Folks already familiar with my writings over the years won’t be shocked to hear me say I’m deeply skeptical of rule-based romantic relationships. It’s a theme throughout most of my writings on polyamory, and in the book More Than Two, Eve and I argue that rules-based systems rarely seem to create structures that work (at least for everyone, including all the people who are not present when the rules are made), and often create harmful structures. When they do work, it’s quite common to credit the rules for the success of a relationship even in situations where the relationship likely would still have succeeded without them.

Wesley Fenza has just written an interesting essay with a different take on rules. In it, he says,

Without a rule, a person would do their own analysis regarding whether to take an action, weighing the pros and cons, factoring in the effects on other people, and making a decision. A rule puts a thumb on the scale, weighing the analysis in favor of the prior commitment.

For some people, this is fine. Some people don’t trust their in-the-moment decision making, so they feel the need to commit to a course of action ahead of time. This is especially effective with safer sex rules. It’s common for a person to feel that, in the moment, they may be tempted to forego safer sex practices, and so they (and their partner(s)) make a rule in order to give them some extra motivation in the moment.

I think he might be onto something here. The idea of rules as tools to help compensate for deficiencies in in-the-moment decision-making is interesting, and I can see value in it.

In fact, many years ago, I did something similar myself. I was extremely attracted to a woman who reciprocated the attraction, but who was, for various reasons that are unimportant to my tale, a terrible match for me. I knew that I was attracted to her strongly enough that I would, if I found myself in a sexual situation with her, probably toss those incompatibilities aside…so I resolved to avoid those kinds of situations with her, nipping the problem in the bud. At the time, my ability to make good partner-selection assessments in the face of overwhelming throbbing biological urges was a bit rubbish, so setting a rule for myself was an effective way to prevent the future me from doing something that would make the even-more-future me unhappy.

To me, rules I place on myself because I know I have a deficiency in my decision-making skills are distinct from rules made by a partner, or rules mutually negotiated between my partners and me. (Solopoly blogger Aggie has a great essay about self-imposed behavioral guidelines.) For example, if I know that it’s hard to think about sexual health in the middle of a lust-crazed frenzy of sexual appetite, having my rational self place a restriction on my future, irrational self is a sensible, prudent thing to do.

But there’s a trap when it comes to partners making rules for each other to, ostensibly, compensate for poor decision-making or impulse control.

A couple months back, there was a Twitter hashtag about identifying abusive relationships. It wasn’t poly-related, but was about relationships generally. I scrolled through it, though I foolishly forgot to note exactly what the hashtag was.

One of the things that came up on that hashtag again and again, though, was the idea that abusers can gain power over their victims by making their victims doubt their own judgment. “You can’t be trusted.” “You don’t make good decisions.” “You mess things up.” “You have poor judgment.” “I have to make decisions for you or you’ll screw up.” “You’ll hurt me if I give you a chance.” I saw dozens of variations on this theme all through the hashtag. And it got me to thinking.

“I will limit my behavior in this way because I know my in-the-moment decision skills are a bit crap” can be a reasonable approach to healthy boundary-setting. But I see the potential for abuse when it becomes “I want this rule because your decision-making skills are crap; you can’t be trusted to keep your commitments.”

Can it still be healthy when it’s turned around that way? Maybe. But it’s hard to say.

Gaslighting can happen even in relationships that aren’t overtly abusive. We are, generally, the heroes of our own stories; we tend to assess other people’s choices based on how they affect us. Unless we are very careful to avoid it, it can be tempting to frame someone else’s decisions as poor simply because we don’t like or approve of them, and to do our best to create doubt about other people’s decision-making skills. We also want the approval of those we let close to us, so if they tell us our decisions are rubbish, we’re vulnerable to internalizing that idea.

What that means is we can easily persuade others, or be persuaded ourselves, that decisions are poor when it’s not necessarily true. I’ve seen this play out in a thousand ways, some of them very subtle, one or two of them as part of a destructively dysfunctional dynamic.

So I do agree that certain kinds of rules concerning in-the-moment decisions can be valuable. But when you start applying them to others, well… It’s a bit like using a chainsaw. Yes, when you need it, it’s a great tool to have, but you have to pay very close attention to how you use it. Mistakes can have serious consequences. It’s all fun and games ’til someone loses a limb.


Update: Wes Fenza has replied.


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Shelly · August 4, 2014 at 5:44 am

The difference between a rule and a pre-agreed set of behaviors meant to avoid certain consequences does not appear to be much of a difference at all. For instance, what is the difference here?

“We made a rule that neither of us will do heroin VS. If I do heroin, you will break up with me, therefore I’m making a decision now to not do heroin in the future.”

In my experience, there isn’t much of a difference until someone actually breaks or challenges the rule. Then the difference is kind of huge. When you break a rule, you betray the other person or the relationship. In the aftermath, there is a clear moral victor, and there is a clear power differential. The “thumb on the scale,” the “just in case,” I believe speaks to this power differential. In case of emergency, let’s be really really clear who is wrong. In other words when you do something hurtful or disruptive, I need shame on my side in order to bring you back.

I believe that people who fight for rules instinctively feel a need to have this this power differential in place, and I expect it comes from a sense of personal powerlessness in most cases. Unfortunately, I agree that this kind of power differential, combined with shame, creates a fertile ground for abuse. However, in a “consequence”-based relationship, there is still a fundamental respect for the other person’s right and ability to make their own decisions. Even if those decisions are shitty or hurtful.

I believe that keeping this fundamental respect in place makes a huge difference in how the situation is resolved and the extent to which we treat each other as human beings, even if the result is the end of the relationship in either case.

Kim LaCapria · August 4, 2014 at 12:06 pm

To Eve’s question, I suspect we are considering calibration.

To me, a thumb on a scale means obfuscation, which is neither here not there.

But in Wesley’s essay I interpreted it to be not a matter of enforcement but of calibration. I am not a proponent of rules, but I imagine he’s saying that the issues are being defined by the rule and not that they are in any way good for enforcement- merely that they provide a gauge?

Wes · August 5, 2014 at 5:28 am

Franklin – I’m planning on addressing this in an upcoming post, but the tl;dr is that if anyone read my OP as a justification for using rules to control a partner, that probable says something pretty illuminating about their view on relationships.

Eve – I don’t quite understand your criticism. The rule *is* the prior commitment. The point I was trying to make was that the more formal we make a commitment (by, e.g., formally calling it a “rule” or writing it down), the more our consistency drive is engaged, and the more psychological pressure we feel to follow the rule/commitment.

This is actually a big part of my argument for why I think rules/agreements are a terrible idea in relationships, but that will be the subject of an upcoming post.

Shelly – do you mind if I quote you in my next post? You make some excellent points.

Shelly · August 7, 2014 at 11:11 am

“Shelly – do you mind if I quote you in my next post? You make some excellent points.”

Sure thing!

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