Seven Articles in Seven Days – 5: Rules


Today’s article was partially inspired by a piece I read on an acquaintance’s blog, and the subsequent debates which went on in the comments. Today, I’m thinking about ‘rules’ in terms of relationships, particularly polyamorous relationships.

Rules are an interesting thing. They can be both explicit and implicit – made consciously, or assumed. The default of relationships in our culture is that they will be monogamous. It is typically assumed, unless very explicitly negotiated otherwise, that once two people are in a relationship, the rule ‘you must not be physically intimate with anybody except me’ comes into play. It seems, from my experience, that polyamorous people are much bigger on having very deliberately negotiated rules for their relationships.

I’ve seen it argued that rigid ‘rules’ are unhealthy and generally a bad thing. I both agree and disagree. That doesn’t make any sense, you say? Let me try to explain.

I think that arbitrarily imposing rules upon one’s partner is unfair to both of you. They’re likely to feel resentful, and you’re likely to become increasingly afraid they will break whatever the rule is. Rules are often grounded in fear. I know that many times I’ve worried that if a partner does something (whether sexual or not, it doesn’t really matter) with somebody else that they also do with me, then they won’t need me any more. Many times I’ve been tempted to ask my partners to conform to rules which effectively forbid whatever activity/thing is making me scared. But I don’t think that’s a good way to go about it. If you’re afraid, asking for reassurance is much better than imposing restrictions on your partner. If you’re not getting a need (or even a ‘want’) met, discussing it and working together to resolve the situation is much better than saying ‘you can never do X with Y!’

On the other hand, I do believe some rules can be really important and necessary. An easy and much-debated example is the safe-sex agreement. I would absolutely refuse to become involved with someone who wasn’t prepared to be absolutely transparent about their practices, and practice safe sex 100% of the time, with no exceptions, ever. (What constitutes ‘safe’ is up for debate depending upon the people involved, but that’s not something I want to get into in too much depth right now.) I’ve actually ended a pretty long term relationship after finding out that I had been lied to repeatedly about what levels of precautions which were being taken.

Some rules are time-limited. For example, when transitioning a previously monogamous relationship to polyamory, it is fairly common for couples to put restrictions on the levels of (particularly physical) intimacy they will go to with somebody else. I had these agreements myself, when my partner-at-the-time and I were transitioning to being poly, and they actually worked pretty well. They meant we could increase our comfort levels in stages, with the full understanding that the restrictions were temporary. A slightly different example, back in 2010 Nomad and I were working through some issues in our relationship, and we agreed on a two-month period in which neither of us would add any new partners. Along with other things, I think this was on the whole a good decision. The agreement was always that it would be time-limited, and there was a clear reason for it.

The thing with rules is that, ultimately, they’re only as good as the people following them. If somebody doesn’t care about hurting you, they will break your agreements whether you say these agreements are hard-and-fast rules or not. And if your partner wants to make you happy, they won’t break any rules/agreements you do have, they will do their best never to trample all over your boundaries, and they will work with you to find situations which can make everyone in the dynamic feel happy, loved, valued and secure.

3 thoughts on “Seven Articles in Seven Days – 5: Rules

  1. I’ve hardly anything to comment on this piece, I think you’ve pretty much said it all! Maybe just a couple of things.

    If somebody doesn’t care about hurting you, they will break your agreements whether you say these agreements are hard-and-fast rules or not

    I think that the power to make and hold a rule over a partner is based in part on who can afford to walk away from the relationship.

    Sometimes that’s difficult or impossible, whether it’s due to material inequality, a difference in emotional commitment, dependence e.g. for personal care, children are involved, communities are involved, contracts are involved.

    Then it can get difficult because when the cost of leaving is high, even very punitive rules can be held against that cost of leaving and it’s effectively the same as being able to force your partner to obey the rules.

    It works on a smaller scale too; I think it’s just another case where it’s really important to be aware of who has the power in the relationship, or if there’s a balance of powers, how they pan out in relation to particular rules.

    One other thing is that sometimes what appear to be rules, from the outside, are actually tactics of abuse aimed at controlling someone’s life and bringing them down. I’m not saying that mono relationships are immune to this – quite the opposite! – but in a poly culture where explicit rules are encouraged/accepted/normal, then we need to keep our feminist senses tuned to an extra high pitch to spot the difference between rules like the one you and N used to work on your relationship, and rules as a symptom/tool of abuse.

    • missamaranth says:

      Both really good points – thank you! It’s certainly true that power imbalances can come into play in terms of whether partners follow the rules they’ve agreed to – and in whether both people even have equal say in the making of said rules! After all, someone who cannot for whatever reason walk away from a relationship is inherently more likely to feel they have to ‘toe the line.’

      I agree with your point about abuse, too – and sometimes it can be _really_ difficult to tell. I’ve actually had people tell me that a mutual, time-limited agreement not to add new partners amounted to ‘abusive,’ which somewhat horrifies me as it was anything but, and I struggle to see how it could have looked that way (okay, there was somebody I was interested in and wanted to pursue, but waiting a couple of months really wasn’t that big a deal!) Again, I think a lot of it comes down to power. Who’s making the rules? If they’re truly being mutually made and mutually followed, then I think we must trust the people involved to know what’s right for them. If it’s one-sided on either of these things then….. that screams of a tool for control to me.

      Also, I like the idea of fine-tuned feminist senses! *smile.*

  2. Kai says:

    I would like to point out that men can totally be abused too, so it’s not just a feminist thing to look out for!:)

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