If you're new to polyamory with a partner...
...some agreements need to be made about how you're changing your relationship.
I realized the strategies I want to present for helping make relationship agreements could fill a book, and that one in particular is really most useful to people coming to non-monogamy while in an existing relationship. So, today's post is for those of you coming to polyamory from a formerly monogamous relationship, although some parts of it can be applied to any relationship. I'm not trying to dictate how you set up your relationship or make your choices, but I feel very strongly about how well this method can work (and has worked for people I know) so if my language seems bossy or demanding, that's why.
A method that works really well for this is for each partner to make a list of concerns they have - and if they have a suggestion of something they think resolves that concern, what that suggestion is.
Writing up your list on a piece of paper with a line down the middle, or typing it up in a document on your computer in a table with two columns, one marked Concerns, and one Suggestions, does a few things. It keeps your suggestions from feeling like demands when you and your partner sit down to talk about it; it gives space for suggestions of agreements you think are a good idea but can’t put your finger on what is making you want that; and it gives space for not having a sense of how to solve a problem or address a concern that you’re anticipating in opening a relationship. Then, the two of you sit down together, and if you have a similar concern that you addressed with the same (or really close to each other’s) suggestion - you have an agreement to write down on a separate page before the next step. Try not to get caught on anything you see on each other’s lists that you don’t agree on yet.
While you’re making a note of agreements you seem to be on the same page about (which you’re now making literal), include the concern it’s meant to address. Here’s an example of what I mean by that:
We agree to use condoms for vaginal or anal sex with other partners.
Because we’re concerned about STI transmission.
Look at your list of the things you both agree are concerns, but have different suggestions for - or only one of you has a suggestion. This is the first part that should involve any disagreement. Use “I” statements instead of “you” framings if a concern has to do with your partner’s past habits - “I will need more help around the house to have time to date,” not “you never help around here so I won’t have time to do this, only you will.” This is a technique of nonviolent communication, which involves communicating with empathy and self-responsibility - and honestly, is really hard sometimes, especially with the delicate subjects that come up in opening a relationship. Take breaks. Don’t do this in one sitting unless you agree on almost everything. Don’t “push through until this step is done,” don’t think you’re a hero for forcing yourself through a lot of difficulty at once, or for forcing your partner to if they’re more stressed than you are by going through this. Take these suggestions you each had and make compromises, or see if it’s ok for the person whose suggestion is a less limiting agreement to work at the pace of the person who wants a higher limit, or to move slower; to only go as slow as the slowest partner at the beginning, and set a time to reevaluate. As you come to all your compromises, keep listing the agreements and what concern they're addressing. Keep that list in a drawer, even if by the end of all the decision you both have them totally memorized.
Once you’ve addressed the things where you’ve had the same concerns, look next at what only one of you thinks is a concern or problem. This is where some things are easy - “oh, I didn’t think of that!”- and some things are very hard, because the lack of concern one of you has shows a difference in values. If you are lucky, they will only be differences in risk assessment - one of you thinks that example from the last paragraph, a concern about STI transmission, was the only concern, and the other had separate concerns about differently transmissable STIs - one of you wasn’t worried about herpes, which can transfer over skin to skin, so you have to decide how to address that. Sometimes, with differences in risk assessment and values, you need breaks that are days long. Sometimes, you can decide those issues are small enough that you can mull them over until they’re imminent. Polyamory is a choose your own adventure story; if it works for you, it works.
I prefer this method to something like “well, we’ll start dating and we’ll tell each other before we have sex with anyone else and we’ll use condoms and figure out the rest as we go” because figuring out agreements on the fly leads to more fights; to a higher possibility of misunderstanding each other; and to a greater chance of hurt feelings. Some of those will happen anyway- we’re all only human, and if you’re trying something new, there will be something you didn’t think of that will bring up negative feelings. But taking a little time to mull it over first can really save heartache down the line.
Set up a time to reevaluate any agreements you make and how they are working. Do this regularly, not just once. Ideally on days that you don’t have your typical most stressful day at work and ideally at times that you can focus on each other directly. Over time, you might find that the underlying concerns that created an agreement change, or go away. When that happens, you can remove an agreement from that master list. You might find not much changes over time, especially if you had similar concerns and values to begin with. When you come back to how agreements are working and the development of new relationships means something is a new concern; or one of those initial compromises isn't going to work the way you thought it was when it was theoretical - you'll be glad to have the planned space to talk about it where the information isn't a surprise and when you know there might be changes or there might not be, at intervals.
If you come to polyamory as a couple, intentionally, it's worth taking the time to think about it. Even if you come to it less deliberately, and end up going in a more "well, let's work it out as we get there" direction, setting up those check-ins in any relationship can give you the space to make changes before they're emergencies, and to mark changes in security and stability of your new relationship by shedding agreements that don't work for you anymore.