Rules and Restrictions in Polyamorous Relationships
By Franklin Veaux
October 12, 2006

I have a great deal to say about the idea of rules and restrictions. For starters, it pays to examine closely what a rule or restriction is supposed to accomplish, and whether it actually accomplishes that thing. And second, I do not think that most rules intended to control other people are reasonable.

Now, I won't say that all rules and restrictions are unreasonable. But often, the rules put in place for a relationship don't actually accomplish what they are intended to accomplish, and they often have side effects that are not considered at the time the rules are made -- and those rules are dangerous and sometimes actively corrosive to a relationship.

At the core, I'm a pragmatist. I tend to be more concerned with what works in the long run than with the theory of polyamory. Over the past many years, I've noticed common trends in poly relationships that work and poly relationships that fail, and trends in rules that succeed and rules that backfire.

Rules that work:

- Rules intended to protect the sexual health and safety of the people involved, in a clearly and precisely defined manner. Examples include rules about safer sex, STD testing, fluid bonding, and prior consent to potentially disease-transmitting activities.

- Rules intended to protect tangible property or material assets. For example, I think rules stating that people who live together must contribute to the maintenance and expenses of the household are reasonable and prudent. This does not necessarily mean that everyone pays the same amount of the mortgage; differences in income levels and other factors may make this unreasonable. But even if one person, say, is between jobs and can't pay any part of the mortgage at all, that person can still contribute in other ways.

- Rules intended to protect the safety of the people involved or to prevent legal disputes. Examples include rules against illegal activities ("I don't want you doing drugs in this house"), or activities that may otherwise cause signficant material harm or hardship. I personally have never had to use rules like these; careful partner selection can often take care of this sort of problem.

Rules that oftentimes don't work:

- Rules designed to control what a person feels (such as "You are not allowed to fall in love" or "You are not allowed to be emotionally intimate"). These sorts of rules, in my experience, are unreasonable and unenforcable across the board. The swinger community is littered with the wreckage of couples who thought they could regulate emotions, and sometimes did for years, and then Wham! They wake up one morning, somebody's fallen in love, and they have no tools to deal with that.

- Rules designed to protect an insecurity or avoid discomfort. Insecurity, fear, and jealousy are not caused by specific actions. They may be triggered by those actions, but they are not caused by them. If, for example, one person feels jealous when his partner kisses someone else, passing a rule "You may not kiss anyone else in front of me" won't make it go away. Quite the opposite; the root cause of the jealousy, be it fear of loss, or insecurity, or fear of being replaced, or whatever, is still there, hiding beneath the surface. The rule does nothing to deal with that. The rule merely removes the reminder of the fear or insecurity that is there. If you pass a rule like this, that fear or insecurity will just express itself in some other way. The way to get rid of the jealousy in this example is not to pass a rule; the way to get rid of the jealousy is to figure out what it is rooted in, determine where that underlying fear or insecurity comes from, then address that root cause h ead-on.

- Rules intended to make someone feel "special." These are many and varied, and may range from 'Nobody else is allowed to call you this pet name" to "Nobody else is allowed to eat dinner at Rockford's Grill with you." If you rely on outside tokens like this to feel special, then you can never be secure in your specialness -- because you'll laways know deep down inside that your partner can take those tokens away from you. Real specialness -- the sure and absolute knowledge that in a world of six billion people you are unique, and no relationship will ever be like yours no matter what your partner does with other people and no matter where your partner eats dinner with other people -- does not rely on outside things and can never be taken away.

Regardless of whether your partner agreed to the rules and restrictions, and regardless of whether they were mutually negotiated or not, unreasonable rules have a real cost if they seek to place limits or controls on the behavior of others.

One of the most subtle consequences of rules on another person's behavior is that those rules may actually damage your own relationship. Let's take the most obvious example: veto. Let's say two people have a veto in place, and one of them goes and falls in love with a third person. Let's say partner uses the veto. Why? Doesn't matter. Maybe for good reasons, maybe not. This person has fallen in love, and now the relationship has been vetoed. What happens? Well, the person who fell in love will probably end up hurt, and may end up brokenhearted.

That's a problem. If you hurt your partner, then your partner may start to resent you. If you break your partner's heart, you may end up undermining your relationship. Even if your partner let you do it. Even if your partner agreed to the rule. Even if you believe you were justified. If you hurt your partner or break your partner's heart enough times, you will damage your relationship.

It pays to be very, very careful about the rules you put in place -- even if you think they are justified. It pays to be very, very careful about placing restrictions that hurt your partner -- even if you believe those restrictions serve a purpose.