Poly Without Rules: How Does that Work?

I’ve written in the past about my views on rules in poly relationships, and one of the most common responses I receive when discussing that part of my ideology is that it sounds great in theory, but can’t possibly work in practice. I think we’re really trained by a lot of the poly how-to guides out there that one of the absolute keys to making polyamory run smoothly is to sit down and draw up some kind of contract with a whole lot of specific rules and restrictions, and to a lot of folks the idea of embarking on non-monogamy without such clearly defined rules seems like a haphazard recipe for disaster. But for me, living without rules in my relationships isn’t just about ideology, it’s actually how we live and function (quite happily!). So I wanted to spend a little bit of time talking about the practicalities of how poly without rules actually works in practice.

First of all, a lack of rules does not mean a lack of communication. If anything, not having formal rules necessitates clear, specific communication even more. I think it’s incredibly important for everyone to have the right and the ability to communicate their preferences to their partners. I don’t believe that we have a right to make rules to control the behavior of others, but I do believe that we all–as humans–have the right to tell others what we want, need, and prefer in our intimate relationships. The difference between these two things is more than just semantics; it’s the difference between seeking to dictate the behavior of others vs. being honest about our own desires/wants/needs and asking others to try their best to respect those desires/wants/needs.

For one example, one thing a lot of poly folks have firm rules about is when they must be notified of a partner’s new romantic/sexual interest. Some might have a rule that they must discuss it before becoming involved with a new person at all, some have rules that say kissing without prior notice is okay but anything beyond that needs to be talked about in advance, some people insist on meeting a partner’s potential partner before anything happens, and so on and so forth, in as many variations as you can imagine. So how do you approach such a discussion without rules?

For me, this is about communicating preferences. I can tell a partner “I’d prefer if you have the opportunity to let me know before something happens between you and someone else, especially sex. If you have good indications that something’s going on ahead of time, you should let me know. But I also understand sometimes things just happen, people get caught up in something, and I don’t want you to feel like you have to turn something down/walk away from a desirable situation because you haven’t had an opportunity to check in with me.” To me, this kind of framing is a lot more nuanced than a firm rule, just like real life and relationships are nuanced. My partners know that if things happen in a way that deviates from my preferences, I’m likely to struggle with it emotionally a little bit more. And that’s an awareness they can use to help make a decision about how to handle a particular situation. But if they do something in a way that doesn’t perfectly match my preference, it doesn’t mean they’ve broken a rule, it doesn’t mean they’ve betrayed me, and it doesn’t mean they’ll face any kind of punitive consequences.

If a partner were to continuously, time after time, blatantly ignore my communicated preferences and desires, that would demonstrate a lack of basic respect for me. But that’s a flawed relationship, not something that formal rules could have protected me from. I know that my partners love and respect me, and I know that they both generally want to behave in a way that won’t cause me any pain and suffering. This should be true in all relationships. I also know that we’re all human, and sometimes we’re all going to do things differently than what the others would find ideal. And I don’t need to be able to say “you broke such and such a rule!” in order to tell someone “this kind of hurt my feelings, and here’s how I’d appreciate you trying to do it differently in the future.”

People in relationships–poly or not–have all kinds of mutual agreements that they more or less abide by, about everything from who takes the trash out to whether they’ll call if they’ll be home late to how they decide on making major purchases. We don’t generally view these things as “rules,” but simply the mutually-desired dynamics that develop over the course of merging our lives with someone else. Agreements about how we form relationships with others don’t have to be any more daunting or complicated than this.

Again, I’ve heard many times that the distinction I would make between “agreements” and “rules” is merely a matter of semantics. But I have to disagree. Words have power and meaning, and declaring that something is a “rule” another person must adhere to is incredibly different from a mutually consensual agreement, or a well-intentioned request. There is a world of difference between saying to a person “you are not allowed to _______” vs. saying “I would appreciate it if you would ________.” And I am anti-authoritarian enough to find that difference crucial.

Poly without rules does not mean just sitting by while your partners do absolutely whatever, whenever, and silencing yourself if their behavior is painful for you. That would hardly be a happy, functional relationship. Poly without rules simply means communicating our needs and desires without turning them into some kind of mandates, and trusting our partners to love and respect us enough to want to behave in a non-hurtful way.

I hope this helps to demystify “poly without rules” at least a little bit, but I’d love to engage with further questions/concerns in the comments! Thanks, as always, for reading.

7 thoughts on “Poly Without Rules: How Does that Work?

  1. Spruce

    Wow, I agree completely with your position and reasoning. The only “rule” I have with my partner is exactly this: “I’d prefer if you have the opportunity to let me know before something happens between you and someone else, especially sex. If you have good indications that something’s going on ahead of time, you should let me know. But I also understand sometimes things just happen, people get caught up in something, and I don’t want you to feel like you have to turn something down/walk away from a desirable situation because you haven’t had an opportunity to check in with me.”
    We are able to meet this expectation for each other pretty much all of the time. There have been a couple times when one of us was off-the-grid and couldn’t communicate prior, or it was late and assumed the other one was already asleep. In those cases, it did hurt the other person, but it was not viewed as a breach-of-trust but a failure of communication, and we got over it (and closer for it).
    This is actually the main thing that I want from an “open relationship” (as we tend to call it): to not have the relationship confined by a fixed set of rules, but to constantly be in open communication about our feelings and needs. I think another risk with a “rules” based approach is that one might forget that even if you follow all the rules, a partner might feel hurt. And if your partner does something that gives you a painful feeling, you should still tell them, even if they didn’t “break” a rule.

    I’ve always been a little bemused by my poly friends who have lots of “rules”, sometimes even written down and numbered. The only counter point I might offer is that a very explicit framework may help some people feel more comfortable, knowing that there won’t be confusion about expectations later. It seems important though, that for this to work the rules need to always be up for discussion and renegotiation.
    In several cases, it appeared to me that some of the strict rules were partially self-imposed by people who did not trust themselves to balance their partners gracefully, and wanted to go into a new relationship saying “these are the defined parameters that I’ve agreed to with my other partner” so that the expectations will be set from the beginning.

    Other tangent: I’ve recently been reading about the spectrum of poly relationships, and was intrigued to discover poly-fidelity, which appears to be ideologically diametric from the principles you describe here. My understanding is that poly-fidelity functions like default monogamy with respect to forbidding outside relationships, but allows for more than two to be “in” the relationship. I don’t know anyone with such a relationship, but I’d be intrigued about these agreements support or hinder communication.

    1. Angi Post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting! It’s always great to hear from others who can relate.

      Poly-fidelity has always been a bit perplexing to me, though I certainly respect the decision some folks make to have that kind of relationship. It’s kind of funny, because I think my relationships look a lot like poly-fidelity from the outside; I’m in two long-term, “we’re all a family” committed relationships, and neither of my partners currently have other relationships. But I can’t imagine ever agreeing (or expecting anyone else to agree) to never seeking additional relationships outside of our family unit. Personally, that runs so contrary to what being poly means to me. It’s hard for me to imagine ever seeking an additional serious relationship in addition to these two, but it’s absolutely crucial to me to know that’s my decision to make, and I also recognize that I can’t predict exactly what I’ll want in the future. Poly-fidelity would feel, to me, like simply replicating the constraints of monogamy only with two (or more) partners instead of just one, and I know I’d ultimately feel way too constrained by it. More power to those who do feel content and fulfilled with that kind of agreement, but it definitely wouldn’t work for me.

  2. the frogman

    I too find myself scratching my head at people needing to have rules. It just feels like they are trading the rules of monogamy for the rules of polyamory. In my mind, though, the idea of polyamory is that people don’t own each other and shouldn’t dictate to each other what they can and cannot do. Yes, we have to be comfortable with each other to be in a relationship, but if that comfort can only be achieved by proscribing certain actions of the other person, then it seems to me that you can either have one of two results.

    Either the other person doesn’t want to violate the rule anyway, in which case the rule is unnecessary, or the other person will feel they are being controlled by you and need to alter their behavior to remain on good terms with you. In that case, then like you, I prefer that it be phrased as a request rather than a rule, since that respects the other person’s right to choose their own course in life. Perhaps it is a minor distinction, but I feel that it’s important to the spirit of individual freedom, which to me is the whole point of polyamory.

  3. Roxanne

    I feel the same way! My hubby and I have a completely open relationship. My only “rule” is that he tell me about anything that happens. It doesn’t have to be before hand, however I would like a heads up. I’ve told him straight out that if he happens to be flirting with someone he’s interested in and she invites him back to her place, take the opportunity! I won’t get mad. Also, there have been plenty of times where I’ve gone out for a girls night or weekend, and I’ve told him before I left: “If I have an opportunity to hook up, I’m going to take it!” And he simply nods in agreement.

    I have a pair of really close friends – on the other hand – that do have rules, and their main rule is: You can’t do anything with anyone unless I give you explicit permission and I am right there in the room with you. I shudder just thinking about it! Yes it works for them, but what is basically going on is that she controls the situation. She’ll bring him to parties and pick out one or two women she thinks couldn’t possibly be a threat, and then she gives him permission to go have fun with them.

    To me, that sounds like insecurity. If she really trusted him, she wouldn’t have to put limits on him. However, he was a notorious cheater in his previous marriage, and so I can kind of see how she would be insecure…

    In my marriage, I have told him from day one that he is free to do exactly as he pleases – so long as he is honest with me about it. It took him a few years to get to the point where he could grant me the same permission. He was so afraid for a long time that I was only with him until I found someone better. It wasn’t until he realized that I wasn’t looking for someone “better” but rather someone to have a little fun with occasionally, that he finally loosened up and agreed that I wasn’t going to leave him for the next man I went out with.

    Now, we go to the occasional party and know that neither of us can do anything to get into trouble with the other. If something happens – yea! – and if it doesn’t, bummer! In any case, we don’t get upset or jealous. In fact, my hubby watched me (with another at a party) with an expression of: “God I love that woman!” and it made my toes curl! I suddenly wanted to crawl out from under my partner and go kiss my hubby 🙂

    To anyone that thinks that a poly relationship MUST have rules, my question is why? What are they afraid of?

  4. Cait

    I just found my way here from your Offbeat Bride post and I think I may be in love with you! I agree completely with this. When I began a poly relationship, I thought we HAD to have rules, because that’s what everyone said! We tried that, and then accidentally broke rules and changed our minds about things, and realized that we have no idea what we’ll feel when new situations arise (and all situations are really new in some way,) and we traded out rules for just talking about everything! For us this was also the shift from “open” to “poly,” as one of our rules was to have only physical relationships… right up until me and my boyfriend fell in love. The funny thing is that me and my fiancee were both seeing guys because we thought we were emotion-proof to men, which is hilarious to me now since even back then I rejected the idea of gender as static and binary.
    Anyway, the weird thing now is interacting with poly couples who have tons of rules, and oddly it seems less consideration. My fiancee is now seeing a man who is engaged to a woman who has a girlfriend (side note: explaining this to people who have never heard of poly relationships feels a bit like reciting the story about the old lady who swallowed a fly.) They have all sorts of rules that he is horrified that we don’t share (“He can sleep in your bed?! That has to stop!) but seems reluctant to share needs, fears, desires, etc.
    Sorry if I’m rambling, I’m a little over-excited to find folks saying things I think on this topic!

    1. Angi Post author

      Thank you! I’m glad you found your way here, my absolute favorite thing about this blog is hearing from others who completely relate, especially since I felt I had so few models for poly-without-rules when we were first starting this journey.


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