Primum non nocere. It’s a Latin phrase that means “first, do no harm.” It’s not part of the Hippocratic Oath, but it is a central tenet of bioethics in most of the world.

It also, I think, makes a pretty good tenet for relationship ethics as well.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Dan Savage’s personal assistant, asking if I was interested in helping craft a response to a person who’d written in to Mr. Savage with a poly problem.

The problem was that the guy who’d written in was in a relationship with a woman named Erin, and she had passed a rule that he was not permitted to date anyone else named Erin. Apparently, Erin is a popular name where he’s from, and it had repeatedly happened that he’d met and connected with someone, only to learn her name was Erin, and he had to tell her, “Sorry, we can’t see each other, I’m not permitted to date anyone with your name.”

Naturally, I weighed in against this particular rule. I’m not quite sure what motivated it, beyond the things that motivate many apparently completely arbitrary rules in polyamorous relationships: insecurity, fear of loss, fear of abandonment–the usual suspects in the lineup.

Dan Savage printed my response (which you can read here), as well as that of Dossie Easton, who was similarly skeptical of the rule.

But then he said something interesting. Talking about the anti-Erin rule, he said:

It’s common for people in open relationships to insist on a rule that seems arbitrary, even capricious, to their partners. I call these rules “Brown M&Ms,” a reference to 1980s hair rock band Van Halen. The band’s touring contract stipulated that bowls of M&Ms be set out backstage with all the brown M&Ms removed. To see if their contract had been followed to the letter — a contract that included a lot of technical requirements for their elaborate and potentially dangerous stage shows — all the band had to do was glance at those bowls of M&Ms. If a local promoter couldn’t be trusted to get something simple and seemingly arbitrary right, they couldn’t be trusted to get the bigger stuff right. And if the promoter didn’t get the big stuff right, it wasn’t safe for the band to perform.

Arbitrary rules in open relationships are like Van Halen’s brown M&Ms: a quick way to check if you’re safe. If your partner can’t be trusted to not sleep with someone else in your bed, not take someone else to a favorite restaurant, not use your favorite/special/beloved sex toys with someone else, etc., perhaps they can’t be trusted to get the big things right — like ensuring your physical and emotional safety and/or primacy.

I scratched my head when I read this. I see where he’s coming from, and yet…and yet…

The problem with this idea hit me while I was walking in the woods with Eve, something we do most days while we’re out here in rural Washington writing.


There’s something a little off about treating a romantic partner like a contract employee. If you’re approaching your relationship with the same mindset you might use to hire a producer, I would argue that the fundamental foundation of trust and mutual respect required for a healthy relationship probably isn’t there. If you feel the need to test your partner to ensure their trustworthiness, it might be time to take a step back and think about why that is.

But leaving aside the issue of whether you should place contractual constraints on your romantic relationships to help you decide whether your partner is trustworthy, there’s this:

First, do no harm.

Let’s talk about brown M&Ms.

brown-mmIf I am hiring you to produce a show for me, and I tell you to take the brown M&Ms out of a bowl, it’s pretty easy to see whether or not you’ve done it. More to the point, it doesn’t cause harm to anyone. Sure, you might not like picking the brown M&Ms out of a bowl; it sounds like a tedious, if easy, task. But I’m hiring you and paying you for your time, so eh, whatever.

Now let’s say I decided to test your ability to stick to the rules by using some other contractual clause. Instead of saying “give me a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed,” I wrote into the contract, “take a lead pipe, cut it so that it is exactly 12.4 centimeters long, then beat the sound engineer with it until he has exactly seven bruises of two centimeters diameter or greater, but no broken bones.”

No reasonable person would say there was anything at all okay about that. Attempting to justify it by saying “I want to make sure that the person I hire is abiding by all the requirements of the contract!” should, I think, result on howls of outrage.

That’s an extreme example, but it illustrates the point: If, for whatever reason, you are in a relationship with someone you have so little trust for that you feel the need to invent tests of their loyalty, first, do no harm. Make your tests harmless: brown M&Ms, not beatings.

You might argue, and I am absolutely certain someone will, that a rule barring a partner from dating anyone named Erin is harmless. After all, you’re letting your partner date other people, right? So what if you don’t want them to date anyone named Erin? Other Erins of the world have no intrinsic right to date your man, right?

But here’s the thing: By the time someone is writing a letter to a newspaper columnist looking for relationship advice, people have been hurt. Damage has been done. Happy, joyful people in awesome, fulfilling relationships do not write to strangers asking for help.

In More Than Two, Eve and I proposed a Relationship Bill of Rights. This Bill of Rights is not a how-to list for ensuring awesome relationships; it’s a floor, below which your relationship probably is tending in some unhealthy directions.

In the Relationship Bill of Rights, we said that all people have the right, in poly relationships:

  • to decide how many partners you want
  • to choose your own partners

I think that entering into any relationship where you’re asked or expected to give up these rights should be done with great caution, and only with a compelling reason. “I’m not sure I can trust you, so I’m setting up rules to test your loyalty and your ability to take care of me” doesn’t strike me as a particularly compelling argument. Indeed, just the opposite; that argument makes me more skeptical, not less skeptical, of the health of the relationship.

At the end of the day, of course, it’s his choice whether or not he stays with Erin Prime. But it has consistently been my experience and observation that the more inclined someone is to pass rules to try to make a partner stay, the more likely it is that partner will leave. It is an enduring truth of the human condition that our fears often cause us to create the very things we’re afraid of.

First, do no harm.


Stephen Harris · November 17, 2016 at 6:43 pm

The problem with “First, do no harm” is one of evaluation, and can lead to inaction. What constitutes harm? In today’s society this isn’t an easy question to answer.

So… does my wearing my collar in Central Park cause harm? What if a kid sees it? Some parents will scream blue murder at the sight.

Does my writing a BDSM blog cause harm? Again, what if a minor…? How about a theoretical “my fight against committing suicide” blog? That might cause others to kill themselves if they resonate with my words.

What if I promote activity X? Say Y? Write about Z? Someone somewhere might be triggered and hurt.

“First, do no harm” is a simplistic notion. It leads to decision paralysis and inaction.

What this boils down to is _personal evaluation_.

I will wear my collar; I will write my blog; I will promote X, Y, Z. (I won’t write a suicide blog ‘cos I’m not suicidal).

In the “Erin” case we have a mismatch of evaluations; the person setting the rule thought it relatively harmless and was to the best, but the person at the receiving end was harmed.

The solution, as is nearly always the case, is communication. Try to work through the mismatch; discuss; come to an agreement. Without communication there isn’t a relationship.

That one person writes into an “agony aunt” column is an indication that this communication failed. The problem wasn’t the “can’t date people called Erin”; the problem was they weren’t communicating.

Every relationship _will_ hit mismatches. Talk. Communicate.

Sophia · November 17, 2016 at 7:12 pm

When I read the Dan Savage column, I had a gut suspicion there was more going on with the no Erin rule than was disclosed. First off, Erin is not a very popular name, and the guy saying he’d had to reject *several* otherwise compatable Erins seems suspicious and untruthful to me. Poly guys, unless they are extremely hot, just don’t have that many options. Secondly, what if the reason for the rule is something like this: “I had a recurring incident in my childhood where my caregiver cruelly talked about throwing me away and replacing me with a more compliant child named Erin. Something about how you approach poly makes me wonder if you are trying to replace me with someone more compliant, and closing off a recreation of this cruel childhood memory reassures me that this situation is different and helps me control my anxiety.”

    Franklin · November 17, 2016 at 7:54 pm

    Poly guys, unless they are extremely hot, just don’t have that many options.

    That has not been my experience at all. Poly guys who have good relationship skills have lots of options.

    Though I have to wonder, is it the number of Erins that’s most relevant? If its one Erin or five Erins, barring a lover from exploring a relationship on the basis of someone’s name seems dodgy to me. If Erin Prime does have a history of someone threatening to replace her, well, approaching it in this way may just turn that into a reality.

      liz · November 18, 2016 at 8:26 am

      “I had a recurring incident in my childhood where my caregiver cruelly talked about throwing me away and replacing me with a more compliant child named Erin. Something about how you approach poly makes me wonder if you are trying to replace me with someone more compliant, and closing off a recreation of this cruel childhood memory reassures me that this situation is different and helps me control my anxiety.”

      That person needs to seek intensive therapy NOT create arbitrary rules to feel safe. They are in essence making their partner complicit in managing their mental health and THAT is extremely unhealthy and borderline codependent.

      Charmaine · November 18, 2016 at 11:34 pm

      “That has not been my experience at all. Poly guys who have good relationship skills have lots of options.”

      This is a fact! Thank you for saying it. The poly guy who is solid is very attractive and women make themselves available because he’s already handling his relationships well.

Shannon · November 17, 2016 at 7:14 pm

Great response. I love Dan Savage but when it comes to navigating non-monogamous relationships, he and I part ways. Heirarchal non-monogamy hurts people. Petty rules are just petty. I don’t understand grown ups treating partners as children.

Lucy · November 17, 2016 at 11:24 pm

I agree on the general rule, but I would find my partner having another partner with the same name deeply creepy. For example when two friends have the same name and they end up being labelled with adjectives. If a partner says your name, are they confusing you with someone else? Bleurgh. I’d never make a rule about it but I’d have real trouble adapting if it happened.

    Alan M · November 18, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    I knew a poly lady whose three guy partners were all named Chris. Pure coincidence, she said — not planned that way. No one had the slightest problem with it.

    symbol · December 16, 2016 at 6:36 am

    My husband dated someone with the same name as me for like a year. Personally none of us found it weird or creepy. We joked about it some, but it wasn’t uncomfortable at all. I guess it depends on your own feelings and how it’s handled by the parties involved. I think it’s very much in the category of “people can make it weird, but it doesn’t have to be weird”.

Maxine · November 18, 2016 at 3:25 am

…or course, while not disagreeing with the basis of this essay in any way at all, it’s always possible that some folks might *enjoy* beatings. 😉

Jenn · December 23, 2016 at 6:30 pm

I would just laugh it off! It’s no big deal….make sunshine with it?

Camelia · March 17, 2017 at 1:10 pm

The brown M&Ms were an indicator of whether the promoters had read the rider with the instructions for setting up the stage and the fireworks. If they hadn’t taken the time to pick out the brown m&Ms, people could die. The band knew at a glance that they wouldn’t have taken the time to set up everything else according to instructions. The brown M&Ms were a message to the band that they were dealing with potential unknowns in the stage set and fire set ups.

TMK · April 29, 2017 at 6:44 am

Heh. Three of the four of the loves of my life had the same first name (coincidentally, the same name as the name of my mother). It was very funny at times, and confusing at others 😀

I get where from Dan Savage is getting from. And i sort of agree with him, yet… the rule is not arbitrary enough. It is actually a rule that has noticeable impact, so it cannot be thought of as a “checking the attention” rule.

And yeah, it might be something that speaks of insecurity, and we would like people to be secure in relationship and all… but, world is not perfect, perhaps she had really bad past or something, perhaps something happened in their relationship. I would not expect people to do things that are impossible for them. It could change later.

You say, step back and think why. So say, they had a bad time, he did a lot of trust breaking, but they patched it up. So that is why. But does it change anything? I would say it does not mean she should break it up, or that she should trust him already.

But yeah, i agree with no harm, and agree that this rule is not a good example of what Dan Savage was pointing at.

Matthew · August 11, 2018 at 3:41 pm

Kind of depends what the sound engineer is into, and if they consent, don’t you think?

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