h2>Dating : Rules Don’t Belong in Polyamory
Focus on boundaries and agreements for happier, more secure relationships.
When I tell people I am polyamorous, the question of rules comes up often. Couples who are new to open relationships often want to start out at the beginning with a set of rules for what will happen once they start exploring outside of their current relationship. My advice to them would be this: rules don’t belong in polyamorous (or monogamous) relationships.
The Difference Between Rules, Boundaries, and Agreements
It may seem bold to say that rules aren’t the right choice, but let’s look at what rules are, and other options we can consider.
A rule is a statement that tells you what is allowed or what will happen within a particular system, in this case, a relationship. Rules are enforced. When you place rules on your relationship or your partner, you are putting limits on their behavior.
A boundary is a line that marks the limits of an area. In a relationship, a boundary focuses on you- what do you need, what are your limits? You can communicate where your boundaries are to your partner. The behavior they choose once you’ve done that is left in their hands, rather than being dictated by a rule you imposed on them.
An agreement is an arrangement or contract in which people agree with what is to be done or share the same opinion. To agree to something is to say that you will do, accept, or allow something that is suggested or requested by another person. Agreements in a relationship are made and agreed to by all parties rather than being enforced by one onto another.
Why Do People Focus on Rules?
Familiarity feels good. Since we were small children, we have all been following rules. Rules for work, rules for home, rules for certain clubs or activities. We are used to them, and it feels more comfortable to just put a rule in place than to explore new, less familiar options. Figuring out boundaries requires work — you have to get to know yourself, and you have to figure out and admit your insecurities.
New situations can be scary, and feeling like you’ve got control over the situation can make it seem less so. When someone insists on putting rules in place, they are often attempting to exert control over the unknown.
People also focus in on rules because they are afraid of losing something. In polyamorous relationships, these fears are often centered around losing their partner or losing their current relationship and connection. Putting rules in place that logically seem like they’ll prevent those things from happening makes them feel better about what might happen.
Structure often feels safe for people, and listing rules on a page is quite structured. Human beings are constantly giving things labels and trying to fit things into boxes. It’s not surprising that we turn to these types of structures in our romantic relationships.
Downsides of Implementing Rules
Rules are often based on one person’s perception of how they predict they will feel when faced with certain experiences. The problem is, it’s impossible to know how you’ll react to a completely new situation, so creating rules isn’t really an ‘evidence based’ practice. It’s trying to fit something that will shift, wobble, change, and grow into a rigid box.
Naturally, when rules are put in place, consequences must follow. When you’re tempted to create rules for your intimate relationships, consider how these rules are to be monitored. What are the clear and concise consequences for one partner breaking a rule? Will you somehow enforce punishment on them? If you put rules into place without figuring out distinct and enforceable consequences, they don’t add anything useful to the relationship, and often feed into creating conflict that wouldn’t have existed in their absence.
Do you want to be put in the position of monitoring and managing your partner’s behavior? Or would you rather focus on a mutually caring relationship where you respect each other? A rule is a requirement, while a boundary is a request for consideration. It comes down to respecting your partners feelings and autonomy.
The advantage of setting boundaries and making agreements is that you can focus on what you need to feel secure in your relationship. Though it may be semantics, boundaries feel easier to move and adjust than rules, there’s something hard about the language of rules that feels imposing and permanent. Words carry energy, and when we recognize that, we can use the positive energy to work towards positive communication and connection.
Figuring Out and Communicating Boundaries
Communicating your limits and boundaries allows you to maintain connection and intimacy rather than becoming some sort of relationship tyrant who is trying to control a person or situation.
If you haven’t explored personal boundaries much in the past, it’s not always easy to get started. It’s definitely a skill that the more you use it and practice it, the easier it gets. How do you figure out your boundaries?
Start with your gut feelings. What are the things that feel good to you about an open relationship, and what things make you feel gun-shy or afraid? Is there a specific topic that makes you feel so weird, you want to run in the other direction when you think about discussing it? Write these things down, and try to drill into them and find the feelings underneath, which are often rooted in insecurity and fear.
Another great way to begin is to make a ‘yes list,’ a ‘no list,’ and a ‘maybe list,’ then compare them with lists your partner makes. Anything that overlaps will be easier to figure out, and the things that conflict are beginning talking points for finding your boundaries and making some agreements.
Beginning with the rule you feel like you want to impose can also be a helpful starting point for finding your boundaries. For example, a basic rule you might feel inclined to propose would be “You can’t have sex with someone else unless I say it is okay.”
If you actually look at the rule, it doesn’t give your partner any information about why you’re asking them to do that thing, and it focuses on their behavior. Try shifting the focus to how you are feeling and offering your partner a boundary that feels right for you: “I would be more comfortable if I knew about it before you had sex with a new partner. When I don’t know about it until afterwards, I feel left out and surprised by the information.”
The boundary provides so much more information, and feels much more open to discussion and exploration than a rule. It’s like the beginning of a paragraph instead of the period at the end of a sentence.
How Agreements Feel
Respect and common courtesy lead to agreements that feel natural. Agreements generally feel good to enter into because they are consented to and willingly followed by all participants. This is in contrast to rules, which people often use to control others into avoiding behaviors the rule-maker feels uncomfortable with.
Like everything else in polyamory, it’s all about communication! Being open and honest with your partner about what feels okay and what doesn’t is imperative. None of this is going to work without honesty and a lot of talking.
Agreements generally feel more fluid and able to expand and grow in ways that rules do not. Human beings are complicated creatures, and our relationships morph and change as we cultivate them. They are created from within, by offering something (a boundary) from within yourself to your partner, and your partner accepting and respecting that boundary. Rather than an imposition created by an outside force, it feels respectful and less limiting of potential relationships or situations.
Don’t be afraid to move slowly, and evaluate often. Couples who are opening up for the first time often find themselves in a pattern of blossoming then closing in a bit, then blossoming and closing in. This is normal. In fact, it’s healthy to look at your boundaries often, evaluate how your agreements are working, and apply the practical knowledge you’ll begin to accumulate as you actually participate in multiple relationships.
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