Rules are a divisive subject in the polyamory community. Some people require dozens of rules to feel safe in their relationships, while others feel that any and all rules for polyamory are toxic.
I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m pro-rules as long as they serve a specific purpose and are there for a good reason (papering over someone’s insecurities so they don’t have to work on them is not a good reason).
But what rules should you have and which ones cause more harm than good?
Five Good Rules for Polyamory
Your mileage will vary, of course. There are no absolutes in something as nuanced and endlessly complex as human relationships. But here are five rules that I personally consider healthy and useful in polyamorous relationships, and that might be helpful for you to think about.
“Practice safer sex”
What this looks like will vary for each individual, couple, or network. Some people might simply decide to use barriers with all partners. Others might agree to fluid bond with one partner while using barriers with everyone else. Sometimes, a closed group will agree to get tested and stop using barriers all together while continuing to use barriers with any external partners.
There’s no one right way but it’s essential to agree on safer sex rules with all your partners, and then stick to them. Making decisions that potentially impact other people’s health and safety without consulting them is never okay.
“Tell the truth”
What separates polyamory from cheating? Honesty and consent. And those things can only exist if you tell the truth. Lies – big or small, blatant or by omission – chip away at trust. And without a high level of trust, you can’t even have a functional monogamous relationship, never mind a polyamorous one.
By the way: if you agree to always tell the truth in your relationships, you need to be prepared to hear the truth, too. This means listening without jumping to conclusions or flying off the handle. Even the most honest partner will begin to hide things if it doesn’t feel safe to be honest with you.
Rules about financial and legal responsibilities
Again, what this looks like will differ depending on your relationship structure and needs. For some, this means no significant financial entanglements outside of the nesting or spousal relationship. For others, this means ensuring all the bills are paid and then having complete financial autonomy after that.
If you share a home with one partner, you might have rules around your shared home. “We live together and don’t want to live with anyone else” is a common one.
Consider legal commitments such as marriage, too. Remember that if you’re married or in a civil partnership (or long-term cohabiting in some jurisdictions), your partner’s finances are de facto tied up with yours. You need to have ground rules and understandings accordingly.
Finally, this may include rules around pregnancy and child-rearing. While you cannot legislate for fluke occurences and genuine accidents (and should be prepared to deal with them if they arise), “do everything you can not to get pregnant/get someone else pregnant” is a reasonable and sensible rule.
Rules about public disclosure or lack thereof
Some people are completely out and open about their polyamorous lives. Others are not, and this can be for very good reason. From losing family and friends who disapprove, through to job losses and even child custody problems, being outed against your will can be a very big deal.
If this is an issue for you, consider making ground rules to protect your privacy. This might include who you tell about your relationships, whether you can be pictured or “tagged” on social media, and whether public displays of affection are okay for you.
“Allow relationships to be what they are”
Trying to force relationships into a specific model never works. Trying to legislate for exactly what form all future relationships will take is a bit like planning your wedding to someone you haven’t even met yet. It makes no sense.
Don’t try to force something casual to become a serious relationship. Likewise, don’t try to shove something emotionally meaningful and intense into the “it’s just sex” box. And please, as we’ll discuss below, do not try to force someone to feel the same way about both you and your partner.
Allowing relationships to be what they are also extends to metamour relationships. Perhaps you have a strong preference for kitchen table polyamory. That’s fine, and a great thing to aim for! But requiring that your partners and metamours must all be friends, get along, or even be comfortable with things like bed sharing or sexual interaction is coercive.
If people feel that they have to extend (physical or emotional) intimacy to others in order to continue to access intimacy with their partner, the possibility of true consent is eroded.
Let the relationships in your network be what they are. All of them.
And Five Unhealthy Rules
On the flip side, here are five rules that I believe are likely to be unhealthy, harmful, or at least manifest in damaging ways even if the intention is good.
“Don’t fall in love”
You cannot legislate emotions – your own or anyone else’s. Many couples begin their journey into opening up by saying “sex with others is okay, but no falling in love.”
And maybe neither of you will ever fall in love with someone else! Maybe you’re truly sexually open and emotionally monogamous. That’s completely valid. But making rules against feelings, rather than actions, leads to repression, lies, and resentment as soon as anyone feels the “forbidden” emotion.
This is sort of the reverse of “allow relationships to be what they are”.
Overly specific rules around physical intimacy
Those long relationship contracts about precisely who can touch which body part on whom and under which circumstances? They’re exhausting, untenable over the long term, and tend to leave people feeling disenfranchised and pissed off. I remember reading them and thinking “I’m never going to remember all of this”, which led to me pulling back from intimacy entirely for a long time out of fear of breaking a rule.
A few broad guidelines are useful, and even a couple of specific no-go areas might be okay, but tread very carefully. In general, the only people who should be making rules about physical and sexual interactions are the people actually having those interactions.
A veto is a rule whereby one member of a couple can unilaterally order their partner to end an outside relationship and expect that they will do it. Veto is toxic for so many reasons: it creates an unhealthy power dynamic, it puts the veto-issuer into a parental role, and it infantilises grown ass adults. It also tends to hurt everyone it impacts, including the person issuing the veto (if you force me to break my own and someone I love’s hearts, we’re not going to be in a good place).
Slightly less pernicious but still far from ideal is the “screening veto”. This is when the primary partner gets to give or withhold permission for their partner to date a specific third party, but cannot later end the relationship once permission has been given.
Screening vetos are slightly less destructive, but they still serve to create an unhealthy permission-based model and infantilise the person who has to ask their partner for permission.
“We only date together”
Don’t do this. Please don’t do this! If you and your partner meet someone you’re both into and who is into both of you, then amazing. Have fun! But going in looking for someone who will date both of you leads to toxicity and frustration.
Trying to make someone be into both of you in the same way at the same time is a recipe for failure. Human hearts just don’t work that way. Almost no single polyam people will date couples with this rule, because it’s a surefire way to getting discarded with a broken heart.
Oh, and if you’re a male/female couple looking for a bisexual woman to “complete your triad”? It is called a unicorn for a reason.
Curfews and tight rules around time
This can appear under lots of different guises.
“You can go out, but you have to be home by midnight.”
“You can see your other partner in the week, but weekends are for us!”
“I always need you to be here when I get back from work.”
The purpose of these rules is usually to ensure that needs get met. But you can get your needs met without being so rigid, at least in a good relationship! If your partner wants to spend time with you and keep their commitments to you, they will. If they don’t, no amount of rules legislating that they can only go out on dates every third Wednesday will help you.
Instead of making rigid rules, talk about needs. Do you need to spend an evening of quality time with your partner uninterrupted at least once per week? Ask for that. Do you collectively need to ensure that the kids are picked up from school or that your shared car is available when it’s time to go to work? Then discuss logistics and negotiate accordingly.
Don’t issue adults with curfews and don’t claim ownership over someone else’s time.
What rules of engagement do you and your partner(s) have in your polyamorous relationship? How do they work for you?
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