Sometimes a Relationship Agreement Has Marco Polo Rules

a dozen unwrapped Starburst candies, a variety of orange, red, yellow, and pink
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.

“Pooh!” he whispered.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

-A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

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Big Celebrities and Yellow Starbursts

Back when I attended the University of Maine, I had a few friends who worked at the campus performing arts center as their job. Since the performing arts center was one of the only large venues for quite some distance in rural Maine, big performers would come there — although typically begrudgingly. We were always on the northern edge of their tours. Now, the crowds were huge for the area we were in but underwhelming when compared with major metropolitan areas. You know, what the performers were used to.

Still, my friends enjoyed getting to meet big name celebrities while working shows — even if they were a handful. Many of the acts had weird demands. Checklists that the staff was provided with full of incredibly specific requests. A band would not only ask for candy but a particular kind, like Starbursts… and usually it’d be even more specific than that: A bowl of yellow Starbursts, at least a gallon.

These were the days before Amazon retail supremacy, when the Internet was considered niche and mainly frequented by geeks who had traveled there as a natural evolution from the dial-up BBS scene. E-commerce was barely even a thing, and because most people did not trust this newfangled technology enough to risk one’s credit card number, they couldn’t order the yellow Starbursts (or whatever) online. So my friends were often forced to lope around neighboring towns on bizarrely specific scavenger hunts. To appease whatever celebrity was making whatever odd request at the moment.

It took some doing, but it usually worked out okay — although on one occasion someone had to drive to Portland (three hours away) for a specific brand of cookies that no one north of Augusta seemed to stock.

But the celebrities were happy. And the shows went off without a hitch.

Playing Marco Polo

Mysteriously, however, more often than not, the required snacks were found untouched in the dressing room after the visiting celebrities had left.

It turned out, more often than not, the odd requests were never about the food actually being consumed. Instead, it was about making sure the hosting organization was invested in having them there. That they cared about the performer. That they were taking the engagement seriously. And that they could follow directions.

These weren’t snacks per se. They were tests. Proof of investment. A way that the organization could signal that they could be trusted.

It reminded me of Marco Polo, that game my cousins always used to play in the pool. It’s tag basically, but you’re swimming. The person who is “It” swims around the pool with their eyes closed calling out “Marco!” and the other swimmers must respond “Polo!” And the person who’s “It” has to find them simply by the sound of their voices.

By making those oddly specific requests, the celebrity was calling out “Marco!” with their eyes closed, and when the snacks materialized, the performing arts center would be replying “Polo!”

Or, in another sense, the celebrity was asking, “Do you care?” and the venue was replying, “We do.”

Except that the reply looked like something else entirely, something arbitrary, specific, and yes, even pointless. Like yellow Starbursts that no one was actually going to eat.

Often Someone Else’s Relationship Rules Look A Lot Like Yellow Starbursts

Working with folks who are newly polyamorous, I find it’s not at all uncommon for them to have elaborate rule structures in place. The kind of relationship agreements that span pages and have accompanying spreadsheets to track relevant information.

And I’ll watch many times as more experienced polyamorists will laugh and roll their eyes at such arrangements. To them, it looks a lot like a bowl of yellow Starbursts that no one’s actually going to eat. An unnecessary hassle.

“I don’t know why you bothered to write about that,” one of my friends complained to me after they read an article I’d written about best practices for drawing up relationship agreements, “Rules aren’t usually as helpful as people think they are. Unethical people don’t follow them. Ethical people don’t really need them. Seems like a waste of time to talk about that.”

“Well, you had rules in your relationship when you first opened it, didn’t you?”

They hesitate. “…yeah,” they say reluctantly. “But now I’ve moved past it. And I kind of wished I’d skipped that phase altogether. Because it was so unnecessary.”

“Well, now you think that,” I say. “But it was helpful to you once, I imagine.”

They shrug. “I dunno. Don’t really remember.”

“I still like talking about agreements,” I say. “Even if we were going to throw out rules altogether. Declare them garbage and useless in every relationship, which I’m not going to do…  There are other benefits to them. When I’m dating someone new, even if we don’t come up with a lot of hard and fast rules, the process of talking things over helps me a lot. I’ve found that drawing up relationship agreements is less helpful for the rules themselves but because it helps me make sure we’ve covered pretty much what I want to know going into something new. And that increases the chances that we have a shared understanding of roughly how we want our relationship to unfold.”

But For Some People in Some Situations, Marco Polo Rules Can Be Incredibly Reassuring

“Wait a second,” my friend says. “Did I hear you right? Did you imply that rules can be useful?”

I nod. I talk to them about visiting celebrities, yellow Starbursts, and playing Marco Polo with my cousins in their pool. “For some people, what the rules are exactly aren’t what’s important. What’s more important to them is having a way to test if the other person is taking their relationship agreement seriously. It’s a way they can gauge a reply in situations where things are ambiguous and unfamiliar and they have to trust, sometimes blindly, that things are going to be okay.”

“So… ‘absolutely no lovers in our bed’ — or any other rule — can be a Marco? And whether your partner abides by it or not can be the Polo?” my friend asks.

I nod. “Precisely.”

“This is mind blowing. This doesn’t seem at all like how you operate,” my friend says.

“It isn’t,” I say. “But that’s because I’m at a point where I’ve been polyamorous for a long while, and I trust my partners and myself. But I could see how Marco Polo rules would be a tempting strategy to use if any of these things weren’t the case. So I get it. And I’m not going to judge other people for doing it, even if it isn’t something I need in my life right now.”

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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