Polyamorous relationships come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, with all sorts of configurations, arrangements and agreements. From closed triads to sprawling networks, from tightly nested live-in relationships to aggregations of long-distance relationships, from fleeting to long-lived, from consensual power exchange to egalitarian, I’ve seen polyamorous groupings with just about every structure possible.

Given that variety, it’s clear there’s no one right way to “do” polyamory. But that doesn’t mean all polyamorous relationships are happy or sustainable! One of the issues that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about is this: with all the variety that makes up the tapestry of polyamory, what consistent factors separate balanced, fulfilling relationships from ones more likely to be filled with conflict and tears? Are there any commonalities? What signposts, if any, can we use to recognize the former?

Communication, honesty and consent are values the poly community promotes heavily, and these ideas do seem to be intrinsic to strong, ethical relationships. But the more I think about these ideas, the deeper the rabbit hole goes.

Communication and honesty are complex topics that can easily fill a book. Consent seems more straightforward; either we agree to something or we don’t, right? I’ve often heard people say, “As long as everyone agrees to a structure or a set of rules, everything’s good.”

On the surface, that seems reasonable. And yet, I think it’s easy to lose track of how slippery the idea of “consent” can be.

There are a lot of ways to run off the rails on the way to a seemingly consensual agreement. I woke up this morning thinking about this, and somewhere in my foggy pre-caffeinated state I tracked down three ways that an agreement might appear consensual without quiiiiite rising to the level that would be ideal for ethical relationships:

1. If there’s manipulation or coercion involved in the agreement.

No, I don’t mean overt arm-twisting, though certainly that’s a problem too. I’m talking about subtle pressure, nearly undetectable emotional manipulation that can influence a person to agree to something that perhaps he might not fully embrace.

This kind of manipulation is not necessarily evil, or even conscious. We are a social species, and manipulation is one of the things we do. There’s a book called Emotional Blackmail that talks about the sorts of ways we can subtly manipulate others to agree to the course of action we want them to, in ways that can be almost unnoticeable if we’re not on guard against them. A good friend of mine recommends reading this book twice. The first time through, you’ll doubtless spot the ways the folks around you have manipulated you, and you’ll likely say, “Oh, my God, how could they!” The second time through, you’ll probably spot the ways you have unconsciously done the same thing, and you may find yourself saying, “Oh, my God, how could I!”

2. When the alternative to agreeing seems unbearable. This is not necessarily the same thing as coercion, because it can be driven by internal, rather than external, factors. For example, if a person feels that she absolutely can not bear the thought of being alone or being without a certain partner, she may react to that fear by consenting to agreements that she might not otherwise consent to if she thinks that doing otherwise might mean losing the relationship.

It is difficult to give meaningful consent in situations where we don’t feel that we have any acceptable choice. If we can’t say “no,” then saying “yes” loses much of its meaning. We might not even be driven to agree by a partner; it can happen that purely internal fears rather than external pressure drive us into agreements that aren’t good for us.

3. When the agreement is part of a framework of mutual assured destruction. Agreements are often complex, made up of many parts, and it can sometimes be that we may agree to things not because they are right for us, but in order to get our partners to agree to the things we want them to agree to.

I see a difference between this and ordinary negotiation in that a “mutual assured destruction” system is, way down at its foundation, a way of saying “if you don’t call me on it when I’m unreasonable or insecure, I won’t call you on it when you’re unreasonable or insecure.” The structure of the agreement serves to protect each person from his or her own inner demons by telling the other members involved, “Agree to this or I will expose you to your inner demons.”

There’s a fourth confounding factor that can make an agreement freely entered into suspect as well, and that’s when the strictures of the agreement fall more heavily on one party than another, or the consequences of the agreement are distributed unevenly.

By way of one example: I am straight. I’ve never had any inclination or desire to have a male lover. If I were to enter into an agreement with another partner that says “we both agree not to have other male partners,” I am not giving up anything at all; for all intents and purposes, the burden that agreement places on me is exactly zero. On the other hand, if my partner does desire male lovers, this agreement does place a restriction on her. For me to say, “Well, there’s nothing unfair about this agreement because we are both signing on to the same thing” is disingenuous.

These things can work in very subtle ways, and there’s no simple toolkit to ferret them out. Being aware of emotional manipulation (even when it’s unconscious), asking questions about why we want what we want and why our partners want what they want, and learning that we can be alone or lose the things we have and we’ll still be okay are all part of preparing to make ethical agreements.


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Joreth · September 30, 2013 at 5:49 pm

“if you don’t call me on it when I’m unreasonable or insecure, I won’t call you on it when you’re unreasonable or insecure.”

Boy is this one a doozy, and one I’ve seen more times than I’m comfortable recounting! Naturally, it’s never actually *phrased* like that, because that would cause too much cognitive dissonance to blatantly admit that the purpose of the agreements is to prevent the other from challenging us. But I’ve seen it happen nonetheless.

Usually it masquerades more as “I don’t want you to do X with her”, “OK, that’s no problem, as long as you agree not to do Y with him”. Seems, fair, right? Both people are agreeing to make concessions for the other. But it’s “fair” in the sense of “an eye for an eye” is technically “fair”, but eventually you end up with a tribe full of blind people being lead by the last guy with one eye. What is *healthier*, and yet still fair, is saying “I can’t agree to that, because it’s inherently flawed and protects our insecurities more than it really protects us from getting hurt, but I will work with you on your fear about what might happen if I do X if you’ll agree to help me through my fears for when you do Y.”

mj · September 30, 2013 at 6:35 pm

Thank you so much for your well-timed post. I read this right before calling my partner to discuss how unsatisfied I feel with the amount of time I’ve been getting recently and how I feel like I’ve agreed to let his girlfriend’s children’s plans dictate when I get time alone with him.

Of course it’s a complicated situation, but I’m living your second example. I’m being facetious about what I wrote, but it is what it feels like to me and I can’t agree to that, but if I say “no.” I will be ending my relationship. I’ve been saying “yes,” out of fear of losing him, but I’m getting to the point where I’m so unhappy, would I be any more or less unhappy if I take care of myself and say “no” this isn’t ok with me?

Thank you for your very insightful examples. If this is what you come up with when you haven’t had coffee yet, I can’t imagine what you are like after your morning coffee!!

Thanks again,

Louisa Leontiades · October 1, 2013 at 1:04 am

Great post – especially close to my heart as I fall (or used to fall) bang in the middle of option 2 (See my post on No doesn’t always mean No – http://www.freedom451.com/no-doesnt-always-mean-no/). The question is then how to help women (or any individual) through this internal struggle of rejection, shame and insecurity… Which comes down to a lot more than therapy and self-help – because much of it is a product of the dysfunction or our gender imbalanced society.

Ewen McNeill · October 1, 2013 at 1:44 am

I’m fond of telling people about the phrase “if you can’t say ‘no’, it’s not consent”. I’ve found that people find it a particularly valuable thing to learn if they’ve been in a situation where they were pushed to do something they didn’t want to do, and eventually gave in, eg, someone repeatedly asking and “not taking ‘no’ for an answer”. (Your 2 is a weaker form of that I think — where maybe they _could_ have said ‘no’ and had it heard, but it _felt_ impossible due to confounding reasons that may have been only known to them: your terms are unacceptable, but the alternatives are worse.)

It strikes me that your fourth point is at least in part about the framing of an issue, in that by getting to choose how the issue is framed, you can also choose something that has almost no impact on yourself but a lot of impact on others, while still getting to claim it “applies equally to everyone”.

As a recent topical example “everyone is free to marry a person of the opposite sex” is one framing, and “everyone is free to marry a person of the attractive sex” is another framing — with identical results to those who chose the first framing, and very different results for those who didn’t get to chose. But hey, it’s fair, because “everyone” gets the same rights…

The answer in that case is to be aware of manipulative framing of an issue. Arguably all framing, of any issue, is manipulative — “look at the problem this way” — but not being aware it is happening and that maybe you should be looking at the issue in another way can be the unfair part.

If you’re aware how the framing is influencing the decision, or making it unequal, maybe you can find another framing which is “more equal” (the s/opposite/attractive/ in the example above). (Which is very “ask the right question, and you’ll get a better answer” — where “better” here is “more genuine” or “more accurate”. Changing the framing is one of those “Kobayashi Maru” moves. (Aka “I reject your reality and substitute my own”.)


Dirtclustit · October 16, 2013 at 12:41 am

I hear what your saying, but I don’t agree that there is “unconscious” manipulation, I guess it happens for some people but I think 99% of the time it would be better described not as unconscious but rather the fact of someone being an ignorant self centered prick.

Either that, or I would think they are very confused about what it means to Love another person. When working out details like these agreements I find it’s more of a pounding out the minute details, but find it hard to believe those ever increasingly more detailed little devil that resides in the minutia really is just a saying.

It’s usually an honest mistake of full on manipulation and the two are black and white sides divided by a canyon that is unmistakeable when you take that step over the ledge. But to say that you honestly don’t know which side you ended up on when you scurry back onto land, I would have to call BS unless you were legally blind from the result of the fall.

Otherwise there is a rather dramatic difference between the black of night and the light of day. And even being blind it might still prove getting someone way to much benefit of the doubt, as I don’t know many people who can’t feel the warmth from the sun from the chill of the night, but I do know a few people who have no problem discerning, however they just don’t care to not be manipulative.

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