How Do Relationship Agreements Impact Our Additional Relationships in Polyamory?

One of the questions I was asked during my presentation “Co-dependence or Interdependence” at Atlanta Poly Weekend 2018, was a question regarding relationship agreements and how they impact (often negatively) 3rd parties who had no say in the creation of those agreements.

It was an important question. I agree that it can be painful and feel unfair to be limited and impacted by agreements that one had no voice in and no opportunity for input. And I have been one of those people, impacted by another couple’s relationship agreements!

To make this more understandable to readers who weren’t there, I’ll repeat the example I was using. I was explaining the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationship agreements as it is explained in my article Healthy Poly Relationships Part 4: Healthy Compromise. If you haven’t read it, or you weren’t present during the presentation, you may want to read it now.

The example I was using during the presentation was, “Let’s say my partner asks that I don’t jump into bed with someone that I’ve just met. That if I meet someone I want to have sex with, that I wait until I can tell her about it, then plan another date with that person for possible sex.” In the example, my partner is not asking for decision making power. She’s not looking for a veto. She’s just wanting to know in advance so she can emotionally prepare.

My point was that (assuming I agree to this) how do I know if this is a healthy agreement (for our relationship and me as an individual) or an unhealthy one?

For this to be healthy, first my partner has to acknowledge that I have the right to full bodily and sexual autonomy (See my first article, Healthy Poly Relationships Part 1: Boundaries.) Thus, I have the right to say “No,” to this request. And, if I agree to limit one of my rights, (which is what I’m doing if I agree to this accommodation,) it is a gift. This gift of accommodation should be recognized, and appreciated by her.

It also needs to be based on honest, clear, timely communication from her (in this case it might mean being honest about her feelings, reasons or motives as to why she wants it,) and if I agree to it, it should not be due to internal negative pressures such as guilt, shame or fear, and not due to negative external pressures such as displays of anger, manipulation, emotional meltdowns, or guilt tripping.

My agreement also needs to take into account who I am and what I want. As I was saying in the APW class, “If I’m a person who really enjoys having sex with someone I just met, I’m not likely to agree to this accommodation request. But if I’m a person who prefers to not do that, then I could see myself more easily agreeing to this request.”

That’s when the question was presented. I was asked to consider the feelings of the 3rd person who might meet me at a bar and feels unfairly constrained by the agreement I made with my partner, that they had no say in. And I agree, that could feel unfair.

My response at the time was, “Well, I have a right to say no, to this person at the bar.” And that is also true. But I don’t want my response to be interpreted as dismissive of this very important ethical dilemma. I’ve continued to think about this question and have more to say on this topic.

First, I want to add to my original response and say, “In that moment at the bar, I should present this limit as MY limit. Once I agree to a limit that affects new people I might meet, and I’ve agreed to it voluntarily, it is now MY limit.”

It is not good form to “throw my partner under the bus” and say, “I’d love to have sex with you right now, but I can’t because I agreed with my partner to not do that.” I think the temptation to speak it in this way might be stronger when a the person has agreed to something they really don’t want, which suggests they succumbed to internal or external pressures.

And other times people are tempted to speak this way because they are being cowards. They don’t want this third person to feel rejected. They want the 3rd person to know how much they are desired. So, they “throw their partner under the bus” in an attempt to improve their chances of a second date.

Don’t be a coward! Own it. “I would love to have sex with you on our second date, but I have chosen to not have sex with anyone on the first date… for reasons of my own.” Those reasons may be that I just don’t want to. Or, they may be that I love my partner and I know my partner needs time to emotionally prepare, and that means more to me that the pleasure I would get from feeling free to jump into bed right now.

I also think it is important to take into account the full scope of information I presented on creating a healthy, secure attachment in a relationship and how partners should be striving to create that. Secure attachment in a relationship is built on trust, and a big part of that is each person taking responsibility for their own feelings and not introducing coercion into their relationships. Much of that information can be found in Healthy Poly Relationship articles Part 2 and Part 3.

The example given in the APW class was of meeting a brand new person for the first time and the relationship agreement existing before having met that person. That is a very different situation than when you are already involved with a 3rd person and a nesting partner. (Some people prefer the language of “primary” and “secondary” partners, others prefer to not use that language. So for this article I am using the terms “3rd person” and “nesting partner.”)

Once a 3rd person is in your life and they are impacted by your relationship agreements, there needs to be open communication with them about all relationship agreements that impact them. But, of course, the 3rd person doesn’t have dictator or veto power anymore that the nesting partner would.

A good example of including a 3rd person in a negotiation can be found in the Part 4 article. In that article, one partner asks another for an accommodation and the response they get is, “I need to talk to my other partners first and get back to you.”

Just like a two person relationship agreement, a healthy relationship agreement involving 3 or more people, needs to take each person’s feelings into account, it needs to be based on honest, clear, timely information, it needs to be agreed to freely and not as a response to internal or external negative pressures, and if someone is giving up one of their personal rights, it needs to be recognized and appreciated as a gift.

Unfortunately, there will be times when the honest answer is that a person is willing to accommodate one person more than another. Sometimes this will be due to the degree of investment in one relationship over another or the depth of feelings for one person over another. Sometimes, it will be based on the perceived strengths and/or weaknesses of one person versus another. And, there will be times this does not feel fair.

For example, if I have a weekly overnight date with my partner (Julie) on Friday nights, and it’s my only night off, and if my partner’s wife (Carol) wants to have a special date with our shared partner (Julie) on a Friday night (because there is a specific event/show/party that is only available on that Friday night,) they should include me in this conversation. Canceling my weekly date directly affects me, especially when I have no other nights off.

Clearly, I don’t have to agree for Julie to cancel my date. But, she’d prefer to have my agreement and know that our relationship is not damaged by this change of plans. So, if Julie and/or Carol contact me and explain the situation, I will more than likely be willing to try to accommodate them. I may have feelings about it. I may find it an emotional struggle to go two weeks without seeing my lover. So, I may ask for an accommodation in return. I may say, “Let me see if I can get two nights off next week and have Julie stay with me two nights.” Or, I could ask for a couple of lunch dates during those two weeks or extra phone calls. And if these two care about my feelings, they will try to accommodate me. And if I care about their feelings, I will try to accommodate them.

If one person ends up feel shorted despite their clear attempts to ask for and negotiate for what they need, remember to use this as a learning experience and a reality check. If in the example above, my partner contacts me and after we have all discussed the Friday night date change of plans, they have heard my feelings, I have accommodated them by agreeing to give up my Friday night date, but they are unwilling to accommodate me by giving me anything to make my struggle easier, then this does seem to communicate that either they think I should do more accommodating than them, or they are not as concerned about my feelings as I seem to be about theirs. I can point this out to them and express that I feel this is unfair. Or I can express how this contradicts my idea of what “having a partner” means to me (maybe I should call her a part-time girlfriend and adjust my expectations accordingly?) Or, I can express that maybe I need to accept that this relationship is not, in practice, what I thought it was.

I also see people set up false “either/or” competitions between relationships. They can fall into the false belief that a primary way of showing loyalty to one relationship is to show callousness to another relationship. Theoretically, that is much like complementing one person by putting down someone else. It’s just ugly and unnecessary. Don’t do it.

Of course, there will be times when one or more people will be unhappy. Maybe the two metamours have opposite interests. If you are the person in the middle, remember to ask yourself what you truly want. This can be a challenge when your first thought is, “I just want everyone to be happy!” In this situation, it may help to ask yourself, “If I knew that no one would feel hurt or angry, if everyone would be happy with my decision, what would I decide based only on what I want?” After you know what you want, then add what others want into the equation.

And finally, try to keep the focus on what each person does want, not on what they don’t want. If your group is working toward taking each person’s feelings into account and you are running into resistance that seems difficult to understand, listen to the language being used. If you are hearing, “I don’t want to lose a date night with you.” or “I don’t want to go two weeks without seeing you.” The *don’t want* language is a clue. Ask what they do want and why. “I do want my regular Friday night date!” Why? “Because I want to feel connected to you!” Now you have something to work with! “What are some other ways you can feel connected to me during this two weeks between overnight dates?”

In couple’s counseling, I have also noticed that people in general are more willing to accommodate others, when they feel their needs are being met. Once a couple has communicated their expectations and feelings about an issue and agreements have been made and the aggrieved party is feeling they are now going to get their needs met, they are suddenly apologetic with metamours and generous with their partner’s time and attention. Just like when people are more likely to share food or water when they feel we have more than they need, partners seem to almost become magically more generous when they feel heard and they feel their needs are being met.

So, if you are getting resistance from someone, ask if they feel their needs are being met. Then seek to find out what they feel they need. When their needs are met, watch and see how much more generous and flexible they are! This can be very helpful in voluntarily getting cooperation from a one lover in treating a another lover of yours with compassion and generosity.

And that is the key point to the person’s question and to the answer I am trying to articulate. Remember to treat all the people in your life with compassion and respect. It cost us nothing but a bit of time to hear and validate each person’s feelings (including your own!) rather than simply dictating to them what they are and are not going to get.