What an Open Relationship Agreement That Works Looks Like
The mere thought of opening up your existing relationship can be terrifying.
That is not how I entered the world of consensual non-monogamy, but in my first marriage it was an idea we’d considered to solve for our waning intimacy. The mere thought of opening up was daunting, and appeared rife with landmines of tears and regret. As I later engaged in an ethical polyamorous relationship with someone new, I indeed encountered some of the landmines I'd imagined previously and voraciously consumed every resource I could to gracefully maneuver through my transformation.
One of the first concepts I came across in reading consensual non-monogamy bibles such as Opening Up and More than Two was a relationship agreement. This is a set of rules or guidelines designed to allow each person in an open relationship to intimately engage with the outside world in a way that still protected the core relationship.
I created a relationship agreement with my partner after a series of events occurred that felt like we were both straying from our common value system in how we wanted to show up in this unique “lovestyle”. Our manifesto gives us a compass with which to navigate our uncharted waters while ensuring our love boat remains intact.
Speaking of rules, you’ll notice that we don’t use that word in this relationship agreement. That’s because we believe that rules, boundaries, and promises are hard lines begging to be crossed by our rebellious human nature. Instead, we use the word “intention”, where it is always our highest intention to act accordingly and yet acknowledges our imperfection as humans and the fluidity of life.
Some agreements I've seen contain highly constrictive language, such as curfews, forbidding of falling in love with others, and, perhaps most unsettling, veto power by one primary partner to end their partner's other relationships. I found the most sobering account of this practice in Franklin Veaux’s gripping The Game Changer: A Memoir of Disruptive Love.
We have misgivings around the idea of veto power as it leaves the door open for emotional wreckage in our wake. Thus, our agreement recognizes that the entities with whom we engage intimately are living human beings with living needs, wants, and emotions that deserve a seat at our table.
We also don't use the word "contract", as this implied a sort of "binding". We feel strongly that the essence of ethical non-monogamy is the absence of the duress that we would otherwise be bound to in what’s considered fenced monogamy. Our agreement acts as a metaphorical car seat to protect our precious relationship baby, rather than shackles upon each of our wrists.
Below is our relationship “manifesto” as it exists time of writing. For reference, I am currently in a configuration that falls somewhere between a “V” formation (one person with two unintegrated primary partners) and triad (three fully integrated partners). Read on:
An Open Relationship Agreement that Works
It is my greatest intention to...
- Honor “Team Relationship”. This is not an “every person for themselves” environment.
- Provide emotional and physical safety to my partner(s) according to these guidelines:
- The triad’s primary directive of connecting outside of the triad is inclusion whenever possible. However, exclusion due to lack of proximity or preference of one or more partners shall not prevent the other(s) with moving forward with a connection.
- Refusal to participate in shared connection should prompt discussion about whether the connection is detrimental to the core relationship.
- We define three intimate relationship types as such:
- Connection: one-time or sporadic engagement
- Connection-ship: ongoing engagement occurring from once per month to once weekly
- Relationship: full partnership that includes multiple visits per week and the potential for building a life together
- New connection, connection-ship or relationship viability will always be first evaluated from the potential for inclusion. The triad’s goal is to minimize time lost with primary partners, to expand the experience of love together, to heal together, and to build a tribal family of choice.
- Engage in any new potential connection with full disclosure of my partner's existence, and expect full acknowledgment from the new party.
- Engage in a new relationship by requiring full acceptance, embracing and appreciation of my partner, preferably with a potential for sharing.
- For connections, the physical line is drawn at kissing and manual sensuality. For female partners, meeting of male partners (with no existing prior relationship) prior to an exclusive connection is required for physical safety precautions. Female partners will alert male partners to their exact intention and location prior to the experience, and check in immediately after for reassurance.
- For connection-ships, the physical line is set at kissing and manual sensuality, and progression to sexuality will be thoroughly discussed within the partnership. Sexual dynamics may be adjusted to accommodate safety of the polycule.
- Engage in sleeping overnight, oral and/or penetrative sex only when a viable and accepting metamour relationship has been established for full sexual and emotional safety except:
- Engage in sleeping overnight without an established metamour relationship only when sleeping alone would result in inconvenience, awkwardness or shame for the metamour and it is unlikely to evolve into a full relationship
- Attempt to check in at least once during an exclusive experience for reassurance, sharing as many or few details as desired by my partner(s). A brief but loving voice message before bed and in the morning is appreciated.
- A significant attempt to encourage monogamy by a metamour could result in immediate termination of that relationship.
- Demonstrate my commitment to my partnership(s) to this end:
- A zero tolerance policy for slut-shaming. We honor each other’s needs as human beings wired for intimacy with more than one person at a time.
- Honor the partner with lowest common denominator of comfort level in all experiences. We meet each where we are at.
- Consciously integrate new partners into the relationship by considering reasonable pacing and depth of sharing. Respect the psychological impact of drastic life changes for my partner(s) beyond their control.
- Be willing to face egalitarian degrees of discomfort to enable my partner(s)’s freedoms within our intentions, while addressing my own soul's work
- Work to relinquish entrenched triggers and wounding that no longer serve myself or our relationship(s)
- Collaborate on healing each other's wounding at every opportunity
- Refrain from burying discomfort that could lead to resentment that manifests in misleading and unproductive ways such as shaming or violent communication
- Allow my partner(s) to "own their no" and give space for explanation and heart-centered discussion based in non-violent communication
- Share anything that is tempting to hide from my partner for fear of shame or guilt without hesitation
- Work to prevent outside influence, peer pressure, and judgment from friends, family and connections that steer my compass and decision making software in a direction that compromises the values and integrity of our relationship
- Make every available effort to respond to my partner in times of their discomfort within reason, even if during my own experience
- Carefully assess the gravity of interrupting my partner's experience to address discomfort. I will ask myself these questions:
- Have I examined my observations, meanings, emotions and needs, and still am unresolved enough to want to interrupt my partner's joy?
- Have I exhausted all possible vehicles for self-resolution and am still in need of communication?
- Will waiting until the end of the experience to communicate jeopardize the relationship?
- Avoid engaging in ongoing connection-ships or relationships with unavailable (i.e. monogamously married or committed) people. One-time connections are up for discussion as there could be potential healing for both parties.
- Refrain from using the intentions as a limiting construct of fear or insecurity.
- Engage my partner out of the moment to reopen any intentions up for discussion and renegotiation, and prepare for any outcome with love and kindness.
- If I can't recall the specific details of a particular intention, and am in danger of transgressing, I will attempt to check in with my partner. "Act now and ask questions later" not a preferable strategy.
- Abandon the concept of "I gotta go do me."
As in life, intentions are always subject to consciously communicated and accepted revision.
Phew! Yes, that can seem overwhelming. But note the final line regarding potential for revision. It is crucial to understand is this is a living, breathing document. It is not carved into stone tablets; rather, its words embody a fluidity that bends and flexes with the nuances of life. It has gone through several iterations as various life experiences shone fresh light on our needs and wants from different angles. In the poignant words of Miyamoto Musashi:
"Fixation is the way to death. Fluidity is the way to life."
This relationship agreement gives our partners a safe container in which to explore. A container unlike a sealed Tupperware, but rather, a mesh basket that keeps our cargo safely tucked in while allowing the oxygen of new love to flow through its walls and refresh our intimate space.
Now, is the relationship agreement a panacea of emotional challenges encountered in consensual non-monogamy? Do we feel safe all day, every day of the year? Sorry, but no; we are human beings with decades of societal conditioning to break through in returning to our more natural state of loving more than one.
Simply creating the agreement is a testament to a mutual understanding of our human nature and a signpost of compassion for those we hold most dear in our heart.
Just for comparison, I’ve included a manifesto for the way all living humans have been told is the only way to do love:
Fenced Monogamy Manifesto
No one else besides me. Forever.
Is that simpler? Easier? Of course. And yet...forever sure is a long time. Makes you think, yes?