”the Code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules” -Captain Barbossa
Disclaimer: This post is based on my personal experience in polyamory, either directly or talking with other poly folk, and in response to threads I posted asking for input on various poly forums. For privacy reasons I have been unable to reference most of my sources, and naturally because of the places the information was sourced from there is a large kink bias. Therefore please don’t take this as gospel!
Polyamory and non monogamy is supposed to be all about not being bound by the normal relationship structures and restrictions. However, whether you are a monogamous couple just opening up your relationship, or a non-monogamous veteran of many years, rules have probably played some part in your relationships at some point.
Many of us come to polyamory from the perspective of opening up an existing monogamous relationship in some shape or form. This involves lots of talking, research, challenging some fears or insecurities and perhaps because of them, a lot of rules. It may be that approaching polyamory from monogamy, which has by default a lot of implied rules on acceptable behaviour, means that many couples first opening up tend to have a lot of rules and restrictions as they navigate the unknown world of polyamory.
Those new to poly may not have the skills many of us learn over time, such as introspection, analysis and open communication of our fears, doubts and feelings. So in the absence of that, many rules are imposed to “protect” people from their worst fears coming true. Maybe we fear that our partner will meet someone, fall madly in love and run off with them, so we impose a one penis policy to try stop that happening. Perhaps we fear that our partner will date someone we despise, so we demand veto rights to end any relationship unpalatable to us. Perhaps we fear the loss of the relationship so much that we demand that prospective partners consider both of us as a package, not individuals.
Try as we might, we cannot deny that when analysed, a lot of these initial rules can look ugly, possessive and controlling. Do we really think the genitals of other partners are relevant in whether a person will run off with them or not? Or how much hurt we would cause a partner to use a veto without good cause? Do our rules actually protect us from these things happening, or do they show we don’t trust our partners?
Rules are often used as a means of control, a way to gloss over someone’s insecurity or fear without actually dealing with the root cause. If you are afraid your partner will leave you for someone else, no amount of rules will change that. You will still be afraid. What you need to do is talk about your fears with your partner, see if there is any assurance they can give you, and most importantly: find some security in yourself. As Goddess Java of The Polyamorous Misanthrope puts it: be your own primary.1
Another important aspect to consider is the difference between a rule and a boundary. What exactly do we mean by a rule? Do we mean an agreement that if broken, will cause us leave the relationship? Or do we mean a strong preference? Are we issuing an ultimatum, or are we expressing our boundaries? Are we sometimes guilty of using rules to attempt to control control instead of simply expressing our own boundaries and preferences? Are rules sometimes used to enforce a relationship hierarchy, and can those rules end up being imposed, unfairly, on others without their involvement, discussion and negotiation?
The majority of polyamorous people I talked to had some form of rule, even if just one or two. For most this was an explicit agreement made between their partners about accepted behaviour. If this agreement was breached, could well constitute a dealbreaker for the relationship and one partner might walk away. Typically these rules related to safer sex arrangements, and in a lot of cases a veto, which I intend to deal with more closely in a future blog post. Other people had specific rules that they considered appropriate to their relationship structure, such as group financial and life decisions in a closed triad, or approval for adding new relationships to a polyfidelitous group. Similarly those with children or D/s tended to have more rules relating to those specific areas of life, which seems perfectly reasonable.
Other people had lots of experience with rules concerning relationship hierarchy, such as those who adopt the primary/secondary model. As many secondary partners will tell you, it can often feel like rules from the primary couple are imposed rather than up for discussion, and are sometimes used to enforce the higher status of the primary couple .2
A small minority of people stated they had no rules, and considered rules a negative thing for a relationship. They felt that having rules is controlling another person’s behaviour, and shows a lack of trust and security. Reassuringly, many people who were not new to poly said that although they had started out with lots of rules, over times they had become more like guidelines and were actually fairly relaxed, bar a few major ones across the board as discussed above. The majority of people also considered that the greatest rule was to treat each other with respect, dignity, honesty and compassion.
Another interesting aspect was how many people (your writer included) considered they had internal rules, i.e rules they imposed on their own behaviour by and for the benefit of themselves. Some examples were not dating people new to poly, or not getting involved with anyone in a DADT (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) setup.
What is clear is that where there are rules, there are consequences, and also an aspect of trusting that people will be honest. No amount of rules can make someone do what you want them do to (or not do). Only they can do so, if they want to. Nor, do I feel, is it moral to use emotional blackmail and ultimatums to get your own way “if you carry on dating her I’ll leave you”.
So if we don’t want to try and impose a rule or behaviour on another, how do we make sure our wishes and boundaries are respected? The short answer is that we can’t, but we can discuss how we feel, explain our boundaries (and any potential consequences if they are breached) and trust that our partner will respect them as far as they possibly can (and tell us if they can’t).
Boundaries are an expression of our own feelings, limits, desires and preferences, in as much as things we may or may not want to happen, things we may struggle with, and things that could make us consider altering or ending a relationship. We all have the right to personal preferences and boundaries, just as much as the next person has the right to ignore them in favour of their own. This could be as simple as “unless it’s an emergency, please don’t call me when I’m on a date with my other partner” to as serious as “if you have unprotected sex with someone, I may discontinue having sex with you until such a time as I am sure you are tested clear”. Neither of those things are expressed in terms of imposing behaviour on another, but they are very clearly explaining your wishes, and if appropriate, the consequences if those wishes are ignored.
Many people said that they consider boundaries to be something they have decided is or isn’t acceptable for them; and beyond conveying that clearly to their partner, there are no expectations of compliance, and no rights. They consider they have the right to not have their life adversely affected by “the crazy” but they also recognise the right of their partner to make that choice for themselves. If a partner does something that breaches a person’s boundary, then as one person put it “they have the right to protect themselves and their boundaries if needs be”, such as by scaling back the relationship or by ending it entirely.
It may be that in course of discussing and negotiating a new relationship, or opening an existing one, boundaries are discussed and correspondences and differences are identified. Where there is a similarity in opinion, an agreement may be reached to class those boundaries as some type of behaviour code for the relationship. On the other hand, where there are differences, compromise or arrangements might be reached that could also be included in the code.
The key to all of this is of course open, honest and clear communication. Without that you have nothing to work with; discussing honestly about fears, worries, concerns, hopes, preferences and boundaries means you and your partners can understand each other absolutely, and reduce the ability for major unintended transgressions on that basis.
As well as having some form of agreed boundaries, guidelines or a code, many people said instead their relationships were formed on a basis of a few basic principles. Common ones were honesty, integrity, compassion, consideration, respect, equality and ongoing communication.
Many felt that instead of attempting to control by imposing rules on another’s behaviour, or by agreeing on boundaries, good communication was the key to successful polyamory. Rather than setting rules to be broken or obeyed, ongoing discussion and frank exchanges of opinion could deal with matters very easily, without drama or causing friction.
Some of the examples given were small ones, such as being able to ask for more time with your partner if you are feeling a bit neglected, rather than invoking the “date night” rule, or as serious as expressing disapproval of a new partner, that would cause the other to end the relationship, if they felt there was cause. In these scenarios there was a focus on trust; not only to be told the truth but to always tell the truth yourself, and to be dealt with at your word. There is also the basis of trusting your partner to make good decisions for themselves, and to consider the impact anything has on you, rather than to dictate a list of things you do and don’t want.
Most of the people who shared their story with me confirmed they’d had lots of rules in their early days, although over time many of them said those rules had either evolved, changed or disappeared entirely. I personally know many of the rules of my early poly days have long gone, and I find the same rules vexing or baffling when I encounter them in other people new to poly.
It seems the majority of people have a pyramid of rules, boundaries and codes. At the top are the few most important issues, expressed and agreed as rules, and which risk the relationship ending if breached, such as safer sex arrangements or vetos. The next level down is the more wide ranging boundaries, which are personal expressions of what you are prepared to accept and not accept in your relationships. Some of these may be formed into agreements and compromises where your boundaries do not match up. Finally there is the code, the overarching principles of love, honesty, trust, respect, consideration, compassion, communication, integrity and fairness by which we carry on all our relationships, and which can make the first two levels of the pyramid obsolete. If we can live our lives and relationships by this code, we can truly love freely, and without compromise, control or limit.
Footnotes and Links