Characteristics of Good Relationship Rules

I was hanging out with a group of poly people the other day and we were talking about the problems with having unspoken rules in relationships. Someone put it very succinctly: “Your relationship rules should not be written in invisible ink.”

I love that. And I think it can be expanded on, and I have some related rulesy thoughts, so I’m going to talk a bit about what I think makes good relationship rules (at time of writing). I would love feedback, positive or negative.

Let’s go:

Good relationship rules are not written in invisible ink. If you’re going to have specific rules, they should never unspoken. They should be expressed out loud, and they should be expressed clearly enough that breaking them without realizing you’ve broken them is unlikely to happen.

Good relationship rules are not written in permanent marker. Relationships change, people change, and rules may change as well. Sometimes a particular rule may not work for a particular person, or it may work for a while and then stop working. Regardless, if a rule ceases to work for the people it applies to, it shouldn’t be held sacred. It should be changed or thrown out. Good relationship rules are written in pencil.

Good relationship rules have been thought through. It’s not just important to be explicit and flexible about your rules, it’s important to understand why you’ve made them. For any decent rule, you should ask yourself:

1. What is the purpose of this rule?

2. Does the rule serve the purpose it is intended to serve?

3. Is this rule the only way to serve this purpose?

Credit to Franklin Veaux for the original piece outlining the above questions.

Both you and your partner should know not just what the rules are, but why they are. For what purpose they exist. That way you know if they’re useful, and you know when they ought to be thrown out.

Good relationship rules respect all partners. If you’ve really thought them through, you’ll realize that a lot of the rules built to protect primary relationships do not follow this guideline. For example, say you’re in a “primary” relationship and you decide to open it up to other relationships, but you implement a rule that the primary relationship can axe nonprimary relationships if the people in the primary relationship need some time to focus on each other. The motivation behind this rule is understandable, but this is emphatically not a rule that respects nonprimary partners.

Consider the implications: essentially, this rule being the case, asking a nonprimary partner to become involved with you is asking them to form a relationship with you that they cannot count on under any circumstances. No matter how long that relationship lasts, no matter how close it’s become, the need to “focus on the primary” trumps it, 100%, and without question. Essentially: that nonprimary relationship can be axed at any time without the nonprimary’s consent or input if the primary relationship is perceived as needing some “me” time.

Certainly, it’s understandable for primary relationships to need some “me” time once in a while. However, if that need is extreme enough that it might require jettisoning other relationships in this manner, people in primary relationships should ask themselves whether they’re emotionally mature enough and comfortable enough in their relationships to do poly at all. When you take on other relationships, you take on a responsibility to treat the people in those other relationships like their feelings and the connections they form with you matter. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be starting those relationships in the first place.

Good relationship rules are about the relationship they are about. Say you have a full-time job that you really want to keep. Which of the following rules would you say better protects that job:

Rule A: I can have no other jobs or hobbies.

Rule B: I must have at least 40 hours available for this job every week.

Rule A is about other jobs. Rule B is about the specific needs of the job you already have. In my opinion, Rule A is a clumsy way of addressing the need that is clearly illustrated by Rule B. It is possible to have a full-time job and a few hobbies, or even another job if you can make it work right. It can be hard to do, but it’s hard to do because we have limited time and energy, which is the circumstance that Rule B clearly addresses. Rule B is about the current relationship and what it needs. Rule A is about restricting other relationships. Rule A may prevent someone from being overloaded with responsibilities, but it may also prevent someone from having a hobby that would be perfectly manageable.

In short: make your relationship rules specifically about your needs in a relationship, not about disallowing things that you perceive as potentially threatening to those needs. If a particular relationship threatens to add too much stress to a current relationship, then Rule B will cover that just as surely as Rule A would have, but Rule B will do it right.

Don’t make a rule where a respectful partner will do. Put it another way: in relationships, small government is good. Most rules are about getting your needs in a relationship met. Rules are, as a rule, a clumsier way of going about relationship security than clearly communicating your needs and having a partner who actively works to respect those needs. In relationships, it is emphatically better to be able to follow the spirit of the law than the letter of the law.

In a way, I kind of like the idea of, instead of having rules, having some sort of relationship mission statement. “This is what I generally want and need and think about relationships”. You know, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Personally, I often find that rules feel infantilizing. To me, in some ways, being in a relationship where there’s an understanding that I can’t be in any other relationships feels like being in a relationship with a partner who doesn’t trust me to make decisions that are mindful of them. If I value a relationship, I’m going to try to preserve that relationship regardless of whether the rules demand that I do that. I will, entirely on my own, decide to miss out on other relationships if I know I don’t have sufficient time or energy for them, because I value the relationships I’m already in. If I need to be told to value the relationships I’m already in, there are deeper problems than rules.

Relatedly, on to my final point: deal-breakers are better than rules. Framing is important. “I will remove myself from this relationship if X, Y, or Z”, is a much better framework to work from than, “You aren’t allowed to X, Y, or Z”. It discusses intentions, instead of the placing of restrictions. It also, I feel, frames the discussion in a way that gives nonprimary partners more of a voice. Whether a nonprimary partner is allowed to make rules about a relationship can be a tricky subject. Whether a nonprimary partner has the right to leave any relationship that does not work for them should never be in question.

So there you go. My take on rules. What say you?

Note: A reader has pointed out that Rule 1 (no invisible ink) and Rule 6 (spirit > letter, respectful partner > rules) appear to contradict each other. I should clarify: my take is that if you’re going to have rules about specific actions, they should never be unspoken, but that better than either of those is to apply that same logic to the spirit of the rules. I think clearly expressing the impetus for a rule is often more useful than having a rule, and accomplishes much the same thing.