What sorts of rules help make relationships successful?
One of the most common questions I am asked about polyamory, and that I see on poly forums and hear at poly get-togethers, is “What kind of rules are good to have in poly relationships?”
This makes sense. Rules provide a feeling of order and structure. We come from a background that teaches us that the rules of monogamy are the only way to run a relationship; if we let go of those rules, we want to replace them with new rules. The alternative can seem chaotic and threatening; if we don’t have a framework of rules, what will keep us safe? What will prevent our partners from leaving us? How will we have our needs met?
I have been in just about every poly configuration you can name: single person in a relationship with one member of a couple, married person with a monogamous spouse in relationships with single poly people, married in relationships with other partnered people, unmarried in a loose network of single and partnered poly people.
Through all of those relationships spanning a number of decades, I have found that a framework of rules provides the illusion of safety, but rarely provides any real safety. There are only a handful of rules, other than those that cover specific safe-sex or financial considerations, that seem to work consistently in the long run. These are:
Treat others with respect; don’t try to force relationships to be something they are not; don’t try to impose yourself on other people; understand when things are Not About You; understand that just because you feel bad, that doesn’t necessarily mean someone else did something wrong; own your own shit.
Treat others with respect: That includes behaving with compassion toward everyone involved in the relationship…including the partners of your partners. Even if you don’t understand what your partners see in them, or wouldn’t choose them yourself. Even if you feel scared, threatened, or jealous. Recognize that your partners have the right to choose to be involved with others. Recognize that your partner’s other partners have the right to be there, and your partners have the right to advocate for and defend their other relationships, just as you do.
Don’t try to force relationships to be something they are not: Don’t try to hold down your partner’s other relationships because you feel that you want to be “top dog” or the “one highest relationship.” Don’t try to decide in advance what the relationships “should” look like and then press other people into your mold. If you’re single, don’t try to force your relationships to be primary just because you feel you want a “primary” partner. Relationships work best when allowed the space to be what they are.
Don’t try to impose yourself on other people: Don’t assume that if your partner is having sex with someone, that means you should, too. Don’t make it your partner’s responsibility to find other people for you. Don’t treat your partners or your partner’s partners as disposable commodities. Don’t assume that you can dictate what your partner can do, think, or feel. There is a distinction between asking for what you need and telling others what to do; that distinction is important.
Understand when things are Not About You: It’s a natural human impulse to make everything be about us. We see the world through a filter of “How is this about me?” The reality is, your partners and their other partners have their own relationships, with their own experiences and their own needs, and that’s OK. It is not a reflection on you; it does not mean your partner is trying to replace you or get rid of you; it does not mean that there is something wrong with you, something lacking in you, or that you are not enough. If your partners like having sex with each other in your favorite position, that is Not About You. If they like eating at that one restaurant where you first went on your first date with your partner, that is Not About You; it does not make that place any less special for you and your partner.
Just because you feel bad, that doesn’t necessarily mean someone else did something wrong (and conversely, just because you feel good doesn’t necessarily mean what you are doing is right): Externalizing your feelings, and assuming that you have a right to be comfortable all the time, is neither reasonable nor compassionate. You will feel awkward sometimes. You will feel uncomfortable sometimes. You will feel scared sometimes. Hooray! Welcome to the human race. Congratulations, you’re a fully-functioning human being. Feeling these things does not necessarily mean that someone else is doing something bad to you, or that you have a right to control other people in order to make the feelings go away.
Own your own shit: Develop the tools to understand your emotional responses. Recognize that because you feel something, it doesn’t necessarily mean someone else has MADE you feel it. Nor does it necessarily mean that the feeling is trying to communicate something genuine; feelings are not necessarily fact. Take responsibility for the consequences of your actions—all of them, even the unintended consequences. Seek to do no harm to others. Learn to advocate for your needs; you cannot expect to have what you want if you don’t ask for what you want. But don’t do it with the expectation that you are entitled to get 100% percent of what you want 100 percent of the time. Listen to what your partners say—even when it sounds challenging or frightening to you. Be willing to accept discomfort; there is no growth without it, and there’s more to life than taking the path of least resistance. Remember that you have value, that your partner is with you because your partner sees that value in you and not because you have somehow tricked your partner into being with you. Make your decisions based on what makes you the best, most courageous version of yourself, not based on what you are afraid of losing.
Now, I’m not saying that these will protect your relationship from all harm, of course. No rules can do that, which is kind of the point. These guidelines, in my experience, go a long way toward helping to build compassionate, loving, stable relationships in which everyone feels empowered, and while that might not guarantee that they will last forever, it sure is a good start.