More Than Two Book Blog

Companion for the More Than Two polyamory book


Aligning Your Compass

A few days ago, someone asked an interesting question about the way polyamory is perceived by the larger monogamous world around us. Why is it, this person wondered, that people outside the poly community so often react with fear to the idea of loving more than one person at once?

When I thought about the question, it brought up another one in my head: Why is it that people inside the poly community so often react with fear to the idea of loving more than one person at once?

When I look around, I see all sorts of people who want more than one lover, but who are terrified of the idea. One of the first questions I’m asked when people who are in couples send me emails about opening up to polyamory is, How can we protect what we have? How can we make sure that polyamory won’t change things for us? Polyamory is scary, according to this view; we need protection from it.

And the answers are, you can’t, and you can’t. Any life change may threaten the relationship you have; polyamory will change things for you, and that’s okay.

But still the fear lingers. It drives many of the relationship agreements that people, especially people new to polyamory, make. It underlies the structures that people look for. It determines the rules that people try to play by–or, more often, try to place on any new partners they may find.

Polyamorous people like to call what we do “ethical non-monogamy.” But when I ask people what “ethical” means, most often the answers I get don’t go beyond “be open and be honest.” While that’s a start, there’s a lot more to being ethical than being honest! If I were to walk up to you, the reader, and say “I’m going to hit you in the face with this railroad tie now” and then I hit you in the face with a railroad tie, I have been open and honest, but I have not been ethical.

The poly community prides itself on ethical non-monogamy. We need to do a better job at thinking about what that means.

In the book Eve and I are writing, we have chosen to align our ethical compass using two guiding principles: The people in a relationship are more important than the relationship and Don’t treat people as things. You will notice that “be open” and “be honest” are not among these axioms, because we believe they are corollaries, consequences of aligning our moral sextant to the stars of these two axioms. Being dishonest deprives people of the ability to offer informed consent; when we make people do what we want them to do, without their consent, we are treating them as things.

There are other corollaries as well. If I am in a relationship, and I am asking, How can I make sure my partner doesn’t leave me? I am forgetting the first moral axiom: The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship. If my partner wants to leave, she should be free to do so. If I seek to keep her against her wishes, through rules, structures or any other means, I am saying the relationship is more important than she is. That is not ethical polyamory.

What happens when we align ourselves to these two moral axioms? When that happens, a lot of the common rules and structures we see all around us in polyamory begin to look unethical.

For example, let’s look at a very common arrangement in the poly community that we often see when existing couples open their relationship to new partners: hierarchy and veto. These things are necessary, I often hear, because the world is full of unethical people, people of dubious intent and even more dubious agendas, people who will try to come into your relationship and steal one partner away. And that’s absolutely true. In fact, such behavior is common enough that the poly community has a term for such people: “cowboys” (or “cowgirls”), people trying to “rope one off from the herd.” They exist, absolutely. I’ve run across people like this in my own relationships.

The problem is, I don’t think saying “we need rules to protect ourselves from cowboys” aligns well with ethical non-monogamy. There are people in the world who may want to split a couple up, you bet. But they can’t. It’s not possible. Not without the couple’s help. A cowboy can’t “make” a couple break up. A couple only breaks up if the people involved choose to make it happen. It seems easy for us to forget this, even though it’s so simple. It’s as if we have a collective sense of learned helplessness about our own relationships: we don’t understand that the way to avoid breaking up with a partner is… don’t break up with your partner. The way to make a relationship strong and secure is to work on the relationship.

When we make rules such as veto, we are basically saying, “We think some new partners behave badly, so we are going to treat all new partners as bad actors.” That, to me, violates the ethical principle of “Don’t treat people as things.” The alternative to treating people as things is treating people as people; that is, recognizing that every person is unique, and not holding the sins of some people against all people. 

What does that actually mean? How do we behave ethically?

We trust our partners, and trust our communication skills. We voice concerns when we have them, and work with our partners to resolve the issues. We treat our partners as free people who are in a relationship with us by choice.

I know it’s hard. We live in a society that says “when you fall in love you’ll live Happy Ever After” and doesn’t actually teach trust or communication. So we have to learn them and work on them. 

But it goes back to what I said before: A new partner can’t break up a relationship. It can’t happen. If the couple wants to stay together, they will stay together. If one member of the couple wants to leave, then that person will leave. Rules won’t change that, and a rule that could change that would be holding the relationship to be more important than the people in the relationship.

If my partner wants to leave, she is free to leave. I do not ask, What rules can make her stay? but rather, How can I be a person who strives to have positive qualities that add value to her life, so we can build a relationship where she wants to stay?

The real question is not What rules do we need to stay safe? but rather, Do you trust your partner to want to be with you, even if a shiny piece of hot ass asks him to leave?

If the answer is “no,” perhaps working on communication and trust might be a better solution that being poly right at this moment. That, perhaps, is the beginning of not treating people like things.

Why does monogamous culture seem to fear the idea of loving more than one person at a time? There might be a lot of reasons. We can point to tradition, fear of the unknown, fear of change, or any of a thousand other things. But can we really expect the world not to be afraid of loving more than one person, when we ourselves, the people who do it, are so afraid of it?

48 Comments so far


  1. Shelly November 11th, 2013 6:12 am

    The happiness of the people in the relationship seems to dramatically increase the security of the relationship. It seems like it’s really easy to ignore this and look for security through *any other means* when the route to happiness might require disruptive change :(.


  2. Plymouth November 12th, 2013 10:29 am

    I continue to be in disagreement with the idea that rules or veto power are bad wheras communication and trust are good. It’s not as if rules or veto power are at odds with communication and trust. I’ll try to demonstrate with an example:

    A and B have a pretty good relationship. C comes along and A pursues a relationship with them. B is made uncomfortable by C and thinks C is harmful to A and B’s relationship. There are a few possible ways this could unfold;

    1) B goes to A and says “I need you to break up with C. C is endangering our relationship.” A breaks up with C because A had previously agreed to it. They never speak of this again. A feels resentful and the relationship suffers.

    2) B goes to A and says “I need you to break up with C. C is endangering our relationship.” A breaks up with C because A had previously agreed to it & A and B go on to discuss in much detail why C made B uncomfortable. Eventually A comes around to realizing that C was a destructive force and the relationship between A and B is made stronger.

    3) B goes to A and says “I am concerned about your relationship with C. I feel like C is endangering our relationship”. A and B have long discussions about A’s relationship with C but meanwhile A keeps seeing C. Eventually A comes around to realizing that C is a destructive force and breaks up with C and the relationship between A and B is made stronger.

    4) B does not share their discomfort over C with A because they feel like that would be too much interference in A’s life. A continues to see C and B suffers in silence. Eventually A comes to notice that B is suffering and that C is a destructive force on the relationship and breaks up with C. But B feels resentful that A took so long to figure it out and the relationship between A and B suffers.

    I think most people would agree that scenarios 1 and 4 are not optimal because communication is not happening & the relationships are not being conducted in an open and respectful manner. Scenarios 2 and 3 both seem workable to me depending on people’s personal style and comfort levels. I think most people would call 2 “veto power” but not 3. If in 3 A breaks up with C right away after hearing B is uncomfortable does it become veto power? If in 3 A takes a really long time to come to the conclusion that C is a destructive force couldn’t the relationship still suffer like in 4? Isn’t it possible that if B in scenario 4 wasn’t so scared of the idea of veto power they might have been able to arrange something more like scenario 3?

    The last time this was relevant for me I tried to work it as option 3. I voiced my concerns, we discussed at length all while my partner kept seeing his C and I kept suffering. Eventually I said I couldn’t take any more and it turned into scenario 2 and he broke up with her. We continued to discuss it and eventually he came around to the conclusion that his C wasn’t good for him or us but that was something he couldn’t see while he was still in the relationship with her. Should I have suffered and discussed my feelings longer? Should I have put my foot down sooner? I don’t know. But I certainly don’t think I would have benefitted from believing that NEVER putting my foot down was the right path to pursue.

    One additional thought. You say: “Do you trust your partner to want to be with you, even if a shiny piece of hot ass asks him to leave? If the answer is “no,” perhaps working on communication and trust might be a better solution that being poly right at this moment.”

    How is that different from exercising a universal veto? That, to me, seems like the ultimate veto power. I must disclose here that as the monogamously-inclined partner in a mono-poly relationship it is one I came very close to exercising, though it was ultimately my partner who made the decision to stop seeing other people to work on us for a while.


  3. Eve Rickert November 12th, 2013 12:33 pm

    Your four scenarios rest on a number of assumptions, including:

    1. A and B’s relationship is a healthy relationship that is good for both of them. (OR 1b. It does not matter whether A and B’s relationship is healthy or good for them, because the relationship is more important than the people in it.)
    2. If B believes C is “a destructive force,” it is true (and the corollary, 2b. If B believes C is a destructive force and A does not, B will always be right and A will always be wrong).
    3. C does not have any thoughts or feelings that may be relevant to the matter or that need to be considered in making the decision whether her relationship with A should be ended (i.e., C is a thing and not a person).
    4. A and B will always remain in a relationship.

    While it is true that veto arrangements typically rest on these assumptions, it is not true that they are always correct. Often:

    1. A and B’s relationship may be codependent or otherwise harmful, and the relationship with C may be putting pressure on that and forcing change.
    2. B may be feeling insecure about her relationship with A, and therefore sees C as a threat even when C is not.
    3. C is a real person, with feelings that need to be considered, and who may be able to provide relevant insight into those actions that B considered “destructive” that demonstrate that they are not, in fact, as destructive as B believed.

    Your scenarios 1 and 2 both violate our two fundamental ethical principles, because they both treat people as things (C is expendable and does not get to input into the discussion of whether her relationship is ended), and they make the relationship more important than the people in it (because they require that one relationship be ended by default, with no consideration for the effects on the people within the relationships, or which relationship, if either, is benefitting the people in it).

    Because of your assumptions, your four options are also extremely limited. The following are also possibilities:

    1. A and B are in an unhealthy, codependent relationship. A’s relationship with C begins to push on the weak points in that relationship and B asks A to end the relationship with C. A refuses, but asks B to go into counselling with him to work on their issues. Then:
    1a. B agrees to counselling, A and B work on their issues and have a better relationship because of it, A stays with both B and C and everyone is happy.
    1b. B agrees to counselling, they discover their differences are irreconcilable, they split up, A stays with C and is happier as a result.
    1c. B says no to counselling and issues A an ultimatum: break up with C or B will leave. A agrees and breaks up with C. Because A and B are codependent, the cycle repeats with numerous future partners, until A finds a partner who is willing to enable A and B’s codependent relationship.
    1d. B says no to counselling and issues A an ultimatum: break up with C or B will leave. A says no, B leaves, and A stays with C and is happier as a result.

    2. B goes to A and says “I am concerned about your relationship with C. I feel like C is endangering our relationship”. A and B and C all have long discussions about A’s relationship with both B and C, and meanwhile A keeps seeing C. B asks C questions to clarify why she has done the things that B is concerned about. Eventually B comes around to realizing that she has misunderstood C and projected her own insecurities onto the situation. B works on her insecurities and accepts the relationship with C. A stays with B and C.

    3. B brings her concerns directly to C. C says, “Wow, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know you felt that way. I value A’s relationship with you. What can I do to make you feel more comfortable?” B and C negotiate, C changes the behaviours that are making B uncomfortable, and A stays with B and C.

    These are just a few of the alternative solutions or endings to the initial scenario (B feels insecure about A’s relationship with C). The nifty thing about open communication without ultimatums or predefined endpoints is that it allows for all kinds of solutions to surface.

    A choice not to be poly is absolutely different from a universal veto; in fact, I’m really not clear where you see the overlap between the two. You seem to be assuming that either you have no choice but to be in a polyamorous relationship, or that your partner has no choice but to be with you. Trying to force a polyamorous partner to be monogamous with you is not your only choice. If you are monogamous and know that you want a monogamous relationship, then you can select monogamous partners. If you require a monogamous relationship but fall in love with a person who is polyamorous, your polyamorous partner has the choice to decide whether to be in a monogamous relationship with you or not.

    Regardless of whether you identify as poly or mono, if you do not trust your partner not to leave you, and as a result need to be able to have a veto in order to feel safe, you always have the choice of remaining closed while you work on trust until you *can* be ready to let your partner make his own choices in his relationships and trust that he will still take care of you. Your partner has the option of staying with you and working through that, or not. If he does, that’s a pretty good indication that the relationship is valuable and something he is going to work with you to keep. If he doesn’t, then you probably weren’t well-suited for a relationship anyway.


  4. Franklin Veaux November 12th, 2013 12:51 pm

    One additional thought. You say: “Do you trust your partner to want to be with you, even if a shiny piece of hot ass asks him to leave? If the answer is “no,” perhaps working on communication and trust might be a better solution that being poly right at this moment.”

    How is that different from exercising a universal veto? That, to me, seems like the ultimate veto power.

    I’m having trouble understanding what you mean.

    I have five partners. All of them have other partners. If one of my partners starts dating someone new, and that new person says “I want you to leave Franklin,” I would…

    …do nothing. I believe that all of my partners would, in that situation, say “no, I am not going to leave Franklin for you.”

    I don’t understand the point you’re making; how is that veto?


  5. Plymouth November 12th, 2013 1:50 pm

    Franklin – Well in your case the answer ISN’T “no” so that would be a totally different scenario. The fact that you brought that up as an example suggests I misunderstood YOUR initial point, which was the thing I was asking for clarification on. In what situation ARE you suggesting people stop being poly to work on communication?


  6. Plymouth November 12th, 2013 2:07 pm

    Eve – Yes, my scenario absolutely rests on those assumptions and I stated that up front. I am taking it as a given that A and B have a pretty good relationship to start and I said as much. Obviously there are a wealth of other ways this can play out if that isn’t the case, but it was my intent to write a simple blog comment, not an essay. I was responding to Franklin’s assertion that veto power is not justified even in cases in which the 3rd relationship IS a destructive force and I was disagreeing with that. Insomuch as I didn’t talk about C’s feeling go back again to my statement re: blog comment not essay. But unless you are asserting that nobody gets to be broken up with unless it is mutual I don’t see how “Your scenarios 1 and 2 both violate our two fundamental ethical principles, because they both treat people as things (C is expendable and does not get to input into the discussion of whether her relationship is ended)” holds up. C doesn’t get any more input in situations 3 and 4 than they do in 1 and 2. Sometimes, and I’m pretty sure it is most of the time, breakups are not mutual. Breaking up with someone who does not want to break up with you is not treating them as a thing. And “and they make the relationship more important than the people in it (because they require that one relationship be ended by default, with no consideration for the effects on the people within the relationships, or which relationship, if either, is benefitting the people in it)” is not supported either because it assumes B did not think about this stuff before exercising the veto and A did not think about this stuff before agreeing to give B veto power. I am still back to believing that people’s real objection to veto power is actually an objection to veto used IN BAD FAITH. Absolutely it can be used in bad faith, but so can other arrangements that are not veto, for example trying to sabotage the other relationship or using passive aggressive emotional manipulation or, as in my scenario 4, suffering in silence.


  7. Plymouth November 12th, 2013 2:18 pm

    Eve – On one more bit I missed: “A choice not to be poly is absolutely different from a universal veto; in fact, I’m really not clear where you see the overlap between the two. You seem to be assuming that either you have no choice but to be in a polyamorous relationship, or that your partner has no choice but to be with you.”

    Absolutely not. In all cases veto actually means, as Dan Savage would put it, “the price of admission”. Any partner is ALWAYS free to say “this price is too high – I’m leaving”. If your assertion is that it’s not veto because the person is free to leave then there is no such thing as veto because people are ALWAYS free to decide to leave. In which case this whole conversation seems pointless.

    WRT your followon discussion about my fear of my partner leaving me, that’s not actually the case. I see how me quoting Franklin’s statement and then talking abut my own relationship made that seem like it was so, but there are other reasons a person might not want to be in a poly relationship other than fear of their partner leaving for a hot piece of ass. And I’ll leave it at that otherwise I’d have to write yet another essay.


  8. Franklin Veaux November 12th, 2013 7:00 pm

    In what situation ARE you suggesting people stop being poly to work on communication?

    If a poly relationship has already started? Absent a serious issue like physical abuse, probably none.

    If two people are considering becoming polyamorous but don’t yet have good trust and communication, I would recommend they address trust and communication before they invite someone else into their hearts. But once someone else’s heart is already on the line? You don’t discard that person and go back to working on your trust and communication.

    I was responding to Franklin’s assertion that veto power is not justified even in cases in which the 3rd relationship IS a destructive force and I was disagreeing with that.

    I don’t think veto is necessary even in the case of a new relationship that’s destructive. Instead, I think if you have a foundation of good trust and good communication, all you need to do is point out the destructiveness.

    I don’t use veto, yet that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t communicate my concerns if I saw problems!


  9. Plymouth November 13th, 2013 12:31 am

    Instead, I think if you have a foundation of good trust and good communication, all you need to do is point out the destructiveness.

    It’s usually not that obvious. Especially to someone who is still in NRE.


  10. Franklin Veaux November 13th, 2013 12:56 pm

    It’s usually not that obvious. Especially to someone who is still in NRE.

    Sure. That’s where communication comes in. If it’s obvious to you but not your partner, talk about it.

    The trust comes in when you trust your partner to hear you. If you think your partner will ignore you because he’s hip-deep in NRE (or for any other reason), then it seems to me you don’t trust your partner.


  11. Plymouth November 13th, 2013 8:04 pm

    Well if you go back to my very first comment you will see that I said the last time I tried this I went with option 3. I talked to my partner about it, at length, all the while living in pain. I did not want to say “I need you to stop seeing her” because everyone had told me VETO BAAAD! Eventually I decided it hurt too much and I put my foot down and said I couldn’t take any more of it. Only a month or so AFTER he had broken up with her did he come around to seeing how destructive she was.

    I trusted him enough to TRY to be OK with the relationship. He did not ignore me, but he also didn’t immediately break up with her either. Trust really isn’t the only relevant vector – self-knowledge and articulation also matter. My explanation of how she was destructive didn’t make an impact because I DID NOT FULLY UNDERSTAND IT MYSELF. Your idea of no vetoes seems to require not just optimal communication and trust but also omniscience. I submit that any system that fails in the presence of normal human fallibility is not a workable system.


  12. inurashii November 14th, 2013 6:47 am

    Every system can fail in the presence of normal human fallibility.


  13. inurashii November 14th, 2013 6:52 am

    Actually, I’d like to expand on that. Plymouth, you seem to be implying that a veto system ISN’T capable of failing in the presence of normal human fallibility. Do you actually believe that?


  14. Franklin Veaux November 14th, 2013 12:45 pm

    Your idea of no vetoes seems to require not just optimal communication and trust but also omniscience. I submit that any system that fails in the presence of normal human fallibility is not a workable system.

    Huh? I’m not sure I follow.

    If you’re not OK with a relationship but you don’t know why, say “I’m not OK with this relationship but I’m not sure why.” That’s communication.

    Then trust that your partner will listen to you, talk it through with you, work to find a solution with you. That’s trust.

    Or are you saying you only trust your partner to listen to you if you can rationally explain your feelings? That seems a little…weird.

    Of course, you’re thinking about how communication fails but not about how veto fails. I’m curious: What, exactly, do you think would happen if you told your partner “I’m vetoing this person, but I’m not really sure why”? How do you think that would affect your relationship?


  15. Plymouth November 14th, 2013 7:25 pm

    Franklin –

    What, exactly, do you think would happen if you told your partner “I’m vetoing this person, but I’m not really sure why”? How do you think that would affect your relationship?

    I already gave an example above of having done pretty much that and you can see the results. If you’re asking me to imaging performing some more extreme version of that where I don’t even TRY to explain why and refuse to discuss it further, well then you’re asking me for some extreme measure of veto that I would never personally do. I already said I think scenario 1 is harmful.

    Inurashii –

    Actually, I’d like to expand on that. Plymouth, you seem to be implying that a veto system ISN’T capable of failing in the presence of normal human fallibility. Do you actually believe that?

    Absolutely not. I already gave some examples above of a veto system failing, namely when people don’t bother with any communication. Additionally, the thing that actually pointed me to this post in the first place was a discussion on a mono-poly mailinglist I’m on where one of the poly people was upset that his spouse was vetoing EVERYONE he proposed to date – claiming to want a poly relationship but then using veto power to maintain default monogamy would also be a pretty clear failure mode.

    But I do see how I phrased my objection badly. I guess what I am more saying is that a system that, when it fails, the only solution is to try more of the same, is a failed system. Communication has broken down? Solution – more communication! Still not working? More communication! When do you get to give up? When one of you is so worn out from going back and forth that they deem the relationship no longer worth keeping? Might not it make sense at some point BEFORE that happens to say “More hashing this out isn’t going to help either of us. I’ll give you a choice now while there still is one – give up your other relationship or I am leaving you.”


  16. Franklin Veaux November 14th, 2013 8:08 pm

    Might not it make sense at some point BEFORE that happens to say “More hashing this out isn’t going to help either of us. I’ll give you a choice now while there still is one – give up your other relationship or I am leaving you.”

    Delivering an ultimatum is rarely productive. If someone said to me the words you just used here, “give up your other relationship or I am leaving you,” I’d say “goodbye! Been nice to know you!”

    On the other hand, stating boundaries for yourself–”this situation is degrading my happiness to the point where I can no longer imagine being happy if it continues; if you keep going down this course, I will no longer be able to remain in this relationship”–that’s not the same thing. Stating a boundary like that is always acceptable; indeed, it’s an important part of consent.

    It’s also not veto.

    It does seem, though, that a lot of folks have difficulty telling the difference between that and veto, or between the first and second statements in this comment.

    I put that down to a rubbish educational system, a society that considers manipulation a normal part of doing the business of romantic relationships, and an inability to sort out where the locus of control belongs.


  17. Plymouth November 14th, 2013 9:29 pm

    if you keep going down this course, I will no longer be able to remain in this relationship

    That means “If you stay in that relationship I will leave you”. Using indirect language may make YOU feel better but it doesn’t actually change the meaning or the message. Redefining it as a “boundary” rather than a “veto” is nonsense.


  18. Franklin Veaux November 14th, 2013 9:51 pm

    Not at all. The difference is the locus of control. A boundary is something I place on myself; “I will not do this,” “I will do that.” A rule or a veto is something you place on another person: “you must do this,” “you may not do that.”

    Now, some people are raised in environments with passive-aggressive communicators and people who are prone to manipulation, and for such people, it may genuinely be difficult to see the difference, I suppose. Nevertheless, there is a difference, and it’s a pretty big one.


  19. Auros November 14th, 2013 10:51 pm

    Nothing in the original phrasing (“I’ll give you a choice now while there still is one – give up your other relationship or I am leaving you.”) was coercive. It was explicitly phrased as a choice. And in any case, any “you must” or “you may not” statement, in a relationship that’s consensual to begin with, has an implied, “or what?” attached to it.

    You may not engage in intercourse with the new partner until we’ve discussed it. (Or what?) You may not fluid swap outside our polyfidelitous triad. (Or what?)

    In most cases the implied consequence is “or you will risk losing this relationship.”

    You can phrase these things in all kinds of different ways.

    Our relationship agreement or “contract” includes agreeing that neither of us may do X. If you do X, I’m out.

    X is a hard limit / boundary for me, so if you do X, I’m out.

    You have the choice between doing X, and keeping your relationship with me.

    They’re all equivalent; which you prefer is a matter of aesthetics. I frankly think you’re hung up on disliking the word veto, and therefore you’re defining it to only include arbitrary, capricious, or abusive behavior.


  20. Plymouth November 14th, 2013 11:04 pm

    You’re not even actually arguing against veto power anymore – now you’re just arguing for a specific style of communication. And it turns out people have different styles. If someone said to me ”this situation is degrading my happiness to the point where I can no longer imagine being happy if it continues; if you keep going down this course, I will no longer be able to remain in this relationship” my response would pretty much be “so, you’re considering ending our relationship because my other relationship is hurting you?” I’d make them state it in plain language because I feel more comfortable with directness and plain language. If they weren’t able to do that THEN I would call it passive aggressive tactics – saying something that makes me think this is a serious issue and then walking it back. That is MY comfort and how I conduct MY relationships (and my spouse agrees or we wouldn’t still be together) and I don’t have the arrogance to say everyone should do it that way just because it works better for me. Or to call people who have a different style “prone to manipulation” and make negative insinuations about their educational background. Are you a “bad communicator” for having done that? Well you’re certainly bad at communicating WITH ME. Just as I seem to be bad at communicating WITH YOU since as far as I can tell you still have no clue what my actual point is.

    I think that the way most people use the word “veto” is that one person breaks up with another because a 3rd party desired it, based on some pre-existing agreement to do so. The exact words used to convey that desire don’t actually matter as to whether it counts as a veto. The important part is that the party doing the breaking up would not have done it otherwise – as far as they were concerned the new relationship was just hunky-dory. Obviously there are better and worse ways to discuss it with your partner (and, as I said above, a lot of that is personal preference – it is not universal), but that’s really a different conversation than whether vetos are OK. You promised you would break up if your partner said they needed it, partner did, and you broke up.


  21. FickleFey November 15th, 2013 10:56 am

    Wow, vetoes are a hot topic! But I want to bring up something else: avoiding situations that threaten your existing relationship.

    I would not say that I have a “monogamous relationship orientation”, in that polyamorous relationships have no appeal for me. Actually, many aspects of polyamory are appealing and desirable to me. However, I know myself and my responses to NRE. If I tried to start another intimate relationship while having a pre-existing one, NRE would alter my preferences in ways that would certainly be temporary, and lead to regret once those alterations reverted.

    Many people can maintain pre-existing relationships while experiencing NRE, but not me. I would end up seriously damaging, and possibly destroying, my current relationship. No amount of relationship skill can compensate for the way NRE affects me. For me, it’s better not to do poly. If I was less self-aware, though, I might actually be inclined to try it. In that situation, my existing partner would be quite justified in reacting with fear to the idea. If they sat me down and explained that they thought I might be this way, and suggested we should not take the risk, I think this would be good for both of our happiness.


  22. Auros November 15th, 2013 1:17 pm

    I actually was thinking through this some more, and a key point occurred to me.

    For me, if a secondary partner informed me that s/he really needed to at least back off or suspend our relationship, for reasons relating to hir primary partner — whatever the precise reasons — I might be sad and disappointed, but I would not be angry or resentful at them. I would not feel like they were “treating me like a thing”, or breaking any kind of explicit or implicit agreement. Because I have always tried to be clear with my non-primary partners that my primary relationship comes first and needs to be maintained and kept healthy, and that, in parallel, I prioritize my secondary partner’s primary relationship above our secondary relationship. That is my choice; it’s not forced on me. Anyone who doesn’t understand that and want to set similar priorities, should not date me.

    I’ve had a secondary’s primary get uncomfortable with the intensity of my relationship with his spouse. I supported her in pulling back from our relationship for a while. I care about her, and want her to be happy, even if that means we can’t see each other. Her relationship with her husband — whom she lives with, has entangled finances with, is planning to have kids with soon — is more important to her long term happiness than her relationship with me. If I weren’t down with that set of priorities, I would be a bad partner for her.

    Maybe you prioritize your life differently. That’s fine. Do what works for you. But don’t presume that your priorities are somehow more valid or moral, or that nobody can practice open relationships differently than you.


  23. Franklin Veaux November 15th, 2013 2:11 pm

    It isn’t actually about the word “veto.” It’s about the implicit idea that person A has the right to arbitrarily end a relationship between persons B and C.

    If it’s not arbitrary, it’s not a veto. If it’s a discussion, it’s not a veto. If it’s subject to appeal, it’s not a veto. We can argue about the theoretical, hypothetical ways the word “veto” might be defined, but I’m actually a lot more interested in boots-on-the-ground, how-it-plays-out-in-real-relationships matters. In every case I’ve seen in my 25 years of being polyamorous, “veto” in practice means “I tell you to break up and you do.”

    The important part is the word “tell,” which is different from “ask.”

    As soon as we get to “ask,” we’re not talking about veto any more. That is, I think, an important point, not to be glossed over.

    There might be an implicit part of discussing someone else’s relationship choice vs. issuing a veto that I’ve glossed over because I thought it was obvious, but perhaps it isn’t:

    In cases I know of where poly people have a veto, there is an implicit assumption that person A, the holder of the veto, doesn’t necessarily think person B has a right to date person C. There is, just the opposite, an assumption that dating person C is a privilege, conditionally granted to perrson B by person A and subject to revocation by person A.

    I believe my partners have a right to date anyone they want to, and I do not have a right to tell them they must stop.

    What rights do I have? I have the right to communicate my feelings. I have the right to point out problems, and suggest that they be considered too. I have a right to set boundaries for myself, including boundaries such as “I do not want to be intimate with or vulnerable to C,” “I do not want to be around C,” and “I do not choose to continue this relationship.”

    But having the right to tell B not to date C? That, I don’t have.

    Even if B tries to somehow “give” me that right.

    Again, when it comes to practical real-world veto agreements rather than theoretical, hypothetical conversations about what veto might mean, in the real-world situations I have seen (and, sadly, participated in), there is an assumption that A’s right to veto C pre-empts any of C’s rights. A’s needs automatically pre-empt Cs. Any problem between A and C is assumed to be C’s fault, and A is assumed to be ethically in the right to demand that B terminate the relationship with C.

    We rarely see discussion about when veto happens because it’s the relationship between A and B that’s the dysfunctional one, and A is using the veto to try to maintain that dysfunction.

    But it happens. I’ve seen it so, so many times. Veto is, just as one non-hypothetical example, often a go-to tool for maintaining codependent relationships.


  24. Franklin Veaux November 15th, 2013 2:14 pm

    If I tried to start another intimate relationship while having a pre-existing one, NRE would alter my preferences in ways that would certainly be temporary, and lead to regret once those alterations reverted.

    That might be something to work on before putting other people in the line of fire, perhaps? NRE isn’t magic; we can (and I think we have the ethical responsibility to) learn to conduct ourselves as responsible people … even when our brains are soaking in NRE-juice.

    It’s hard. Believe me, I know how difficult what I’m suggesting is. I’ve made poor decisions under the influence of NRE myself, though fortunately I was still able to hear another partner telling me “whoa, this is messed up” in spite of my feelings.

    So I get, I really really get, how difficult this is. But I think it’s part of being a responsible, ethical person.


  25. Eve Rickert November 15th, 2013 2:38 pm

    I see the problem less about the specific wording and more about the fact that in the veto scenario, the outcome is predetermined.

    If I have a veto and I say to my partner, “I cannot stay with you if you remain in this relationship,” I know ahead of time that I will “win” this particular play: my partner has promised me in advance–probably when his other partner was still a hypothetical and not yet a real person–that if this scenario ever arises, he will “choose” me. Because I know what the outcome will be, the risk for me in issuing an ultimatum is substantially lowered. I can be relatively assured that I can make a threat to leave the relationship and still not lose the relationship. I do not have to shoulder the risk and vulnerability of saying I am prepared to leave and needing to really mean it. In other words, the consequences of my actions–and thus the bar that needs to be reached before I issue an ultimatum–are lowered for me, creating a disincentive to act in good faith. At the same time, all of that risk is unloaded onto the other partner. This shifting of risk–telling another person to bear both the normal risk that comes with any relationship and also an extra helping of risk shifted from the other relationship–is one of the things that I think makes vetoes fundamentally (and irredeemably) unethical.

    If, on the other hand, I do not have a veto, the outcome is not predetermined. There is a chance that my partner will not break up with his other partner. So I have to accept the vulnerability of telling my partner “I can’t take this anymore.” I have to be ready to lose the relationship. I have to be sure. And then my partner’s choice is between two partners–which is bad enough, but at least he won’t have to face breaking a promise to me. At least he has the opportunity to do what he wants, what is going to be best for him in the long run, what will bring him the most happiness–rather than having to make a choice he may not want to make because it was agreed to long before a third real human being was involved.

    As well, when the outcome is predetermined, there is no room for my metamour to negotiate or defend herself or her relationship. There is no chance for her to make a case for why our partner should stay with her–even at the risk that I will leave him. Maybe she even has a case for why she is a better partner for him than I am–and she should have the right to make that case. With a veto, she does not have an opportunity to affect the outcome. This is not, as you have claimed, the same as any other non-consensual breakup: presumably our partner still has feelings for her and still wants to be with her, otherwise there would be no need for a veto. In a normal situation where a relationship was troubled but both partners wanted to remain together, generally speaking the partners would try to work on the relationship, negotiate changes that would make it work. The difference here is that a third party who is not actually in the relationship is the person making the choice to end a relationship that the two people in the relationship still want, and the one making the choice as to whether those two other people should be permitted to continue to try to make their relationship work.

    You are reading Franklin’s statement as a passive communicator: he says X and you say he’s saying Y. In fact, with direct communication, X means X. Only Y means Y. You can pretend that X means Y, if you insist that another person’s words mean only what you think they mean, and not what that person is actually saying, but all that says is that you have decided not to communicate–you are talking to yourself. This is actually a perfect demonstration of why we actually are saying that only direct communication is going to work in poly relationships, and yes, passive communication will fuck you (and your partners, and their partners) up and make you all crazy. Because once you’ve decided to go down the passive-communication rabbit hole and look for the hidden meanings, you’ve stopped communication: no matter what someone else is trying to say to you, you are free to imagine they are saying something else.

    People tend to forget that direct communication is two-sided: say what you mean and believe what the other person is saying. Once you imagine they are saying something else–and that you know better than they do what they are trying to say–you’ve entered passive communication territory.


  26. Eve Rickert November 15th, 2013 2:43 pm

    Auros, none of the choices you are describing is a veto. It’s always okay to say “this has to stop or I am leaving this relationship.”

    It’s not the word veto we’re objecting to. A veto is a very specific thing. Negotiation is not a veto, and ultimatums are not a veto. A veto is when the outcome is prescribed. A partner promises in advance to end any other relationship when a particular partner asks him to. He makes the choice before that choice is even on the table, nearly always before there is even a third person in the equation. Thus there is no (or low) risk in issuing the ultimatum–and in fact, removing that risk is the entire point of veto arrangements.


  27. Franklin Veaux November 15th, 2013 3:43 pm

    I think many of these comments in favor of veto illustrate the first principle in my post: We poly people are frightened of poly relationships.

    Veto is, ultimately, about fear. “I need veto because what if…” “I need veto because I’m afraid that…” “I need veto because my partner might…”

    Fear. We are, deeply and fundamentally, frightened that a partner’s other partner is a danger to us. So frightened that the only way we feel safe is if we believe we have the power to make a partner’s other partner go away.

    Rather than getting bogged down in hypothetical conversations about “what is veto?” or “is communication about problems just a form of veto?” I think it might be time to revisit the first premise: Why are we so frightened of polyamory? Why is it that we feel so unsafe we demand power over other people’s relationships in order to comfort ourselves? Why do we not trust our partners to take care of us?


  28. Auros November 15th, 2013 5:39 pm

    “If it’s not arbitrary, it’s not a veto. If it’s a discussion, it’s not a veto. If it’s subject to appeal, it’s not a veto.”

    Says you. Like I said, this looks to me like you’re hung up on that specific word, and refuse to recognize that most of the people who use that term to describe their agreements, don’t in fact do what you’re defining the term to mean. Which makes this a very boring argument.


  29. Auros November 15th, 2013 5:45 pm

    “I see the problem less about the specific wording and more about the fact that in the veto scenario, the outcome is predetermined.”

    No, it really isn’t. Even if you’ve negotiated what I would regard as a veto arrangement, it’s still possible that one of the partners will change hir mind, either just because the new partner seems so promising / important to hir, or because s/he feels the other partner is deploying the veto arbitrarily (without making any effort to find some other solution first), or abusively (e.g. one partner is seeing other people, but everyone the other wants gets veto’d, making the relationship only one-sidedly poly).

    As Franklin said himself, nobody ever actually has a right (or ability!) to control each other’s choices, and expecting that you can will get you in a lot of trouble.


  30. Eve Rickert November 15th, 2013 5:51 pm

    “Even if you’ve negotiated what I would regard as a veto arrangement, it’s still possible that one of the partners will change hir mind”

    That’s true. However, people who have prenegotiated vetoes do not believe their partner will change their mind. They believe they have a right to expect that their partner will end the other relationship. That’s…kind of the point.

    “most of the people who use that term to describe their agreements, don’t in fact do what you’re defining the term to mean.”

    We’ve seen many people execute veto, and had it used in our own relationships, in exactly this way. We have never seen it used any other way. In fact, Plymouth has specified that this is exactly how she used veto in her situation: her partner ended his other relationship because he had previously agreed to do so, not because he believed it was the right decision.

    It’s true, though, that if you’re talking about something other than what we are talking about, it is not a very interesting discussion.


  31. Auros November 15th, 2013 6:06 pm

    “The difference here is that a third party who is not actually in the relationship is the person making the choice”

    I think you fundamentally misapprehend what the veto concept means to those who use it. You’re welcome to define it as you please for your own relationships, but you’re not using it anyhow. The way I use it — and communicate about it with my partners quite successfully — it’s about being clear that there is no such thing, for me, as a secondary relationship that my spouse/primary is not involved in. I would not make a decision about whom to date without consulting my spouse — introducing the person, giving them a chance to get to know each other, etc. Similarly, I would not make a multi-thousand dollar purchase without talking about it first, nor decide to move to a new city for a job.

    And like I said, I supported my secondary in backing off our relationship somewhat for a while, to reduce a pressure on her primary relationship and give some time for discussions and processing; and I would’ve supported her if ultimately she’d had to stop seeing me at all.

    You can denigrate that kind of arrangement and say it’s about “fear”. I see it as clear communication — part of why my spouse trusts me is that I have been very clear about what my priorities are, and have matched my actions to those statements.

    If you would prefer something like having your partner continue dating somebody that you dislike, as long as you don’t have to interact with them, well, that’s a valid lifestyle choice. If you find it too painful to risk a breakup because you can’t get along with somebody’s primary, then don’t date people who tell you that if you can’t get along with their primary they’ll break up with you. But, contrary to your insistence that my use of “veto” somehow represents “pretending that X means Y”, I assure you that people who consider something like a “veto” part of their relationship can manage to date each other, and understand each other, just fine.


  32. Franklin Veaux November 15th, 2013 6:19 pm

    The way I use it — and communicate about it with my partners quite successfully — it’s about being clear that there is no such thing, for me, as a secondary relationship that my spouse/primary is not involved in.

    What does “involved in” mean? Are you saying your spouse has to be romantically or sexually involved with your other partners?

    And what would it mean to you to change that? Do you believe that if you had a relationship your spouse was not “involved in” (for whatever definition you use), that you’d no longer discharge your obligations in your relationship? What is the consequence of not having your spouse “involved in” your relationship that you’re seeking to avoid?


  33. Eve Rickert November 15th, 2013 6:22 pm

    “I think you fundamentally misapprehend what the veto concept means to those who use it.”

    You are wrong. You, too, are free to define it how you please for your own relationships, but you are wrong about how other people use it. And your personal situation as you describe here is not a veto, though you are of course free to use the term, just as you are free to describe your partner as a fish if you that’s a word you like. That doesn’t make her a fish, or anyone else’s partners for that matter. It just means you’re playing fast and loose with language.

    The word veto is defined as the ability to unilaterally stop an action without discussion. The word comes from the Latin for “I forbid.” Negotiation is not part of a veto by definition. If you are using veto to describe a negotiation, you are quite simply wrong.

    Why is it so very important to you to use a word that means “I forbid” and describes unilateral action without negotiation to refer to negotiation? Why is it so important to you to call a negotiation a veto instead? Why are the words “input,” “discussion” and “communication” not adequate to describe input, discussion and communication? What special thing about a word that means “I forbid” do you need to describe what you do, if it does not have to do with forbidding?

    Franklin has received thousands of emails over the years from people in polyamorous relationships, telling their stories or asking for his advice. Dozens of people have told him stories of vetoes used exactly as we describe them here. This is in addition to our own lived experiences, the examples of veto being used in this way within our own lives. I don’t know where you are getting your data points from or what your sample size is, but the fact that you personally have never seen veto used in the way we are discussing it here does not negate the fact that it is used that way all the time (and in fact has been described here in just that way by another commenter). You cannot negate the lived experience of other people simply by claiming that since you have not personally seen it, it does not exist.

    But the point is that what you are describing here is not the same thing we are talking about, and thus is completely irrelevant to the topic at hand. Since you’ve already made clear that you are not talking about the same thing we are talking about, why are you even still here?


  34. Auros November 16th, 2013 7:09 pm

    Re: “involved in”, I simply mean that I don’t believe the choices I make can possibly avoid affecting my spouse. My choices about my job, my hobbies, my friends, my other partners, are all going to ripple back into our home, one way or another. I would want another partner to raise my spouse’s hackles or trigger their suspicions. A new partner should at least be able to be friendly with, and enjoy the company of, my spouse, even if the two of the aren’t BFFs and aren’t interested in being emotionally or sexually intimate.

    Also, there’s the fact that I think part of building a long-term relationship with somebody is creating a mental model of the person, which kinda becomes a part of you. There’s a great passage in Emma Bull’s The War for the Oaks about the nature of love:

    “How do you know it’s love? Maybe you haven’t learned anything after all.”

    She expected a joke, an impassioned protest, an airy denial. Instead he looked gravely into her face and replied, “I’ve no surety that it is. I know only the parts of what I feel; I may be misnaming the whole. You dwell in my mind like a household spirit. All that I think is followed with, ‘I shall tell that thought to Eddi.’ Whatever I see or hear is colored by what I imagine you will say of it. What is amusing is twice so, if you have laughed at it. There is a way you have of turning your head, quickly and with a little tilt, that seems more wonderful to me than the practiced movements of dancers. All this, taken together, I’ve come to think of as love, but it may not be.”

    I think some elements of that can be extrapolated to thinking about how love works quite broadly. If I see a news clip about something that will interest my spouse, or a family member or close friend, my mental model of that person will notice it, even if it’s not something directly relevant to my own interests. I have also picked up hobbies or interests from people, and taught partners to appreciate new things. For example: When I met my spouse, they lived mostly on take-out and canned/boxed stuff, and literally said, “I hate food.” I taught them to cook. After nearly a decade together, they can whip up some pretty great meals, or a great loaf of bread, and although I still have more intuition about it, more ability to juggle the timing of various tasks for a meal, and more technical skills, they are an entirely competent sous chef. Making meals together is one of our major quality-time activities. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, I don’t think they’d ever give up the appreciation of cuisine they developed over the course of our relationship.

    Some people get so wrapped up in identifying with their partner that they become co-dependent; it’s important to have healthy boundaries and not try to always and only do things with a partner, even if you have more than one; you need some space to retain your unique identity. (My spouse and I each have one major hobby that we don’t share with one another.) But you also can’t be in a relationship while being entirely independent of one another. In a non-literal but important sense, it’s impossible to have a relationship with me without having a relationship with the people who are closest to me, because parts of me are them. (There are also probably bits of my mind modeled on fictional characters. For me, WWJD might stand for What Would Joscelin Do?)

    Re: Eve’s last comment, etymology does not entirely govern meaning, which drifts through usage, and can differ from one community to another. I’m not saying that nobody uses vetoes abusively, or tries to build unrealistic expectations and controlling “safeguards” into their agreements with partners. I’ve seen that too. I’m saying that an assertion that it can’t exist in a non-abusive context is dismissive towards the real people who use it differently than you, and really strikes me as trying to define The One True Way for a subculture that’s actually extremely fragmented and polymorphous.

    Say you meet somebody whose experience with poly is limited to interacting with people who wouldn’t be out of place on the FetLife snark-humor group “Impractical Polyamory”; people who cheat and then call it poly (which I’ve seen), or who denigrate a partner for feeling any kind of twinge of jealousy or insecurity instead of working to talk through their partner’s concerns to find a constructive solutions. And that person basically says, “Oh, since this is what polyamory is like, obviously polyamory is terrible and can’t work.” Are you saying you can’t disagree with them because that’s their lived experience? I think not.

    I disagree that building a veto of some kind into a primary relationship is in all cases categorically abusive or immoral; though of course it can be, if done stupidly. I also disagree that Plymouth’s example of deploying a veto was abusive; she was dealing with a really difficult situation, and it sounds like she did her best to accommodate it, right up until she felt that she couldn’t stay in the primary relationship, and then she clearly and honestly stated what she was feeling.

    There would be nothing wrong with a widowed parent taking the attitude that hir kids are hir #1 priority. You may seem wonderful in all kinds of ways as a prospective partner, but s/he may decide that the “price of admission” for a relationship with hir is that be that you need to be able to interact with hir kids positively, in a way that suggests if the relationship progresses towards living together, joint finances, etc, you’re going to be a good step-parent. You might not want to pay that price of admission, but there’s nothing unreasonable about it. A spousal veto, done right, is just a variant on that them. Being willing to treat my marriage as important, and avoid disrupting my domestic harmony, is part of my price of admission — and it’s one I’ve been perfectly happy to pay, for my other partner, too. I’m honest about it up front, and if somebody regards it as too high to pay, well, I may be bummed because they were cute, but we’ll both move on and meet other people.

    I feel like we’re actually fairly close to something like “violent agreement” on most relevant principles of moral behavior (and common sense, like “you can’t actually control your partner”), but you guys are ruling out the existence of people who implement them differently, speak about them differently, and have different preferences about their relationship structures — in particular, I think quite a LOT of poly people want to be able to form couples and raise children together, in a manner not too dissimilar from vanilla folks, while retaining the opportunity to build lasting and rewarding relationships outside the couple. Part of that is probably about the pressure to “pass”, and I’m hopeful that over time, the negative consequences of having neighbors, co-workers, kids’ friends’ parents, etc know about one’s non-monogamous lifestyle will go away. But even then, I think some poly folks are going to choose a white-picket fence lifestyle, because that’s what they want, and I don’t see that as an illegitimate preference.

    I really didn’t mean to get into quite so vehement an argument, originally, and I want to specifically apologize for using the language “hung up on” in my original comment. I appreciate you guys making the effort to think about this stuff, and a lot of what you have to say is valuable. But I think you also sometimes fall into making categorical statements about things that are more complicated than you’re allowing for. Moral philosophy has a kind of seductive cleanliness to it, which can make you forget that people are trying to navigate the world using a thin layer of intellect, riding herd on a million years’ worth of roiling monkey emotions.


  35. cd November 17th, 2013 6:47 pm

    Regarding “or what”: Relationship rules aren’t just “Do X or I’ll break up with you.” They’re “Do X or I’ll break up with you AND you’ll be in the wrong since you broke your word AND you have to feel guilty about it AND I’ll quite possibly hate you forever over it.” At least that’s my experience.

    Or maybe some people mean something different by “rules,” just as apparently many people use “veto” to mean something entirely different from the way Franklin and I would read it.


  36. FallingUpTheSky November 18th, 2013 3:15 am

    Might as well chime in: I’ve seen both kinds of things being referred to as “veto” before. It’s just that usually people distinguish them: What Franklin and Eve are talking about is known as a ‘hard veto’ and what Plymouth and Auros are talking about is known as a ‘soft veto’. But as far as I’ve seen, when most people in the Poly community use the term “veto” they are referring to a hard veto and *only* that.

    In a relationship, the distinction between the two is trivial *if and only if* you can’t trust other people to keep their agreements with you. Otherwise, it’s like comparing a housecat with a lion: they’re both felines, but it’s a very bad idea to treat them as if they were the exact same thing.


  37. Eve Rickert November 18th, 2013 9:07 am

    Thanks, Falling, for that distinction. I had not heard the term “soft veto” before. I have heard “line item veto”–rules that allow a partner to prohibit specific activities, dates, etc. on a case-by-case basis–something we’re discussing in the book.

    Re: “soft veto,” though, I still question why people feel they need to use the word “veto” to describe what is simply good communication. It seems the word itself provides some sense of safety and control, which is why some people cling to it so tightly–and that, I think is worth examining. Is there a difference in practice between the behaviour of people who use the word “[soft] veto” to describe their negotiations and those who do not? It’s a puzzle.


  38. BJ November 19th, 2013 8:28 am

    Isn’t:

    “How can we protect what we have? How can we make sure that polyamory won’t change things for us? ”

    Virtually the same as:

    “How we be a caterpillar and a butterfly and protect our ‘caterpillarness’ ? ”

    :-)


  39. Scott November 26th, 2013 12:19 pm

    Franklin -
    I hear the exhortation to declare our boundaries rather than impose restrictions, and see this aligns with the first axiom. However, for many couples opening up, the relationship carries such import (minor children, financial dependency, shared property, intertwined finances, and family obligations) that the threshold of pain can be extremely high. It’s far simpler and less painful for the couple and their children to agree on veto, applicable at least before and during initial dating, corresponding to what Auros described.

    One potential problem with the communication and boundary model is what it can mean for the relationship when one’s partner does not appear to take one’s concerns about their secondary seriously. This probably will damage trust, unless one’s partner or their secondary can do something to dispel those concerns.


  40. Eve Rickert November 26th, 2013 5:04 pm

    Scott – Yours is the classic argument for veto. I recently discovered a quote that I think eloquently sums up the counterargument. (Just replace the word “marriage” with “veto,” and “men” or “women” with “people”):

    “Many women to whom I have preached the doctrine of freedom have weakly replied, ‘But who is to support the children?’ It seems to me that if the marriage ceremony is needed as a protection to insure the enforced support of children, then you are marrying a man who, you suspect, would under certain conditions, refuse to support his children, and it is a pretty low-down proposition. For you are marrying a man whom you already suspect of being a villain. But I have not so poor an opinion of men that I believe the greater percentage of them to be such low specimens of humanity.” ― Isadora Duncan, My Life


  41. Scott November 26th, 2013 6:40 pm

    Eve -
    Thanks for replying. I find it simplistic to reduce the argument to one of support or about trusting one’s partner to eventually do the right thing. The problem is what may happen on the way to that point: for instance, having one’s partner essentially seem to dismiss one’s concerns about the motives and agenda of a new/prospective partner. That can be painful, and that pain may itself damage the relationship by eroding trust and maybe injecting a sense of betrayal. Every couple experiences conflict; one concern is that those cowpokes Franklin mentioned in the article will attempt to capitalize on such stresses they learn about and may succeed to some degree in sowing discord that festers after the cowboy is ejected or gives up.


  42. Franklin Veaux November 27th, 2013 3:03 pm

    “The problem is what may happen on the way to that point: for instance, having one’s partner essentially seem to dismiss one’s concerns about the motives and agenda of a new/prospective partner. That can be painful, and that pain may itself damage the relationship by eroding trust and maybe injecting a sense of betrayal.

    Okay, so that goes back to the premise of the essay:

    Why is that the assumption we start with? Why do we start from the premise that (a) new partners are scary and dangerous and (b) our partners can’t be trusted? Does that sound like a good foundation on which to build loving relationships? Why do we, in the poly community, think those premises are normal and reasonable? What does it say about us? And what does it say that we are so frightened of what our partners and their partners might do to us that we demand power, heedless of the fact that it puts us in a position to do exactly the kind of damage we are scared of?


  43. Plymouth December 6th, 2013 5:51 pm

    what does it say that we are so frightened of what our partners and their partners might do to us that we demand power

    That seems to me to be one of the fundamental disconnect here – I NEVER demanded this of my partner – he OFFERED it to me. It was a gift and I take that gift seriously and I do my best not to abuse it but I am not going to throw it away just because it is a gift that has the potential to be used abusively.


  44. Eve Rickert December 7th, 2013 1:35 pm

    Good point. Many people don’t demand veto, they are given it. However, the point of the question remains unchanged if you replace “demand” with “want” or even “accept.”


  45. Auros December 7th, 2013 8:05 pm

    Having your partner date somebody new means exposure to the new and unknown. That’s exciting and filled with possibility, but it also is a little scary, and that has nothing to do with trust, or presuming that your partner or their prospective partner(s) are bad people. If you don’t have a little bit of trepidation and caution about the possibility of things going badly, I think you’re foolhardy. People can, despite the best of intentions, hurt each other’s feelings and create conflict, and they often do, especially in the early stages of a new relationship, when the metamours may not know each other well, and have trouble communicating as effectively as they need to, and the person in between them has hir brain a bit warped by NRE.

    To make an analogy: BDSM play can be great. But if you don’t have some trepidation about the possibility of either hurting someone or getting hurt yourself when you play, then I would never trust your judgment as a play partner. I would never come to a scene without extensive conversation first, including establishing a safeword, the utterance of which will stop the scene cold in its tracks.

    And this also gets at why I think it’s absurd to treat the kind of “soft veto” discussed earlier as if it weren’t reasonably considered a type of veto. To paraphrase a comment a friend made recently on a conversation about the “veto” concept on another web forum:

    “A big reason that [the Veto] has a bad rap among many is that Veto power has been abused/wielded by people who were never worthy of it in the first place. Meaning, that veto power is best applied as something you give to someone you know well enough, and trust deeply enough, to NOT use it, excepting in the manner and situations that you describe. Veto = relationship safeword. I’d no sooner just silently pack up my toys and leave after a safeword than I would end a relationship (primary or other) because someone let me know that they had hit a limit.”


  46. Scott December 7th, 2013 8:40 pm

    Franklin -
    You ask
    “Why do we start from the premise that (a) new partners are scary and dangerous and (b) our partners can’t be trusted?”
    the simple answers may be:
    a) we know that some people are not worthy of our trust, but we cannot necessarily tell the difference at first.
    b) we believe our partners may be swayed by charlatans to find us less amazing than they previously thought we were.
    c) we find it excruciatingly painful when our partner does not see through someone’s facade.


  47. Eve Rickert December 11th, 2013 5:32 pm

    You’ve hit the nail right on the head, Auros: people who use veto consider the other relationships to be play–a game that can be stopped at any time–and the people within those relationships to be toys. What an interesting and revealing example that gets right to the heart of the fundamental nature of veto arrangements. Thank you!

    Interesting, isn’t it, how the toys don’t get a “safeword” and never get to “stop the scene”?


  48. Auros August 5th, 2014 11:06 pm

    I’m coming back to this thread months later looking for a particular phrasing from the comments that I remembered liking, having never seen Eve’s last remark. I have to say that I find it really unfortunate, Eve, that you would denigrate others’ relationships like that. I most certainly do *not* consider secondary relationships to be “just play”, nor would I treat my secondary partner as a “thing” or a “toy”. As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve had a secondary back off a relationship with me in order to “tend to her nest”. I understand the perspective of the potentially-vetoed secondary. I wouldn’t take lightly a decision to put somebody in that position.

    (As a side note, I also don’t think that if people are honest with each other that they’re in a relationship that’s sexually but not romantically open, and they’re just looking to screw around without offering any kind of commitment, that treating secondary involvements as purely play is not necessarily a problem, nor does it represent treating a play partner as a thing. The play partner is offered an opportunity to give or withhold their informed consent, with the understanding that they will not be “owed” any time or attention once the current encounter is over. That’s not my style, but if people find it works for them, who am I to say nay?)

    Seeing the toys in the SM metaphor as equivalent to the secondary partner in the poly context doesn’t even make sense. (Well, unless maybe you’re thinking about a couple trying to recruit a unicorn. People go about that in really dumb ways sometimes.) The point was simply to underline that SM play can be rewarding, but poses inherent risks, and it behooves partners introducing SM elements into their relationship to have a safeword so that they know when to take a step back and communicate about what may be going wrong. A veto done right — some flavor of “soft veto” — can be very similar. It’s a trigger to begin a conversation, not to end one.

    I’m looking forward to reading your book, and I really appreciate the work you’ve done laying out basic ethical precepts. There are folks out there who are “orientationally poly”, but unsure how to act on that beacuse they’ve grown up soaking in a monogamy-centric narrative. If you help even a handful of those folks figure out how to conduct themselves with honesty and kindness faster than they might by trial and error, and thus save their early partners unnecessary grief, that’s awesome.

    But I still wish you guys would try harder to listen to the perspectives of people who practice poly differently than you. It’s possible to get from your moral precepts to a different set of methods for managing relationships, and depending on a person’s priorities and goals, such alternate methods may work better. Clearly Scott and FallingUpTheSky understand the point I’m trying to elucidate. I think you guys are really smart. That makes it extremely frustrating that you keep not processing what seems, to me, like a not-super-complicated idea.

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