Despite veto power in relationships being one of the most-often-discussed rules that folks come up with for their early polyam relationships (and one of the most commonly discussed red flags for people who no longer have this rule in their own relationships) I realized while drafting this that I've only explicitly written a post about vetos for this blog once. I have also talked about my general sense that while addressing each other's feelings and needs is important, all your partners are people, so shutting down most of your relationships in favor of fixing issues in one should be a last resort, and you shouldn't expect someone to be waiting for you after you're done if you do that. That post isn't exactly about veto power, but it's veto-adjacent.
I recently made a post on tiktok where I asked folks to share their biggest polyam dating red flags, and I said "I'll go first, mine is if they have veto power." (I think I actually said active veto power, by which I meant that they have a rule about it that's ever gotten use - as opposed to a vague theory that 'well, we could veto someone, but no one in our polycule ever has and it's been [some longish period of time] and we just talk stuff out anyway' - I'm less likely to regard that as a red flag.) The reactions to that post - an outpouring of folks' other red flags but also a combination of agreement that willingness to use veto power is a red flag and a lot of comments of the very specific scenarios where folks thought their particular veto or veto-adjacent-rule was not worth someone regarding it as a red flag (enough that I couldn't possibly make videos responding to each one) made me think that it's worth talking about veto power and the real-life nuances that go along with how and whether it's a red flag.
First, a comment on the term red flag: it doesn't mean "everything about this human is awful." It means "Pay attention: if there are a lot of these, this may not be a good situation." Everyone has at least one red flag somewhere in their lives, and everyone has different points of compatibility that will create dealbreakers for them that are not dealbreakers for others. When we say that in general veto power is a red flag, we mean: pause and look at the nuance of the situation. Check what else is going on. We don't mean, throw all people who have ever had a veto rule into the sun. In real life, nuance absolutely matters, especially interpersonally.
The reasons veto power is a sign we should pay attention to and give some pause at include:
It's an extreme sign of hierarchy & privileging a primary couple - giving one relationship power over ending other relationships. If you don't put limits on a veto, especially, it's a big flag that you haven't examined what role hierarchy and couple's privilege play in your relationship, and starting to date someone who hasn't critically examined that will likely have more challenges later as relationships bump up against the edges of that privilege.
Shutting down relationships that are already underway is potentially dehumanizing and disregards the emotions of newer partners who have this happen to them.
Having a veto rule rather than a system of discussing concerns and letting your partner make their decision on their own shows a certain amount of encouraging "passing the buck" for decisions and agreements in a relationship onto one another. If you choose not to use the veto, this pattern can then still manifest as "[partner says we can't] " becoming a refrain in disagreements with newer partners or in discussions of every possible relationship escalation. It's a sign that escalations may have to be "run by" someone in a manner that not everyone is comfortable with.
Being asked to end relationships they're happy in can cause resentment between partners and require a lot of work to repair that difficulty in the relationship that has the veto rule in place. If it's there "to protect the primary relationship" but actually still does damage to it in being used, is it that helpful?
So, those are some things to note, pause, and look around at when you hear there is a veto rule in place - what are some factors that might mitigate a veto power rule being such a red flag?
Obviously these will all vary person to person (and some folks will have a hard-and-fast "no veto" policy) but, some common variations to veto powers and exceptions that people make to not getting involved with folks with veto rules include:
Vetos that only apply "before a relationship is established." This usually involves a bunch of follow-up questions about what counts as established (because if you, like me, sometimes don't label a relationship for a year but are deeply invested well prior to that, getting on the same page about when you might be vetoed is essential to deciding if the risk of a veto is one you'll accept), but it's generally a lower-risk proposition - it's not "I'll be invested and in love and a primary partner can pull the plug" but it might be "If I don't vibe with their existing partners when we have an early on meetup, we won't start dating."
Instead of a veto policy at all, a habit of "taking temperature" and listening to the concerns of your partners about a burgeoning relationship and then making your own decision about a breakup. Some people consider this veto-adjacent because taking your partner's input as a relationship forms rather than entirely forming your opinion on your own can be seen to be the same shape - I'd argue that this is more along the lines of "If they know something you don't, incorporate the data, but you make your own judgement and that's what matters."
Rules around who partners can date that are tightly bound enough to make it difficult to date at all. Not technically a veto, but often lumped together in discussions, or pulled out of people's back pockets as "We have a veto it's for making sure partner doesn't date my exes they don't know yet" ...well ok, that's an agreement about not dating each others' exes, which isn't really a veto, more a ground rule that some people might find necessary and others might not. Unless several dates in you're going "WAIT that's my EX! DUMP THEM!" most of us probably wouldn't consider this one a veto. If you only have one or two of these rules, most people will consider that a reasonable exception and not a red flag. If you have several (say: can't date our mutual friends; no one who has ever played d&d with us; no one with kids at the same school as our kids) it can start to get hard to find partners in the right age/shared interest/lifestyle range and folks might start to look askance and consider it an effective veto.
Having a veto policy but never framing the breakup to the newer partner as "you have been vetoed" - always stating it as "I've decided we need to break up" regardless of the fact that there was a veto in the background as the cause. Some people would argue that if you completely own your choice to comply with a veto agreement you've made and never even hand the blame for it to the vetoing partner in conversation, you mitigate it for the third party & they don't have to be aware you have a veto rule - you may still run into the issues with resentment within the relationship where the veto was used, however.
Technically having had a veto rule but never having used it, in favor of talking out concerns instead, for some long period of time. Most people who have done this for several years at some point get rid of the rule; but usually only think to when a partner outside the dyad with the veto power says "wait, you have veto power? that isn't cool," and they take time to look at it and realize they didn't use it anyway. (Folks who used a veto and had a hard time recovering from the in-relationship effects of how that felt often also get rid of their veto rules at that point.) A lot of folks, myself included, are less worried about someone 'technically' having a power they haven't used in many years when they have used straightforward communication and problem solving instead.
There are many variations of this - for a long time, just like the advice was to always be hierarchical and protect your primary relationship, the advice was to always have veto power or a lot of rules about who you could and couldn't date, and there's always going to be some people who find that works well for them. I find there are more downsides than upsides, and you can get all the benefit you would get out of a veto out of open, considerate communication. So, for me, it's generally a flag to check under and poke at a little if I hear that someone has veto power - and if a recent breakup in their polycule was because of a veto, I'm usually out. I don't have it in me to worry about a third party breaking up a relationship I'm trying to form, at this point. If you do, or if a particular variation is in your risk profile and others aren't, just ask the questions that make it clear whether that's what's going on.
Tomorrow evening I'm teaching Relationship Anarchy Applied: Play Partnerships at 8pm Eastern. Join us!
The blog's 2 year anniversary is on Thursday and I'm doing a giveaway; like and comment on this instagram post to win!