Polyamory Without Rules

Isn't that just anarchy and chaos?

I am not a fan of rules-based relationships. I believe work best when not governed by a codex of regulations that would make a bureaucrat blush.

When I say that, folks sometimes look at me as though I’ve sprouted an extra head. “How can you have a relationship without rules? I mean, sure, that’s all well and good if you just want anarchy, with people running around doing whatever they want with no commitment, but you can’t build real relationships that way!”

Which is a bit of a head-scratcher to me, because it sounds quite a lot like a monogamous person telling a poly person, “How can you have a relationship without monogamy? I mean, sure, that’s all well and good if you just want anarchy, with people running around shagging whoever they want with no commitment, but you can’t build real relationships that way!”

It’s a normal human thing, I suppose, to see the world in polar terms: if there is no monogamy, then that means promiscuity and indiscriminate shagging; if there are no rules, then that means anarchy and chaos. But that isn’t really the case.

Rules are how we set out boundaries. Without rules, there’s nothing to keep people from stomping all over us!

I see a difference between “rules” and “boundaries.” A rule is something that a person imposes on another. “I forbid you to have unbarriered sex with any other person” is a common example. It is a statement of intent to assert control over the actions of another.

Boundaries are things we put on ourselves. “In order to protect my sexual health, I reserve the right to discontinue having sexual intercourse with you if you have unbarriered sex with any other person” is an example.

They might have the same outcome, but they’re very different in philosophy. To me, the key difference is the locus of control. With rules, I am assuming control over you. I am telling you what you must do or setting out what you are forbidden to do. With boundaries, I outline the way your choices affect me, without presuming to make those choices for you, and let you make your choice accordingly.

But without rules, how can I make sure that my partner will do what I need him to do in order to feel safe?

You can’t.

With or without rules, you can’t. People can always make their own choices. Rules, as anyone who’s ever been cheated on knows, are only as good as a person’s willingness to follow them, which means rules are only as good as the intent of the person on whom they’re imposed.

If a person loves you and cherishes you, and wants to do right by you, then it’s not necessary to say “I forbid you to do thus-and-such” or “I require you to do thus-and-such.” All you really need to do is communicate what you need to feel taken care of, and your partner will choose to do things that take care of you, without being compelled to.

On the other hand, if your partner doesn’t love and cherish you, and doesn’t want to do right by you…well, no rule will save you. The rules might give you an illusion of safety, but they won’t really protect you.

So what? Isn’t it enough that a rule makes me feel better? What’s wrong with that?

There is, I think, a hidden cost to rules, which doesn’t often get discussed in the poly community: the effect those rules have on other people.

Often, people in polyamorous relationships—especially people just starting in polyamory—embrace the idea that whatever happens, as long as the original couple survives, the relationship is successful. Regardless of its effect on anyone else who may be romantically involved with one or both of the original couples. Because of that, the rules tend to be created only between the original couple, with little or no input from anyone else, and more imprtantly, little or no thought to the impact of those rules on others. The viewpoint of any third parties is rarely considered.

Because of that, there’s seldom an acknowledgement that any rule that forbids person A from doing X is potentially a rule that deprives newcomer C from activity X. You see this most strongly in rules such as “I forbid you to have sex with any new partner in the Monkey with Lotus Blossom and Chainsaw position, because that’s my favorite position” or “I forbid you to go to Clayton’s House of Clams with any other date, because that’s the restaurant where we had our first date” or “I forbid you to sleep over at a partner’s house because I never want to have to give up sleeping beside you.”

Each of these is made without any thought to what it costs a third person—what if a new person happens to be quite fond of the Monkey with Lotus Blossom and Chainsaw position, or Clayton’s House of Clams? Why should the new person always be forced to give up sleeping with a partner simply because person A never will?

Because that’s the way it is! Why should some new person be allowed to trump my needs and stomp all over me? Why shouldn’t a new person respect my needs?

Ah. And there we get down to the heart of the matter.

People pass rules because they feel that those rules are necessary in order to meet their needs. Rules don’t get passed at random; I have yet to meet a person who makes up rules by rolling dice or drawing words out of a hat.

Whenever someone proposes a rule, I make it a habit to ask myself three questions:

1. What is the purpose of this rule? 2. Does the rule serve the purpose it is intended to serve? 3. Is this rule the only way to serve this purpose?

I can’t overstate enough how valuable it is to think about this.

Often, in my experience, people use rules as indirect, passive ways to try to get their needs met. Instead of clearly articulating the need, such as “I have a need to feel special and valued by you,” they will think of something that makes them feel special and valued, and then pass a rule to say “I require you to do this thing” or “I forbid you to do this thing with others.” We in the poly community often talk about “communicate, communicate, communicate,” but to me, communication requires the willing to discuss difficult issues, such as the direct needs that we have, rather than just second-order issues, like “Forbidding you to do this is important to me.”

Let’s take a non-hypothetical example of a rule that I’ve seen some poly folks do: “I forbid you to take any date to Clayton’s House of Clams.” And let’s look at it within the context of these three questions.

1. What is the purpose of this rule?

If Alice tells Bob “I forbid you to go to Clayton’s House of Clams with anyone else,” what is she actually saying? It could be “I feel like my value to you depends on exclusivity.” It might be “I am afraid that if you do the same things with someone else that you do with me, you won’t need me anymore and you will abandon me.” Chances are pretty good, though, that Alice, in making this rule, is feeling so overwhelmed by her fear that her needs aren’t being met, she hasn’t spared any thought at all for Cindy, who she’s now denying the Clayton’s clam experience to.

2. Does the rule serve the purpose?

If Alice is right, if Bob doesn’t truly value her and there’s nothing special about her, then forbidding Bob to go to Clayton’s House of Clams with his date won’t actually ensure that Bob doesn’t abandon her. If Cindy turns out to be “better” (whatever that means) than Alice, then Bob’s gone, clams or no clams. If Bob genuinely DOESN’T see value in Alice, the relationship is doomed and no rule will save it. By saying “I forbid you to go to Clayton’s House of Clams,” Alice is—at best—buying herself a false sense of security that is masking her underlying fear of abandonment, preventing her from confronting it directly.

3. Is this rule the only way to serve this purpose?

If Alice is actually afraid that Bob doesn’t value her and will abandon her if he does the same things with a new date that he does with her, then it seems to me that Alice is actually better served by confronting that fear directly, and asking directly for Bob’s help in feeling valued. There might be a lot of ways that can happen…by spending more quality time with Alice for instance, or by letting Alice know how he values her, by setting aside “date nights” with Alice, all sorts of things. The underlying need actually has nothing to do with clams at all.

So what? I was here first. Why shouldn’t a new person respect my rules, even if there are other ways to do things?

“Respect” is a slippery, tricky word. It’s kind of like “freedom”—everyone thinks they know what it means, but when the rubber meets the road, few folks actually agree on a definition.

To me, respect has to be mutual. If Alice is demanding respect from Bob’s new sweetie Cindy, that can only come if Alice in turn respects the notion that Cindy is a grown adult with her own needs and desires, and she, too, deserves a shot at having a voice in the relationship. Imposing rules by fiat on other people and then demanding respect from those people is all the rage (I hear) among leaders of North Korea, but can feel a bit yucky when we’re talking romantic relationships.

But more pragmatically, because I try to be pragmatic, setting up a situation in which one person imposes rules that another person is expected to follow is often a setup for failure. At best, it leads to rules-lawyering: “Well, we didn’t actually eat AT Clayton’s House of Clams, we ordered our clams to go and then ate out on the lanai!”

At worst, it sets up a relationship with a certain amount of tension and conflict baked in. If you see your partner’s other partner as a source of stress, if you set up rules to govern that other person’s behavior, then already you’ve started out on a basis of conflict—because you’ve created an environment where if you want the newcomer never to eat at Clayton’s with your sweetie and the newcomer’s desire is to get down with those tasty, tasty clams on a date with your sweetie, there’s an irreconcilable difference there. Someone’s desire is going to get trumped, and you’re playing the “respect” card to try to make sure it’s not yours.

By talking directly to needs rather than rules—“I need to feel valued and special by you”—we create a framework where competition is less likely. If it’s about feeling valued and unique, and it’s not actually about the clams at all, leave the poor clams out of it!

Now, some cases are more clear-cut than others. Rules around safe sex practices are extremely common in poly relationships; in fact, I’ll warrant that exceptions are pretty thin on the ground.

But even there, it pays to be careful. Open communication is important, because sometimes, even seemingly clear-cut rules with reasonable, necessary purposes can mask deeper things.

For example, let’s look at the rule “No unprotected sex with other partners.”

1. What is the purpose of this rule?

If Alice tells Bob “I don’t want you to have unprotected sex with anyone else,” most likely there’s a pretty good reason for it. The purpose of this rule is plain on the face of it: to protect Alice’s sexual health, as well as the health of everyone Alice is involved with.

2. Does the rule serve the purpose?

Yes. The data on disease transmission and barriers is unambiguous.

3. Is this rule the only way to serve this purpose?

Oh, boy. Now we get into a pickle.

There are other ways that this goal can be achieved. For example, a policy of STD testing prior to having unprotected sex with someone, combined with a policy of not engaging in unprotected sex with folks who don’t do prior testing, works well. Sexual health is not an issue if the people involved have no STDs to begin with; they don’t spontaneously appear out of thin air.

But sometimes, folks may insist on barriers not entirely because of STD concerns, but also out of a feeling that it’s a mark of exclusivity, or because they feel more special if they are the only fluid-bonded partner. And sometimes, concerns about STDs can be a cover that masks those feelings. (This isn’t a hypothetical example, by the way. It’s actually happened to me. A former partner of mine demanded that I not have PIV sex with the woman who is now my wife—she claimed over STI fears, but later it became plain she felt insecure.)

It takes a lot of courage to admit things like this. Talking openly about what’s really going on below the surface is scary, and hard, and involves making ourselves vulnerable.

If I negotiate rules with my partner, a newcomer has the choice about either accepting those rules or walking away, so where’s the harm?

Personally, I’ve always found that argument to be particularly and especially cruel.

At the start of a relationship, it’s almost impossible to predict in advance how far it will go or what it will look like. It’s easy to agree to rules before your heart is on the line and then find, later, after you’ve fallen in love, that you’re hooked—the rules become burdensome, but you’re committed to the relationship and can’t leave without a great deal of heartache.

At best, it’s unintended cruelty on Alice and Bob’s part, perhaps, but it’s still cruel. At worst, it’s a deliberate and conscious spelling out to Cindy, “You are expendable. Here is a list, which you have no input about, of the situations and circumstances under which we will dispose of you.” Either way, Alice and Bob will often end up using this argument as a way of making themselves feel better about hurting Cindy by saying “Well, she knew up front what she was getting into!”

I will admit that the prospect of talking openly about our needs, even when it’s difficult to do, and using communication in place of rules sounds really scary. We poly folks talk all the time about how important communication is. It’s even more important that we actually do it. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

Rules feel comforting. Alas, that feeling is often an illusion. Sometimes, letting go of the notion that rules are important is a way to build relationships with a strong foundation of trust and communication, as scary as it sounds to do that.

Last updated: Sat May 9, 2020