In June of 2003, I added a new page to my rapidly-growing site about polyamory. The new page, Polyamory for Secondaries, had a section on it called “A Proposed Secondary’s Bill of Rights.” My partner Shelly, who has contributed her thoughts on consent and “family-style” relationships right here in this blog (and whose writings and ideas about consent and ethics in romantic relationships were instrumental to us as we were crafting the ethics sections of More Than Two) contributed significantly to the Secondary’s Bill of Rights.

The Secondary’s Bill of Rights came from our experiences in a strictly hierarchical, primary/secondary relationship. Shelly first started dating me while I was still married. At that time, our relationship was bound by a large number of prescriptive rules that, essentially, made it almost impossible for her to ask for her needs to be met. Shelly wrote of that experience:

Primary/secondary structures tend to leave a special kind of emotional wreckage. While I freely admit that it is often a mutually beneficial model for all involved, there is a hidden trap. Because sometimes we walk into this structure, with heart in hand, and sometimes our partner meets us there. And then the structure becomes a maze of slamming doors and booby traps. When your partner meets you with real intimacy and love within an externally enforced and non-negotiable framework of limitations, the emotional experience of the relationship is of being simultaneously pulled in and violently shoved out.

This was absolutely the case in the early parts of our relationship. I loved her very much, in the face of a system that did not permit her to express her needs. It hurt both of us.

While we were trying to navigate this violent contradiction between creating intimacy and navigating a structure that forbade her to express her needs, we created the Bill of Rights. A friend of ours, dealing with a similar problem, also contributed to it.

Immediately, the Polyamory for Secondaries page became the most-viewed page on the site, by far. It also generated the most email—nearly all of it negative. Overnight, I received an outpouring of criticism. The two predominant themes in the criticism were “Secondaries shouldn’t expect to have rights; they should be grateful for what the primaries give them!” and “If secondaries want a say in their relationships, they should find primaries of their own!”

Over the years, the critical emails have died down, and eventually stopped. Then, about two or three years ago, I started getting a smattering of negative emails from the page, but these were different—they said things like “These aren’t secondary’s rights, they’re universal rights! Everyone should be able to voice needs and have a say in their relationships!”

When Eve and I started working on More Than Two, from deep in the woods in Washington state, we took those criticisms to heart. What, we wondered, would a universal relationship bill of rights—one not aimed only at secondary partners in hierarchical relationships—look like? The ethics chapter in More Than Two therefore contains our idea of a universal Relationship Bill of Rights. It includes such rights as:

  • to be free from coercion, violence and intimidation
  • to choose the level of involvement and intimacy you want
  • to revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time
  • to choose your own partners
  • to have an equal say with each of your partners in deciding the form your relationship with that partner will take
  • to discuss with your partners decisions that affect you
  • to choose the level of involvement and intimacy you want with your partners’ other partners
  • to be treated with courtesy
  • to have plans made with your partner be respected; for instance, not changed at the last minute for trivial reasons
  • to be treated as a peer of every other person, not as a subordinate, even when differing levels of commitment or responsibility exist

These ideas spring, by and large, from the domestic violence community, where gross violations of these rights are depressingly common—though we had to adapt them to a multi-partnered context. Eve did most of the heavy lifting on this chapter. While she was working on it, she researched existing lists of basic rights—the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These turned out not to be particularly helpful. She found real gold somewhere else—in resources written by domestic violence shelters. In a way, this makes sense. The place where a person’s rights are most acutely visible is the place where they’re being violated.

It’s a bit disheartening to read a page on a domestic violence website and reflect on how closely the descriptions of abusive relationships map onto some of the more extreme primary/secondary hierarchies that exist in the poly community. Relationships where people are disenfranchised, where people are told they may not voice their needs or object to the rules as they exist, even where people are told they must be intimate with someone they don’t want to be intimate with in order to continue their relationship with the person they do want to be intimate with…the parallels are striking (and saddening).

I’m not saying all hierarchy is abusive, of course. But I will say when a poly relationship structure closely parallels the sorts of relationships you see in domestic violence literature, it might be time to take a long, hard look at what you’re doing.

This Relationship Bill of Rights has, for the most part, been positively received. However, we have heard some pushback against it. (Eve was surprised and disappointed that people would object to these ideas; having experienced what I did with the Secondary’s Bill of Rights, I expected it.)

The criticism of the Relationship Bill of Rights echoes in important ways the early criticism of the Secondary’s Bill of Rights. We’ve heard complaints that secondaries shouldn’t expect to have a voice in the form their relationship takes; they should either accept what’s offered, exactly as it is offered, or move on. The primary couple calls the shots; it is up to the secondaries to sign on or leave. If they sign on, they’re signing on for the whole ride. If they know up front what they’re getting into, they have no right to complain.

Eve and I don’t think the notion that everyone should be able to participate in deciding how their relationships look ought to be a controversial position. Yet, apparently, it is.

Some of that, I think, might come from the notion that we really oughtn’t expect to be able to get away with having multiple partners—not really. Polyamory isn’t something we have the right to choose, it’s something a partner lets us do. It’s a privilege, and a tenuous one, subject to restriction or revocation at any time. We’re getting away with quite a bit just by shagging more than one person; what right do we have to expect any more? We ought to be damn grateful for having that opportunity, and shut the hell up about the rest!

It’s a pervasive and deeply ingrained idea, even among people who consider themselves non-monogamous by nature. Mononormative culture is not so easily shaken off. Hell, I have never been in a monogamous relationship in my life, yet for many years I believed it was unreasonable of me to expect my partners to be okay with me having more than one partner, and thought I would have to accept being kept on a short leash! I accepted restrictions that were hurtful to my “secondary” partners because I believed I did not have the right to stand up for all my relationships. I had people tell me I was lucky to be getting away with as much as I was getting away with; on what possible basis could I complain?

There’s a great deal of fear in these networks of rules and prescriptions, too. Fear of loss, fear of upset apple carts, fear of things changing. It’s hard to be compassionate when we are fearful; it’s hard to consider what other people need when all we feel is threat or loss.

We, Eve and I, know we’re expecting a lot of our readers. Throughout More Than Two, we encourage our readers to take the hard road. We are asking you, over and over, to move with courage, to face the weakest and most frightening places within you, and to accept that things can and probably will change. We ask you to trust that you are worthy, your partners love and cherish you, and the people around you will support and nurture you—and if they don’t, to seek out situations where they do.

The idea that each of us has the right to a voice in our relationships should not be controversial. No matter what forms those relationships may take, empowering people is preferable to disempowering them. In order to accept this idea, though, we must first accept that we, all of us, have the right to choose polyamory. We are poly because that is the relationship life we want, not because someone else allows us to be. We can—indeed, if we want healthy relationships, we must—seek to treat everyone around us with compassion, decency, and respect. We cannot seek to protect ourselves by shifting emotional risk onto others. We cannot seek to protect ourselves by scripting and controlling others. People are not lifestyle accessories.

We cannot control others not only because it is not ethically right, but because, no matter how comforting that idea may sound, it doesn’t work. My relationship with Shelly was a game-changer; it destroyed my relationship with my ex-wife. All our rules, all our prescriptions and prohibitions, in the end did not, could not survive contact with the real world. Had we sought to protect ourselves not by building rigid structures designed to keep things from changing, but instead by building resilience within our relationship and a resolve that we could be kind to other people and still have faith that we would be okay, perhaps we would still be together. In our naivete, we forgot we were dealing with other human beings, and we neglected to consider their needs as well as our own. That mistake hurt a lot of people, and for no reason: in the end, it did not save us.

 

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