Recently there has been a renewed discussion among poly bloggers about the place of rules within relationships. Wesley Fenza has written a fairly reasonable take on the role rules (or agreements) play in intimate relationships. His premise is that we agree to rules within our relationship to compensate for deficiencies in our own in-the-moment decision making. He described a rule as “a thumb on the scale, weighing the analysis in favor of the prior commitment.” I think that this is true in many situations, but it’s not a comprehensive explanation of why partners agree to rules, or what purpose they serve. Franklin Veaux has written a response to Fenza’s post that is so absurd that I can’t even believe it’s meant to be real. In general, he is heavily scornful of rules in relationships, though, and it’s that general approach that I take issue with.
First, let’s do a little disambiguation: Fenza and Veaux both use “rules” to describe two kinds of agreements, those negotiated and agreed-upon, and those unilaterally handed down. I’m not going to defend unilateral rules – if they make sense in the context of your relationship, that’s fine, but they frequently serve as an ultimatum or a wedge to coerce behavior from one partner. Negotiated agreements, though, are an entirely different creature, and they deserve more examination.
Agreements negotiated between partners serve a couple of important functions. First, they give each party an opportunity to communicate honestly about fears, expectations, past experiences, and other factors of real life that affect the functioning of relationships. We are all in agreement about the importance of communication, and especially when trying to move ethically through changes in our relationships. Fenza says we agree to rules on the expectation that a time will arise when we want to act in ways inconsistent with our prior agreements. Veaux says, “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.” In both cases, they acknowledge that the rules have (or have not) arisen out of communication and negotiation between partners.
Veaux argues that making agreements about how to handle new relationships before the “newcomer” has arrived is equivalent to hobbling them once they do. I disagree. Especially in situations where a previously closed relationship is being opened, I think it’s critical for the existing partners to be honest with themselves about the pitfalls that they can foresee, and open to the likelihood that there will be challenges they haven’t imagined. Negotiating agreements about how to handle such situations makes us better prepared to handle those situations carefully when they do arise. We are not all birthed full-formed as competent executors of open relationships. It takes practice, and often, guidelines. Negotiating and adhering to agreements helps us learn the ropes while minimizing the potential for damaging our existing environment.
Secondly, negotiating agreements with new and existing partners allows us to establish trust in one another. This is important when opening an established relationship, and when building new ones. We agree to terms that ensure each party’s comfort is protected. We continue to build our relationships, being mindful of the boundaries that our partners have set, and in so doing, demonstrate that we are playing on the level. Especially in the world of complicated polycules, agreements (gasp, rules!) give us guidelines for treating other people’s existing relationships with care. Just as we respect the boundaries that our own partners have communicated are important to them, we share our bonafides with metamours by treating them, and their boundaries, with respect.
Despite the way Franklin Veaux and others write about them, most relationships are not founded on immutable, written-in-stone rules. Certainly this isn’t the case in relationships where partners are ethically and honestly working to find a path forward together. Describing a relationship as “rule-based” is as truthful as religious conservatives describing gay marriage as “sodomy-based.” Don’t mistake a tool for a foundation. Agreements are made to help the relationship move in the direction desired by all parties involved. Sometimes rules are necessary, not because parties can’t be trusted to act ethically, but because they serve to bring everyone to the same page.
image courtesy marsmet549