The best rules are no rules, but one simple rule can framework success.
Having moved through many types of nonmonogamy I’ve had the chance to move through almost all types of rules. This includes everything from full on signed BDSM Dominant/Submissive contracts all the way down to no rules at all, which is my current setup.
And I would never want to move backwards. My current relationships are all built on communication and boundaries, not rules.
But for most beginners, going in without rules can be scary. And there is good reason to be scared.
Moving from monogamy to polyamory requires a complete overhaul of your communication tactics. It’s not only what you talk about, but how you talk about it.
And for many couples, they fear they could head into a train wreck or ruin their marriage because they are in a Catch 22 situation: You can’t fully appreciate the communication skills polyamory requires without being polyamorous, nor be successfully polyamorous without the communication skills.
Rules are not a replacement for good communication, and you should never feel that way. If you do, you really will be headed for a train wreck. But rules can help teach us to communicate when used properly.
This article isn’t going to give an exhaustive list of rules, nor generically talk about how to create rules.
Instead, let’s talk about one of the basic rules that everyone should start with, how to use it properly, and how it teaches us to communicate.
1 Rule — Speak Before Spoken To
Remember as a kid that dreaded rule of “Don’t Speak Until Spoken To”? You would run up to mom while she’s talking to someone, and you’d start in, “Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, look, mom, look…”
And that look of patient but simmering glare would creep into her eyes before telling you to stop interrupting her? Well, this isn’t that.
Speak before spoken to means not keeping secrets or information to yourself.
Whether it is looking at a dating website, texting (or sexting) someone, calling them, meeting them, having interest in them, planning a date with them, etc… You and your partner don’t yet know what the real expectations are.
Don’t kid yourselves! You think you know. You make statements like, “Well, I really just want to know if X happens.” Then Y or Z happens, and you lose your shit and have an argument.
Remember, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Disclose 99.999999% of Everything
So starting off, explain what you are doing to your partner in a way that accomplishes the same AS IF they were right there, seeing and reading everything, but WITHOUT them seeing and reading everything.
Privacy can be maintained, but if they WERE to read something and be shocked, you probably failed at explaining well enough. We’re not talking about exact details here.
For instance, you don’t have to explain that you had exactly 3 orgasms in 2 particular positions. But there is a clear difference between “hung out at his house” and “shagged on his dining room table”.
There’s also a difference between “I’m texting a woman” and “I get daily boob pics from a woman”.
If your reaction to this rule is, “But, I really don’t want to get into private activities if I start seeing other people,” well, I completely agree with you.
However, as a beginner, you have three choices.
- Don’t try polyamory, because you’re not willing to over communicate until you learn to communicate effectively.
- Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to explain. If you think information X would hurt your partner, why they hell are you doing X to begin with?
- Suck it up, buttercup.
I’m sorry if that doesn’t sound empathetic, but if you aren’t willing to get outside your communication comfort zone, I’ve got some bad news for you. Polyamory, in practice, is probably WAY outside your comfort zone, period.
The other part of this rule is that you speak first, not wait for someone to ask. Sure, speak, but do it BEFORE spoken to.
Of course, you may want them to ask questions, which is fine. But you might be using questions as a way to know if now is a good time to talk about something.
Instead, be assertive.
“Is now a good time to talk about what’s going on in our polyamory?”
See, not hard.
Again, there are differences between the two styles of talking. “I might be open to having sex with Tim tonight” is VERY different from “I had sex with Tim two weeks ago.”
This type of thing that, done wrong, causes instant train wrecks and divorce proceedings.
Make this a rule, and enforce it. I’m not a fan of a veto, but you are playing with fire here if you don’t adhere to it. More than three failures at this in a month, and you probably need to take a break, cut off all relationships, and work on your communication skills.
I am not a fan of any form of veto, and I think it’s one of the worst mistakes a couple can make as a starting rule.
Never, ever, allow veto on a specific person. Partners are NOT things you can vote up or vote down. But if you can’t go three months without growing or being happy in polyamory, veto all of it, for both of you.
But a veto of polyamory itself for not being able to adhere to some starter rules is the only real enforcement power you have as a couple.
And I know many long time people will say, “This is why I don’t date poly newbs.”
Well, yes. They’re unstable and rocky when starting out. Giving this instruction is not going to change that.
I’m veering away from the advice of such authors as Franklin Veaux here who says you really can’t do a “try it before you buy it” approach to polyamory.
I disagree. A 20 year marriage isn’t worth risking if three months in, someone is secretly sexting someone they just met. Other’s can put broken homes on their account list, I will not.
As a beginner, you don’t know if polyamory is for you. And if you are in a serious, long term relationship, you can (at the beginning) push the ejection seat button and… well… get the hell out before you truly damage your relationship.
This rule also holds for single people who are trying polyamory, with one small twist.
If you are single, this rule applies to yourself, not your partners who may not be beginners and are better (maybe) at communication.
If you fail yourself at this rule, its time to reconsider if you are ready for polyamory.
Clarify What You Don’t Want to Hear
The rule is simple, and self reinforcing. It demands over communication until you learn how to cut out the things that are unnecessary.
How will you know if you are over communicating? Simple. After three or four times of hearing things that are unwanted, your partner can speak up and say, “I really don’t need to hear about X.”
But remember to be clear!
You may not want to hear about every day your partner texts Mary, because it’s the same info day in and day out. But you may want to hear if they text someone else, either existing or new.
Communication can always be turned down, decreased. But if and when it must be turned up, or increased, it’s usually immediately following a failure of communication, and feelings of hurt and betrayal.
Always error on the side of more information, not less.
What About Other Rules
“I want a rule whereby my partner can’t go on overnight dates until I’ve met them!”
Let’s assume you are sticking to the Speak Before Spoken To rule. And your partner discloses, “Diana asked me if I could spend the night after our Friday night date. How do you feel about that?”
And you answer, “I’m not yet comfortable with you doing an overnight with someone I don’t know and haven’t met”.
Ok, why do you need a rule again?
“But, what if they want to do it anyways, and tell me ‘well, there’s no rule against it so I can do what I want!’”
Well, if they feel that way, they’re probably already doing what they want regardless of how you feel. Is that they type of person you want a relationship with?
Or do you want to control the other person? Have some sort of threat to hold over them?
“You didn’t follow the rule, so I get to punish you!”
But how are you going to punish them if they’re going to do what they want anyways?
The Rule Paradox
You can’t enforce a rule if a person doesn’t want to follow it anyways. And you don’t need a rule if the person wants to cooperatively follow good relationship communication and boundaries.
In other words, bad partners will shit all over you and your rules, while good partners don’t need them.
And everyone fucks up, from time to time. There’s no rule enforcing owning up to your screw ups, or forgiving your partner. The rules are just there to punish.
This is why I advise one, and only one, rule, as though I were the Polyamorous Diety: THOU SHALT COMMUNICATE OR THOU SHALT QUIT!
For those of you who are religiously bent, that’s an actual Christian/Jewish/Etc. commandment. Specifically, it’s the 8th commandment: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness.
Don’t be a lying (or lying by omission) asshole? Hey, I don’t need to be the Pope to know that’s good advice.
And then, 6 or 12 months later… throw that rule and its stone tablet in the trash. By then, you either learned to communicate well enough or you broke the rule so many times that it’s not helping and worthless.