Seven Articles in Seven Days – 7: Permission


Today’s article – the final of the ‘seven in seven’ series – was inspired by a conversation Nomad and I had this morning, around my frequently feeling that I need to ask permission to do certain things.

The idea of ‘permission’ can be a tricky thing in relationships, whether they’re monogamous or poly, and manifests itself in several different ways. I’d like to look at a couple of issues one at a time.

New Relationships

Every poly person, couple and group do this differently, sometimes having explicitly negotiated rules and sometimes taking things and working them out as they come up. Does everybody within the group/network/tribe/family (delete as appropriate) get to ‘vet’ any new person who somebody wants to bring in? Does every partner have to give their permission before anybody can get involved with someone new? Does the primary partner only, if there is one, have to give their permission? Or does nobody?

I’m not sure how I feel about permission-based dynamics. As with most things, it’s all shades of grey between black and white. I think they can, if used correctly and ethically, be a way to ensure that everybody involved feels secure and as though they have some control. On the other hand, they’re a perfect tool for abuse and overly controlling behaviour, if anyone is inclined to use them as such.

Asking for permission is a double-edged sword for me. On the one hand, it makes me know that my partner(s) really is (are) happy with whatever is going on. Giving them the option to tell me they have a problem with it, without any negative consequences to them, makes their consent more meaningful in my opinion. They are actively saying ‘yes, I am okay with this,’ as opposed to going along with something because they feel they have no choice. (And this is why I think active-rather-than-passive consent models are important outside of the bedroom as well as in it!)

On the other hand, asking for permission can sometimes make me feel powerless. It can feel too much like putting the control for what I can and can’t do into another person’s hands. And one thing I find really difficult and triggering is feeling out of control.

One way I’ve found to at least partly get around this, and seek a partner’s actual consent (as opposed to going-along-with-it-because-they-feel-they-have-no-choice consent) is to say ‘I’d like to date/get involved with/see how things develop with X, how do you feel about that?’ It amounts to the same thing, and helps me to feel less out of control. The difference between that and saying ‘may I do this?’ is subtle, but effective. Of course, it’s not perfect and I’m constantly thinking about and seeking ways to improve interactions and communication for everyone involved. But it’s the best I’ve come up with so far.


This morning, I asked Nomad’s permission to spend a weekend in a few weeks’ time visiting a friend, and he was a little surprised – why would I need permission, and why would I give someone the power to refuse that permission, even if it’s a power they’d never use?

I think a lot of it boils down, once again, to programming and past experiences. Society tends to tell us women that hanging out alone with someone who happens to be male, if we have a boyfriend, is probably a no-no. And if we are allowed to, we’re just lucky in having a man who’s so incredibly trusting and tolerant. We’re our boyfriend’s property, after all, and must be shielded from other men, because a man (who’s attracted to women) and a woman (who’s attracted to men) can never really be just friends, of course….! </sarcasm.> More than one of my exs bought into this, and I was once flat-out banned from going to spend an evening with a friend because he happened to be a heterosexual male. (Let’s not get into the complete bi-erasure here, in that if they were so concerned about me straying, they should have been concerned about women just as much as men…)

In this respect, I feel as though it would be more empowering, for myself, to stop asking permission as such. He doesn’t expect me to, and I would never expect him (or any partner) to ask my permission for the same thing. I’d hate to fall into a dynamic, with anything, where it came down to ‘I’m doing this and there’s nothing you can do to stop me!’ But there’s a world of possibility between these two extremes.

What about making plans together, sharing plans for things you’re doing separately, and trusting your partner to tell you if they have a genuine concern about something?

As with so many things, non-consensual power dynamics in relationships can come into play with permission-based systems of interaction. As a quick example, I once had a rule in a past relationship where I had to ask permission to do anything beyond kissing with somebody else. Yet they went and casually had oral sex with someone, without bothering to ask me, and didn’t expect me to be annoyed when I was told later. For a variety of reasons I was the considerably less powerful partner in that relationship, and so having to ask permission for everything – but give permission for nothing – was a situation I wasn’t terribly happy with, but had little choice in, as I felt that protesting or leaving the relationship wasn’t a possibility at that time. I think I’m still struggling sometimes with the feelings of disempowerment that came with this, leading me to err on the side of (extreme) caution now when it comes to what I do and don’t need to ask partners’ permission for.

(On a slightly different but related note, I’m aware I share a lot of personal experiences – not all of them positive – in this blog. I’d like to ask if that’s a good/bad/indifferent thing for you guys as readers? I’m always very careful never to share names or identifying information of past partners, and Nomad has given his consent for me to write about our interactions and our relationship. I share these experiences because the way I prefer to illustrate my points is with anecdotes to support my thoughts/feelings. How do you guys feel about this way of doing things?)

Now back to the topic at hand – what do you think, lovely readers? What things do you, or don’t you, need to ‘ask permission’ for in your relationships? How do you feel about ‘permission’ dynamics in general?

I hope you’ve enjoyed the seven-in-seven articles. I’ve really enjoyed this little self-imposed challenge, particularly seeing you guys engaging and commenting and getting into discussions. So yay for you all!

More soon. I have dozens more ideas for things I want to write about. If only that pesky dissertation wasn’t calling to me to finish it…..!


4 thoughts on “Seven Articles in Seven Days – 7: Permission

  1. River says:

    I find this a really important issue. I feel this has something to do with defining your own boundaries. I wonder if you see the connection, as well?

    As a kid, I was socialised really strongly to behave as the person I love wants me to. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be accepted. When I moved out, the parent in this position was replaced by my partner. Not because of something he did, but because that was my programming.

    It took a long time, maybe something like five years, for me to start making my own boundaries in my relationship. Before then I used to do whatever my partner wanted me to do, and whatever I assumed he wanted me to do. Now, in many things there was no conflict in there, I was happy to do it. But then there was this issue, having to do with different wishes of contact frequency (i.e. I didn’t want to be on the phone with him when meeting friends), that caused me so much discomfort in the end that I had to say, for the first time “I can’t take this”.

    Now, making that boundary was healthy. But because things had gone so far, after I made the boundary, it was ‘my way or the highway’. I would do things as I preferred in that issue, and if he didn’t like it, well too bad. I had no tools to find any kind of middle ground, to negotiate. Right now, I am trying to learn them.

    Now, I’m sure in my head all of this was somehow related…😉

    The asking for permission. There’s a boundary that I have identified: I will not ask for permission. I think the distinction you make is crucial. It cannot be overstated. There is such a world of difference between asking for permission and asking to know how your partner feels about something and taking that into account. To some that may be semantics. It may be a difference in background and perspective. But to me it is essential in my interactions with my partners. I will let them know what I’m thinking and planning, and I will definitely take their feelings into consideration when making decisions, but the decisions remain mine. And I will accept no other attitude towards myself from my partners either, i.e. I will not respond well to any attempts of control such as “you are allowed to do x but not y”. I expect them to similarly respect my agency and rights to make my own decisions, so that they will come to me with their feelings and request, as in “I’m fine if you do x but I feel scared/insecure/disregarded/whatever when you do y”.

    The more I think about it, the more I see asking for permission as sort of dangerous, because by doing that you are giving control, giving a clear signal to your partner that if they want to, they can control you. It can be misused. Even if they never use it, I think it’s important to be conscious about it. When learning to enforce that boundary about not asking for permission, I sometimes had to stop myself and ask myself “is this something I generally think being partners gives one a right to control, if they wish to do that, e.g. if it makes them feel insecure?”. Like the situation you write about, sleeping over at your friends place. I don’t think that is anything a partnership gives one a right to ‘forbid’, ever, yet we are socialised to always protect our partners feelings and do whatever they ask (which can sometimes be totally unreasonable). Now then, non-monogamy related things are a bit different, since monogamy is such a norm. But I feel that as long as agreements are made with both parties consent, there is no longer any more need for asking permission, and in fact I find it just as harmful.

    I’ll write a personal anecdote as an example (so clearly I find that a good way to illustrate points ;)). When I opened up my relationship with my partner and started a relationship with somebody else, we had a conversation about if he is okay with it. I felt a really strong need for constant affirmation that he is really truly okay, so I asked for it quite often. But then I realised that by asking him, in addition to being extremely annoying, I was repeatedly sending him the signal that I would accept it if he suddenly changed his mind and wanted to go back to monogamy. Which wasn’t true. When agreements are made, there is a responsibility to stick to them, there is some kind of a commitment. Of course there can be renegotiation to the agreements, but that is different than saying “oh no I want to go back”. Trustworthiness is not just about not breaking the agreements but also about being reliable in what you express during negotiating them, and committing to that.

    I’m sorry this was so long.:)

    • missamaranth says:

      Hi River, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts and experiences. Don’t worry about leaving a long comment – they are my favourite kind of comments! (Now prepare for a long reply! *grin.*)

      I think what you say about asking for permission in relation to setting one’s own boundaries is crucial, and I think that’s part of what I was trying to get straight in my head when I was writing this piece. Learning to set boundaries and be able to express needs/wants/preferences is so important, but people often forget how difficult it can be to do. After more than one relationship ranging from not-very-healthy through to downright abusive, I think I’d internalised a lot of stuff about my own needs being unimportant. All I thought I needed to do was ‘what I was told.’ Ultimately the most significant two of these relationships were both ended by me standing up and expressing that something actually Was Not Okay and trying to change a situation which was making me unhappy.

      Even now, making decisions or expressing preferences (even small or seemingly innocuous ones) is something I really struggle with at times. So deep is the programming that says I should just go along with whatever the other person wants. We joke about it, but when my partner points out that I made a decision about something and says he’s proud of me, it actually is a really significant thing for me. Anyway this ties in with the ‘permission’ thing because I feel like part of trying to please everybody else all the time is to ask permission for the things I want to do, and give them the absolute power to say yes or no.

      What I’m starting to realise is that healthy, loving, awesome, non-abusive partners don’t actually WANT that level of control over my life. Who knew??

      I think the giving over of that level of control is what can lead me to feel powerless, even if the control is never actually used. I trust my partner completely to never weild power over me in a way that would hurt me, but knowing that I’ve given someone that right still isn’t good for ME. Because it keeps me needlessly trapped in a cycle of feelings of powerlessness left over from previous experiences. Instead, I think the balance is about seeing a partner’s needs as equally important to my own, and finding ways to work together to get them met, not giving up on my own completely in exchange for somebody else’s.

      I must prefer ‘agreements’ over ‘permission!’

  2. Naith says:

    In my relationship(s), I feel like we have an understanding that permission can’t always be asked for or given because sometimes things happen too quickly or there isn’t an opportunity because of living apart from each other.

    However, we do like to keep each other on top of things, and ask or give permission, when we can. For example, I’ll sometimes get a quick text saying “Planning on sleeping with x tonight!” to which my response has always been “Cool, have fun!” but with the understanding that if I didn’t want him to, he wouldn’t. Sometimes I don’t get told he’s been with someone til after, and that’s fine, cos I trust him to make a judgment call on whether I’d think someone’s ok to sleep with or not. To be honest, I’m yet to meet someone he wants to sleep with or date that I’d disagree with him doing so, but it might happen!

    As far as other things are concerned, we give each other freedom to do whatever when we’re apart (although sometimes I have to shoot him a bit of advice if he’s trying a drug he hasn’t tried before, but that’s it, really!). I imagine it’s different in gay relationships where we’re both bisexual – neither of us has that traditional ‘ownership’ role, and we couldn’t very well start telling each other not to hang out with various people.

    A ramble just happened. Hope it made sense.

  3. I used to be married to someone who would subtly control me by getting all distant and cold when I did something he didn’t approve of – like going out with my friends. Now the marriage is long-gone and I’ve been with my current, wonderful partner for two years – but I still have this urge to ask permission to hang out with people. I absolutely refuse to “ask permission” outright, because I know my boyfriend is not the boss of me…but I might say to him “Oh, Karen asked me to dinner on Saturday. You and I don’t have plans that day, do we?” even though I know there’s no schedule conflict. I just need to talk about the fact that I’m going someplace so my boyfriend has a chance to say “That’s nice. Have fun!” (like a normal person) or turn stony and speak to me in clipped monosyllables for the rest of the night (like my ex). So far he’s always done the former, which is reassuring.

    Romance-wise, we’re delving into a teeny-tiny bit of “openness”. The rule is that we’re allowed to make out with other people (while staying clothed and vertical) but that we have to approve each other’s makeout partners before anything can happen. So far, my boy has approved three people (only one of which I’ve actually kissed…long story) and rejected one. He hasn’t met anyone he’s interested in yet.

    On one hand, I’m annoyed that my partner denied me permission for that one guy – especially because he denied permission because I seem “too” into him! What’s the point of having “outside makeouts” if I’m restricted to people I’m only vaguely interested in? Plus, the devil’s advocate in me kinda thinks that it’s pointless to deny me permission. I’m crazy attracted to this guy; I will remain crazy attracted to him whether we make out or not. In fact, arguably the sexual tension of not making out with him will blow things up into a way bigger deal than they would’ve been if I could’ve gone for it (yes, I know I’m rationalizing WILDLY here).

    On the other hand, neither my bf nor I has ever been in any kind of open relationship before; we’re doing kind of scary things here. And scary things are always less scary when you know you can stop them at any time! (It’s like going in for dental surgery. Which would make you calmer: a dentist who said “If you need to take a break for any reason, just hold up your hand and I’ll immediately stop whatever I’m doing” or one who said “Alright, I hope you’ve been to the bathroom because this is gonna take a few hours and once I get started, that’s it!”?). So, when my partner vetoed that one guy, I immediately said “No problem” and backed off the idea. My relationship is my top priority and I want to make it very clear that I won’t do anything to disrupt it.

    I’m hoping we can loosen the parameters of the arrangement at some point. But for now I’m pretty happy taking baby steps and establishing trust.:)

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