Alex and I have some things we agree either explicitly or implicitly to not do in our outside polyamory relationships. We have discussed things and in some cases we've expressed strong preferences about how things happen and we've discussed how hurt we would be about other things. Most of these implicit or explicit agreements are around big things. For example, Alex knows I would be very hurt if he involved someone he was dating in any of the heavy-duty parenting stuff. We had a conflict where Julian told me he had taken Hanne to a parent-teacher conference for my daughter, and I was very angry about that. The conflict was resolved when it was revealed that Hanne had waited in the car. We have some practical agreements around scheduling and how much time we have available for other relationships. We have some agreements around when we can have other people to the house.
However, I get the impression that Julian thinks some of these agreements are “rules” and therefore we periodically get into debates about whether rules are a good thing or a bad thing.
He sent me the post “What IS Wrong with Rules Anyway?” from Franklin Veaux's blog recently. Like many hard-core polys, he argues that rules are a bad idea and don't work. They are a reflection of insecurity and harm the people in a non-primary relationship with people with rules in their primary relationship. In many ways I agree with what he is saying. I agree that rules are often a reflection of insecurities. I agree that rules are really paper-thin and only as good as the commitment behind them. They are illusory. However, I feel that he is only peeling back one layer of the onion on this issue. In my experience, it's not as easy as just saying “Hey, we have no rules” and going forward. Rules creep back in under other forms. I will argue that in a long-term committed relationship, something rule-like is inevitable.
Say you have a primary, long-term relationship which you intend to stay in for life. And you have no rules. Okay, cool, everything good. However, everyone has strong desires for certain things to happen or not happen in their primary relationship. There are things that they know will cause them emotional pain if they happen. And if you choose to do those things which will cause them emotional pain, there will be consequences. They will respond. They will be hurt. They may feel that you must not love them. They may wonder about your commitment to them and the relationship. That may be a boundary for them personally. They may feel they cannot be in a relationship which has that activity in it. And because of those consequences, you choose not to do it. Their relationship preference functions as a rule, even if you don't label it that way.
Let me give an example. One common rule couples have is to not have sex with other partners in the bed they share. (I'm using this example specifically because it's not a concern or preference I have, so it has no emotional resonance for me and I can be more neutral). Let's imagine a couple, Dick and Jane, who do NOT have any rules around this. However, they have talked and Dick knows very well that Jane has special memories with him in that bed and would be terribly hurt if he had sex with someone else in it. To her, it would feel like he was desecrating a symbol of their relationship. If Dick chooses to have sex with Mary in that bed anyway, Jane will experience great emotional pain. She will be very angry at Dick and feel that he must not care about her feelings. She may feel that he doesn't care at all about their relationship. She might believe he no longer holds their relationship in much value. She might feel that he has chosen a random romp with Mary over Jane's feelings. Jane might experience difficulty feeling aroused with Dick because he's chosen to, in her view, desecrate a place that represents the sexuality of their relationship. Their relationship might ultimately end. Because of those consequences, Dick chooses not to sleep with Mary in the bed he shares with Jane. Even though they don't have a rule against it. Jane's strong preference functions as a rule, whether you call it a rule or not.
In many cases, a couple chooses to create rules as a shorthand way of stating the above emotions. It's a way of saying “Hey, of course you are an independent person and you will do as you ultimately choose, but it will hurt me terribly if you date my best friend and I will likely feel very betrayed. It might cross a boundary for me that results in me being unable to stay in this relationship.”
All of that happens in any reasonably serious primary relationship. But added complications occur in a life-long committed relationship. Let me give another example. Suppose that Brad gets an offer from Carol to go away with her for two weeks to Tahiti. Brad's wife, Molly, has from the beginning stated that she is uncomfortable with either of them spending more than 24 hrs with another lover. In fact, it would be devastating for her. She knows herself and knows this is one of her emotional boundaries. For her own happiness, she would have to choose not to be in a primary relationship where this happened. If Brad and Molly do not have a relationship with a lifelong relationship and Brad chooses to spend the vacation with Carol, Molly can choose to just leave the relationship. But what if Brad and Molly are married and have a commitment to be together forever? Then Molly has no good choice. She can choose to try to weather the devastating emotional effect the overnights would have on her, violating her own personal emotional boundaries or she can break a vow she's made to herself and Brad to remain in the relationship forever. If they as a couple have made an agreement to prioritize being together forever as a major relationship goal in their lives, they may choose to institute rules reflecting those boundaries so as to not to encounter the situation described above. That seems like a reasonable response to me. Of course, the challenging part is in determining what is truly an emotional deal-breaker and should be a rule, and what is just a would-like-to-have that is negotiable.
Franklin Veaux also says that the rules can be hurtful to the secondary partners. This is true. In the example above, Carol might be very disappointed and hurt that Brad can't go with her. The issue here is that the secondary partner is realizing that their lover is prioritizing the needs of something else over their wants or the needs of the relationship. And that does hurt. That sucks. But it happens in all relationships, poly or mono, hierarchical or not. In a mono relationship, perhaps Brad would choose not to go with Carol because he preferred to attend his buddy Ryan's birthday party. And Carol might be equally disappointed and hurt that he hadn't prioritized her offer or their relationship. In a non-hierarchical poly relationship perhaps Brad might have a rule that he only see Carol once a week because he was in grad school and didn't want the relationship to interfere with that. That rule might still sting Carol a lot. Why is it okay to makes rules in our lives to prioritize other things, but when it comes to choosing a relationship to prioritize that is suddenly a terrible thing?
I shared all of that with Julian, and he pointed me to this earlier post on Franklin Veaux's blog where he distinguishes rules from boundaries. Julian made the point that whether or not they have the same outcome, rules feel like laying down the law whereas boundaries don't. Rules feel like you're telling your partner what to do. It sets up a dynamic where one partner feels like they are controlled by another or that their options are fenced in by their partner's demands. Although boundaries may accomplish the same outcome, they feel different. The language is important. Boundaries are the result when an individual clearly describes which behaviors are acceptable or not acceptable in a relationship he takes part in, and talks about what the consequences might be if those preferences are violated. They do not tell the partner what to do or not do. And even if they ultimately function the same way as rules, there is a lot of value in setting up a way of interacting that respects the autonomy of your partner.
I realized that a lot of the disagreement Julian and I had about this was over semantics. The agreements in my relationship with Alex are much more akin to what Franklin Veaux calls boundaries, although Alex and I don't always adhere strictly to the language of boundaries. I agree with Julian that there is value in setting up language that makes it explicit that we our not attempting to tell our partners what to do, even if they find themselves just as constrained by boundaries as they would be by rules. Being constrained by boundaries is a choice we make out of love and caring for our partner's concerns rather than a harness imposed upon us from outside. That's important. The words we use are important.