Updated: May 11, 2020
The central tenet of polyamory, and of all ethical non-monogamy, is “Make agreements within your relationships, and stick to them.” Some might argue for “Communicate, communicate, communicate,” an oft-repeated phrase in every polyamory-related book and group I’ve ever seen - but I think that’s how we implement this central rule, not the rule itself.
Let’s think a little about what relationship agreements might be about. They could cover:
Is this a deep emotional but nonromantic/nonsexual relationship, or a romantic but nonsexual, or sexual but nonromantic, or sexual and romantic? Depending which, many of these and many more you individually find important may apply:
What kinds of safer sex practices you intend to use with this partner
What conditions would make those practices change
Whether there is hierarchy already inherent in one or both of your existing relationship(s) and what that means for your relationship.
How much you want to hear about a partner’s other relationships, or they about yours
Whether either or both of you want relationships with your metamours (those other partners)
How open you each want to be in public, on social media, or with each others’ families about your relationship with this partner (or how open you want to be in those spaces about your other partners when with this partner)
Specific items that make one of you feel special in a relationship that you want to share with this partner, either as a relationship requirement or as an exclusive part of this relationship.
You’ll notice that I’ve framed all of these as conversations between two people - between any one dyad in a polyamorous network. This is intentional. These same agreements and boundaries could (and perhaps should!) apply in carefully considered monogamous relationships. Every individual relationship is different, and so every relationship in a network will have its own agreements. If you are the common factor in two or more different relationships, then you’ll bring your preferences and boundaries to the table in the discussions that set those agreements with each of those partners, but they, as their own individual people, may have very different expectations and boundaries from one another that make your agreements with each look different.
Sometimes, pre-existing agreements will limit what you come to the table offering to a newer partner. If their needs and boundaries mean that to meet them where they are, either they need to compromise or you need to change your existing situation, that conversation doesn’t just affect the dyad. It can directly include everyone affected, or indirectly include them (through the hinge, bringing opinions back and forth, for partners who don’t want to talk to a metamour they may not be close enough with to discuss vulnerable subjects directly), but a conversation about changing or upholding existing rules that doesn’t in some way include affected parties is unethical, especially if pre-existing hierarchy hasn’t been stated at the outset.
If, even without an additional conversation, both people can say, “Oh, I can’t compromise or change on that,” then no matter how much you care for each other, this issue makes you incompatible for one another and you’ll have to decide if you’re removing the aspect of the relationship that this agreement applies to (like being friends instead of having a romantic relationship if hierarchy is a requirement for one person and a dealbreaker for the other), if you’re going to “wing it” until the incompatibility comes to a head -knowing it’s there (knowing there is a date when the relationship would have to become long distance, and one doesn’t do LDRs), or if you’re going to lay the entire relationship to the side and not have one (this is most common if it’s a new relationship and something is discovered in an early conversation - that is, when mutual investment is low).
Today, we talked about the “What” of relationship agreements. Next time, we’ll talk about the “how,” with some different strategies for people coming newly to polyamory and some for more experienced folx with different background knowledge.