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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Recently, my attention was called to a message in a polyamory forum about turbulence in a polyamorous relationship caused when one person wanted to start dating a friend, and that person’s existing partner wanted to impose a “No dating existing friends” rule.
I haven’t seen many examples, at least so far, of people prohibiting other people from beginning romantic relationships with anyone who was already a friend. Yet as I read this message, it seemed many other people on that forum had, or wanted, similar rules. And as I considered the prospect of such prohibitions on dating friends (with, I must say, a certain degree of head-scratching bafflement), I came to the conclusion that it might be wise to add a screening question to my list:1 “Do your partners prohibit you from turning friendships into relationships?” And if the answer turns out to be “yes,” I will likely take a pass on romantic involvement with such a person.
As I read the comments on the post, a common theme emerged: “I don’t want to deal with the drama that will result if I allow my partner to date existing friends, which will damage the friendships.” And that made me scratch my head, because–leaving aside for the moment the issue that it’s a little messed up to value your own fear of “drama” over your partner’s ability to choose romantic connections–it seems to me a huge vote of no confidence in the relationship skills of the person this prohibition is placed on.
Some folks prefer to keep their relationships and their friendships separate. That’s not for me; I can’t speak for anyone else, of course, but I want my lovers to be my friends, and I’ve had many relationships that have transitioned from friend to lover, and some that have transitioned from friend to lover and back to friend…and some of these have been among the most rewarding relationships of my life.
But here’s the thing: when a person says, “I don’t want my partner to have relationships with anyone who is already a friend because drama,” that person is actually saying, “I believe my partner has such absolutely terrible relationship skills that their relationships are bound to fail, leaving a twisted, smoking mass of rubble where the friendship once stood…and I feel like I have the authority to demand my partner not be allowed to do that.”
Which is a little…err, weird.
I understand and admire valuing friends and wanting to protect friendships. The path to doing this, seems to me, is to treat your friends (and your lovers!) with respect, compassion, and dignity. If I had a partner who wanted to date a friend–something that has happened many times, I might add–I can’t imagine telling her, “No, please don’t do that.” I believe relationships work best when we trust our partners to make good choices, rather than seeking to control our partners’ choices. If I thought my partner was incapable of making good choices or building healthy relationships, I would probably find it more beneficial to question why I was with her, rather than placing restrictions on her. (To be fair, it’s no secret I’m skeptical of any situation where person A tells person B who B can and can’t date. Indeed, I think the right to choose our romantic partners for ourselves is a core human right. But A telling B not to date C because B is already friends with C seems particularly odd to me; after all, if we are allowed to date only folks who are strangers, then it shouldn’t be a surprise when we end up dating folks we don’t know a lot about, which doesn’t seem like a good drama-reduction strategy to me.)
We are, I think, culturally conditioned to be very frightened indeed of romantic relationships, and to invest them with so many fears and horror stories that we all too easily forget how awesome they can make our lives. When we say, “I don’t want you to date a friend because it will lead to drama,” we speak volumes about how we think of romantic relationships–and we lead with our fears, not our hopes.
1 Among the things on my “screening list” are questions like “Do you have experience in polyamorous relationships?” and “Do you want or are you currently in a relationship that has veto?” I choose not to date people who are not already poly or who use veto.
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This is a guest post by my sweetie Shelly, who also wrote what has been called “the best essay ever written about consent.” From her formidable mind comes this essay about primary/secondary relationships, “family” and consent. Read it. I am in awe of her mind. – Franklin
“Of course I’ll hurt you. Of course you’ll hurt me. Of course we will hurt each other. But this is the very condition of existence. To become spring, means accepting the risk of winter. To become presence, means accepting the risk of absence.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Winter is coming…
In the morning, I like to drink coffee out of this cheerful winter mug, stare intently at something 2000 miles away and say, darkly, Winter is coming… And then I like to follow it manically with something like, “And then there will be presents!” or “And then we can DECORATE!” I do this partly because, well, it never stops being funny to me, and partly because the change of seasons is really important this year.
Transitions are really important to me right now. Memories are really important to me right now. With full disclosure, I am actually a homunculus.
“I am filled with sawdust!” I keep trying to tell people. “Nothing is there! When I look in the mirror, nothing is there!!!” … *blink*
And then the other person is like “Paper or plastic?”
It turns out that other people have a lot on their minds.
I thought I would tell you now, though, that I lost myself. No, that’s not right, because that suggests that I might be waiting in security with the lost and found. No, it would be more accurate to say that I demolished myself, and am trying, so slowly, to rebuild myself out of big dreams and little piles of sand.
So now you can determine whether I’m uniquely qualified or massively unqualified to submit this challenge. It’s all the same to me, I just have a story to tell.
We built this city**
When I first met Franklin, 12 years ago, he was in a strict primary/secondary relationship. His wife was primary, had veto over his relationships, and the two of them had worked out a long list of limitations on his other relationships out of reverence for their marriage.
Be careful about saying things that might be darkly ironic later, because they tend to end up becoming darkly ironic later. “Franklin?” I would tell my friends who noticed my googly eyes. “Not with a 10-foot pole.” What I meant, of course, was “I think I will go about rapidly falling in love with Franklin despite my better judgment.”
When you knowingly enter into a restricted relationship and then suffer over those restrictions, it’s hard not to feel like a total boob. Seriously, no matter how bad the pain gets, there’s always going to be a mocking voice that says “Seriously? You signed up for this. What did you think was going to happen?”
But, see, that’s actually an interesting question. What did I think was going to happen? What I thought I was signing up for was an emotionally restricted relationship. I thought that the risk was the same risk you have in any emotionally restricted relationship: unreciprocated investment and unrequited love. Sure, it hurts, but then it burns itself out because nothing feeds it.
But 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. The cognitive dissonance is even worse. Self-advocacy is often interpreted as homewrecking, and disruptions to the status quo are seen as a hostile act. Remember, you signed up for this, you’re breaking the contract, you’re the bad guy. But don’t be cruel and break his heart, don’t be disruptive and speak for your own. just… just want something else, feel something else, BE SOMEONE ELSE.
So, there is a special place, at the bottom of all of that, where you realize that the only truly “right” thing you can do is just… find a way to disappear. But not with an explosion (you drama queen). Just find a way to disappear quietly so that no one notices. Do the right thing and just… go away.
But then, somewhere in that mess Franklin held his hand out to me and said. “Maybe it’s not you, Shelly. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with you. Maybe there’s something wrong with the structure.”
Like most things, primary/secondary works great, you know, until it doesn’t. And it does actually matter how we handle that.
** How long was Jefferson Starship running through your head? Yeah, I did that on purpose.
An answer to the question
Can I just take a moment to call attention to the fact that we are all making this up as we go along?
I remember reaching for the words to describe what I was searching for in poly. An image in my mind of shared experiences and shared love, of voices in the kitchen, of shared meals and lots of feetsies under the covers. Family.
Family was a word I struggled to find and then struggled to define. But it was also an answer to the question that remained when I walked away from forced hierarchical relationships. Family was an answer to the question of loss. How do we stave off loss in poly? It’s like when you’re a vegetarian and someone looks at you sadly and says “what do you eat?” because all they picture is canned green beans and a slice of Wonder Bread. “Why would you be poly? You just lose time and resources and security.” But…but…do you realize that there are like five kinds of animals that we regularly eat, and, like, literally a kazillion other kinds of foods? I just. Argh!
What about going to a movie with your partner and your metamour? Or hell, your partner is out and you just call your metamour up? What about group dinners and big parties and ALL the cuddles and always having someone there for you because you have many points of failure instead of one, and (bom chicka) group sex and… just ALL THE DIFFERENT FOODS?
Family is a counter to zero-sum arguments.
Franklin has written about this, but it boils down to this:
The objection: Poly is bad because it means you have to divide all your time up and everyone gets less.
The response: Well, that’s true if you think of relationships as zero-sum. However, that ignores the possibility that you could spend your time with more than one person and then everyone gets more.
I remember long conversations with Franklin where we talked about this idea of family, of sharing a life together. And the more he and I developed this dream, the more his wife dug in to preserve the life they had built, where Franklin could only live with her, could only be primary with her. And the more I pushed this dream of family, and eventually did move in.
But, wait, hold on. Before I sell you this Cadillac, I really feel compelled to warn you that it blows up sometimes. No, really. Hold on.
Consent is something I’ve become deeply concerned about, both personally and culturally. While consent is something most people associate with sex, I think consent is important for every kind of personal boundary. This isn’t just a philosophical musing, and it’s not even really an ethical one. I care about this because weak boundaries and consent violations degrade the self. No, really. Let’s sit with this. Your self? That’s it. That’s what you’ve got. That’s all you’ve got. Degradation of the self is a living death.
I say this as someone who happily, righteously participated, for years, in coercive relationship structures. I architected some, defended others, used them as weapons and ultimately sacrificed my self for them.
Franklin and his wife eventually separated. And it certainly was not a matter of him choosing me over her. He chose one dream over another, one life over another. And I felt with self-satisfaction that I had won some kind of poly moral victory. Because inclusiveness was right and exclusiveness was wrong.
I look back, with a non-trivial amount of horror, at the fact that—even as I felt that Franklin’s wife was trying to coerce him into one kind of life—I was trying to coerce her into another. How often does it happen when someone ends up in the intractable center of a miserable V (or star), that they start to search for some kind of moral basis to make a decision (because it’s just not OK to do anything that resembles leaving one relationship for another)? How often is that moral basis “I’m going to choose the person who is most inclusive, and I am going to leave the person who is, well, trying to set boundaries?”
… Family 🙁
We differentiate polyamory from cheating by the honesty, the openness and the consent. The desire for transparency in our relationships, the pull towards inclusiveness and shared time, and the emphasis on metamour relationships and communication, I think, all emerge from these principles. And these are good things. However…
When we take the principles of inclusiveness and family to the point where we build relationships that are dependent on other relationships, we are building on a foundation of coercion. Note that I am not saying that these relationships are automatically coercive, only that it’s built in. It’s that room at the back of the house you never use, you know, until you do.
What do I mean by a relationship that is dependent on another relationship? An example might be a triad where one person must be involved with the other two people, or else they can’t be involved with either one of them. Another example might be a V where there is an understanding that one or both relationships will fail if the metamours don’t “get along.” Or perhaps there are many relationships, and if you removed group time, there just wouldn’t be enough time to maintain them all.
Many (most?) poly relationships have relationship interdependence either as subtext or as an explicitly stated criterion. Why? Because time and energy are limited, the idea of family is compelling, and it just doesn’t seem like too much to ask. And if everyone is onboard with the idea, it doesn’t seem like it should be a problem.
And, like most things, group poly works great until it doesn’t. But when it stops working, it seems to create amplified feelings of betrayal and fear, and uniquely powerful emotional hostage situations. I think this is because conflict and change in one relationship typically have a cascading effect.
If I can’t share a home with my metamour, does it mean I can’t share a home with my partner? If I don’t want to spend time with my metamour, will I lose all of my time with my partner? If I break up with my partner, will I lose the support of my metamours? If I stop having sex with one partner, will our shared partner shun me? Does my dyadic relationship even exist outside of the group? Are my feelings enough to make choices, or does this need to go to committee? If I am just generally uncomfortable and need to back off of a shared intimacy, will I be demonized and shamed? If I’m not comfortable in the group, does it mean I’m not really poly? Will my withdrawal be used to build a case to eject me?
And if your romantic network is also your primary social support network—your family—then it massively amplifies disapproval and threats of loss. Social shaming and rejection can create a crippling threat that all but removes choice. If you get into an argument with your partner, and your partner says “you’re selfish and inconsistent and hurtful,” that’s pretty rough. And then you reach out to friends and family, who are essentially your metamours, and they say “how could you do that to him… you don’t care about anyone but yourself,” and then you spiral into fear and isolation and shame, and then your partner says “look what you’re doing to us, you hurt all of us,” and you feel banished and ostracized, it really takes the original conflict to an entirely different level.
When you enter into a group, knowing the contingencies that exist and the terms under which you are approved… when you enter into a group knowing you should really just be grateful for the opportunity, and then you suffer for your loss of control, and for your inability to create the life you need to feel nourished and safe, well it makes you feel like a bit of a boob. And by “boob” I mean double agent, slimy salesman pulling a bait and switch, manipulative homewrecker, monster, monster, MONSTER. Holy fuck, woman, mean what you say and say what you mean, what did you think was going to happen?
And when you really really want to make it work, despite Shakespearean levels of unhappiness, because it should work, it’s easy to start to feel like the only solution is just to try to change who you are. Just crush all of the things inside of you that aren’t working, all the things that are hurting and hurting everyone else, and just… hope something better is left.
(Hi. You there. The one crying. Let’s forget about all of those other people for a minute. Don’t do it. You won’t like what’s left, and you may never recover. And it won’t work anyways. Hey. Maybe it’s not you. Maybe it’s nobody. Maybe it’s just the structure.)
The heartbreaking thing, I believe, is that emotional blackmail is just built into some relationship structures. Abuse doesn’t require an abuser. Sometimes all it requires is a belief.
But don’t worry. For the most part none of this will be a problem… until it is.
The foundation of consent
I believe, pretty firmly at this point, that the foundation of a non-coercive poly relationship has to be the ability to drop to zero-sum at any time, for any reason. That’s not just true for sexual relationships in a group, but also for metamour relationships. But more than that, the foundation of consent is a built-in exit clause for every single relationship. Not happy? Not healthy? It’s OK to leave.
To that end, I’ve decided there’s a bunch of coercive bullshit that has to go.
If you need more from our relationship than I can give,
it is not because you
- are insecure/too needy
- don’t care about your metamours
it is not because I
- am selfish and greedy
- am neglectful and irresponsible
if you need more from our relationship than I can give, then we have a resource incompatibility and we need to determine A) whether that resource is required for our relationship to stay intact, or B) whether it is a general resource you are missing that can be supplemented elsewhere.
If it is amenable to creative problem-solving, let’s try to solve it. If it is not, then it’s OK to end the relationship.
If I am not comfortable sharing any kind of intimacy with your other partners,
it is not because I
- am trying to cowgirl/cowboy you
- am not really poly
- am not really trying
If I am not comfortable sharing intimacy with your other partners, and that takes us to unacceptable levels of resource scarcity, then A) I hope we didn’t build a deeply attached and committed relationship based on coercive intimacy because B) these things aren’t sustainable, and this is going to hurt.
We have the opportunity to re-invent relationships. We will mess up. Things that really make sense and seem right, even righteous, might have hidden explosives. It matters what we do when things go wrong. We should not assume first that our relationship expectations are right and our loved ones are broken. We should assume that we will make bad choices, build bad structures, and subscribe to damaging beliefs. We should be willing to question all of them. We will be blind to many things until we are not. We need to admit that sometimes there are no solutions, that sometimes relationships should end or change, and sometimes it won’t be fair. Relationships require maintenance, resources are limited, and so is love. It’s ok. Follow your heart, honor your own humanity and that of the people around you. Do your best. Show yourself compassion even when, especially when you’re the only one who is.
There are no good people or bad people here. We only risk becoming something static when we decide that we’ve got it all figured out and that our moral code can be absolute. We will all do good things and bad things, and we will all hurt the people we love. Sadly, we will probably hurt them the most in the service of what we believe is right. What makes you good is not perfection in action or strictness to code, but the willingness to question, to change, and to listen to your heart when your life stops matching it.
In the last 12 years, I have watched all of my poly dreams go up in smoke. And what I seem to be left with, in the rubble and ashes, is just a poly life.
And I’m sorry. But you will lose some things. You will lose quite a bit of security. Stuff is going to change, and no one is going to be able to predict how. You’re going to have ideas and you’re going to build structures and it’s really going to matter what you do when those stop working, because they will. Some things might end. Everything might end. But if everyone still sees the humanity in everyone else at the end, then that is no minor victory. That’s my pitch. If you’re not ok with this, then please don’t do it.
But if you do, you might find a little bit more of your self. And at the end of the day, that’s really all you’ve got anyways, and, hey, you are amazing.
Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now.
Note: This blog post has been translated into Italian! The Italian version is here. You can also read Shelly’s other guest post here.
This is a guest post by my sweetie Shelly. She sent it to us as an essay a few weeks ago, and it blew us away so much we asked her if we could reprint it. We’ll be drawing on these ideas in the book, possibly even using parts of the essay. – Franklin
Consent is a radical idea
I would like for this to be the shortest discussion ever. I would like to say that we each have an inalienable right to have domain over our bodies, minds, and choices and end the conversation there. I mean, good people don’t violate consent, and I’m a good person, right?
Well, it’s not really so simple. If there’s one common thread through human history, it’s that we are, collectively, really comfortable violating consent. As children, we are often violated physically, emotionally, legally. As much as we are told that we always have choice, we often find that the choice is between homelessness and an abusive working environment or an abusive living situation. As much as we seem to have finally reached some kind of consensus that rape is wrong, we still seem to be having a cultural dialogue about the kinds of circumstances under which it might actually be deserved.
We may encounter many situations in our lives where we have to put walls up and just absorb the loss of control over our lives, our minds, or our bodies. But the one place where we should never have to do that is in our loving relationships. This may on the surface, seem obvious, but make no mistake–this is a radical idea.
The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship.
Consent is about me
There’s a lot of fuzzy usage around the word consent. I would like to propose a tightening of the definition, because if we are not clear about what consent is, we cannot possibly succeed in communicating about it.
Consent is about me: my body, my mind, and my choices. My consent is required to access the things that I own. You do not need my consent to act, because I do not own your body, your mind, or your choices. However, if your behavior crosses into my personal space, then you need my consent.
If my romantic partner goes out and sleeps with a dozen random hookups, he may have broken an agreement, but he has not violated my consent. If he then has sex with me without telling me about his actions, he has violated my consent because he has deprived me of the ability to make an informed choice.
You cannot understand consent without understanding boundaries
My boundaries are the edges of me. What is my personal space? What is it that I alone own, and you must always have permission to access?
This is somewhat personal, and we often don’t know where our boundaries are until they have been crossed. But I think you can roughly divide personal boundaries into three categories: My body, my mind, and my choices.
Poor personal boundaries are damaging to the self.
We all have an intuition about where our physical boundaries are. Our boundaries may start at our skin, or the point where we can feel breath. They may begin on the other side of the room. It is the point where we feel touched and physically affected by another person. When we share physical space with others, which we often do in community spaces, we may need to sometimes choose not to share that space depending on where our boundaries need to be at the time. You have the right to decide if, how, and when you want to be touched. Always.
In romantic relationships we often negotiate shared physical space. If touch begins beyond our skin, we may need to negotiate some space that we can control. For some people, this may be a room of one’s own. For some, it might be as simple as asking for some quiet time on the couch. However, without individual space, or the ability to negotiate for individual space when you need it, the only option for exerting a physical boundary may be to leave the shared space.
This is your mental and emotional experience of the world, your memories, your reality, and your values. When we engage the world, we let people into this personal space. Finding the edges of your mind is trickier than finding your physical edges. We are social creatures, and even the most superficial interactions engage our mental and emotional boundaries. The boundaries of the mind are, on the one hand, the easiest for others to cross over into, and also the boundaries we have the most control over.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserve it”
It’s easy to say “don’t give people so much power to hurt you,” but that does not address our need for connection and acceptance. It does not account for the very healthy impulse to seek feedback on our perceptions of the world. I believe that the healthiest person, when persistently rejected, will witness either an erosion of their mental boundaries or an erosion of their ability to engage in intimacy. I also believe that the only way to maintain good mental boundaries, to counteract social rejection, and to assess when to disengage, is to have strong self-knowledge and self-confidence, and to engage in self-compassion and care. In other words, to engage in behaviors that build your self-esteem.
Solid mental boundaries require self-esteem.
When we engage in intimate relationships, we let people into our minds. We open up our mental boundaries. We let a chosen few affect us, deeply. This is beautiful and amazing, and in my opinion, is one of the things that makes life worth living. But your mind belongs to you and you only. Your intimate partners, your family, your boss and the woman at the grocery store only ever get it on loan, and if that intimacy is damaging you, you have the right to take it back. Always.
Setting mental boundaries is different than setting physical boundaries. When I set a physical boundary, I am exerting some control over what you do with your body as it pertains to my space. Do not touch me there, do not move closer to me, leave my home. But with emotional boundaries, we have to take care to not make others responsible for our mental state. When we tell another person “do not say or do things that upset me,” we are not setting boundaries, we are trying to manage people whom we have let too far into ours. This management, and the high stakes of being responsible for another’s psychological well being, quickly introduce coercion into a relationship, and coercion erodes consent. Should we make requests of others to maximize our emotional health? Yes! Should we try to honor those requests if we can do so in a healthy way? Yes! Are you responsible for my wellbeing and what I feel? No.
At every fork in the road, each of us will bring our own values and experience to an examination of the information available. How we approach this process, and the conclusions we come to, is a large part of what makes us who we are.
I am a collection of experiences, memories, preferences, and feelings. I am one of billions of unique ways to process reality. But I am also the sum of my choices. My choices are the place where I stop dreaming and start pursuing, where I stop planning and start building. Choice, in my opinion, is where human beings become truly beautiful, and sometimes truly terrible.
Choice can be the most difficult personal boundary to defend. It seems like the predominant belief is that if we are empowered to make our own choices, we will all become monsters, and we must entrust our decisions to external authority. This permeates our society and seems to inform the way we build relationships. Without engaging in a debate about whether people are fundamentally good or bad (or option C), I ask you to look at your partner and ask yourself if you respect their ability to choose, even if it hurts you, and even if it’s not what you would choose.
You cannot consent if you do not have a choice.
When we enter into a romantic relationship, we make a choice. Over time, we build a life. This may involve legal and financial commitments and responsibilities. When we make those commitments, we should do what we reasonably can to follow through. But there is a difference between life-building and intimacy. Consent is about intimacy, and in every moment of every day, we should feel that we have a choice in the intimacy we participate in.
Consent exists in the moment
You cannot pre-consent. You can state intentions. You can make commitments that don’t involve your personal boundaries. But consent exists right now, right here in this moment. Let’s say I tell my partner “I want to have sex in five minutes. If you want to, I will definitely 100% want to have sex with you. I guarantee you that it is absolutely 100% ok. I commit to it. Here is a notarized piece of paper with my signature.” And then let’s say in five minutes, I say “no.” If my partner has sex with me anyways, it’s rape. (If you engage in consensual non-consent, you will recognize that you still have to negotiate a safe word or a way to recognize when consent has been revoked. If you don’t, you’ve crossed into abuse.)
Previous consent for intimacy never, ever overrides withdrawal of consent in the present.
I’ve given a pretty extreme example, but one that hopefully everyone will agree with. However, we often make all kinds of agreements to future intimacy and then proceed like those agreements override our boundaries in the moment.
Coercion erodes choice
Being in a consensual romantic relationship means you are never committed to any future intimacy. In a consensual romantic relationship, you always choose the intimacy you engage in. Intimacy is anything that enters into your personal boundaries. It can be sleeping together, sex, hugging and kissing, emotional sharing, living together, having certain shared experiences, or making shared choices.
Again, you can state intentions, but you cannot pre-consent, and both people must recognize and respect personal boundaries right now, regardless of intentions stated in the past. The reason this is so important is that when there is an implied obligation, the relationship can easily become coercive.
It is actually really difficult to avoid coercion in romantic relationships, because boundaries are most likely to be set during the times when intimacy is already in trouble and there’s a lot to lose. When relationships are good, they make us better, they make our lives bigger, and it’s easy to forget about our boundaries, because there is no reason to enforce them. When communication erodes, when trust comes into question, when we feel out of control or deeply unhappy, and then one or both people try to set a boundary, it can be terrifying.
What does coercion look like?
Coercion is when you make the consequences to saying “no” to intimacy so great that it removes any reasonable choice. There is more obvious coercion, such as threats, either externally or internally directed. But I find that coercion just sort of organically arises when you believe that your partner, in that moment, owes you intimacy. If you think your partner owes you intimacy, and you are just “expressing your feelings,” there’s a good chance you’re being coercive. If your partner says “no,” and you start preparing for a fight instead of accepting their choice, you’re probably going to be coercive.
If your partner is trying to set an intimacy boundary, they probably have a very good reason. It might not even be about you. The chances that your partner has had their consent violated in their life are really high, and it may have been really bad. Show appreciation for your partner’s self-advocacy and self-knowledge, be grateful for the intimacy they have shown you, and make it clear that you respect their autonomy and ability to make choices, even if you don’t understand what’s happening or why.
It’s also possible they are being manipulative and using boundary-setting as a way to coerce you. Withdrawal and silence are classic techniques of emotional blackmail and can be initially difficult to distinguish from healthy boundary-setting. It’s even possible they are setting boundaries just to punish you.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The solution is never to try to force someone to do something they don’t want to do. Thank them, and respect their choice. If you can’t respect their choice, it’s time to examine your own boundaries.
Why you shouldn’t lie
I’m going to take a little bit of a detour here to talk about the intersection between mental/emotional privacy, choice, and consent. When you enter a romantic relationship, I believe there is one kind of intimacy that you must participate in, and if you find that you can no longer participate in it, you have a responsibility to end the relationship. I’m referring to honest, open communication.
Being able to share, to the best of your ability, who you are in a relationship, is critical for that relationship to be consensual. You must give your partner the opportunity to make an informed decision to be in that relationship. If you lie to your partner or withhold critical information, you remove their ability to consent to be in the relationship. The important information that needs to be shared should be negotiated early and is unique to each relationship.
Most important is to communicate those things that might be deal-breakers, or might be threatening to your partner’s emotional or physical health. Your partner deserves to have the ability to make a choice about how they want to participate in the relationship given the new information. Examples might be sexual behavior with others, drug use, the acquisition or use of weapons, violent impulses or behavior, or depression or suicide attempts.
You can force someone to make a certain choice, or coerce them into that choice, but if you lie or withhold information from a partner, you deny them even the ability to know there was a choice to be made.
Fear, the telltale sign
Why am I so afraid in this relationship when there’s no imminent physical danger?
If you find yourself asking yourself this question, check your boundaries. Do you know where they are? How much power have you given to others to affect your well-being, your self esteem, even your desire to live? Remember, when you give someone the power to affect you and to come into your mind, you are only loaning what belongs to you. If you are afraid, you have given too much. When you look forward, do you see choices? Is leaving the relationship a viable option? Is changing the relationship a viable option? Is setting boundaries a viable option? What happens when I say “no”?
You see plenty of relationships fall apart in sadness, anger, hurt, and feelings of betrayal. It is unnerving when a relationship becomes permeated by fear, but I believe this is often the trajectory of a relationship that lacks consent. It’s from here that we begin to bend ourselves around our fears instead of embracing our dreams.
The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship.
If there is one safe place in the world, it should be with the people you love. I’m not talking about the safety of guarantees, but the safety to be everything that you are. It’s the safety to be dynamic, to change, and to dream. But to be safe, we have to be whole.
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Polyamorous relationships come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, with all sorts of configurations, arrangements and agreements. From closed triads to sprawling networks, from tightly nested live-in relationships to aggregations of long-distance relationships, from fleeting to long-lived, from consensual power exchange to egalitarian, I’ve seen polyamorous groupings with just about every structure possible.
Given that variety, it’s clear there’s no one right way to “do” polyamory. But that doesn’t mean all polyamorous relationships are happy or sustainable! One of the issues that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about is this: with all the variety that makes up the tapestry of polyamory, what consistent factors separate balanced, fulfilling relationships from ones more likely to be filled with conflict and tears? Are there any commonalities? What signposts, if any, can we use to recognize the former?
Communication, honesty and consent are values the poly community promotes heavily, and these ideas do seem to be intrinsic to strong, ethical relationships. But the more I think about these ideas, the deeper the rabbit hole goes.
Communication and honesty are complex topics that can easily fill a book. Consent seems more straightforward; either we agree to something or we don’t, right? I’ve often heard people say, “As long as everyone agrees to a structure or a set of rules, everything’s good.”
On the surface, that seems reasonable. And yet, I think it’s easy to lose track of how slippery the idea of “consent” can be.
There are a lot of ways to run off the rails on the way to a seemingly consensual agreement. I woke up this morning thinking about this, and somewhere in my foggy pre-caffeinated state I tracked down three ways that an agreement might appear consensual without quiiiiite rising to the level that would be ideal for ethical relationships:
1. If there’s manipulation or coercion involved in the agreement.
No, I don’t mean overt arm-twisting, though certainly that’s a problem too. I’m talking about subtle pressure, nearly undetectable emotional manipulation that can influence a person to agree to something that perhaps he might not fully embrace.
This kind of manipulation is not necessarily evil, or even conscious. We are a social species, and manipulation is one of the things we do. There’s a book called Emotional Blackmail that talks about the sorts of ways we can subtly manipulate others to agree to the course of action we want them to, in ways that can be almost unnoticeable if we’re not on guard against them. A good friend of mine recommends reading this book twice. The first time through, you’ll doubtless spot the ways the folks around you have manipulated you, and you’ll likely say, “Oh, my God, how could they!” The second time through, you’ll probably spot the ways you have unconsciously done the same thing, and you may find yourself saying, “Oh, my God, how could I!”
2. When the alternative to agreeing seems unbearable. This is not necessarily the same thing as coercion, because it can be driven by internal, rather than external, factors. For example, if a person feels that she absolutely can not bear the thought of being alone or being without a certain partner, she may react to that fear by consenting to agreements that she might not otherwise consent to if she thinks that doing otherwise might mean losing the relationship.
It is difficult to give meaningful consent in situations where we don’t feel that we have any acceptable choice. If we can’t say “no,” then saying “yes” loses much of its meaning. We might not even be driven to agree by a partner; it can happen that purely internal fears rather than external pressure drive us into agreements that aren’t good for us.
3. When the agreement is part of a framework of mutual assured destruction. Agreements are often complex, made up of many parts, and it can sometimes be that we may agree to things not because they are right for us, but in order to get our partners to agree to the things we want them to agree to.
I see a difference between this and ordinary negotiation in that a “mutual assured destruction” system is, way down at its foundation, a way of saying “if you don’t call me on it when I’m unreasonable or insecure, I won’t call you on it when you’re unreasonable or insecure.” The structure of the agreement serves to protect each person from his or her own inner demons by telling the other members involved, “Agree to this or I will expose you to your inner demons.”
There’s a fourth confounding factor that can make an agreement freely entered into suspect as well, and that’s when the strictures of the agreement fall more heavily on one party than another, or the consequences of the agreement are distributed unevenly.
By way of one example: I am straight. I’ve never had any inclination or desire to have a male lover. If I were to enter into an agreement with another partner that says “we both agree not to have other male partners,” I am not giving up anything at all; for all intents and purposes, the burden that agreement places on me is exactly zero. On the other hand, if my partner does desire male lovers, this agreement does place a restriction on her. For me to say, “Well, there’s nothing unfair about this agreement because we are both signing on to the same thing” is disingenuous.
These things can work in very subtle ways, and there’s no simple toolkit to ferret them out. Being aware of emotional manipulation (even when it’s unconscious), asking questions about why we want what we want and why our partners want what they want, and learning that we can be alone or lose the things we have and we’ll still be okay are all part of preparing to make ethical agreements.
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Louisa Leontiades, author of The Husband Swap and an important supporter of our Indiegogo campaign (she’s giving e-book copies of her book to all our $30+ backers), left this comment on our “Training Wheels and Utopian Polyamory” post:
Here’s the thing. You can’t just say to people ‘be brave’ and expect that it is something they can immediately do. Children are naturally fearless until the world beats it out of them with spite, rejection and shame. It takes time. Just as it takes time to build it back up again. Is there a place for expressing the utopian ideal of going for it without training wheels? I say, absolutely. Should this be a black and white rule that we put on those struggling to escape monogamy and chastity implemented by a patriarchal structure? I say, the way is to slowly educate with compassion. Knowing that not everyone is capable or willing to stretch that far. Which doesn’t make them bad people–just scared people.
We didn’t reply there, because her comment opens up a bigger conversation that we felt deserves its own post.
There are lots of configurations in poly and lots of poly styles, but let’s focus for a moment on a scenario that’s quite common, one that many of the readers of our book will be likely encounter or be part of early on in their poly experience: an established couple has decided to try polyamory, and one of them begins to date a new person (who may or may not have established partners of their own). It’s this scenario that people often apply the “training wheels” analogy to, and typically it’s the couple that is allowed the use of the training wheels.
It’s true that opening up a long-term relationship, possibly risking everything you’ve built together, is scary. It’s scary to see your partner fall in love with someone else, before you’ve had enough experience to reassure you at the deep, visceral level where it really matters that their love for that other person won’t diminish their love for you. Taking this step is a high-risk venture. Both partners have a lot to lose. And let’s not sugarcoat this: lots of couples don’t make it through the transition. The risk is real.
And it’s true that when you have so much on the line, it’s hard to be brave just because someone says you should.
But… you know what else is scary? Falling in love is scary. It’s scary in the best of circumstances, but falling in love with someone who is already deeply bonded to another person, who shares a life with that person, and who may not know exactly what kind of space in their life they can offer you—that’s scary as hell. So for the new partner in the position of opening their heart to a person in an established relationship, especially a relationship that’s newly poly, the situation is pretty high risk, too.
Too often in looking at this type of situation, the focus is exclusively on the original couple, the risk they bear, and how scary it is to face that risk. Too often, whatever they need to do to protect themselves from the risk posed by the new relationship is defended, because yeah, it can be really fucking hard to face that risk. And if they stay together, the relationship is a success, and whatever they’re doing to stay together is “working.”
The problem with this approach is that it makes the new partner—along with the risks they’re facing and the fear they’re experiencing—invisible. We expect the new partners to be brave. We expect them to bear not just their share of the risk, but a substantial share of the couple’s risk, too. The couple gets training wheels. The new partner doesn’t even get a helmet.
I might be being to vague here. What might these “training wheels” look like? (The “training wheels” that many couples never take off, even after a “new” relationship has lasted for years?) They could be an agreement that allows one member of the couple to end the other partner’s other relationships if they become uncomfortable or feel the relationship is threatened. Or an agreement that the partners in the couple will never spend the night apart, that certain activities are exclusive to them, that the couple’s relationship will always “come first,” or that the other relationships will never exceed, in importance, closeness or commitment, some threshold defined by the original couple.
These all seem like good ideas at the time. They’re certainly often reassuring to the couple. My husband and I discussed agreements very similar to these when we negotiated opening our relationship after many years of monogamy. Then I fell in love, and we realized that real people were going to have their hearts on the line just like we did, and we could not in good conscience attempt to grow relationships with them if we could not give those relationships space to thrive.
The problem with dealing with your own fear by limiting other relationships is that what you are actually doing is shifting risk from yourself or one of your partners onto another person. Everyone in a polyamorous relationship has their share of risk (like everyone in a relationship, period, has their share of risk), but the (often permanent) “training wheels” are in fact another human being, and the couple is essentially saying to them, “Here, you carry this risk, because we don’t want to.”
At the risk of conflating love and war: everyone’s scared in a foxhole, but is it okay to hide behind another person when you’re afraid? Sometimes it happens, yes. People do some pretty selfish, fucked-up things when they’re scared, and they deserve compassion, understanding and forgiveness. But is that behaviour we should be normalizing, even encouraging? Should people who do it be considered role models? Is it something we should be pointing to and saying, “this is an ethical way to behave,” or even, “as long as it works for you, it’s okay”?
Everyone who chooses to open their heart and be vulnerable to another person—everyone, monogamous, polyamorous, or other—exposes themselves to risk. Loving another person is perhaps the riskiest thing you can do, and perhaps that’s part of why the rewards are so amazingly huge. Generally speaking, I think the ethical thing to do is to accept and carry your own share of the risk of your own relationships yourself, rather than asking someone else to carry them. Generally, but not always. Sometimes one person is stronger, braver, more capable of carrying a greater share of the collective risk. Sometimes one person is uniquely vulnerable and in need of protection, for a short time or the long term. What’s the ethical solution then?
Analogy time. Raise your hand if you’ve ever played D&D. (I’m a Second Edition girl myself.) You know when the GM asks you to announce your marching order?
…For what I expect will be the vanishingly small proportion of our readers with their hands still down, I’ll explain. When a party is about to explore some potentially scary and dangerous place and they have to walk single file (because of course that’s generally what you have to do, in scary and dangerous places), the GM (game master) asks the party to announce their marching order, the sequence in which the characters will walk.
Strategies vary, of course, but typically you put the big, burly fighter with the heavy armour and lots of hit points up front, to bear the brunt of the first volley of arrows (or acid, flames, demonic spiders, mind-destroying tentacles, etc.) when you are (inevitably) attacked. Toward the back, you put the wizard with the ranged area-of-effect spells. (If you can, it’s good to have someone with a lot of hit points in back, too, in the event of a rear-guard ambush.) The middle is where you put your healer, along with any injured or weakened party members—or the insane, hemophiliac, 12-year-old psychic elvish princess who’s being stalked in her dreams by a fallen god (for example), whom you’ve been hired to transport and protect.
When deciding whether risk in a polyamorous network should be redistributed, and how to do it, I think it’s useful to think in terms of marching order. Who’s the most resilient, the most experienced, the bravest, the strongest? Who’s uniquely vulnerable—perhaps as a result of a mental or physical illness, or economic dependence or other hardship? Does the marching order make sense based on need and ability? Does everyone involved understand why their position is what it is, and do they all agree to it? Is it renegotiable when needs or circumstances change? Is there a plan in place to help the weaker members of the party grow in strength, courage and ability, preparing them to eventually walk side-by-side with the other party members?
Typically when we discuss arrangements that shift risk in polyamorous relationships, we don’t do this. Typically it’s assumed that it’s the couple who will protect their relationship, and the new partner who will bear the associated extra risk.
But is the inherent risk, before any shifting happens, lower for the newer partner than for the members of the original couple? It is scarier for the couple?
That depends. So many factors go into determining who has more to lose, or who’s in the best position to be strong in the face of loss, that you can’t really say, without looking at a specific situation, who’s bearing the greater risk. I believe the assumption that a newer partner should carry greater risk in the interest of protecting the original couple is not based on real risk or ability, but rather is one of the unexamined assumptions that arise from couple privilege. The polynormative marching order is: newer partners in the front or back, couples in the middle.
I think that’s an assumption worth checking.
Everyone is afraid, and everyone can be brave. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone needs compassion. So why, in polyamorous relationships, do we so often expect the newer partner to be brave and strong, while calling for compassion and patience for the original couple? Why don’t we expect everyone to be as brave and strong as they can—and when they can’t, for everyone to receive compassion and patience?
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