Exclusivity Clauses in a Non-Exclusive Relationship [Polyamory Conversation Cards #14]

So you’re totally on board with this polyamory thing. Perhaps you and your partner have just recently opened up to polyamory, perhaps you’ve decided to give solo polyamory a go, or perhaps you’ve been practicing for a long time. Regardless of your circumstances, this situation might be familiar:

Your partner does a particular thing that they usually do with you – such as a sex act, a date activity, or a romantic gesture – with another partner (or lets you know that they want to.) Bam, you’re madly jealous! That’s your thing, damnit!

Now most people, at this stage, will do one of two things. They’ll try to work through the feelings, or they’ll attempt to prevent their partner from doing that thing with that person (or perhaps with anyone else.) Today we’re talking about the latter.

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:

“Is there anything that you’d prefer to keep exclusive between you and a specific partner?”

So today we’re going to talk about exclusivity rules, or exclusivity clauses, in polyamorous relationship agreements.

What do we mean by exclusivity clauses in a polyamorous, open, or non-exclusive relationship?

First, let’s clarify what I don’t mean. This post is not about polyfidelity (also known as a closed polyamorous relationship in which a group, polycule, or romantic network of three or more people agree to keep their relationship configuration closed to the possibility of new relationships.) That’s a different dynamic entirely and not one I feel particularly qualified to comment on at the moment.

Instead, we’re talking about polyamorous relationships that allow for the people in them to date and form relationships with new people.

Polyamory is, by definition, a non-exclusive relationship. However, that doesn’t mean absolutely every aspect of the relationship is non-exclusive. An exclusivity clause, then, is an agreement in which certain aspects of a relationship are reserved for one dyad (or, more rarely, for one triad, quad, or other group relationship.)

Most often, I see exclusivity clauses in polyamorous relationships fall into one of four categories:

  • Life sharing/escalator exclusivity (e.g. “you can only live with me,” or “you can only have children with me.”)
  • Sexual exclusivity (e.g. “don’t have sex with anyone else in my favourite position” or “you’re only allowed to have unbarriered sex with me.”)
  • Romantic exclusivity (e.g. “don’t tell anyone else you love them” or “don’t call anyone else by my favourite pet name.”)
  • Activity exclusivity (e.g. “you can’t take vacations with anyone else” or “sushi is OUR thing.”

There is overlap, of course, and there may be exclusivity agreements I haven’t thought of that don’t fit into these categories. Overwhelmingly, though, these are the key patterns I have noticed.

Why do people want exclusivity around particular aspects of their relationships?

When people ask me what I think of certain aspects of their polyamorous relationship agreements, what I find myself wanting to ask most often is “why?”

Why do you have or want that agreement? Why have you made that rule? And why do you feel so strongly about that specific thing? The answers, when we ask ourselves and each other these questions and dare to be honest about our answers, can be incredibly illuminating.

So why do people want exclusivity agreements in a fundamentally non-exclusive relationship?

Most often, the reason that people want exclusivity clauses in their polyamorous relationship agreements have to do with jealousy, insecurity, and needing to feel special. These are all real, valid feelings that we all have from time to time. But is an exclusity clause the best way to address them? Maybe, sometimes. Often, probably not.

In many cases, it is better to address the root cause of the jealousy or insecurity. Living happily in any kind of non-exclusive relationship requires this of all of us at least occasionally. You might find that it’s not about the actual thing your partner wants to do at all. You might be worried about losing specialness in the relationship (more on that in a minute), about being replaced, or about your partner enjoying that activity with someone else more than they enjoy it with you.

In some cases, the desire for exclusivity clauses than come from a place other than jealousy or insecurity. For example, agreements around nesting exclusivity (“I live with this partner and we’ve agreed we don’t want to live with anyone else”) can help to create domestic safety and financial security for the partners as well as for children or other dependents.

They are sometimes also made necessary by choosing a certain style of polyamory. You can’t exactly live with multiple partners if you practice parallel polyamory, for example.

So before you go any further, get really honest with yourself and your partner(s). Why do you want exclusivity around that particular thing? What fear, emotion, unmet need, or relationship desire would that exclusivity meet?

Are exclusivity clauses ever ethically okay?

I’m going to give a cautious “yes, sometimes” to this one, with a lot of caveats.

As a general rule, I do not believe in restricting partners’ other relationships. However, I also don’t think it’s inherently wrong, toxic, or even hierarchical to carefully and with great consideration keep some things exclusive to a particular relationship.

Here’s a very quick litmus test you might want to use to determine if your exclusivity agreement is fair and reasonable or not:

  1. Is it narrow and specific, or broad and sweeping? (“Please don’t take other partners to the restaurant where you proposed to me” is different from “you can’t eat Italian food with anyone else.”) I’ll go into this in more detail below.
  2. Does the agreement place an undue hardship or limit on another relationship? (“Can this particular favourite vacation spot be a special place just for the two of us?” is unlikely to place such a hardship. “You’re not allowed to ever travel with anyone else” almost certainly does.)

In addition, consider whether exclusivity agreements are available to all your partners or just one. Ideally, you should be free to create special and unique things with all of your partners, not just a spouse, nesting partner, or “primary” (if you subscribe to hierarchy.)

Personally, I’m not necessarily opposed to creating limited and specific exclusivity clauses with partners around special and personal aspects of our relationships. But that possibility is available to anyone I’m in a relationship with, not just my nesting partner.

Exclusivity can be ethically given or negotiated, but not ethically demanded

If you and one (or more) of your partners decide to keep something exclusive between the two of you, I’m not going to tell you not to. However, it’s important that you come to these agreements mutually and from a place of equality. It is never okay to unilaterally place a rule or restriction on your partner(s) and metamour(s) without their input.

In other words, ask for what you want and need rather than making demands. You might find your partner is happy to give it to you, or you might find that you can negotiate and meet the same need in a different way.

Exclusivity might help less than you think it will

You feel bad when your partner does that thing with someone else. So you’ll simply forbid them from doing that thing with anyone else! Problem solved, right?

Well, maybe not.

This seemingly obvious and intuitive answer to this problem often helps people less than they think it will. That’s because, as we’ve already discussed, difficult feelings such as jealousy, insecurity, envy, competitiveness, and fear of inadequacy aren’t usually rational. They don’t usually stem from the things that might initially seem to be their causes. Instead, they come from much deeper places – from personal fears and demons, past trauma, mononormative societal programming, and more.

This all means that simply instituting an exclusivity clause around a specific act or activity may not help you all that much. Because that particular thing might not be pressing your emotional button any more, but the button is still there. This means that it is only a matter of time before something else pushes it. And – assuming you want to be ethically, healthily, and happily polyamorous – you cannot simply place new restrictions or exclusivity clauses every time something pushes an emotional button.

Your specialness comes from you, not acts or activities

I understand the worry that, if your partner does the same activities or sex acts or goes to the same restaurants with other partners, you will lose your specialness.

However, your specialness to your partner actually comes from you. It does not come from the things you do, and it certainly cannot be diminished or taken away by the things they might or might not do with someone else.

Think about something you love doing with your partner. Now imagine removing them from the situation and slotting someone else in instead. Does the activity feel the same with that other person? Of course it doesn’t. Because doing it with your partner is what makes it special.

Even if your partner goes to the same restaurants, does the same sex acts, and says the same loving words to both you and your metamour, the experience will be different with each of you. Because you are different people. There is something innately and beautifully empowering in realising that someone else cannot possibly be better than you at being you.

Finding special things that don’t restrict others

I understand the need and desire for a sense of specialness in a relationship. It’s a need I hold very strongly myself. That’s why I think it’s totally okay – and even desirable – to have special things in a relationship. Some of those things might be exclusive to a particular relationship, by accident or by design.

Relationships don’t need to all look the same in order to be egalitarian. In practice, it would be deeply strange to attempt to make all your relationships look the same. I might find it a bit weird, for example, if a partner started taking me to all the places that were special to them and another partner. And I’d find it exceptionally strange if Partner B began asking to do things they’d never previously shown an interest in just because I’d done those things with Partner A.

The trick is to find and carve out special things with each of your partners. In good relationships, these will naturally emerge over time. There might be a special nickname you call them or a particular place you go together. A series you save to watch together, or sex toys or kink gear you buy just for the two of you. Inside jokes, funny anecdotes, and so on. All of these form part of the identity of your relationship, and keeping them exclusive likely feels natural and normal, creating no hardship in any of your other relationships.

Keep it specific and limited

In general, I advocate keeping your “exclusive things”, if you have them, quite narrow and specific. Think more “this particular event is a thing we do together whenever we can,” not “you are forbidden to ever attend kink nights/music festivals/costume parties with anyone else.” More “baby is a nickname we call each other and won’t use with our other partners,” less “don’t tell anyone else you love them.”

The specificity of these “special things” is one of the most beautiful aspects of relationships, to me. Who cares if no-one else understands why we love that stupid TV show so much? Or if our friends don’t get why we crease up every time we hear that particular word or phrase? Or if our other partners think our mutual favourite food is gross? Those things are special because they are ours. Because we have co-created them together.

Once you start thinking about all the little things that make up the identity of a relationship, you start to realise how many unique and beautiful things you and each of your partners already has between you. Each of those things is a tile making up – if you’ll pardon a possibly trite metaphor – the wonderful and entirely unique mosaic of your connection.

Stay flexible

Relationship agreements in polyamory (and really, in any relationship but particularly a non-exclusive relationship) are living, breathing, changing things. Therefore, it is important that you stay flexible and open to change. You or your partner may feel fine about an exclusivity clause right now, but decide you want to change it later on. A new lover or metamour might have strong feelings about it that need to be taken into consideration. This is not to say that you must change it, of course, but you should be prepared to at least keep lines of negotiation open.

You might also find that, as time passes, you no longer need the exclusivity clause. Perhaps the thing that felt intolerable earlier on in your polyamory journey now feels far more comfortable, or at least acceptable. You might also choose to keep it long-term, and that’s fine too as long as you do so ethically and fairly. Hopefully, whatever you choose, you’ll naturally find all kinds of beautiful and unique wonderfulness in each of your connections.

Do you have any exclusivity clauses in your polyamorous, open, or non-exclusive relationship(s)? How do they work for you and how did you come to them?

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.