Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Poly 101: Rules and Expectations

Lately, I've been writing some 101 articles for the blog; you can find them using the poly101 label on the site. In this article, I'm addressing a key idea behind polyamorous relationships.


I'm going to play a little game with you. 

It's a game that tries to weigh your personal feelings surrounding self-direction, freedom, and autonomy. 

I'm about to offer you a set of ten statements. Pause and examine your emotional responses as you read each one. If you want to have some real fun, score yourself. Give yourself 1-10 points per question on this range:


  • 10 or 9 Absolutely Agree
  • 8 or 7 Strongly Agree
  • 6 or 5 Agree
  • 4 or 3 Strongly Disagree
  • 2 or 1 Absolutely Disagree 

Ready? Okay, answer honestly:

1. My partners should know where I am at all times, and, when to expect me home.

2. I am accountable to all of my partners for all of my sexual and romantic activities. They have a right and vested interest to know who, what, where, when, and why.

3. It is reasonable that all of my partners know my sexual risk factors. I encourage them to inquire about and suggest limits on my sexual activities. 

4. Should I ask, it is unacceptable any of my partners to lie - or otherwise conceal any facts or details - about a date or romantic encounter. The same goes for me.

5. My partners can - at any time - request that I do not engage in specific sexual activities, and I will do my best to honor it.

6. My partners can - at any time - request that I do not date specific people or others, and I will do my best to honor it.

7. My partners can - at any time - request that more energy be paid to their dynamic with me, and I will do my best to honor it.

8. I am an adult. I am accountable for every decision I make. I will not allow any excuse (example: being drunk, horny, in a scene, got carried away, in NRE, in romantic love, etc.) to detract from taking responsibility for my actions at all times.

9. To the greatest extent possible, all of my partners deserve a say in my calendaring and scheduling.

10. I have obligations (family, financial, parental, spousal) that may at times take precedence over my romantic entanglements, and I will act upon them accordingly.

Okay, let's talk about Rules and Expectations for a minute before we tackle these responses.

When an established couple begins their journey into non-monogamy, there is a fear that opening-up will harm their connection. If both of the individuals find value in their connection, it's likely they're going to set some rules for engaging in a non-monogomous lifestyle. 

Rules, in this sense of the word, are a mutually-agreed on set of expectations that attempts to make behavior more predictable. Rules, they believe, will dictate predictable and acceptable behavior, and reduce risks that could introduce biological/emotional problems (STI's, jealousy, anger and hatred, fear, fights, drama, their separation or divorce, etc.).

Rules can be written down and explicitly defined. I've met a member of one poly-pod that tells me that they've a binder of written rules governing the behavior of all in the pod, spanning 18 years! It's a huge-ass binder!

Rules can be broad ideas that aren't codified in writing but are mutually agreed to. I know a six-person poly-pod that adheres to five broad rules and the 5th rule refers to the first: "Don't be stupid."

Rules can also be broad, moral or ethical principles. Something like, "Do no harm" or "Be ethical", or, "We just trust each other".

However it works for you and your pod, rules try to instill a sense of security. They try to give us confidence that everything's not going to go to Hell-in-a-handbag because you're non-monogamous. They attempt to enforce a code of conduct that everyone can agree to. Rules are structure. 

Now let's go back to your results. 

Your score is going to fall within a spectrum (10-100%).

The lower the score the more you likely value autonomy and freedom; the more likely you view rules as instruments of control and not as reasonable mutual expectation; the more likely you'll refuse outside accountability for your actions (expecting your partners to deal with their own emotional responses rather than considering how you contribute to those responses); the more likely you're to view broad descriptions "Ethical" in the same context as "Acceptable" or "Right", which isn't accurate but helps to justify your actions; the more likely you're to shift blame for relationship problems away from you and onto the back of somebody else; the more likely you're to make unilateral decisions as not to be confronted or told no.

The higher the score the more you likely value setting reasonable expectations; the more likely you view rules as tools for negotiating what you want; the more likely you accept outside accountability for your actions and promises; the more likely you're to consider the feelings of your partners when making independent decisions; the more likely you're to view contextual nuances of broad descriptions like "Ethical" (ie: it may have been ethical to provide advance notice on your intention to engage in a threesome, but, advance notice alone doesn't make it "right" if a partner asked you politely not to participate and you refused citing your "ethical and transparent" conduct as a license to do whatever you please); the more likely you're to make more consensus-based decisions with your partners, understanding and accepting that you may be confronted or told no.

Extremes are probably quite rare. The outliers, or people scoring under 15 - in my mind - would be chronically selfish within the context of relationships; people scoring above 85 - in my mind - may be fearful, incapable of making independent decisions, or co-dependent. If you answered honestly, I think it'd be unusual to fall outside the curve.

Now, I think it'd be a mistake to ascribe "good or bad" to your results. You may be a level-headed person who scored in the 30-40 range and prefers a more loosely-defined relationship structure with fewer rules and expectations. No harm, no foul - that's just the way you tick. 

Similarity between partners is probably most desirable. Too significant a variance and there could be ... trouble ... and that's the number I'd encourage you to focus on. A wide spread between your score and your partners' may represent a significant mis-match of expectations governing your actions, sewing seeds of distrust. That said, I think it'd be a valuable conversation between you and a partner who scored closer to 80 or 90 ... that individual perceives rules and expectations differently than you, and may require more structure than what you want to feel secure. 

Finally, I also think it'd be a mistake to suggest that lots of rules or too few rules are "good or bad". Rules are just a means of achieving a sense of security by setting expectations. I would sincerely suggest that rules are what you make of them. I don't think anyone can reasonably say "my way is the right way". Still, finding where you and your partners might fall on this scale could be useful in understanding how rules and expectations help create a sense of security in Polyamory.

Russell
(s1m0n)

PS. Yes, the questions are deliberately phrased in a way to test your value of self over others; are you selfish and fiercely independent, or, selfless and considerate towards others, etc. Ultimately, I think this measure relates to trust (we tend not to trust the selfish and self-interested, we trust people who have our best interest in mind); trust determines the need and extent of rules; rules establish a sense of security. If we're insecure, we're untrusting of the situation, and will seek rules to clarify expectations. If we're secure, we're trusting of the situation, and may relax the need for rules.

PPS. Yes, selfish has a negative connotation. If you've got a suggestion - perhaps "self-serving" or "self-interest" - I'm open to hear it - whatever - but I'm still comfortable with selfish.

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