How and When to Renegotiate Relationship Agreements in Polyamory [Polyamory Conversation Cards #6]

Few issues are as divisive in the polyamory community as the terms that govern our relationships. Whether we’re arguing about the difference between boundaries, rules and relationship agreements or debating the finer points of whether any specific rule/agreement is ethical, we’re nerdy about this shit.

In case you missed it, this post is part of a series inspired by Odder Being’s Polyamory Conversation Cards. Once a week or as often as I can, I’ll pull a card at random and write a piece of content based on it. There will likely be some essays, advice pieces, personal experiences, rants, and more! You can read the whole series at the dedicated tag. And if you want to support my work and get occasional bonus content, head on over to my Patreon.

This week’s card asks:

“How would you like to approach communication about any changes to existing agreements?”

Before we start, let’s get clear on what we mean by “relationship agreements” and how they differ from relationship rules and boundaries.

Boundaries are about yourself. They govern the things you own: your body, mind, emotions, time, space, physical possessions, and so on. They are statements of what you will and won’t allow and how you will protect yourself if they are breached. To give you an idea how this can look, two of my boundaries are “I will not remain in relationship with someone who lies to me” and “I never want to have children so I will take all reasonable steps to avoid pregnancy and I will have an abortion if I accidentally get pregnant.”

Rules are things that you impose on other people. They are generally frowned upon in adult relationships, and by the polyamorous community in particular. The implication is that the person or people bound by the rule would otherwise want to do the forbidden thing, or not do the thing that the rule compels them to do. Examples of rules might include “you must be home by 10pm every night” or “I forbid you to take your other partner to that restaurant I like.”

Agreements are made by, and followed by, both or all members of a relationship. They are usually designed to help maintain security, stability, structure, or the overall happiness and wellbeing of everyone involved. Examples of agreements might include “we won’t bring any new partners around our children until we’re reasonably sure the relationship is here to stay” or “we’ll notify each other promptly about any changes to our sexual health risk profile.”

It is agreements that we’re talking about today. Specifically, when you should renegotiate them and how to do so successfully.

Five Signs It’s Time to Renegotiate Relationship Agreements

First, let’s talk about renegotiating agreements in your relationship(s.) This isn’t something to be afraid of! It’s actually a really normal and healthy part of being in a long-term relationship. Because people and relationships aren’t fixed and static, it’s natural that you will need to renegotiate your agreements at various points during the lifespan of a relationship.

Here are five signs that indicate it’s time to come back to the table and renegotiate one (or more) of your relationship agreements.

You’re in Danger of Breaking An Agreement

It is always, always less destructive to attempt to renegotiate an agreement than to break one. A broken agreement can cause a massive breach of trust, which can take a long time to repair or – depending on its nature and severity – sometimes not be repairable at all.

I’m not (necessarily) talking about a fleeting thought here. But if you repeatedly find yourself butting up against an agreement and wanting to break it, then that agreement isn’t working for you any more. It’s time to come to the table and let your partner(s) know you need to renegotiate.

You’ve Realised An Agreement is a Rule in Disguise

By definition, an agreement must be agreed to by both or all of the people it impacts. If an agreement is benefiting only one or some parties, and others are going along with it grudgingly (to keep the peace, perhaps, or because they feel they have no choice) then there’s a high likelihood it’s actually a rule in disguise.

An agreement should not, generally, feel overly limiting or constrictive. It certainly should not seek to curtail relationships you’re not in, or to control the behaviour of people who had no hand in making it.

The Agreement is Harmful to You or Someone Else

Because people, relationships, and contexts can change, agreements that once worked well (or seemed to work well) for you might now be problematic or even harmful. Some are inherently harmful from the outset, though it may take you time to realise this. If an agreement you’ve made is harming you or someone else in some way, it’s time to renegotiate it. (The same is true, by the way, if there is clear and probable potential for harm even if it hasn’t actually happened yet.)

Here’s a common example: open phone policies. Perhaps you and your spouse or long-term partner agreed you could look through each other’s phones at any time. On the surface, this seems like a good way to build trust and security, particularly in a newly-open relationship. However, it actually feeds into a sense of mistrust in your relationship. It also violates the privacy and potentially even the consent of other partners and other people you’re communicating with.

You’re Feeling Resentful of Your Partner or The Agreement

When an agreement isn’t working for you any longer, but you haven’t raised the issue and renegotiated it, you might find yourself feeling resentment towards the agreement itself or towards the partner(s) you made it with.

Ideally, you’d renegotiate an agreement that is no longer working long before you reach the point where resentment sets in. However, if you’ve found yourself in this spot, it’s time to raise the issue and start the renegotiation process immediately. This can usually head off growing resentment and the more significant problems it causes in the long run.

The Agreement Served a Time-Limited Purpose and is No Longer Necessary

In general, I don’t think it’s a great idea to use restrictive agreements (or rules) as training wheels in a newly-open relationship. However, there are instances where certain agreements can serve a purpose for a limited amount of time but ultimately become unnecessary.

All agreements should serve a purpose. These purposes might include helping someone(s) feel secure and loved, ensuring that other responsibilities (such as household chores and childcare) are handled fairly, managing shared resources equitably, maintaining sexual health within your polycule… or something else entirely. If an agreement either no longer serves its intended purpose or that purpose becomes irrelevant for some other reason, it’s probably time to revisit the agreement and see if there’s any reason to keep it.

How to Renegotiate Polyamorous Relationship Agreements

So you’ve realised you need to renegotiate a relationship agreement. How can you actually do so effectively?

First, what not to do: don’t simply announce to your partner(s) that you will no longer be following the agreement in question. Please don’t do that! Got that? Okay, here’s what to do instead.

Raise It as Soon as It’s a Problem (But at an Appropriate Time)

You know what happens when you don’t address small problems or concerns? They turn into big problems. As soon as you start feeling that there’s a problem with one of your relationship agreements, address it ASAP.

Be mindful of the time and place for this conversation, though. Choose a moment when you’re both feeling calm and will have time to talk, free from distractions. If you do regular relationship check-ins, this is a great time to talk about your relationship agreements. If not, you can always give your partner a heads-up about the conversation you’d like to have and set aside some time for it (tell them what it’s about, both so they have time to gather their own thoughts on the subject and so that you’re not stressing them out with a contextless “we need to talk.”)

Make Sure That Everyone Impacted Gets a Voice

One of the most insidious problems that emerges when hierarchical polyamory and/or couples privilege are in play is that people end up being impacted by agreements that they had no hand in creating.

If you are considering making an agreement with one partner that may negatively impact another relationship, it’s hugely unfair to expect that other partner or metamour to just go along with it. Instead, speak to them and bring them into the negotiation process. They have a right not to have their relationship with you or your partner curtailed or harmed because of something that’s going on between the two of you.

Better yet, if this is possible and appropriate for you, sit down as a group or polycule and hash things out all together with equal weight given to everyone’s needs, feelings, and opinions.

Allow Plenty of Time for the Process

Sometimes, renegotiating agreements is incredibly simple. I’ve had agreement renegotiations that literally went “this agreement isn’t working for me”, “yeah me neither, shall we nix it?” “sure.” However, this is usually the exception rather than the rule. If you’re dealing with significant and emotive subjects, in particular, allow plenty of time for this renegotiation process.

Be ready to have a lengthy conversation, or even several. Be ready for everyone to need time to process, think things through, and come up with ideas for how to proceed. There’s a balance to be struck here, of course, and if you’ve been talking around the issue for six hours and got nowhere it might be time to park the subject and come back to it another day. But in general, do not expect major renegotiation of relationship agreements to take five minutes.

Keep It Simple

Relationship agreements should not resemble sprawling legal contracts full of clauses and exceptions, cross-referencing and footnotes. If you feel the need for this type of document in your relationship, something else might have gone wrong. Perhaps you’re dealing with unresolved trust issues, communication problems, or lingering mononormative beliefs.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t put your agreements in writing. You can, if you like! I’ve not felt the need to do this for a long time personally, but it has been helpful to me at other times in my life and I know plenty of people who find it useful.

Most agreements should be simple enough that you can distill them down to a sentence, or two at most (for example: “we’ll let each other know in advance about planned dates or hookups with new people” or “if I’m going to be out much later than originally planned, I’ll send you a text to let you know so you don’t worry.”)

Be Flexible, Creative, and Open to Input

As we’ve established, agreements should ultimately serve a purpose. So when you’re negotiating or renegotiating one, ask yourselves what purpose you want it to serve. Once you understand the underlying need or reason for an agreement, you can begin getting creative in how you craft it.

There are often more ways to achieve the same outcome than you might initially think. You might know exactly what you want your revamped agreement to say, but your partner or metamour might have an even better alternative idea you’ve never thought of.

Stay flexible, stay curious, and don’t forget that your ultimate goal is the health, happiness, and wellbeing of everyone in your relationship or network.

Have you successfully renegotiated your relationship agreements? Have any extra tips for us?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.