January 10, 2013 by aggiesez
Earlier today I was chiming in on a forum thread about rules in polyamorous relationships. As a solo person, personal autonomy and responsibility are crucial to all aspects of my life. So I’m averse to being in relationships where partners make hard rules to control or limit each other — which is a big reason why conventional monogamy doesn’t work for me.
But I have developed some pretty important rules for myself.
(By the way, that thread was on the Fetlife forum Living as a Single Secondary, which is available to Fetlife.com members. The site is free, and you don’t need to be kinky to participate. I highly recommend that forum to any non-primary partner.)
Rules are not inherently bad. They just need to be considered and applied carefully and realistically, leave room for negotiation by everyone affected, and be communicated clearly — not just the rule, but its intent. (For more on this, see these tips for if you DO have relationship rules that seek to limit or control people other than yourself.)
Personally, I choose to avoid rules that try to control or limit partners mostly because they just don’t work. People do what they do, and ultimately the only person you can control is yourself. (I say this after years of trying to control and manipulate partners and others, to no success and often with catastrophic backfires.)
Similarly, I won’t agree to rules that control or limit my behavior — although I do try to figure out how my choices affect others and take that into account, and I am willing to negotiate, experiment, and compromise to a certain extent.
As I mentioned, I have developed some rules and standards for myself. I list the detailed versions below, but they all stem from the four core values that steer my relationship choices:
- Mutual respect and consideration (how we treat each other)
- Autonomy and self responsibility (how we each take care of ourselves)
- Integrity (be honest and walk your talk)
- Joy (because otherwise, what’s the point?)
Before I get into my list of rules, let me explain why I have them. I’ve learned, through experience, that they help me be the best person I can be. They help ensure that I keep living a life that’s good for me, without coming at the expense of others, which in turn helps me be there better for others when they need me. They help me figure out when a given situation or relationship may or may not be a foolish risk.
Every one of these rules is based on my own personal experience with relationships and life, especially as a polyamorous and solo person. There’s a ton of faceplants, frustration, heartbreak, errors, miscommunication, and missed opportunities behind every one of these rules. All of it is very personal and relevant to me — your mileage, as always, may vary.
The key to these rules is that they apply to me, not to my partners. Some of these rules clarify my expectations or requests for partners or metamours — but ultimately they’re about how I make decisions regarding how to pursue, conduct, or continue a relationship.
I don’t demand that my partners or metamours live up to my standards; I just ask them for what I know I need, and ultimately I am responsible for whether I choose to stay or not. Still, I do want my partners and metamours to know up front how I make decisions about relationships. That’s only fair.
These rules apply whether or not I’m in a significant relationship. And they help me make sure — when I do start to get into relationships that involve significant investments of emotion, time, logistical considerations, etc. — that these connections stand a good chance of being mutually beneficial and not unduly risky or frustrating.
So: These are my rules only; your mileage may vary. I offer these as an example of the kinds of personal rules or standards that might be useful for anyone — but especially for solo people, and especially for solo poly people.
Aggie’s rules for Aggie:
- Respect and consideration. I don’t maintain connections with people who treat me inconsiderately or disrespectfully, or who indicate a clear willingness or propensity to do so. If people do this, I’ll let them know it’s a problem. I’ll probably give them a couple chances as long as they’re not egregiously rude. But if a bad pattern (intentional or not) emerges in their behavior, I’ll distance myself. Similarly, I strive to always respect and consider other people in relationships — when they tell me what they need, I try to listen and give them what I can (or be honest if I can’t).
- Clear communication. I choose not to get very emotionally invested or otherwise deeply involved with people who can’t or won’t communicate clearly, honestly and forthrightly about their needs, wants, boundaries, feelings, sex, and sexual health. Or who can’t find a way to listen openly to me when I need to communicate these things. When I ask important questions, I need clear answers — and I will keep asking until I get that clarity.
- I don’t do lukewarm or ambivalent. I only stay sexually, romantically, or emotionally interested in lovers who act like they are attracted to me, appreciate me, and enjoy my company enough to put forth some effort to spend time with me or otherwise connect with me. And who don’t appear to be significantly conflicted or ambivalent about their involvement with me. This applies for casual and occasional connections as well as deeper ongoing relationships. I don’t need (or want) nonstop intense attention; but too much ambivalence, diffidence or passivity turn me off big time. This also applies to situations where a potential lover can’t seem to voice an opinion, make plans, or make a decision without always checking with someone else first for permission; ambivalence rooted in a lack of autonomy turns me off as much as ambivalence rooted in a lack of interest or initiative.
- Safer sex. I thoroughly enjoy safer sex, with condoms and other techniques as appropriate. Unbarriered penetrative sex (“fluid bonding“) does not increase my physical pleasure or emotional satisfaction, and it doesn’t denote anything special about my relationships. I’ve found my relationships are simpler, safer and less drama-prone when I’m consistent with all partners about safer sex. Talking about sexual likes, desires, and health is an important (and fun!) part of that process. Also, when I don’t feel I need to surveil or micromanage my partners’ sex lives, that helps us all relax (and thus have better sex). Consequently I choose to not have barrier-free vaginal or anal sex with anyone (the activities that would represent the greatest risk to me), and I evaluate additional risks and adapt as needed. Partners who require no condoms in order to feel emotionally close to me, or to enjoy sex at all, aren’t compatible with me in significant intimate relationships.
- Maintain autonomy. My autonomy is paramount to me. I always try to take partners and metamours into account, and I am often influenced by them, but I will not change myself solely to suit them. Nor will I allow others the power to approve, constrain or veto my decisions, including those involving my relationships with other people. I will not automatically adopt anyone else’s problems, tastes, biases, priorities, fears, or grudges. Nor will I cave in to guilt trips, acting out, manipulation, or other similar pressure aimed at changing or controlling me.
- Integrity and responsibility. I don’t help people cheat, and I don’t participate in don’t-ask-don’t tell arrangements. If I’m dating someone who has a primary partner (or existing significant non-primary partners), I’d need to confirm with those existing partners that their relationship is indeed honestly open before things get more involved than a few dates. (I prefer to get to know my metamours, anyway.) Also, I will not lie to a metamour in order to protect a partner.
- Negotiating in goodwill. I expect to always have a full and equal voice in the conduct of my own relationships. When conflicts or quandaries arise that affect my relationships, I am willing and able to negotiate with partners and metamours to find options and solutions. I am willing to be flexible, as long as I’m not compromising my integrity, well-being or autonomy. In my relationships, no partner’s or metamour’s interests should ever trump my own by default. Partners, lovers and metamours who can’t or won’t negotiate with me directly in goodwill, and who aren’t willing or able to be flexible, are not compatible with me in significant relationships (or relationship networks).
- Metamour relations. If metamours are in the picture, I choose to only pursue significantly emotional investment in a relationship when I can establish, early on, a base of trust and direct communication with their other significant partners (my metamours). We don’t have to be friends or talk all the time, but I’ll only be comfortable in that relationship if my metamours and I can interact directly, discuss our relationship network sometimes to ensure mutual respect and harmony, and do so calmly and with goodwill. (And not only during a crisis!) If a metamour pulls away from direct communication over time or indicates distrust/disdain toward me, and if that seems unlikely to change, I would probably scale back my investment/involvement with our shared partner.
- Other people’s rules/limits. If a partner or metamour has their own rules or boundaries that would affect me, I may choose to agree to abide by them — but only if they explain those rules clearly to me up front. I’d need to know not just what those rules are, but their intent. I choose to get involved only with people who are willing and able to negotiate with me about their rules. And, of course, their rules must not conflict with my own rules for myself, or my well-being, or compromise others in my life.
- I assume, and respect, the personal autonomy of others. Whenever I share mutually consensual intimacy/attraction with others, I assume from the start that those people possess sufficient autonomy to behave with me the way they are behaving. I only need to gain consent from the person I’m involved with — I will not second-guess their autonomy by asking whether something they’ve already consented to is also OK with their other partner(s). To me, that would feel like I’m saying, “I know you want to do this, but did you ask your mommy?” — which is a huge turn-off for me, since I only want to share intimacy with fellow autonomous adults. I do prefer to occasionally check in with metamours to maintain the health of our shared relationship network, but I’m not obliged to obtain their permission in order to conduct my own relationships. If it turns out that a partner or lover of mine has been concealing, misrepresenting, or ignoring their agreements with their other partner(s), I will consider that an indication of poor character and may choose to scale back or end that relationship.
- Outness. I am out as poly, and I will not step into the closet for anyone. Anyone who hopes to be a significant partner of mine needs to be comfortable with me not concealing our relationship, or otherwise act ashamed or embarrassed about their relationship with me. I’m willing to negotiate on what’s okay to share or mention in which contexts, but I will not abide by a blanket gag rule, and I won’t remain in relationships where I’m treated like a secret. Similarly, I will not refrain from mentioning my other partners simply because one partner is not comfortable with me being poly.
- Mutuality and fairness. I won’t stay in relationships where I end up having to do all the work or planning, make all the decisions, do all the compromising, or take all the initiative. Also, I tend to want to get to know and embrace my partners’ world. People who are really only interested in seeing me on their “turf,” who aren’t very interested in getting to know and embrace my world as well, aren’t compatible with me for significant relationships.
- Speaking up for what I need or want. This has been a challenge for me, since in my experience it involves being vulnerable. It also involves also facing the risk of hearing “no” for an answer — or worse, of getting a negative reaction (anger, defensiveness, blaming, invalidation, coldness, or even being suddenly dumped, which have all happened to me, with people I’ve deeply loved and trusted). I really hate all of those things, so I’ve tried to avoid them by not speaking up for myself — which is a way of abandoning myself. So I must talk up front to my partners, lovers, and metamours about what I need, want, and don’t want or can’t abide. Also, when I recognize a new or evolving need, desire, challenge, circumstance or limit, I must promptly discuss it with the people who might be affected or able to help. And I can trust that no matter how they respond, I will be okay.
- There has to be good stuff. If a relationship gets to be all work or stress with little or no fun, sweetness, or comfort, and if this seems unlikely to change, I should probably leave.
- Breaking up. When an intimate relationship ends, I am willing and able to remain friends with former lovers partners, and I prefer that. This is easier when a breakup is mutual, gentle and amicable, before problems grow intractable or resentments accumulate. I am willing to initiate a breakup or scale-back if I see major, fundamental incompatibilities — even if I really like that lover very much, because I’d much rather lose someone as a lover than as a friend. However, when a significant or longstanding relationship of mine ends contentiously or suddenly, rather than gently and amicably: If you truly hope to remain my friend we’ll both need to own up to each other about our respective roles in the breakup. Personally, I can’t transition to friendship without such reconciliation.
How I make sure I follow my own rules
First of all, I distinguish for myself between more significant and more casual relationships. For casual relationships (play partners, occasional or new dating, friends-with-benefits, etc.) some of these rules don’t apply as much — such as needing to establish trust and ongoing direct communication with their partners.
For me, if a relationship feels more casual that means I probably would not be very hurt (at least, not for very long) if it was to end suddenly. I have less at stake in casual connections, so I have lower expectations for them. This helps me enjoy more casual connections — and I do greatly enjoy them! They’re wonderful and valuable in their own right, and often really hot!
That said, I don’t tend to take as lovers people I don’t consider friends, or at least potential friends. All my lovers and friends matter to me. I don’t consider any of them disposable or unimportant — regardless of the nature, length, or depth of our connection.
The big trick, for me, is to stay aware of how I’m feeling — and especially when I’m just starting to feel more emotionally invested in someone, or especially vulnerable to them. I’ve been around the block a few times; I know what my earliest glimmers of love or commitment look like and feel like. That’s when I need to knuckle down and do my own due diligence — and also lay my cards on the table about my deepening feelings.
Similarly, if I think a more casual partner might be starting to give me indications of deeper feelings or commitment, we also need to talk about that. If you’re going to spin obliquely worded castles in the air that hint at abiding love or a shared future, we need to figure out how compatible we might really be.
Yeah, those conversations are scary, awkward, unromantic, and risky. They can end a budding relationship, and they need to be handled with care. But I’ve learned that it’s better for me to feel that fear and do it anyway. As I’ve written before, I’ve found it’s it’s better to “spoil” some dates with clear conversation than to leave obvious potential landmines unexamined.
Just because people have strong feelings for each other or stunning sexual chemistry doesn’t mean they’d be good or fair to each other in a significant or even ongoing casual intimate relationship. In fact, when people aren’t really compatible as lovers or partners, flaming love and passion only makes it worse for everyone involved.
The common social narrative talks about love like it’s the weather or a force of nature beyond your control, something that just happens to people out of the blue. Sorry, but in my experience that’s not how it works. If you’re sufficiently self aware to communicate well with others about your feelings and needs (and I am), you can usually tell when you’re starting to feel like your heart is on the line with someone. Or when they’re starting to get emotionally invested in you. Personally, I’ve come to consider this awareness part of Being A Grownup 101.
If a promising new relationship ends up not looking like a good way to invest lots of my love, time, and attention because we’re probably not compatible, I don’t need to break up. Usually, I’m happy to keep things going on a lighter level, and not worry about whether it will “work out,” as long as I don’t see significant incompatibilities for an ongoing casual connection (such as a willingness to suddenly switch to treating me as a non-intimate acquaintance when your friends show up, because you’re ashamed or conflicted about our relationship). That’s the beauty of not riding the standard relationship escalator. As long as it’s good enough for everyone involved, that’s fine.
Scaling back an existing committed, invested relationship when substantial incompatibilities develop or emerge over time is a lot harder, but I’ve done it. Four years after our divorce, my former spouse remains one of my closest friends and confidantes.
If I can see clearly that the best choice is to break up, I’d rather do so early — even though that can really, truly suck. Especially if that means breaking the heart of someone I really care about.
There is always, always risk in relationships. I accept that there will always be some heartbreak in my future. But I’ve lived through enough of it to know that heartbreak is survivable. I have a wonderful, large network of good friends as well as a lot of resilience and coping skills. My autonomy and interdependence are what allow me to dare to love, despite the risk. I just don’t take foolish risks. Even for really, really hot, wonderful lovers.
Underpinning it all: I don’t absolutely need to have any significant intimate relationships at all. I truly am fine and happy on my own, and with my friends. For me, sexually and romantically intimate relationships are ultimately optional. They are a very important option to me and I’d definitely rather have them; I’d probably be disappointed if I were never to have another one. And I never treat my partners as disposable — not even casual partners. But I simply don’t need to be in a relationship in order to have a good life. I have many ways to meet my emotional and physical needs. Being grounded in this experience helps make me more fearless in love.
I am not perfect at following my own rules. But I just keep trying, because they tend to be good for me and for the people who get involved in my life. They’ve evolved over time, and probably will continue to evolve. I’m willing to grow and change — even when that happens through mistakes, or when I do stuff I know I shouldn’t.
If you’re a solo poly person, what rules or standards do you have for yourself? Please comment below or e-mail me.