PQ 11.6 — Do I know whether the rules that apply to my relationship are subject to change? If so, who may change them, and how? What input will I have into those changes?

a sculpture that is the bust of the philosopher Heraclitus, the philosopher. He looks like a man with a full beard.
Image by Michael Coté / CC BY

PQ 11.6 — Do I know whether the rules that apply to my relationship are subject to change? If so, who may change them, and how? What input will I have into those changes?

Individual Rules Are Like Mini-Agreements

As I wrote recently, these days I’m a little leery of “rules,” while at the same time understanding how they were absolutely invaluable when I was a brand new poly person. Not because they prompted us to act ethically. It was, in fact, our individual consciences that kept us treating ourselves and those around us in an ethical way.

No, what the rules did do was to help ensure that our expectations of one another matched up. That we defined ethical behavior in roughly the same way. Close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades, anyway.

In essence, the idea was to make sure we agreed on how we would generally operate in this new polyamorous relationship paradigm.

That’s why what we started out calling rules were always more agreements. And together they made up one fairly cohesive relationship agreement.

Traditional Relationships Have Implicit Relationship Agreements

In more traditional relationships, relationship agreements are implicit. Society more or less dictates the “rules” of ethical conduct, modeled for us by media and the relationships of those around us (parents, other family and community members, etc). People generally expect traditional relationships to function a certain way, governed by rules that they didn’t set themselves.

But when you’re in a nontraditional relationship? You’re playing a different game altogether. A game with different rules, so to speak. So it can be helpful to make this relationship agreement explicit. To spell out these expectations — or rules. The kinksters know this, too. Discussions of hard and soft limits, BDSM contracts. And of course, consensually non-monogamous (polyamorous folks, those in open relationships, swingers, etc) have to be clear about what they want, what they’re comfortable with, what they aren’t.

And complicating things even further, there’s no one standard way to be polyamorous. Agreements are individual.

Monogamous People Sometimes Have to Change Their Relationship Agreements

But if you really think about it, that’s not so different than monogamy. Even looking among the friends I know who have chosen to be monogamous, I see that what they consider “cheating” (or violating their rules or agreements) varies depending on the relationship. Some of them consider mere flirtation cheating. Others cuddling. Some draw the line at open-mouthed kissing.

When working with monogamous couples as a coach, I’ve definitely run into instances where their implicit relationship agreement failed them. One party had a different expectation. They’re upset that their partner flirted with someone else. They consider that cheating. While their partner never intended to cheat and thought that it was okay, because their implicit model of monogamy allows for flirting.

The conversations that result from such misunderstandings are difficult. But handled properly, these moments of conflict can be ones of profound learning about each other and an opportunity to explore the assumptions we all can make (whether vanilla, kinky, poly, mono, any combo of these, or anywhere in between) about relationships without even realizing.

Plan on Change, Says Heraclitus — and Me, Too

While it’s entirely possible that you’ll get everything exactly right on your first go at negotiating a relationship agreement, my time working with polyamorous people (and my own experiences in polyamory) tells me it’s better than even odds that things will pan out differently in practice than in theory and at one point or another you’ll have to renegotiate your relationship agreement.

Or as my man Heraclitus said, “The only thing that is constant is change.”

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This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions & answers, please see this indexed list.

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