How to Write an Open Relationship Rules Agreement that Works
One of the first concepts I came across in reading polyamory and consensual non-monogamy bibles such as Opening Up and More than Two was a relationship rules agreement. This is a set of boundaries or guidelines designed to allow each person in an open relationship to engage with the outside world while protecting the original relationship.
In my first marriage, opening up was an idea we tossed around to solve for our waning passion. But the mere thought of it was daunting and appeared to be strewn with landmines of tears and regret.
As I later became involved with a man in an ethical polyamorous relationship, I encountered many of the landmines I’d imagined. To help navigate, I voraciously consumed every resource I could to gracefully maneuver through my transformation.
The Hidden Pitfalls of Relationship Rules
I collaborated on a relationship agreement with my partner after a certain series of events occurred. Namely, our choices felt like we were both straying from our common value system in how we wanted to show up in this unique “lovestyle”. And today, our “manifesto” gives us a compass to navigate our uncharted waters while ensuring our love boat stays intact.
Speaking of rules, you’ll notice that we don’t use actually that word in our document. That’s because we believe that rules, boundaries, and promises are hard lines begging to be crossed. Instead, we use the word “intentions”, where it is always our highest intention to act accordingly. And, it leaves some wiggle room for our imperfection as humans and the fluidity of life. The goal of our intentions is that very few transgressions would land us into “dealbreaker” territory.
A relationship rules agreement by one woman recently lit the interweb on fire for its seemingly irrational commandments. Note that this was NOT an open relationship, and rules like “If I catch you around girls I kill you” were clearly not designed to enable anyone’s freedom.
And yet, the judgemental laughter dies down when we’re asked to look at the rules we’re tempted to create for our own partnerships. Some relationship rules agreements I’ve seen contain controlling language around curfews, forbidding of falling in love with others, and veto power by one primary partner to end their partner’s other relationships. I found the most sobering account of the practice of “couple’s privilege” in Franklin Veaux’s gripping The Game Changer: A Memoir of Disruptive Love.
We don’t love the idea of veto power as it doesn’t honor the needs of other partners and leaves the door open for emotional wreckage in our wake. As such, our agreement recognizes that whom we engage with 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 that the essence of ethical non-monogamy is the absence of the duress. Our agreement acts as a metaphorical car seat to protect our precious relationship baby, rather than shackles upon each of our wrists.
What Questions to Ask When Creating Your Relationship Rules Agreement
Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you begin to brainstorm your own document:
- Are you interested in exploring open love together, separately, or both?
- What kinds of experiences thrill or excite you? What kinds create fear or anxiety?
- Where is the definite “line” you would not want to cross? What feels like dealbreaker territory?
- What is each of your ideal relationship visions?
- What are your respective risk thresholds for sexual / physical safety?
- What do you need for emotional safety?
- How accessible do you want your partner(s) to be when they’re with others?
- How would you handle sleeping arrangements and overnights?
- How do your home and bedroom fit into your vision?
- How will you incorporate children?
- What kinds of qualities are you looking for in new partners?
- How integrated do you want your partners to be? (Acquaintence, friends, lovers, domestic partners)
- What could your partner provide to meet your needs so that their desire to do ABC with XYZ isn’t an immediate “no”?
- What communication toolsets will you use to maintain an open, healthy conversation around your relationship?
Below is our relationship agreement as it exists at time of writing. For reference, I am currently in a relationship that falls somewhere in between a “V” formation (one person with two unintegrated primary partners) and triad (three fully integrated partners).
What Our Open Relationship Rules Agreement Looks Like
It is my greatest intention to…
- Honor “Team Relationship”. This is not an “every person for themselves” environment.
- When questioning a relationship decision, it is better to ask for permission, not forgiveness.
- Provide emotional and physical safety to my partner(s) according to these guidelines:
- Our family prefers inclusion in connections whenever possible. However, a partner being unavailable to connect or preferring not to connect shall not prevent the other(s) with moving forward.
- 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 connections, connection-ships or relationships will 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 others together, and to build a tribal family of choice.
- We will engage with partners that clearly support and embrace our original relationships. Outside partners with a taking or undermining energy will be discussed and reconsidered.
- Engage in any new potential connection with full disclosure of my partner’s existence, and expect full acknowledgment from the new partner.
- For connections, the physical line is drawn at kissing and manual sensuality. We send locations to our partners for first-time connections.
- 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 the physical safety of the polycule.
- Engage in sleeping overnight, oral and/or penetrative sex only when STD test results have been exchanged and 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.
- 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 release triggers and wounding that no longer serve me or our relationship(s)
- Use non-violent communication to co-regulating and holding space for each other when we struggle
- Resist burying discomfort that could lead to resentment and passive-aggressive behavior
- 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
- Prevent outside influence, peer pressure, and judgment from friends, family, and lovers that steer my compass in a direction that compromises the integrity of our relationship
- Make a reasonable effort to respond to my partner in times of their discomfort, even if during my own experience
- Assess the gravity of interrupting my partner’s experience to address my discomfort. I will ask myself these questions:
- Have I examined my observations, meanings, emotions and needs? Am I still triggered enough to want to interrupt my partner’s joy?
- Have I exhausted all possible paths to self-resolution?
- Will waiting until the end of their experience to communicate jeopardize the relationship?
- Avoid engaging in ongoing connection-ships or relationships with unavailable (i.e. monogamously married or committed) people.
- 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 try to check in with my partner.
- 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 could seem overwhelming. But note the final line regarding the potential for revision. It is crucial to understand that this is a living, breathing document.
Its words are not carved into stone tablets; rather, its spirit is a fluidity that ebbs and flows with the nuances of life. It’s gone through several iterations as our various life experiences have evolved our needs and desires. In the poignant words of Miyamoto Musashi:
“Fixation is the way to death. Fluidity is the way to life.”
Why Our Relationship Agreement Works For Us
This relationship rules agreement gives our partners a safe container in which to explore. Our container isn’t like a sealed Tupperware; rather, it’s like a mesh basket that keeps our investment safely tucked in while allowing the fresh oxygen to flow through.
Now, is the relationship rules agreement a silver bullet for avoiding the emotional challenges of polyamory and open relating? Do we feel safe all day, every day of the year? Um, no. We are human beings with millennia of societal conditioning, triggers, and trauma to break through. But breaking through to returning to our more natural state of loving can be really rewarding.
Simply creating the relationship rules 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 humans have been told is the only way to do love:
No one else besides me. Forever.
Is that simpler? Easier? Of course. And yet…forever sure is a long time. Makes you think, yes?