Best Practices for Negotiating Polyamorous Relationship Agreements

close up photo of a legal pad, a crumpled up piece of paper from the legal pad, a purple pen, a yellow highlighter
Image by Phil Roeder / CC BY

Be Specific, Be Clear, Be Comprehensive

While I’ve had a number of polyamorous relationship agreements over the years, the best ones all had one thing in common: They were very specific, very clear, and comprehensive.

An agreement should meet everyone’s needs. In order to figure out what these are, make sure to devote adequate time for discussion.

As a starting point, here are some questions that have guided developing agreements that I’ve made in the past:

  1. How much freedom or autonomy do we need?
  2. What concerns us re: sexual safety?
  3. What painful scenarios have we run into in the past (while monogamous, casually non-monogamous, or polyamorous) that we are we looking to avoid? Are there any measures that we can implement to prevent these?
  4. How do we feel about relationship vetoes?
  5. Do we want to have a permission structure (i.e., to have a standard that we ask and obtain approval from an existing partner before we start a new relationship) or a notification structure (i.e., don’t need permission but should tell our partners things happened after they happen)? Or something else altogether (e.g., don’t ask don’t tell, etc)?
  6. What are the consequences of breaking the relationship agreement?

And this is just a beginning. Developing a comprehensive understanding of each other’s concerns can be quite a twisty-turny process and  lead to all sorts of places that are hard to predict until you get in the thick of things.

So does an agreement need to be the size of a phone book? Not necessarily. They’re precisely as long as they need to be in order to get the job done.

Sometimes this means the agreements themselves are short. And sometimes this means they’re lengthy. My current agreement with Skyspook and my former agreement with Rob were very short. My former agreements with Seth and Tina were a bit longer (although still able to be captured on one sheet of paper, and it helped that it was the same one with both of them).

A short agreement with Skyspook works very well because we’re long-time poly people who were friends before dating (and we watched how each dated other people) and have  very similar levels of judgement. We sync up well. And if anything surprising happens, we discuss it. I trust him. A lot.

Conversely, my agreement with Rob was only short because there were a lot of unspoken expectations. Rob said he had only one rule: “If you’re fucking someone new, I want to know about it beforehand.” This turned out to be a rather incomplete representation of Rob, his concerns, and those of my metamour, his wife Michelle (more on that later).

If You’re Unclear About Something, Ask

If something is unclear or doesn’t make sense, make sure to ask. People use words in different ways, so it’s important to be clear.

Here are just a few examples:

  1. When you say “spend the night,” are you talking about staying the entire night at someone’s house or having sex? Or both?
  2. What is “making out?” What acts does this include and not include? Is it limited to kissing? Fondling?
  3. If rules are set that partners need to be “STI-free,” how is this determined? What sort of testing? What interval? And what STIs are of highest concern?
  4. If we need “permission” to do something with a new partner, when must that permission be obtained? And what are acceptable ways to do this (in person, via text, phone call,etc)?

No Tricks — Directness is Good

This is not a salary negotiation. No hard-selling. No pushiness.

Browbeating someone into agreeing to something that isn’t right for them? Pretty much always backfires long term.

Be honest about what you want and what your concerns are. And be open and accepting enough to make it safe for your partner to do the same back to you.

A healthy and happy polyamorous relationship starts with a mutually beneficial and honest relationship agreement.

Be Mindful of Your Partner’s Other Entanglements and Agreements

As I mentioned earlier in this article (and in a previous post), Rob said he had only one rule: “If you’re fucking someone new, I want to know about it beforehand.”

At the time, I was stunned by this. I had just finished a long explanation of my risk assessment for STIs, as well as telling him that I didn’t object to things on emotional grounds and that I expected the same freedom in return. That I felt there was a fundamental difference between not liking something a lover was doing and needing it to stop. People only grew when challenged. And what I very much believed at the time: That my emotional inner life was my own business, and it really only became other partners’ business what else was going on in my love life if and when higher-risk sexual activities were involved.

It was a lot to tell someone. A very tall order. And yet, the only thing he asked was pre-notification of those higher-risk sexual activities. Not veto, not even permission. Not notification of smaller things. Rob impressed me with his trust. And his emotional security.

I asked him if his wife Michelle operated the same way.

“Oh yes, she has some trust issues from a previous relationship,” Rob said, “But we are very much on the same page regarding rules.”

As it turned out, Rob and Michelle didn’t communicate well. And Michelle had much different expectations of me and my behavior. Predictably, a disaster ensued as it all came to a head.

I learned 2 vital things about relationship agreements from this regrettable experience:

  1. Do not assume the other person has understood you. Dig. Confirm. If something seems a bit off, don’t bridge the distance in your brain. Challenge it.
  2. Never, ever, ever rely on a third party’s assurance that someone else will be fine with an agreement. Speak directly to the source. If you neglect this step, it is at your peril. Because it is hard enough to ensure you’re being understood when communicating directly with someone else. When you’re playing telephone with a third party in the middle? Holy monkeys.

When in Doubt, Write It out

One good way to make sure people are all on the same page? Put it all down on one page (or more if it’s longer).

While it may seem a bit legal, it really does help to spell it out in black and white. That way, you can each review, and if anything is amiss or needs clarification, then you can do that.

Talking it out is great — but it’s hard to hold it all in your head at once. And it helps to have a reference later if anything is fuzzy. Especially if you end up popular enough that you have 3 or 4 different agreements with different people to abide by.

You can do this any way that everyone is comfortable with. I’ve personally found Google Drive a great tool for sharing files of all kinds, including relationship agreement documents.

Always Keep in Mind that There is No Right or Wrong, Only What Works for You

Anyone that tells you that there’s only one way to be polyamorous is wrong.

Because relationships are custom jobs.  All relationships — and especially polyamorous ones, as relationship systems can get rather complicated as more people enter the picture.

If you can’t come up with an agreement that’s acceptable for everyone you, it doesn’t mean that any one person is wrong — it just means that what you want is incompatible.

Further, keep in mind that an agreement is only formed by what all parties want. So if you draw one up and later realize that what you’ve decided isn’t working for either of you or needs an update, that’s okay, too.

Seth and I renegotiated our agreement several times as we were both new to polyamory and weren’t quite sure how anything would go until we actually tried it. In fact, stubbornly clinging to a rule that made sense when it was written but doesn’t in practice can turn out terribly.

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For more information on ways to prepare for opening a relationship, including examples of actual relationship agreements, please see my book A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

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