Values and ethics in polyamory: The XYZ approach to making tough relationship choices


March 22, 2015 by aggiesez

Not every choice requires close attention to personal ethics. But some do.

Not every choice requires close attention to personal ethics. But some do.

People often refer to polyamory as a flavor of ethical nonmonogamy — but in the real world, are your ethics really what you think they are? In May in Denver, I’ll be co-presenting a session on ethics in polyamory at Loving More​’s Rocky Mountain Poly Living conference.

My spin on this is that ethics are a very personal matter — they’re about how you walk your talk on your personal values. I boil it down to this fill-in-the-blank statement:

Because I value X, I will/won’t do Y — even if Z


  • X = what you actually value. Value does not equal virtue. While personal values can be virtuous-sounding stuff (consideration, autonomy, collaboration, honesty, etc.), or practical-sounding stuff (stability, health, safety or simplicity), when they’re really honest, people often also value not-so-virtuous-sounding stuff (winning, power, pleasure, ease, avoiding conflict, etc.) For this reason, in the real world, our actual values often aren’t quite what we believe them to be, or claim they are. I will be encouraging people to be thoroughly honest with themselves about what they actually value.
  • Y = an action you can either do or refrain from. This is only about what is within your power to do/not do. It’s not about other people’s actions. (Of course, one possible action you might do would be to attempt to exert control over, or manipulate, other people.)
  • Z = A factor that would make this choice really, difficult — even painful. Something that would seriously push you to want to violate or compromise your own ethics. Such as: “…even if that might end a long-term relationship I treasure.” Or, “…even if they’re really hot.” Or, “…even if people I love would hate me or lose respect for me.” This part of parsing out your ethics is crucial, since ethics exist to guide our most difficult choices. If all choices were easy or obvious, we wouldn’t need ethics.

The interesting part is teasing out ethical conflicts. We all have them, myself included. This involves digging deep, to get beyond the first layer of claimed personal values to probe deeper, underlying values that are more about people and life in general, not necessarily about polyamory or intimate relationships.

For instance, often poly folk who come from (or are only familiar with) the couple-centric/hierarchical approach to polyamory justify imposing rules or veto power upon nonprimary partners by saying they value loyalty (to their spouse, family, etc.). But when I ask them about more general values not specific to polyamory (such as egalitarianism: believing that other people are neither more nor less inherently important or deserving of respect than you are), this often highlights a conflict: If I really believe that all human beings are inherently of equal value, then how can I justify treating some people as if my primary partner and I are entitled to dictate the terms of their relationship to them?

…Yeah, this stuff gets tricky. It’s not necessarily fun to realize that you’re not as virtuous as you thought or hoped you were. But if ethics matter to you, the first step in behaving ethically is being brutally honest with yourself, and others, about where you stand and what matters to you.

Solo poly folk, and people who practice nonhierarchical polyamory, are not immune from ethical quandaries and conflicts, of course.

For instance, if you prefer to practice solo polyamory (and therefore do not engage in relationships that are life-entwined or heading toward that relationship escalator goal), you’d probably look “single” to the dominant monogamy-presuming culture. Which means you’d probably find it relatively easy to date conventionally single people — many of whom are shopping for a monogamous long-term relationship, and thus would probably prefer to avoid dating people who are obviously partnered up and thus not available for an exclusive relationship.

Monogamy-minded people often are explicit up front about that goal/requirement — but they also may be tempted to view a solo poly person as someone who might be lured to monogamy “for the right match.” Conversely, poly folk who date mono-minded folk might be hoping, “after they get to know me, they’ll be willing to try polyamory.”

The ethical quandary then becomes:

Because I value my autonomy and freedom to connect intimately with others as I choose (plus other values), should I date someone who will expect or require monogamy — especially if they’re clear they don’t want polyamory, and/or even if they’re super hot and totally into me too?

Tricky, tricky. Sure, some solo poly people (myself included) choose to avoid getting significantly involved with people whose basic relationship needs and values would preclude an open/poly relationship. Taking this stand for integrity does yield a smaller local dating pool, and that can get lonely or frustrating. But it does, in my experience, increase the chances of more harmonious relationships when they do happen.

Other solo poly people employ a different ethical calculus. Such as: “Because I value informed consent and respect everyone’s autonomy, if someone who seems incompatible with polyamory wants to date me anyway, and I’m attracted to them as well, then we should feel free to explore that connection — even if it that incompatibility might later cause stress or end the relationship, perhaps on very bad terms.”

That perspective isn’t unethical. Nor is hoping that a partner will change to become more compatible. (Trying to manipulate or coerce people into changing, or withholding pertinent context, is another matter, of course.) Change can happen. Sometimes people who formerly preferred monogamy do come to embrace polyamory after getting emotionally involved with a poly person. Conversely, sometimes people who prefer polyamory decide to enter a monogamous relationship because they find a specific mono person very compelling, or because they’re tired of fighting against the social tide.

What ethical quandaries have you faced in your own explorations of polyamory? Whether you’re solo poly, partnered-up, a mono-minded person involved with (or considering dating) a poly person, hierarchical or nonhierarchical, I’d really like to hear a variety of ethical issues in polyamory, what you really value, and how your values and ethics sway how you approach really hard choices. (And what makes your choices hard?) Please speak up in the comments below.

Bonus points if you apply my XYZ structure to how you define your own ethics in real-world situations.

15 thoughts on “Values and ethics in polyamory: The XYZ approach to making tough relationship choices

  1. rainbranch says:

    It’s very interesting that I’ve read this today after my most consistent sexual partner de-partnered me for an exclusive relationship.

    I am ok. I knew it was going to happen, perhaps not so soon. As a Solo poly person, especially in a university with a shallow hook up culture (in my opinion), I don’t often have a choice with these matters. But I end with my current feelings and ethics. I reacted in the way I wanted to be broken up with. I never want to tell someone to reconsider their feelings and try to compromise to my needs because I trust that they have thought about this. Why convince someone to stick around if I’m not what they want? It’s still about trying for their best happiness, and I look out for my own. I didn’t take it personally because I know that exclusivity with this other partner outweighs sleeping with me, even if we were satisfied.

    I’m probably going to get dumped a lot because most people want the next best thing. Using your model, I value sex and preferably regular, even if the person’s goal is for monogamy, I will respect that person’s decision to leave. As I have made my decision to not really understand monogamy for myself, but respect it for others.

    I probably didn’t answer your question but I enjoyed reading this and I’m so grateful for your blog in a sea of poly resources designed for couples. Good luck with your conference. (:

  2. millibil says:

    I had an unexpected ethical quandary in one of my most significant poly relationships (which has since ended, for other reasons). I chose, over 6 years ago, to have a child and to cohabitate (with marriage, because legally unmarried partners have fewer rights here) with my husband. We were poly from the outset, as I’d tried monogamy and it just doesn’t make sense for me, and he had experienced something similar. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, we just both went through life feeling like a couple of atheists in church.

    Anyway, a couple of years ago, I met O – a solo poly man – and it was one of those big heart exploding romances, full of its own sets of challenges, affecting me, my relationships with my husband, my girlfriend, and so on… but that’s just poly life. The quandary was when O was adamant that he wanted a child.

    He didn’t pressure me about it intentionally, but he was very, very clear that he would like to have one with me, and that it was painful that I was not open to the discussion. The thing is, I did want another child, and was planning to have one, but that was with my husband and it was something the two of us had been planning from the outset. I also knew, with certainty, that this was going to be my last child. I had explained all this to O, but understandably, found it painful to run into a wall in the relationship because of a pre-decided situation in my very primary-style (though I hate the label, it is descriptive) relationship.

    However, pregnancy is very rough, a very personal invasion, even when welcome, and extremely taxing, physically, economically, and emotionally. I was willing to talk about my partners’ feelings on the matter, and I respect that my choice in the matter particularly affects my husband (if he really wanted more kids, me not having them would unexpectedly greatly complicate his life), but the final decision about my body is all mine.

    So, the quandary:
    1) I want another child
    2) I only want 1 other child
    3) Two people want to father it.

    As I’d already wholeheartedly committed to having the child with my husband, it would have been a gross breach of his trust to one-sidedly change our family plans.

    But for O, being cut off from this chance at parenthood with the person he so deeply wanted it with, was very painful, and my reasons (previous commitments, not wanting more kids after that, and also, as I was being fully honest, not wanting to complicate my life with two sets of families for my kids and all the conflicting compromises that demands around holidays, traditions, vacations, living situation etc) just didn’t make him feel any better about it.

    I think my biggest surprise in that whole situation was that I was so unprepared. I simply hadn’t considered this issue, when obviously I should have. A solo poly person doesn’t necessarly have any less need for starting a family than anybody else, even if they don’t want to have an escalator-type relationship with their coparent… and in trying to be as fully egalitarian as possible, I felt guilty for keeping this major relationship/life choice completely unavailable.

    Anyway, as I was trying to fit this dilemma into the XYZ model, I actually realised something quite valuable. My values, which include valuing commitments, and much less virtuously, valuing simplicity in my life arrangements over the wants of others, all play a part in my decision to refuse the issue, but ultimately, my X is self-determination. I simply did not want to have more than 2 children, and I’d already decided on a father for my second. I decided to be completely selfish on this front, and unapologetically so.

    Because I value my right to unilaterally decide on my own pregnancies, I will only have the ones I want, the way I want, even if that creates considerable unhappiness in, and possibly terminates, a deeply important relationship…

  3. Clarice Streets says:

    “If I really believe that all human beings are inherently of equal value, then how can I justify treating some people as if my primary partner and I are entitled to dictate the terms of their relationship to them.”

    To me, there appears to be a flaw in the underlying thinking associated with this question. It implies that the way I treat a person has some bearing or serves as some indication of their overall value as a human being, which would strike me as quite an egotistical assumption. The way I treat a person (in a relationship context) is a reflection of their value TO ME, in my life. And no, not all human beings are inherently of equal value TO ME. While my ethics do align with the premise that all human beings are inherently of equal value in terms of basic human rights, I am not signing up for protecting or upholding anyone else’s relationship rights before I’ve even met them. Any group, relationship, activity, etc. that a person can join comes with pre-existing conditions, and it is incumbent upon us to understand those conditions before joining. Now, if the true “lay of the land” is not honestly represented to a potential “joiner”, which I know does happen, that is a different ethical question, IMO.

    • aggiesez says:

      Clarice, I respect that there are multiple ways to view the ethical calculus of hierarchy. As long as you’re clear on your own, and are clear with others about that , then cool.

      I think that many people who insist upon placing themselves and their primary/nesting/main/etc. partner(s) at the top of the hierarchy in a network of relationships tend to overlook a significant ethical issue: that hierarchy is inherently disempowering to peoe who aren’t on top. That is, in fact, exactly what hierarchy is designed to do. It limits the decision making and collaboration/negotiation potential of some parties, and offloads risk disproportionately. (And no, “take it or leave it” or “you signed up for this” are not empowered positions in any relationship.)

      So: if your “X” is that you personally value some people/relationships more than others, and therefore you will (“Y”) at least sometimes make relationship decisions based on a default, predetermined hierarchy (rather than situationally, with direct collaboration of all people involved), and that this is nonnegotiable and permanent — even if (“Z”) this means that you are effectively choosing to disempower your nonprimary partners (or perhaps that some nonprimary relationships may end, or never get to start) — so be it.

      The catch is being very, very honest about this up front and all along (if you value honesty and consent). And: this can get very tricky and painful for everyone once people’s hearts are on the line and relationships evolve and deepen over time. That may affect the ethical calculus as well. It certainly impacts the emotional calculus significantly.

      This is why I say that hierarchy is not inherently unethical — but it does appear to be exceedingly difficult to practice ethically, consistently, in longer-term nonprimary relationships. It easily leads to behaviors that, while technically ethical, often are emotionally cruel.

      • Clarice Streets says:

        Why do you say that “…“take it or leave it” or “you signed up for this” are not empowered positions in any relationship.”? Those seem perfectly reasonable and inherently empowered to me – “Take it or leave it” is essentially the bottom line in ANY relationship to some degree (I am neurotic, take it or leave it. I laugh at inappropriate times, take it or leave it. I yell when I am angry, and I am working on that but it’s probably always going to be a thing, take it or leave it. I am involved in another relationship that is very important to me, and it is more important to me than my relationship with you, new stranger. Take it or leave it). There is choice there to stay or go. Empowerment in informed choice. My “X” Is that I value honesty and clarity , and there for I will (“Y”) be forthright and transparent in all of my dealings with everyone, even if (“Z”) it means that people might get their feelings hurt or their noses bent out of shape or I myself might be uncomfortable.

      • CountryFriedRyan says:

        I agree with Clarice. I disagree that hierarchical poly relationships make it “exceedingly difficult to practice ethically”. I am solo-poly and non-hierarchical and I have been in secondary relationships with people who practice hierarchical polyamory and have not had any problems in this regard and I did not feel like I was being treated unfairly. I facilitate a discussion group and have seen plenty of people ethically manage hierarchical polyamory. While hierarchical polyamory certainly has its share of unique concerns, I fail to see how it is significantly more prone to ethical quagmires than other models. It’s not that hard to behave ethically if everyone involved is self-aware, skilled at communicating, and is honest and transparent about their feelings, values, and processes. Lacking any of these things is far more detrimental than any personal preference on relationship model.

        I would suggest that perhaps you simply find it easier, for you personally, to navigate the ethical issues of non-hierarchical nonmonogamy than hierarchical nonmonogamy. Just like some people learn better under different teaching styles, perhaps you just have an easier time understanding and navigating ethics in that particular context. I would also suggest that some relationships are not well suited to the kind of anarchistic non-hierarchy you prefer, such as a married poly couple with multiple children and shared property and dual careers. Perhaps these people find it easier to navigate the ethical issues of hierarchical nonmonogamy.

        Different relationships have different needs. Equality is not the same thing as equity, and one can exist without the other. The power dynamic between people in ethical poly relationships should be equitable, but equity does not always require equality. Sometimes inequality is required to bring about equity, and equity is more important.

    • aggiesez says:

      First, let me say that although I personally would not get involved in a hierarchical relationship (as a primary or nonprimary partner), I actually don’t think it’s unethical to practice hierarchy in a poly relationship. I do believe it’s inherently much more challenging to be ethical in conducting a hierarchical vs. non-hierarchical relationship, because built-in power imbalances must be handled very carefully and responsibly with consent all along the way, including as circumstances evolve over time.

      In fact, I feel so strongly that hierarchy is not inherently unethical that I repeatedly tangled with my former co-moderator of the original solo poly Facebook Group, Joreth Innkeeper. She was so adamantly anti-hierarchy that she removed admin privilege from myself and the rest of the moderators and basically hijacked the group specifically so no favorable mention of hierarchy would be allowed. My fellow mods and I had to rebuild with a new group, which was a big hassle but is now thriving far better than the original group. But yeah, I’m serious that I don’t think hierarchy is intentionally unethical.

      That said, I do personally believe that “take it or leave it” is definitely not an empowered position in any relationship — intimate, business, housemates, family, etc. Sure, everybody always has the right to leave a situation that doesn’t suit them. But being inherently deprived of the ability to negotiate, to collaborate, to allow a relationship to grow as it will… that’s about as empowered as saying that living in a “right to work” state actually gives anyone the right to a job. (Really, that term only means that employers can pretty much fire people at will for any reason.)

      I think it’s probably really hard for people who are trying to be ethical about how they practice hierarchy to accept that by making that choice, they are expecting their non-primary partners to accept at least some level of intrinsic disempowerment. We live in a society that is ostensibly egalitarian, and it may not sound nice or cool to admit that some partners or relationships will “lose” in some situations by default. But that’s pretty much what hierarchy boils down to — predetermined default decisionmaking, rather than situational collaboration with everyone involved. If you didn’t want to retain the right to pull a trump card over nonprimary partners and relationships, there would be no hierarchy. When it’s there, it’s always there for a reason.

      Empowerment in relationships is something that the book More Than Two covered very well. They have a whole chapter on it. But basically it comes down to everyone involved in a relationship having a full and equal voice in how that relationship is conducted. Which means collaborating, looking at what everyone in a situation needs and has to offer. Because generally everyone — including nonprimary parnters — has a lot to offer. Empowerment is basically a tool for resilience; whereas take it or leave it seems, to me, to only cut off options to figure stuff out.

  4. JMW says:

    As an aside: choosing Doritos, regardless of flavor, is indeed a question of personal ethics.

  5. Alan M. says:

    Hi Aggie–

    Brilliant as always, and I’m thinking of giving this a signal boost on Polyamory in the News.

    But I think you’ve left a major hole in the logical process, which makes this formula not about *ethics* but mere *utility* for anyone’s purposes, good or evil.

    In fact, if this gets spread widely as is, it can/will be used by our opponents to show how polyamorists are all about self-gratification, with no regard to ethics despite their lofty talk.

    You say,

    when they’re really honest, people often also value not-so-virtuous-sounding stuff (winning, power, pleasure, ease, avoiding conflict, etc.)

    I though you were about to close the loop on this later where things get interesting: where you talk about rooting out conflicts in one’s XYZ formulation. But you didn’t. So, an ethical formulation might be

    “Because I value money/power, I will trick and exploit people to get it, even if it means losing the respect of some people that I like.”

    You have defined “ethics” as merely “how to live free of internal conflict” or “how to pursue my goals smoothly.” That’s the very definition of amoral/ unethical. I hope you develop the midsection of your piece of address this… before our critics grab it.

    Incidentally, when Franklin was writing *More Than Two* he wrestled at length with how to create a truly self-supporting system of morals and ethics: one that doesn’t rest on prior givens, such as “because God said it” or because you simply set other postulates, such as “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” It threatened to take the book far down a rabbit hole that’s been explored (without resolution) since the early Greeks and Christians. I told him that ought to be his *next* book. He might enjoy having his brain picked.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoker that could open some new discussions in poly theory.

    Alan M.

    • aggiesez says:

      Good point Alan. But what you’re referring to is the difference between ethics and morality — what is deemed by a group, society or philosophy to be good, right or just. And that’s a very, very slippery slope. For instance, what if “family” is widely deemed to be “good?” I’ve seen that moral used to justify very cruel treatment of partners and metamours, especially nonprimary partners.

      I think what I’m missing here so far is guidance on how people can sort out their own highest values and act on them — say, what might make someone choose kindness over winning.

      I do think most people do want to act in ways that are socially considered virtuous. But I also think that unless they arrive at that through their own process, resolving their own internal value conflicts, they’ll probably just keep undermining themselves in practice.

      When I have time, I will write that, and link to that from here.

      In the meantime, one thing I think is futile to worry about is “What if people use what I wrote in destructive ways that make polyamory look bad?” That will absolutely happen. Always. With your blog and with mine.

      Every community, philosophy, practice has flaws and strengths, which are mostly up to the individuals involved. And they can all be used to rationalize destructive behavior.

      So while I applaud More Than Two’s chosen ethical principles, and try to live by them myself, I’m not comfortable declaring that they represent what “is ethical.” That would be a moral standpoint, and a distraction from honest inquiry into personal values and ethics. Rather, that book represents what’s its authors and people who agree with them consider ethical; it would be misleading to conflate that with ethics in general.

      Still, I don’t want to pull an Ayn Rand and act like morals don’t matter. The world would totally suck if that were true; and the reason the world doesn’t totally suck is because there is some consensus on what is helpful, fair and good.

      So I’ll have to consider how to address that. I’m not ready or able to do that at this point. But thanks for the nudge.

  6. Miss Julie says:

    Firstly, I’d like to say that I’m glad I found this blog today. I’ve read a few of your posts and they are informative and well written. Thank you for doing this.

    I apologize in advance for the long wall of text. It’s a long story.

    I recently went through a very difficult situation within my polyamorous household. I am married. My husband and I are primary to each other and we both have a non-primary partner. Our dynamic is not limited to us only having one non-primary partner, that’s just the way it’s been since we became poly.

    A little over a year ago, I met someone online (We’ll call him “P”) and we started a relationship. When we met, there was him and another person (We’ll call him “A”) who I was considering a relationship with as well. The relationship with “A” turned out to not be a good match, so as it turned out, I was only considering one non-primary partner and the relationship went well for quite a while. “P” understood and agreed to the fact that I may enter into other relationships besides the one I had with him, though that didn’t happen for a year. It was specifically discussed so as to hopefully avoid the possibility of future issues.

    About a month and a half ago, I met someone new (We’ll call him “E”). I felt an instant connection with “E” and felt that he would be a good match for me. I mentioned to “P” that I had met “E” and that I was considering a relationship with him. “P” immediately had a problem with this. I reminded him that it was what we had previously agreed to and I didn’t understand where he was coming from and asked him to clarify for me. “P” said that he didn’t understand either and he was upset with himself for letting it bother him since I wasn’t doing anything wrong or anything other than what we’d agreed to. He explained to me that it made him feel insecure and that if this other relationship made me happy, that I should have it. He also explained that it might mean that he might need a little extra reassurance from me for a while. So it was settled. Or so I thought.

    After a few days, he said he felt better about it and would even talk about the other relationship candidly with me. A week after that, it all came crashing down. “P” had done some thinking and realized that he didn’t think poly was for him. He was too jealous. I asked him how that could be since he never once showed any sort of jealousy for my husband. He said the relationships were different. Being my non-primary partner made him feel threatened by my having another non-primary partner. I seriously considered his feelings on the matter considering how serious our relationship was, we even had plans in place for him to move in with my husband and me. I talked it over with “E” and we mutually decided to end our relationship. We remained friends.

    For some reason, I expected things to go back to the way they were before this happened, but they didn’t for me. There were wonderful things about my relationship with “P” that I cherished but there were also things that I didn’t get to experience with him that I would have had the opportunity to experience with “E”. It forced me to analyze my relationship with “P” to try and decide if it was working for me. I wondered if I got enough from the relationship with “P” to be fulfilled while not being able to have any other relationships outside of the one with him and the one with my husband. I found that there were other problems that we hadn’t realized were problems. “P” mentioned to me that he was interested in seeking mental health treatment for these problems and that if he received treatment, then MAYBE he’d end up being okay with me having other relationships. Also, because of circumstances, it would have been on me to make sure that he received the treatment, as he would need me to facilitate and pay for said treatment. As I thought about it more, I found myself in a situation where he was hindering me from being who I am and I was trying to “fix” him. To me, that’s not a recipe for a successful relationship. (There were other incompatibilities too, they’re just irrelevant to the point of this post.)

    After a lot of thought and talking with people whose opinions I valued, I decided to end my relationship with “P”. It was difficult to do, as I still love him. I still feel it was the right decision for both of us. He required me to be someone I’m not and I required him to be someone he’s not.

    To put it in your formula, Because I value my personal fulfillment, I will participate in relationships that fulfill me even if that means I cannot be in a relationship with someone I love.

    Due to my change in circumstances, “E” and I have decided to restart our relationship and see where it goes. I do not kid myself into believing I’ll never have to face this obstacle again. I do feel though, that having gone through it has better prepared me for dealing with it in the future.

  7. Jim Polylover says:

    Someone on another poly group mentioned, and because I have a solopoly family member, I told her about it and took a look at the site myself. The first thing I saw was this post about ethics. Ethics has always been a big thing for me, so I am highly appreciative of what you wrote. If everything on your site is as good as this, then you sure have a lot on the ball. I would be much more likely to read what you write here if you were to post a link on

  8. Andrea says:

    My values are not to have sexual or romantic relationships at my workplace and also not to inflict on people in (monogamous) relationships. Anyway at my workplace this girl and I started to flirt and it rapidly escalated into a strong attraction only to find out that she was in a poorly functioning but monogamous relationship. I told her about my love- and relationship- choices, as being (solo-) polyamorous. Our feelings for each other grew despite the fact, that her long-time-relationship is on a way up, more or less at least. She told her girlfriend about me and now she needs to figure out if she wants to live a poly relationship and her girlfriend if she wants to be part of this. I also thought about “letting her go” to value my statements from the beginning, but as I figured, it was already to late, some of our coworkers already know and many others seem to sense something. And the other one, not wanting to inflict an ongoing monogamous relationship, is not entirely on my plate, as I never forced anything, she is a grown up and made her own choices.

  9. […] -Here are some polyamorous values or what I call polyamorous virtues (and I enjoyed this ethical framing and question article) […]

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