July 17, 2013 by aggiesez
Many people who are just learning about polyamory for the first time hear an awful lot about “rules” — especially that you’re supposed to have them, that they’re supposed to be a good thing, and (usually) that they’re often “necessary to protect the primary relationship.”
Setting aside the common fallacious presumption that polyamory is mostly about and for married couples (or other established primary life partners) who “open up” a pre-existing relationship, and also that framing new lovers or partners as a threat is just a crappy way to start any intimate relationship… Are rules a good or a bad thing for people in open relationships?
That depends entirely on the people involved, how well they know and handle themselves, and how capable they are of treating others respectfully and considerately. And it depends not at all on your relationship structure, how long or established your relationships are, or even whether your sexually/emotionally monogamous or not.
I’ve been talking to many swingers lately — mostly because I want to include their perspective in my forthcoming book on nontraditional relationships. And I’ve learned a lot from them.
Swing culture is pretty established in North America, and it tends to have lots of hard rules — especially, that most swinger couples agree that they are not allowed to form any emotional bonds or other relationships whatsoever with their recreational sex partners. (Admittedly, this is a gray area. Many swingers do eventually form friendships with their additional sex partners, but typically romantic love is off-limits. Interestingly, this is why many swingers consider themselves monogamous. Of course, how swingers police their emotions is a matter of debate, even within that community.)
Would I personally ever want to be involved, even for occasional recreational sex, with someone who operated according to such rules? Highly unlikely. To me such rules would feel disrespectful and patronizing; they wouldn’t allow me to really get to know the other person, and thus would be unlikely to yield sex I’d find satisfying or enjoyable. It’s exceedingly rare that I meet someone and instantly feel sufficiently attracted to want us to go straight to ripping off each other’s clothes. But that’s just me. And who knows: under the right conditions I could change my mind.
However, I firmly believe it’s totally fine for swingers to have strict no-emotions rules if they want them, and if everyone involved wants and consents to them. Many, many swingers do prefer this situation — and to their credit, they’re generally very clear and forthcoming about the nature and intent of their rules. In my experience, they don’t usually try to seduce or persuade people who do not wholeheartedly agree to those rules. They thrive within their rule-based system in ways that everyone involved enjoys. Good for them.
(For context, here’s a great Reddit discussion on relationship rules — their nuances and contradictions, intentions and unintended effects.)
In contrast, fuzzy or unstated rules tend to be a huge minefield in any relationship, open or otherwise. (Have you ever known monogamous couples that have blown up over disputes about what’s “allowed” in terms of flirting, friendship, or contact with former partners or anyone who might be considered sexually attractive? Yeah, that.)
There’s a subtle but key difference between rules and boundaries. It’s totally valid — even healthy — for people to have personal boundaries, and to express those boundaries to the people they’re close/committed to, and to expect that those people will respect their boundaries.
For instance, one common boundary might be expressed this way: “I’d prefer if you didn’t discuss our sex life with the people you’re dating, because that feels intensely private to me.” That’s not the same thing as declaring a “thou shalt not” kind of rule, such as: “You’re not allowed to discuss our sex life with your other partners, because it’s none of their business.” (Yes, this kind of distinction is a much-debated point, and I’m sure some of that debate will arise in the comments to this post. Which is fine.)
As I’ve written earlier, I have developed several rules For how I make decisions about and operate in my intimate relationships. These all spring from my core values, and they’re all rooted in my personal history of heartbreak, faceplants, mistakes, missed opportunities, serendipity and successes.
The trick is, my rules apply only to me. They represent how I manage responsibility for my own needs, feelings and boundaries through making decisions about relationships. Because I’ve discovered through long experience that rules which seek to control the behavior of others (even your primary partner) tend to backfire. (Of course, others disagree, and see a lot of value in limit-based rules. Different strokes.)
In my opinion, there’s nothing inherently wrong or unethical about having relationship rules — even ones that attempt to control others or limit their behavior or emotions.
BUT: If you DO decide to implement limiting/controlling rules that affect additional relationships/partners, here are some tips that might help this approach work more smoothly for everyone involved:
Tips for setting, and living with, relationship rules:
1. Disclose all your rules up front. If you are in a primary relationship which has rules that directly affect or limit newer or non-primary partners/relationships, it’s important to discuss those rules very clearly up front with new or prospective partners. (Even if you’re solo involved in a nonhierarchical network, you might still choose to have your own rules that would govern/limit your partners emotions or behavior; this isn’t necessarily just a primary-couple thing, although that’s usually the case.)
2. Clarify and communicate the intent of each rule. What’s your goal? What are you hoping it will achieve? When you think in terms of goals rather than limits, it’s easier to find many options to achieve those goals. This gives you lots of room for adaptation and growth — as well as to respect the needs and perspective of other people.
In contrast, limits inherently cut off options and prevent growth and adaptation. Also, when it comes to pre-existing primary relationships, proscriptive rules that seek to limit the behavior or feelings of others often are a manifestation of couple privilege.
For instance, a “no sleepovers away from home” rule might be in place temporarily because you have a new infant at home. Or it might be because you or your primary partner feels insecure when you spend a night apart or with another lover, and is hasn’t yet been able to get comfortable enough with this situation. Or it might be because spending every night together is a “rank insignia” demonstrating the primariness of your relationship (i.e., couple privilege). Huge difference.
3. Don’t assume that “everyone should know” how non-monogamous relationships “should” work. We’re all just figuring this out for ourselves as we go along. This is especially important when it comes to tropes such as “the primary relationship always comes first,” or “always move at the speed of the slowest partner.” Or even the poly mantra: “Communicate, communicate, communicate.”
Reality check: No one ever enters an intimate relationship expecting to be treated as a lesser person. (Not even people who prefer to be submissive in kinky relationships.) And sometimes, slowness to adapt to new partners or changing relationships is actually a resistance-based control strategy. And even people with decades of poly experience sometimes fail spectacularly at communicating. If you need something strongly enough to make a rule about it, be very specific.
4. If being this clear sounds too hard, back off. If you fear that accurately disclosing your real rules (such as “no more than two dates per month,” or “you can’t love anyone else as much as you love me,” or the indirect veto power that goes: “ultimately if I get uncomfortable you will dump your other partners, even after years, and even if we’ve said we don’t do vetoes”) will make you sound like a hypocrite or scare away prospective partners — then maybe you should rethink your explicit and implicit rules.
Or perhaps you should rethink being poly/open altogether. Monogamy or more rule-based, structured communities like swinging might suit you better — and leave less wreckage in your wake.
5. Accept that you, and your relationship(s), will change. Often people who are new to non-exclusive relationships have limited skills for adapting to and communicating about unfamiliar situations in intimate relationships. (That’s not because they can’t learn; it’s just because they haven’t had much practice.)
People who lack experience generally turn to models for guidance. Unfortunately, for most people new to nonmonogamy, their only known “model” is cheating. Consequently their first move often is to enact rules intended to prevent change and make nonmonogamy look and work as much like monogamy or cheating as possible — especially “don’t ask, don’t tell” rules, or strict hierarchies with veto power and with little or no communication between metamours.
The catch is, people and relationships are never static. When people attempt to define themselves or their relationships too rigidly, they tend to shatter or wither. Because life just keeps happening.
Lots of things will inevitably and irrevocably alter you, your partner(s) and your relationship(s): age, health, kids, geography, career path, money — even friendships and intimate relationships with other people. Any healthy relationship, exclusive and otherwise, leaves room for growth and flexibility — and makes it safe to take risks, make mistakes, recover, and move on without necessarily blowing up everything you’ve shared and built together.
6. Be willing to negotiate with new partners about your rules as much as possible. Again: these people are full human beings with lives, needs, desires and goals of their own. Their perspective on things that affect them — even your rules — matters just as much as yours. Feeling entitled to dictate to others the terms of your relationship with them is a hallmark of privilege.
That said, it’s very common for people who have newly opened up a formerly exclusive primary relationship to feel unsure (even scared) about whether and how far they want to proceed down this path. They typically feel a stronger need for reassurance, checking in, and security. They want to be able to revert to monogamy as a fail-safe, or at least to veto uncomfortable new relationships. And they often get blindsided by unexpectedly strong emotional reactions to new situations and people, both positive and negative.
Those needs and feelings are not inherently wrong; nor are the limit-based rules (such as explicit veto power) that often result from them. Just remember that how you feel or what you need today might not reflect how you’ll feel in a month or a year. I strongly encourage all newly poly/open people to consider all limit-based rules as temporary, or at least always open to negotiation with all parties involved.
Of course, sometimes there may be non-negotiable limits. For instance, sometimes people in an established relationship may know from long experience that one or all of them absolutely falls to pieces every single time their partner has a sleepover date away from home. That sucks, but it does happen. Just because their no-sleepover rule is rooted in insecurity, that doesn’t necessarily make it invalid, or mean that they’re “doing polyamory wrong.” It just means that they should only get involved with people who understand this and are willing to roll with it. Many people probably would.
7. Ask about newer/non-primary partners’ rules. Everyone has their own lives, needs and considerations, regardless of whether they currently have other significant relationships. If they don’t volunteer their rules/guidelines up front, take the initiative to inquire about them.
For instance, even though I’m solo (I don’t have a primary partner and don’t want one), as my relationships deepen, I make sure those significant or long-term partners read my list of rules for myself, if they haven’t already seen it. It’s only fair that they understand how I make big decisions about relationships. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me about my relationship rules before I’ve volunteered it, and that bugs me. Brownie points to the first lover or metamour who does!
8. Have contingency plans. If you attempt to set rules to govern the behavior of others others (especially people you love and trust a lot), it’s wise to assume that at some point each of those rules WILL get broken, intentionally or otherwise.
When that happens, how will you handle it? Can you make a safe (non-punishing) space where people can admit that they broke a rule? Where you can make amends, regroup and rebuild trust?
The area where I’ve seen this cause the most problems in non-monogamous relationships is safer sex — which is probably also the most common rules category in any kind of nonmonogamous relationship. The problem is: if anyone is going to lie or act impulsively about anything, it will be about sex. That’s just how humans are — none of us are angels. (So seriously: If your relationship includes safer sex rules, please please read Why fluid bonding is, um, “sticky.”)
Rules concerning outness are another common explosion point for many non-monogamous relationship. This often happens when people in a pre-established and formerly exclusive primary relationship are not “out” as poly/open, and consequently expect or require newer partners to be complicit in concealing their own relationships. A lot of people have trouble being treated like a secret, even if for a very compelling reason (such as fear of losing a job). Yeah, the poly closet is a very uncomfortable and complicated place.
Too often, the default response to a broken rule is a painful and messy freakout and breakup. (Often it’s a non-primary partner who gets summarily dumped, regardless of their behavior — but nearly as often the primary relationship ends.) So much drama and damage just seems unnecessary most of the time.
A little forethought and realism goes a long way to creating healthy, resilient relationship with little drama and lots of joy.
…What, this post wasn’t enough advice for you? You might also want to read my crowdsourced tips: Non-primary partners tell how to treat us well.