ZAPoly Discussion Topic : Relationship Agreements

Being able to figure out what works for you and then doing it is one of the beauties of polyamory. You don't have to accept society's norms and traditions, you negotiate your own. You do what makes everyone involved most happy.

This is where rules come in. Rules are relationship agreements you and your partners work out amongst yourselves.
The idea behind relationship agreements in a polyamorous context is that we are rejecting the dominant relationship paradigm and all its implicit assumptions about how relationships are supposed to work. We are finding out for ourselves what works and what doesn't work, in an ethical and consensual way. Since we throw out the default rulebook, we get to negotiate our own - individual to each relationship we forge. It is often a process of trial and error, and not all rules work. Some are good, some are bad.

We don't _have_ to start out in the wilderness, though. Poly people have been communicating and figuring out best practises about relationship rules since, well, there have been poly people.

As time goes by with a particular partner you might find you need fewer rules - depending on how compatible your communication styles are, and how well your goals and opinions mesh, but when you're first venturing into new territory, having rules can make people feel safer.

Some Bad Poly Rules

1. Don't ask. Don't tell.

Have you ever met people who have successfully used "don't ask. don't tell"?
Laura: nope
Laura: I've heard of people using it, but it has always ended in 2 ways, as far as I know, the relationship ends, or the poly ends, and the relationship is damaged.

2. Don't fall in love.

3. Package deals. To date me you have to date my partner. To have sex with me you have to have sex with my partner.

4. Your feelings may go up to this line on the measuring cup, then you have to stop.

Guidelines on making good rules

Concentrate on the "why" behind the rules when you set them up.
It could be that instead of, or in addition to, the rule, the why (e.g. , because I'm afraid you'll leave me....  , because I want to be in control of everyone and everything etc) might need addressing.
Some of those needs could use further intervention besides the making of rules. 

Never make rules that are impossible to follow. Never AGREE to a rule like that, either.
Sometimes people agree to anything because they are all revved up for poly or for a particular partner, but poly is NOT a case where it is better to get forgiveness than permission.

Don't try to legislate emotion - legislate behavior instead.

Don't make a rule that the rules can't change. People change. Boundaries shift. Comfort levels rise.

Its is a good idea to build in some rules about renegotiation and relationship maintenance.

Rules should be simple and easy. If you are arguing  about  a lot of details, then often it's doomed to failure. Adhere to the spirit of the rule in addition to the letter of the rule.
Some people do rules/agreements verbally. Other people have terrible memories and need something written down to jar their memory. Some people make an occasion of re-reading their rules together periodically.

Treat people with respect and compassion.
Rules about what people can't do are usually better than what people must do, especially when the people specified are not the ones originally involved in making the rule.

Don't forget to have very specific  relationship agreements about safer sex.


Tacit's thoughts on relationship agreements (from the forums at

Tuesday October 31, 2006 11:39:02 AM EDT

    In my experience, the thing that is most important in any relationship arrangement, rule-based or not, is not the specific agreements themselves, but the reason behind those agreements.

There are many different ways to put together a polyamorous relationship and many different approaches to rules and agreements. However, in my experience, the relationships that succeed have certain things in common, and one of the biggest things they have in common is the recognition that rules and agreements can not stop jealousy or insecurity and can not make bad feelings go away.

I think that many people, especially people new to polyamory, often make relationship agreements for the wrong reasons, and are then taken by surprise when the relationships don't work. In order to succeed, any rule or agreement has to have two basic things: first, it must accomplish the task it is intended to accomplish, and second, it must have a clear path to success.

Rules that work

Some examples of rules that do generally work well and that are positive ad healthy are rules designed for a specific purpose, particularly a purpose with practical, quantifiable, real-world effects. For example:

- Rules about safe sex, sexual health, and sexually transmitted disease. These are always a good idea in any relationship that is not sexually monogamous. Unfortunately, many people seem to feel that as long as they use condoms, it's all good--no need to worry about anything. Condoms are a good idea, but they are not enough; for example, condoms provide poor protection against HPV and herpes.

- Rules designed to protect personal tangible property and financial matters. For example, rules which say that all the people who live in a particular house must contribute to the upkeep and maintenance of the house are effective at preventing people from feeling taken advantage of. (This does not necessarily mean everyone pays an equal share of the mortgage or anything like that; not everyone has the same economic means, and in any event there are ways to contribute other than by taking out a checkbook.)

- Rules designed to protect people from legal liability, or to protect the health and safety of the people involved. For example, "no illegal drug use in the house," "no selling guns from the house." Careful selection of partners will do a lot to take care of these concerns and make these rules unnecessary, in my experience.

Rules that do not work

Often, many people feel that they can make jealousy or insecurity go away by passing rules designed to manipulate their partners' behavior around their own insecurities. The problem is that there is a difference between the trigger of an insecurity and the real CAUSE of the insecurity; rules can address triggers but can never solve the root cause. And establishing rules around insecurity merely makes the insecurity stronger, and establishes a precedent that the way to deal with insecurity isn't to do the hard and uncomfortable work to understand it, but rather just to patch around it. For example:

- "No having sex with the other person when I am not there." Most often, this rule (a very common one among newcomers, by the way) is rooted in fear of abandonment, fear of being replaced, or fear of losing a partner's affection. Rules will not make these fears go away. Only careful self-analysis, systematic effort to understand the fear, and deliberate restructuring of one's life to make this fear go away will do that. Passing a rule merely sweeps the fear under the carpet, where it grows and festers into an open sore.

- "We always date together as a couple, and anyone involved with one of us must love us both 'equally.'" This is a rule you'll see right here in this Web site often. It's rooted in the naive belief that if your partner dates the same person you date, then you will not feel jealous, because your partner is not getting anything you're not. I've seen quite a number of people who genuinely believe this, and are genuinely astonished when they find that Hot Bi Babe and are jealous nonetheless.Jealousy is not rational; it is rooted in insecurity, fear of loss, and similar emotions. Dating as a couple will not make an insecure person into a secure person. Dating as a couple will not make someone who is afraid into someone who is confident.

Alan from Poly in the Media's "six sound agreements":

• Communicate everything all around that might be important to the relationship.

• If you're afraid to say it, that means you should say it (tip o' the hat to Marcia Baczynski).

• Listening is to be done in a respectful way that encourages further divulging.

• Any agreement that is in effect is not to be broken, period.

• Any agreement can be opened for rediscussion at any time. (And the agreements should be reviewed periodically — at the start of every even-numbered month? — regardless.)

• Anyone may end an agreement unilaterally by leaving the relationship. (This is simple reality, but good to spotlight upfront.)

• Take notes — and save them where all parties can find and reread them in a pinch.

Some useful URL's:

-- South African Polyamory

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