Why Making Rules Isn't the Best Way to Start an Open Relationship

Dec 24, 2021

If you’re looking online for advice about how to explore a polyamorous relationship, you’re going to see one phrase over and over again: “Set some ground rules for your nonmonogamous relationship.”

While I’m all about partners communicating openly with one another, I try to avoid the term “rules.” Instead, I focus on helping partners develop agreements. It might sound like a subtle difference, but there are some good reasons that I prefer talking about agreements:

  • Rules can’t protect you from feelings. I think that one (very understandable) temptation that newly polyamorous people face is the urge to create lots and lots of rules in order to prevent anything that might make them uncomfortable from happening: “Don’t date anyone I already know.” “Don’t spend the whole night with anyone else.” “Don’t prioritize anyone else over me.” There’s nothing wrong with any of these agreements in and of themselves, but they do smack of a desire to legislate away discomfort. It’s important for everyone to understand that no matter what agreements you come up with, and no matter how faithfully you and your partner(s) honor those agreements, you’re probably going to have moments when you feel jealous, envious, lonely, or hurt. You can’t anticipate every situation that may arise, and you can’t anticipate exactly what you may feel in any given situation.

    Since emotions are unpredictable, it’s far better to develop the skillset to handle uncomfortable feelings with grace than to try and avoid any and all situations that may provoke them. Rather than encouraging clients to come up with airtight rules that cover every possible situation, I encourage them to develop techniques for self-soothing, communicating effectively about difficult emotions, and co-regulating — taking care of one another emotionally. That means that no matter what unexpected developments life throws at them, they’ll be prepared to help themselves and their partner through it.

  • "Rules" suggests something set in stone. Flexibility is the number-one characteristic of relationships that stay strong and healthy long-term. That’s one reason why I encourage clients to keep up an open, rolling conversation about their relationship agreements. There are all kinds of ways you might discover you need to revisit an agreement. Maybe before you decided to open up your relationship, it made sense to agree to share everything with one another, but now that you’re drawing close to a new partner, you’re realizing that you have to think about what implications that arrangement has for their privacy. Maybe, at first, you decided not to tell your children about your polyamorous relationship structure, but now some of your partners are starting to feel more and more like members of the family, and you want to be honest about how important these people really are in your life.

    These can be very challenging conversations, and there’s no one right answer to any of the questions they raise—which might be why it’s tempting to just come up with a rule and hope you can stick to it. But I find that the people whose relationships thrive the most are those who have learned how to have these tough conversations, approaching each other with warmth, honesty, and a spirit of teamwork that can carry them through.

  • Sometimes, rules are made to be broken. Every therapist knows how much pain, havoc, and stress broken relationship agreements can cause. Because I want my clients to have lovely, successful relationships, I want to do everything I can to help them avoid broken agreements. What I’ve observed in my years as a relationship therapist is that, very often, agreements get broken because they weren’t well-made in the first place. There are a few different ways that this happens: Sometimes, one partner will agree to a rule that they already know they can’t keep, just because they want to avoid conflict. Sometimes, loopholes will crop up because the partners aren’t comfortable enough to honestly discuss important aspects of the agreements they’re making.

    To catch potential loopholes and avoid agreeing just to agree, you need to create space for some really thoughtful, pressure-free conversations in which each partner comes to deeply understand the other’s perspective. I think that when people think in terms of rules rather than agreements, they’re much less likely to have a deep conversation about what they envision. They’re more likely to simply lay out the rules they expect each other to follow and leave it at that. Unfortunately, by doing that, they’re also setting themselves up for broken agreements down the road. Crafting relationship agreements takes more work up front and ongoing attention.

When you talk with your partner about how to make nonmonogamy work for you, think about agreements rather than rules. Keep your conversation warm, curious, flexible, and ongoing. You’re certain to discover more about yourself and your partner as you explore together; be open to what emerges in the process.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today.

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