Rules for poly relationships? It’s not that simple.

Sometimes couples considering polyamory are advised to create a rule book laying out the boundaries of the relationship. This is a common idea about poly: if you have enough rules, everyone will feel safe and secure. Partners simply promise not to engage in activities, or under circumstances, that make one another uncomfortable. However, creating a rule book is a much more complicated idea than it may seem.

One problem is the assumption that we can predict with any accuracy what will make us uncomfortable and under which circumstances. Especially for those new to poly, there is no way to envision how you will respond to any particular circumstance or situation. I’ve seen people surprised in every possible way; some are not jealous when they were sure they would be, and others experience lots of uncomfortable emotions they didn’t expect to feel. This can even be true for those with lots of experience. Every relationship is unique, and brings unique gifts and challenges.

Another problem is that many people, whether monogamous or not, have difficulty making and keeping agreements. In order to make an agreement about relational expectations and preferences, one needs a very complex skill set. You need to be able to do three difficult things:

  1. look inside, and take an internal read on what you think, feel, believe, and prefer, separate from whatever someone else might think.
  2. feel grounded enough to share this with a partner even if you think they might not feel comfortable hearing it.
  3. stay grounded, curious, and steady when a partner shares with you something YOU don’t feel comfortable hearing.

I refer to this trio of skills as differentiation of self. Differentiation is a lifelong growth process, and some are more practiced at it than others. As a relational therapist, it is a given that I see people in relationships that are struggling in some way. Very often, difficulty with some aspect of differentiation is the culprit.

Why is this important to poly? Because if you can’t figure out what you think, feel and want, it is very difficult to make an agreement you are able to keep.

Imagine that a couple, Joe and June, are negotiating the boundaries of their relationship. June pressures Joe to makes a particular agreement. Joe thinks “Sure, I don’t agree with that, but I care about June, and it sounds reasonable, so I’ll try to keep that agreement.”

That is a much shakier construct than if Joe were able to identify his feelings and beliefs and tell June, “I wish I could say I can do that, but honestly I’m not sure I even believe in it.” For many, that type of sentiment can seem like the beginning of a nasty disagreement. To well-differentiated couples, however, a difference of opinion or preference is an invitation to get to know one another more thoroughly and explore the options more deeply. That kind of solid foundation allows for flexibility, and flexibility is what is required when surprises are likely–as they are in open relationships.

There is a lot of evidence that flexibility is the quality most likely to build healthy, happy families over time, regardless of relationship structure. Let’s face it, life is always handing us surprises–illness, death of a loved one, unexpected pregnancy, changes in sexual desire, changes in job situations, and a zillion other things we can’t predict but just need to get through for one reason or another. Families that can have deeper and more personally courageous (that is, differentiated) conversations are more likely to do well when challenges come around. The key is sitting down together and discussing feelings, differences in perception, and experience, and being genuinely curious about our partner’s perspective.