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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