agreement, two or more parties express their needs and boundaries and voluntarily work to meet each other’s needs while respecting each other’s boundaries. It’s a form of collective behavior that respects individual autonomy, while also allowing for cooperation and teamwork.

    I bristle under rules, but nothing about your example lifted even the slightest hair on my neck. Those were voluntary promises and obligations.

    For me, “I don’t want to follow rules set by others” doesn’t mean “I AM ALWAYS AND FOREVER A FREE SPIRIT WHO WILL NEVER FORM EMOTIONAL BONDS OR MAKE PROMISES”. Maybe there are people like that out there. I think generally, you’ll find that even among the most rule-averse members of the poly community, there’s a sentiment that knowingly betraying others’ trust or failing to uphold promises or obligations is a Pretty Lousy Thing to Do. Which is why the latter part of your comment falls so flat–the Poly Promise-Breaker to whom you’re carefully teaching the concept of “obligation” is a straw man.

    And, since I see it coming: “If you have no problem with two or more people consensually agreeing to things, what’s the problem with consensually agreed-upon rules?”

    In one sense, nothing. If you and your partner both communicate and agree to monogamy (including a definition of what “monogamy” is and isn’t), great! Perfect! Peachy!

    In nonmonogamous relationships, it gets slightly weirder, because more people can be involved. If Alice and Bob agree to veto power in their relationship, then Bob starts a relationship with Chuck, Chuck likely hasn’t consented to the veto power that Alice holds over him.

    Also, rules in nonmonogamous relationships, even rules that are consented to by all parties, are often used in lieu of introspection or self-work on things like insecurity. It’s never anyone’s job (without permission) to make other people grow, so I wouldn’t want to force anyone to give up their rules in order to work on their inner struggles, but I will strongly recommend it, and I’ll avoid people who rely on rules for this reason. I don’t want to be in a relationship with someone who would rather dictate others’ behavior than examine themselves. That’s my personal boundary.

    There’s probably more to say–there always is!–but I’m running out of steam here. I hope this can help shed some light on where I’m coming from.

    Oh, and finally:

    Be that as it may, the practical issue is to recognize these needs and to communicate them to each other at the early stage. If Alice finds the rules stifling, while Bob suffocates in a rarified atmosphere of the relationship anarchy, it’s probably better to kiss each other on the cheek and say goodbye.

    Certainly. Communication is key!

    1. 10.1

      Spencer Dub, good points. I concur with all you said.

      Indeed, “agreements” might be a better word than “promises” even in what I said, since it’s more accurate and more encompassing of what I think we mean. Rules are not quite the same things as agreements.

      Because we can agree to care about and respect and be honest to each other…without stating a single rule. We can state desires, like “I want you to tell me about your other lovers,” which expresses a desire we can then aim to fulfill (because we care about and respect each other and like living honestly), but not a hard and fast rule that we can break by accident, per Miri’s example.

      Behaviors that are uncaring or disrespectful or dishonest we can confront and discuss and then decide what that means for us (accepting it, striving to do better, breaking up, or whatever it may be). That allows us to explore and figure out what it means to care for someone, respect them, and be honest with them. And it allows context to function. And accounts for the unexpected. And everything else.

      In a way this is the central flaw in all rules based ethical systems and why virtue based and consequentialist ethics are generally preferred by most people in practice.

      Rules can be useful in specific limited circumstances (bureaucracy, workplace safety, traffic control), and yet even they can legitimately be broken (ethics can certainly override the slavish obeying of a traffic sign).

      But really, the only correct rule is one that is followed by an infinite array of exceptions, and thus rules can never really be fully accurately stated. It’s far easier to just state the goals (like caring, respect, honesty), explore their parameters, and allow human reason and autonomy to find the path to achieving them. And if they can’t find one we both like, they leave. Which, by respecting everyone’s autonomy, we should be okay with (not okay in the sense of not feeling bad about a break up, but in the sense of accepting that’s how relationships should work).

      Or so it seems to my thinking so far.

      (Like you said, we can’t speak for Miri’s whole take on these things.)

    2. 10.2

      P.S. I should add that I nevertheless don’t feel the same way about the “training wheel” model of rule-based polyamory as the two in Miri’s recommended link (On Training Wheels).

      I think all the points they make are valid (and thus well worth reading). But they overlook one different way of deploying the training wheel model: opening a relationship can be scary and weird, and completely unfamiliar territory, and it can be easier to cope if you open slowly, so you can keep track of what’s happening and how you feel about it.

      The goal should be to remove the training wheels, not to set them as permanent rules you can’t live without. That should be admitted by all parties from the start. And if you can’t, then you need to sit down and re-examine why, rather than use the rules as a way to avoid confronting the why.

      But on this model, rules can be a useful way to allow experimentation, kind of like playing a game with simplified rules before you learn the advanced rules, or skydiving tandem before you go solo, or riding a Vespa before you start rolling a huge Harley. Some couples, one or both won’t like the temperature of the water they just dipped their toes in and will dial back. Others will get comfortable swimming in the deep end.

      So I’m not against rules as part of a temporary slow-rollout of a polyamorous exploration. I don’t think it’s inherently disrespectful to their other partners or prospects, who should be willing to be gentle with newbs anyway and not expect too much. As long as everyone is honest and upfront about what is and isn’t available right now and where things can and can’t go for the moment, rules-based poly is no more disrespectful to prospective secondaries than simply remaining monogamous. I would think it is, overall, less so.

      So I do think there can be a place for rules as training wheels. But they have to be temporary, constantly re-examined, and each side needs to continually be confronting themselves as to why they need them and reflecting on that as they go forward. If you are a capable adult yet can’t ever ride a bike without the training wheels, you’re doing something wrong. And one may need to face that fact and re-evaluate things in light of it. That can be hard. But I think that makes it all the more important.

  10. 11

    I hope this isn’t off-topic, but reading this made me realize that I consider my monogamous relationships similarly rule-free in a way I hadn’t really thought about before. I tend to just think of monogamy being an implicit rule to not become romantically involved with other people. But when I would discuss relationship expectations with people I have tended to use the language of expecting my partner to act in certain ways because they care about my feelings and well-being, not because of some rule structure.

    I wonder if this is tracking a more general feature of healthy relationships that consider moral obligations among partners, like others here are saying, not about an externally imposed framework to control each person, but as an understanding that each person will act in ways that they know will not be harmful to the others involved in the relationship.

    1. 11.1

      I tend to just think of monogamy being an implicit rule to not become romantically involved with other people. But when I would discuss relationship expectations with people I have tended to use the language of expecting my partner to act in certain ways because they care about my feelings and well-being, not because of some rule structure.

      I wonder if this is tracking a more general feature of healthy relationships that consider moral obligations among partners, like others here are saying, not about an externally imposed framework to control each person, but as an understanding that each person will act in ways that they know will not be harmful to the others involved in the relationship.

      I’d agree with that! I think that many, even most, of the skills required for successful polyamorous relationships are actually just relationship skills in general. Polyamory doesn’t have a monopoly on healthy relationship skills!

    2. 11.2

      Governmentman, I think yes, “this is tracking a more general feature of healthy relationships that consider moral obligations among partners, like others here are saying, not about an externally imposed framework to control each person, but as an understanding that each person will act in ways that they know will not be harmful to the others involved in the relationship.”

      But monogamy still entails a rule (usually, “never have sex with other people”). That’s different than, for example, many couples who have full permission to have sex outside the relationship, but never act on it because they never wanted to (I’ve seen studies that show that actually describes a lot of couples). Actual monogamy (even implicit) might be preventing couples from seriously asking themselves why they don’t want their partners having sex with other people (and then dealing with that or doing something about it). That’s the danger of rules. Even implicit rules.

      (And I focus on sex here because, despite what some say, it really does come down to that. Rarely is someone’s monogamy threatened by a very close platonic friendship, and when it is, almost everyone recognizes reacting to that as a threat is unreasonably controlling or even abusive.

      To illustrate, if you are a married heterosexual man and have an extremely close male friend, your wife is likely to respect that and even encourage it and even fully support it, e.g. if you need to fly off for two weeks to help them recover from an injury, they usually won’t feel threatened by that and will even be totally supportive of it. Likewise the other way around, i.e. if you are a married heterosexual woman and have an extremely close female friend, your husband is likely to respect that etc. And similar scenarios exist for homosexual relationships. And likewise our relationships with family–indeed even more so.

      They certainly won’t tell you you have to stop being friends [or stop spending time with your family] or else they’ll divorce you. If your wife were telling you she felt threatened and insecure because of the attention and care you devote to your close friends or family, and in result wanted you to stop seeing them [not apportion your time better, but stop spending time with them altogether], you’d probably recognize that as a fatally unhealthy marriage and want out, or ask them to seek therapy to deal with their insecurities.

      It is only when sex is involved that how people evaluate these scenarios flips completely. Thus, it really is only ever about sex. It’s not about intimacy or loving other people or anything else. Because we all have intimacy with and spend time with and love other people besides our primary partner. All of us. All the time. We have family like that, we have friends like that. And no one bats an eye. Until sex comes up. Then it’s all sackcloth and ashes. And there’s something really very wrong about that.)

  11. 12

    Spencer Dub’s and Richard Carrier’s comments have prompted some thoughts. When my relationship with my ex was breaking down, suggesting a written relationship agreement was his way of avoiding talking about the things that were causing us to grow apart. I asked him, near the end, whether he now would want to marry me now. I tried to explain to him that we’d both changed in the 20 years that we’d been together. We were both different people. He refused to see that. He thought that we should have the same sort of relationship that we’d had when we met.

    This from Spencer Dub in particular brought brought back memories:

    Rules as indicators of commitment don’t work for me because I don’t want the type of commitment they represent. I don’t want someone who feels bound to me by sacrifice; I want someone who consciously chooses to be with me because to do so brings them joy. That’s because I personally don’t want to feel bound to them by sacrifice; I want to consciously choose to be with them because to do so brings me joy.

    If I didn’t have the choice to leave my husband, then my staying with him was not a choice. I sacrificed college, career, and friendships to be with my husband. Yet it was his homophobic comments about my paramour that finally made me decide to leave. If we had still been monogamous, I probably would have swept such comments under the rug. But when he said them about someone I loved, I could no longer avoid recognizing his bigotry. Polyamory forced me to recognize the flaws in my relationship with my husband.

  12. 13

    Richard Carrier and Spencer Dub:

    Yes, there might have been some misunderstandings. At the moment I truly do not know whose misunderstandings they are.
    Both of you seem to be using the term “rule” in a sense which I find strange. For Spencer Dub, a rule is (by definition?) “external” and “unilateral”; for Richard a rule by default “disregards context, makes unreasonable demands, shuts down conversations”.

    I find this approach unhelpful. If you start with characterizing a rule in such a way, *this* is what deserves to be called a conversation stopper! “The myth – often perpetuated by poly folks themselves–that polyamory means rules”? (a quote from Miri). My, my, do poly folks really claim that polyamory means “external, unilateral rules disregarding context and shutting down conversation”? Sorry, but here is what I think: if you want a conversation about rules, you should start with a more neutral and realistic characterization of this notion. Otherwise you will obtain just this: a conversation stopper. (As a matter of fact, what you are talking about are imo just bad rules.)

    Two attempts at a more neutral characterization were made here: one by Miri, the second by Richard Carrier (yes, I noticed, no worries!)

    For Miri, the distinguishing trait of using rules consists in the assignment of blame:

    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.
    So here we have a practical difference between applying rules and not applying them: with rules, the one who breaks them is held responsible. Without rules, it’s “my responsibility” how I handle the relationship.


    For Richard, the characteristic trait of a rule is its generality. A rule is “I will always…”. It admits no exceptions. That’s why “it disregards context, assumes omniscience of all possibilities, and makes unreasonable permanent demands on someone. It shuts down conversation or self-examination. It doesn’t get at reasons.”

    Well, Richard, if I married the God of the Bible, then perhaps we would have rules of the sort envisaged by you. Do you really consider your description realistic? In your opinion that’s how rules are typically used in relationships?

    An example from my life. Both my wife and me want to be informed whenever one of us is to come back home later than usual. The lack of such an information makes both of us uneasy and worried. I think it can be fairly called one of our rules. We expect this from each other; we accept that this is expected from us; if we fail to do it, we usually accept the blame. I can see no assumption of omniscience – we realize that shit happens and that sometimes there can be a valid excuse. However, the key point is that ‘excuse’ is not the same as ‘whimsy’. “My mobile broke down” is an excuse. “I just didn’t think of it” or “I wasn’t in the mood to send you a message” is not. I would say that it’s a pretty workable and realistic rule. It’s not math and it doesn’t need to be: I see no practical need for the formulation to be absolutely foolproof. I also can’t see why it should be considered “excessively controlling and possessive” or “not respecting our autonomy” (unless by ‘autonomy’ you mean ‘doing whatever you want’ – as I guess you don’t).

    In my previous comment I adopted Miri’s standpoint: the point of the rule is the distribution of responsibility. Blame, if you prefer. Accepting the rule, you agree to be held responsible. This concerns also the monogamy rule. If I break it, I will be held responsible. As in the previous example, the degree of my responsibility depends on the quality of excuses I’m able to provide. I got drunk at a conference? Bad excuse, my fault totally! My wife mistreated me and I did it for revenge? Still bad, but the blame may be mutual. Context is *not* disregarded, omniscience is *not* assumed, neither conversation nor self-examination is shut. But still, responsibility is accepted and the commitment is expressed by my unambiguous endorsement of the rule.

    One final explanation. Spencer Dub:

    Rules as indicators of commitment don’t work for me because I don’t want the type of commitment they represent. I don’t want someone who feels bound to me by sacrifice; I want someone who consciously chooses to be with me because to do so brings them joy.

    We differ in what we see as represented by the acceptance of the rules. Where you perceive the martyrdom, I see the readiness to compromise and to take responsibility. Yes, sometimes to accept blame as well. In my eyes, it’s a part of caring. I tend to perceive the alternative sketched by Miri as an “unbearable lightness”. So much emphasis on how to avoid being controlled! If that’s so important to you, sure, of course, go ahead. It’s just not for me.

    1. 13.1

      Ariel, that’s all compatible with what I and Miri are both saying.

      In reality, rules are enforced rigidly, whatever you say (I am not aware of any monogamous person actually getting a pass for “accidentally” sleeping with someone). Poly rules, in reality, end up the same way. So I think Miri and I are reacting to how things actually play out in the real world. And in that regard, everything Miri says in her original article is really already a refutation of everything you just tried to say against it.

      The way you are describing rules is yet another way it prevents the person asking for the rules to confront the real reasons why they need them and to seriously ask if perhaps they need to work on that, rather than avoid ever working on that by hiding behind the comfort of the rules. And I’m pretty sure that’s ultimately our point. In addition to the fact that rules create ambiguities and uncertainties that fall unfairly on the potential rule breaker (when in fact they are generated entirely by the rule maker), and ultimately end up controlling and interfering with their autonomy as a person.

      Although that comes back around to the original point: Why, as a rule maker, do you want to control your partner this way? And why is that a good thing? Is that how you love someone, by controlling them and limiting their autonomy? Etc. Using rules tends in reality to prevent the rule maker from actually seriously thinking about these and similar questions and confronting and evaluating what their answers really, honestly are. By not having rules, by saying so out loud to yourself and your partner, you are forced to confront why certain things that further your partner’s happiness bother you, and whether perhaps they shouldn’t.

      As Miri said, this doesn’t mean a free for all. We still expect caring, respect, and honesty. We will end a relationship that doesn’t meet that bar. But those things are realized flexibly and with respect for your partners’ autonomy, and caring for their happiness, and honesty about all of it and how and why you feel certain ways about it. They aren’t realized by stating specific rules.

  13. 14

    Ariel-

    I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated because I feel as though you are not listening to me or the points I’m making.

    I feel that way because your response here covers territory that I already addressed in my response above. Additionally, you’re arguing against a straw-man representation of poly people, which makes me feel slandered and unheard.

    I don’t believe you’re trying to do this, but you’re doing it nevertheless.

    I find this approach unhelpful. If you start with characterizing a rule in such a way, *this* is what deserves to be called a conversation stopper! “The myth – often perpetuated by poly folks themselves–that polyamory means rules”? (a quote from Miri). My, my, do poly folks really claim that polyamory means “external, unilateral rules disregarding context and shutting down conversation”? Sorry, but here is what I think: if you want a conversation about rules, you should start with a more neutral and realistic characterization of this notion. Otherwise you will obtain just this: a conversation stopper. (As a matter of fact, what you are talking about are imo just bad rules.)

    We are not making up unicorns and calling them “rules”. We are talking about these types of rules–rules that are unilateral, rules that are unyielding and absolute, rules that we have encountered in our lives. We are talking about our lived experiences, so please don’t tell us our experiences are unrealistic or “not neutral enough” to discuss in a discussion that we have started.

    You did not like the definition of “rules” we were using, and so you decided to use your definition–but then you acted as though we had been discussing and critiquing your definition all along.

    Example:

    Well, Richard, if I married the God of the Bible, then perhaps we would have rules of the sort envisaged by you. Do you really consider your description realistic? In your opinion that’s how rules are typically used in relationships?

    It’s as if we’ve been talking about the dangers of “big cats”–lions, panthers, and tigers–and you’re arguing, “I have a large housecat and he’s never devoured me. Do you really think that most people should be afraid of big cats? Honestly, is it that realistic to say that ‘big cats’ are dangerous? If avoiding adorable kitties is so important to you, go ahead, but it’s not for me.”

    Do you see how that would be patronizing and frustrating? You’re misrepresenting what we’re saying, then arguing against that misrepresentation, then hinging a “Wow, you’re weird, but to each their own!” on that misrepresentation.

    We’re not talking about the things you call “rules”. Your rules, as you’ve indicated twice now, are built on a sense of mutual obligation and joint cooperation–things that many poly people respect and practice. (Many) poly people keep promises. (Many) poly people make commitments. (Many) poly people willingly agree to change their behavior in order to help their partners. It’s not as if we get hives and fly itchily away the moment someone asks us to do something for them.

    When we discuss “rules”, we’re talking about inflexible decrees on others’ behavior. We’re talking about things like, “You will not sleep over at another partner’s house,” or “You will not go on vacations with other partners,” or “You will not engage in penis-in-vagina intercourse with another partner”. You might not think these are reasonable or realistic examples of rules, but they’re the kind of rules we’re talking about. These are our lions. These are the big cats under discussion.

    (And I might add, these might seem unrealistic to you, but you’ve also admitted that you’re not poly and aren’t planning to be, so could you kindly entertain the notion that when it comes to “rules you might encounter in nonmonogamous relationships,” we might know what we’re talking about?)

    So when you say things like this:

    I also can’t see why it should be considered “excessively controlling and possessive” or “not respecting our autonomy” (unless by ‘autonomy’ you mean ‘doing whatever you want’ – as I guess you don’t).

    …you are insisting that our discussion of “big cats” has to do with your tubby tabby Snowball, and vehemently defending him from charges that he’s a vicious jungle predator.

    Your “rules” are reasonable. They are mutually agreed-upon and consensual. They seem to arise from a place of cooperation. They build up rather than hold back.

    We are not talking about your rules.

    1. 14.1

      Ariel, Spencer has a point I think with regard to your specific example. I’ve been speaking only of polyamory rules regarding infidelity and assuming that’s what you were talking about, too. But your one example isn’t that.

      Of course, additionally, “I would like you to tell me you’re okay if you’re late” is not the same thing as “You will tell me you’re okay if you’re late.” One is a rule. The other is an expressed desire that helps a partner further your happiness. But also these are not the kind of rules we are talking about (unless you count breaking that rule “cheating” and “infidelity,” which would be bizarre).

      Moreover, if that rule amounts to in reality, “You will tell me you’re okay if you’re late or I’ll punish you (with an angry flame out and your blanket and pillow on the couch,” then your relationship has serious problems that your rules aren’t going to solve. If anything they are just going to make it worse.

      Example. What if one of you starts to feel trapped and burdened by that rule? Do they get to renegotiate it? Are they allowed to ask you to maybe stop worrying so much because it’s just going to be a thing that they won’t always be home at a specific time? That it’s stressful to have to constantly keep track of the time and remember amidst their intense work or play to take a time out to send a vague “I’ll be late” text that is always followed up by a “when will you be here?” that they can rarely answer? Or are you allowed to admit that you would be happier with a partner who can entertain themselves and trusts you to take care of yourself and who doesn’t need you to check in all the time?

      These can be really hard questions to confront. So relationships often end up stifling these discussions, and you end up hiding your real feelings for fear of causing a blow out, which just ends up building resentment and discontentment and unhappiness. All because it was expected that you follow a rule.

      The rule becomes a block to actually getting to know each other and becoming comfortable with who you each are and what makes you happy, and a block to you confronting issues within yourself that you need to work on. For example, why do you require your spouse to check in if their schedule deviates, but not your sibling or mother or father when they are living alone? Notice how weird your family member would regard your placing such an expectation on them, and think about why you don’t think it’s weird when that family member is your spouse. There may be a perfectly valid answer to that question, but that’s all the more reason to pursue what it is. “I worry about my spouse when they stay out late” just by itself doesn’t work because “I worry about my sister when she stays out late and want her to always call me” is the same thing, yet weird.

      In my marriage, it was understood that when I was home ready to make dinner for Jen when she got home from work, if things were getting late (past a certain point), I would text or call her and ask about her status. Only when I didn’t get a response after a certain delay was it time to worry. The responsibility was on me, the one who had the problem that needed a solution (my concern for her welfare), not on her, who had plenty to do as it was, and who was a perfectly competent person able to take care of herself and make decisions for herself, and who often had to stay and work late, or often got stuck in mass transit delays, or went out with work friends and lost track of the time. And that seemed a much more respectful and autonomous way for us to live.

      So even your one specific example, though not in fact what we’ve been talking about (rules-based infidelity measures), can still illustrate some of the same points about the difference between having a rule, and just expressing how you each feel and why, and discussing what the best and most realistic way is to make both of you happy–instead of using a rule as a fixed description of how you expect them to behave and that’s it.

    2. 14.2

      Spencer, just very shortly: please, read the most recent Richard’s answer to me. I understand that you consider my rules reasonable. I see also that you protest against other sorts of rules. That’s fine. However, it seems to me that Richard’s standpoint is very different from yours. As I understand him, he doesn’t consider my rules reasonable. Not at all. He thinks they are overly controlling and that they “prevent the person asking for the rules to confront the real reasons why they need them”.

      If this is so, there is no “we, the poly people” here. As it seems, the poly people disagree among themselves on this point and actually you are speaking just on your own behalf.

      All the best.

      1. Ariel, please don’t use that excuse to ignore Spencer’s point.

        You were indeed ignoring his lived experience and confusing infidelity rules with simple cooperative agreements.

        You were indeed making a straw man argument in exactly the way he described.

        And Spencer might not agree with everything I say, either. So please don’t conflate us. Nor assume either of us speaks for all polyamorists. We are expressing how we think and feel about these issues. We are voices among many. Many might agree with us. Many might not.

      2. P.S. Ariel, please note that “as I understand [Richard], he doesn’t consider my rules reasonable. Not at all.” you are confusing infidelity rules with the specific example you gave of a completely unrelated cooperative agreement. That was Spencer’s point and he was right. In the comment you quote I was assuming you were talking about infidelity rules. I have not been speaking of your example, which isn’t one of those (I had taken it only as an analogy for the rules we were discussing, not as the actual rule we were discussing). Hence my actually most recent comment, which clarifies that point.

        Additionally, “it seems, the poly people disagree among themselves on this point and actually you are speaking just on your own behalf,” not only pretends Spencer’s experience is limited to himself (we are each speaking on behalf of a lot of polyamorists we know) but is also a statement that is too vague to be useful. Which point is that referring to? You seem to be conflating several points into one.

        1. I should add that if a “call when” agreement is completely, actually, cool with both parties and makes everyone happy, then there’s nothing wrong with it. Everyone should negotiate the relationship they want, agreements and all. So I’m not criticizing that. My point is different. My point is that an agreement becomes a problem when it starts becoming an unquestionable rule, or starts being normative rather than just what works best at the present time, or becomes an excuse not to explore and actually work through the reasons for needing it or the real reasons you react a certain way when the expectation isn’t met.

          Additionally, I’m really only more or less certain of this when we are talking about the rules that define infidelity. I haven’t thought through nearly as much all other possible rule domains. I see some similar issues there, as I’ve noted, but I don’t know if that’s always the case.

      1. Spencer, certainly we each only speak for our own experience, but as we’ve both noted, you and I have a lot of experience with other polyamorists and have been drawing on that experience, e.g. what sorts of infidelity rules actually get generated and used in the community, and also what many fellow polyamorists we know have said and thought about that. So “we” isn’t necessarily incorrect. Just because we don’t speak for all polyamorists doesn’t entail we speak for none but ourselves, or that we can’t speak about many.

        (Just as a general rule, the opposite of a false generalization is not the absence of any generalization; it’s the presence of a qualified and informed generalization.)

    1. 15.1

      We Are Plethora, to be fair to Ariel, there is an ambiguity. Implicit rules and understandings and agreements all blend into each other and can look the same. So some of the confusion I think is explicable.

      It’s also not just about whether there is a rule. We make agreements and expect each other to abide by them all the time. What we’ve actually been talking about is the more particular situation of when rules (or even agreements or whatever word you call them by) become substitutes for personal growth, mutual understanding, and confronting the real issues. The tendency to rely on rules to manage your comfort level, rather than be less demanding of your partners and learn to be more comfortable respecting them and caring about them (and being respected and cared for in return) without putting excessive burdens and controls on them, is the thing being critiqued here.

      And I think Ariel has confused that with promoting relationship anarchy (although that’s a thing, and there are people who favor that, I don’t think anyone here is promoting it). We haven’t entirely helped, since we’ve been speaking as though Ariel understood that, but if Ariel didn’t, then what we’ve been saying could easily be misread as saying something else altogether.

      The implicit fear is perhaps that we are advocating the position of “let your partner do whatever they want,” when we aren’t quite saying that, but rather something more like, “you should probably be letting your partner do a lot more than you are comfortable with, because often, even if not always, the fact that it makes you uncomfortable is the problem you should be dealing with.” Which intersects the claim “polyamory must have rules” at the point where “rules” become unfair to everyone, even the people who think they need them (which gets right back to reading Miri’s article and every point she made in it).

      One way perhaps to reframe the question is, if we all agree a relationship should epitomize caring, respect, and honesty, do rules actually facilitate realizing that, or do they actually undermine it? If we limit the question to fidelity rules, I think the sentiment shared here is that they undermine it. Other kinds of rules are another matter, and although some of the same problems can arise with them, it hasn’t really been anyone’s point here to argue that’s always the case.

  14. Ivo
    18

    Thank you Miri, beautifully written and really agrees with me and many folks around me. One of the most important posts I’ve seen. It’s making the rounds in BC’s poly groups right now.

    An important takeaway is the importance differences between rules (imposed from outside you), boundaries (declared by you about what’s solely yours) and agreements (negotiated together about what’s shared).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.