Way back in 2003, I proposed a “secondary’s bill of rights” for polyamorous relationships. This Bill of Rights, much of which was written by my partner Shelly, came out of our attempts to navigate the hierarchical relationship I was in at the time with my ex-wife. My wife and I had radically different goals in relationship (I am intrinsically polyamorous, whereas she identifies as monogamous; I wanted to be free to let other people in to my heart, while she preferred to be the only person I loved, or, failing that, the one I loved the most), and the hierarchies we had in place were our clumsy attempt to negotiate those differences.
We made our rules with little or no thought to the effects they might have on other people. When I started dating Shelly, she found that the rules we had in place disempowered her…which is, when you get right down to it, exactly what they were supposed to do.
So Shelly and I hashed out the first draft of the Secondary’s Bill of Rights, which still exists on the site today, though it hasn’t been updated in rather a long time.
My own ideas about polyamory have changed and evolved over time. In fact, I plan eventually to write an essay about how they’ve changed.
If I were to go back and revisit the Secondary’s Bill of Rights today, I would likely add a new element to it:
I have a right to be aware of problems in the existing relationship.
“Relationship broken, add more people” is such fertile ground for problems in polyamory that it’s a trope among many poly folks. Consent to a relationship–any relationship–is valid only if it’s informed, and informed consent in polyamory, particularly in prescriptive primary/secondary hierarchies, means disclosing things at a high probability of causing drama or harm.
Yet many couples facing problems in their relationship are reluctant to disclose those problems to a perceived outsider. Even if that outsider is, in theory, someone that one or both of them loves.
It’s hard to talk openly, especially about problems or failings. Disclosure makes us vulnerable, and vulnerability is often uncomfortable.
But people have a right to know what they’re getting into, at least in general terms. There might not be a need to air every bit of dirty laundry, every he-said-she-said argument. But when there are serious structural issues in a relationship, they can put new people in an extremely vulnerable position. Integrity and compassion demands we let people know what kinds of problems they may face.
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