In Healthy Polyamory, No Veto Power Does Not Mean No Say [Polyamory Conversation Cards #1]

I recently received my set of Polyamory Conversation Cards, created by Odder Being, a project that I backed on Kickstarter months ago. With 49 questions across 7 different categories, these cards are designed to get you thinking, help you to discover your needs and boundaries, and spark open and constructive conversations with your partners. They are non-gendered and make no assumptions about relationship configuration.

I decided to use them as prompts for blog posts for this year. I’ll pull a card at random, one at a time until I’ve got through the entire deck, and use them to inspire a piece of content here. Some of them might be practical advice pieces. Others may be essays, personal pieces, or even rants. We’ll see! (And I am not putting a hard and fast timeframe on this because I don’t need that kind of pressure in my life. I’m going to aim for roughly one a week or getting through the whole deck in approximately a year, but we’ll see.)

Today’s card asks:

“To what extent are you okay with your partner(s) having influence over your romantic and/or sexual connections with others?”

This has made me think about the subject of veto power in polyamory. This controversial practice refers to giving one partner the power to unilaterally demand that you end an outside relationship at any time, and reasonably expect that you will comply. Most often, the person wielding veto power will be a spouse, “primary” partner, or nesting partner.

I am absolutely, unequivocally against veto power. I believe it’s abusive in almost all circumstances. Personal experience also tells me that, even if it is never actually used, the mere threat of a veto from one partner prevents emotional safety from ever truly existing in any other relationships. After all, how can you ever possibly feel safe if your metamour could yank your relationship away at any moment?

Just a few other reasons I’m against veto power include:

  • It reinforces relationship hierarchies and couple’s privilege.
  • It is a poor way of building safety and security, and simply outsources risk and pain onto others rather than actually confronting and working through difficult feelings.
  • Its intended impact is rarely its actual impact. In fact, in most cases, using (or even threatening) a veto will cause such resentment that it will irrevocably damage or end the relationship of the person who issued it.
  • It treats human beings with feelings as disposable toys.
  • It places the veto-giving partner into an authoritarian or parental role, rather than the role of an equal partner, and removes autonomy from their partner(s) and metamour(s).
  • In extreme cases, it can lead to sexual coercion or sexual violence (e.g. “if your partner won’t have a threesome with us, I’m vetoing them.”)

In healthy relationships, we do influence each other

It’s a myth, and a deeply toxic one, that healthy polyamorous relationships involve total autonomy without any cross-relationship or inter-relationship influence. Autonomy and self-determination are important, but they should not come at the expense of treating the people we love well. Moreover, they don’t have to.

If you take away nothing else from this post, please at least internalise this. It is entirely possible (and not even that difficult!) to both have autonomy and to practice kindness, consideration, and care for your partners and their feelings.

As humans, we are social creatures and we are influenced and changed by those around us, and particularly those close to us, in all sorts of ways. This is normal. This is healthy.

I am influenced by my partners and my close friends all the time, and mostly in very positive ways. They inspire me with their bravery and brilliance, they make me want to be the best version of myself, they challenge me when I am wrong, and they offer unique and valuable insights into all aspects of my life. In positive relationships (both romantic and otherwise,) we learn from each other. We are often changed by each other, and by our relationships, in profound and beautiful ways.

Loving people means caring for their feelings

Another toxic myth in the polyamory community is the idea that “your feelings are your problem.”

This started from a good place: that we all have a reasonable responsibility for our own emotional wellbeing and that we should not weaponise our feelings to control our partners. However, in its current guise, it has morphed into something deeply damaging. It has led to people thinking that there is something wrong with them if they have anything but positive feelings about anything their partner does. It has led to people utterly disregarding their partners’ valid needs and emotions to the point of cruelty or even abuse.

Because loving people and being in intimate relationship with them does include caring for their feelings. Emotions do not typically spring, fully formed, from nowhere. They are often reactive, though what they are in response to and how that response manifests can be changeable, unpredictable, at times hard to identify, and not necessarily an obvious straight line.

If you are in an intimate relationship with someone of any kind, you do have a degree of responsibility to care for their feelings. This doesn’t mean doing whatever they want, allowing them to dictate all the terms of the relationship, or allowing them to control or limit your other significant relationships. It does mean creating emotional safety, receiving their feelings – especially difficult or vulnerable ones – with love, and working with them to meet their needs. There might be times where it means not doing something you would have otherwise liked to do.

Case study: temporary frustration for the long-term good

I have, on a small handful of occasions, chosen not to pursue a casual hookup at that time because one of my serious partners was in a bad place emotionally and did not have the bandwidth to process or handle it.

If this was happening all the time we’d need to have a conversation. But once in a while? That strikes me as a normal part of being a loving and considerate partner to somebody in a serious relationship.

Some polyamorous people would balk at this, saying that my partner was being controlling or exerting undue influence. The key, though, is that the choice was ultimately mine. Nobody issued a veto or forbade me to do anything. I made an assessment and made a choice to act in the way I did – a choice that, ultimately, was more than worth the temporary frustration for the long-term benefit to my partner’s wellbeing and our relationship overall.

Important clarification: I view a situation like the one above as fundamentally different from curtailing another significant and serious relationship, which is not something I would ever do. That’s because, in the context of a serious relationship, all my partners have certain rights and certain things they can expect from me. Those things include not having another partner or relationship interfere with ours in a negative way.

There’s a huge difference between influence and control

Where I think this question gets really interesting is when we pick apart the difference between influence and control. At first glance they can seem similar, with the difference more semantic than substantial, but I actually think they’re enormously different things.

One crucial difference is that influence in a relationship is bidirectional, whereas control flows only one way. I consider my partners’ needs and feelings in my decisions, and I feel confident that they will consider mine in a similar way. A veto, by definition, does not consider the needs and feelings of either of the people whose relationship is being vetoed. It is designed to serve only the person issuing the veto. (And even then, it usually fails. Again: issuing a veto against one of your partner’s other relationships is likely to seriously damage your relationship with that partner, if it doesn’t end it entirely.)

Another difference is that, in the case of influence, we each ultimately still have the power and the space to make our own decisions. When control is being utilised, we do not. Influence can allow for negotiation, make room for compromise, and seek to come to solutions that serve the good of everyone affected by the situation. Control does none of those things.

Case studies: expressing a need vs. making a demand

Here’s an example. I might say to one of my partners, “I feel as though I’m not getting enough time with you lately, and that makes me feel sad and neglected.” This would lead to a conversation, and might result in some aspect of their behaviour changing. They might take more proactive steps to arrange time with me, move things around in their schedule so that we can see each other, or change how we spend time together so it’s a higher quality of shared time.

What I do NOT have the right to do is to say “you’re not spending enough time with me, so I demand that you break up with your other partner (or curtail/downgrade your relationship with them) to make more time for me.”

To give another example, let’s say I feel particularly insecure about a new metamour for some reason. I can say to my partner, “I’m feeling really insecure about your relationship with X, so I’d prefer it if you could share fewer details with me/hold space for me to talk things out/hold off on introducing me to them until I’ve worked through these feelings.” I cannot say, “they make me insecure so you can’t see them any more.”

That’s the difference between having a say (influence) and having a veto (control.)

What if one of your partners is concerned about a prospective partner, date, or hook-up, or vice-versa?

This is usually the first question that comes up when I say I don’t believe in veto. “But Amy, what if one of your partners wants to date someone really, truly terrible? Or what if you want to make a horrible dating choice, and your partners have no recourse to stop you?”

It’s a fair question but, I think, takes the wrong approach. It assumes that polyamorous people are all just waiting to make terrible dating choices, get involved with the worst kinds of humans, or casually disregard our own values, and that strict rules or the threat of a veto are the only things keeping us in line. The reality, in my experience, is quite the opposite. In fact, all the successful polyamorous people I know operate with the highest levels of integrity and seek to make good choices in partner selection and in the ways that their relationships are conducted.

The key here is to trust your partners’ judgement and intentions, both in the ways they manage their own dating lives and in any opinions they may express about yours.

Do I worry about one of my partners bringing home my abuser, a neo-Nazi, or (to use a less extreme and more common example) a monogamous person who has expressed a desire to cowperson them away from the rest of the polycule? No, because I trust their judgement. I know them well enough to know they wouldn’t do something like that, so it never occurs to me to worry about it.

With that said, we all have blind spots. We’re all capable of overlooking glaring red flags, falling for someone with bad intentions, or just making stupid decisions in the heat of lust. This is where that influence thing comes in again. Influence allows your partners to share their concerns with you and have their voices heard (and vice versa) without demanding that you choose one specific course of action.

That’s why you should talk to your partner about if it you have any legitimate concerns about someone they’re interested in. It’s also why you should listen if they bring up similar concerns about a prospective partner to you.

If your partner finds faults, concerns, or “red flags” in everyone you want to date, chances are there’s something deeper going on. They might be feeling jealous or insecure, or simply be having a hard time with trusting you to make good decisions for yourself. These are all common issues within polyamory, particularly – but not exclusively – when you’re newer to it.

If either of my partners raised a concern about someone I was interested in, though, I’d listen. This does not necessarily mean I’d always choose not to pursue the person in question. My eventual decision would depend on the circumstances and on a whole array of factors. But I would listen to my partner(s), I would hear their concerns, and I would give those concerns serious consideration. If I choose not to pursue the new connection as a result, that’s not veto power. That’s me making an informed decision based on all the information to which I have access.

My partners are smart and emotionally intelligent people who love me, know me very well, and have sound judgement. If they tell me they have a concern, I know that they legitimately do and are not simply trying to control or limit me.

The bottom line: what I will and won’t accept with regards to veto power, influence, and control

This card asks, “To what extent are you okay with your partner(s) having influence over your romantic and/or sexual connections with others?”

Ultimately, my answer is that I’m fine with them having a reasonable level of influence. I actually think that’s a good and healthy thing. What I won’t tolerate is anyone seeking to have control over my other connections, and I would be unlikely to stay long in a relationship with someone who wanted that control. Likewise, I want to have influence with my partners but I do not want to have control.

My answer to this question also depends, to a fairly significant extent, on what type of relationship we are talking about. My serious partners are always going to be far, far more important to me than one-off or casual hook-ups. This naturally means that they get a much higher level of priority and enjoy a greater degree of influence in the decisions I make and the ways I choose to operate.

What I won’t do, however, is accept veto power or be in a relationship with someone who has given that power to any of their other partners.

No-one gets to decide the reality, outcome, or direction of any of my relationships except me and the other person in it. I will never give anyone veto power or permission-granting/permission-refusing power over any aspect of other connections. But I will always take my partners’ needs and feelings into consideration and strive to make sure they feel loved, heard, and prioritised. Because no veto power does not mean no say.

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